Working for Free on TV

In the last week or so, the world of people who write and publish for a living has been consumed with the question of whether and when freelancers ought to work for free. As you probably know, the internet has killed journalism, and this has made it all but impossible to make a living as a writer. Not really, of course, but this whole thing started when an editor at The Atlantic asked a writer if he'd like to give her an edited version of a piece he'd previously written, which would be published on their site without any pay, and he responded, "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children." This then touched off a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing among writers and editors, the most enlightening bit of which is probably this post from Alexis Madrigal.

I have my own (probably not particularly interesting) thoughts on whether and when one should write for free, but one angle I'd like to note is there are lots of exploitative relationships within the media, wherein one person takes advantage of another person's work for their own ends; for instance, as Ezra Klein discusses, journalists use the work of experts (without paying them) to help them write their stories, and experts use the work of journalists (without paying them) to give their ideas exposure, generate donations to their organizations, and so on. But one arc of what we might call exploitation doesn't often get mentioned in these discussions: television.

In the course of a long post on the freelancers11 Etymology bonus: The term "freelance" derives from Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, in which a knight who was not in the employ of a lord was referred to as a "free lance." working for free question, Ta-Nehisi Coates briefly points this out: "Tomorrow I will go on television, a prospect that I try (lately unsuccessfully) to avoid. I try to avoid it because it is work. I have to prepare information that I hope to provide. I have to think about what I'm saying. I have to make sure I know what I'm talking about. I have to tell my nervous self to shut up. No one pays me--or any other guests--for these contributions. We work 'for exposure.'" There are some contexts in which one can get paid for a television appearance, but most of the time, if you're going on something like a cable news show you'll be doing it gratis. I do TV with some regularity, and I certainly sometimes feel that it's a waste of my time. There is some preparation involved if you want to do a good job, and then between getting there, getting made up (sometimes), doing the spot, taking off the makeup, getting back (although they usually do send a car for you, which makes you feel like a bigshot), the whole thing can end up taking a couple of hours out of your day. And that's for something that can be as brief as four minutes of airtime.

So why do I do it? Well, first of all, because the Prospect, as a small political magazine, can always use the exposure. And so can I. If I was Michael Lewis selling millions of books, I could decide that I'd only do things like Fresh Air, where we could have a thoughtful hour-long discussion about my work. But I'm not. The reality is that many people think it's impressive and glamorous that you've been on TV. That isn't to say every media appearance is a chore,22 My favorite show to do, hands down, is NPR's On the Media. Every time I've done it, I've had an interesting talk with one of the hosts that lasted about 45 minutes, and then they edited it down to about 10, making me sound smart and articulate through two methods. First, they take the most interesting things I say and leave out all the boring stuff, and second, they edit out all your "ums" and "ahs," making you sound far better than you do in real life. but most of them are, and TV is much worse than radio. On radio, they can call you at your home or office, and you may even get to talk for a while. But for TV, you'll take more of your time for what is usually a much more brief appearance.

And most of the time, they wouldn't even think of paying you, unless it's a regular gig (if you've ascended to the exalted status of "contributor"). There's an implication that putting you on their show is a favor they're doing you, despite the fact that what you're doing is providing them free content to fill out their show, no less than the content you provide that goes in a magazine or on to a website. It's just that the content comes out of your mouth and not your keyboard.

On the other hand, nobody holds a gun to your head and forces you to go on cable television. If you say no, they'll stop calling pretty quickly, because there are a hundred other writers eager to get the exposure. And also, your mom gets excited when she sees you on TV. So even if you're not being paid, there's that.

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