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The Other Bias

There's another insidious form of media discrimination: Against astute political observers on the West coast.

11:00 PM, Jan 14, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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EUGENE VOLOKH AND JOHN EASTMAN are not household names. Both teach constitutional law, Volokh at UCLA and Eastman at Chapman University. Both arrived in the classroom after clerking for big names in the courts--Volokh for Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Eastman for Fourth Circuit Judge J. Michael Luttig and Justice Clarence Thomas. And both are prolific writers on subjects legal and political. Volokh helps run one of the most referenced blogs in the country, the Volokh Conspiracy, and Eastman's writing usually appears at the website of the Claremont Institute.

The two professors also bring to their work the experiences of careers that preceded legal training. Eastman has a Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate School and served in the Reagan administration as spokesman for the Civil Rights Commission before even beginning law school. Volokh, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975 at the age of 7, spent six years as a computer programmer after finishing his undergraduate studies at UCLA in 1983. (That's right, he was 15 when he finished college with a B.S. in Math-Computer Science.)

Both men are anti-eggheads, spirited but courteous debaters with ready laughs and winsome appeal. Both have often appeared on my radio program and always inspire a tide of e-mails asking for more time with them. Professor Eastman is usually matched against one of the best the left has to offer on constitutional matters, Erwin Chemerinsky from the USC law school, and that pair manages to make interesting even the farther reaches of the high court's docket. Volokh has specialties in unusual areas, including Second Amendment rights.

They are, in short, perfect pundits--knowledgeable and compelling, informed and opinionated.

So why don't you see them on "Hardball," "Donahue," "O'Reilly," "Hannity & Colmes," "This Week," "The News Hour," etc? Is Howard Fineman that good? Is the American viewing public demanding more and more of pollster Mark Penn? Eastman estimates he makes about three national broadcast appearances a year; Volokh puts the number at five. Thus, two of the brightest public intellectuals in America combine to opine before a national audience eight times a year. My guess is that their output totals about 30 television minutes. Why so low?

The answer has nothing to do with a left-right bias, or a Republican-Democrat tilt. It is simple geography: These are two of the best that the West coast has to offer, but the Washington-New York bookers are generally unfamiliar with the rising stars of political debate, and they are especially so when those stars are working in Pacific Standard Time.

In the past year some new faces are beginning to punch through the lineups of aging, and usually predictable guests in opinion land. Peter Beinart from the New Republic and the Washington Monthly's Joshua Micah Marshall have begun to be seen as solid .300 hitters. But the hunt for new faces usually ends at the borders of New York and D.C. There are two reasons for this.

It often costs money to use out-of-studio guests, and not just the cost of the car, but the studio time if there is no network facility nearby.

And hosts lose valuable eye-to-eye contact with a guest a continent away, which diminishes production values.

But those costs do not approach the loss of excluding the Volokhs and the Eastmans from the nightly dust-ups, not to mention the scores of other opinion-purveyors in fly-over land. The cable shows especially are struggling for audience, and only the Fox News Channel is making any progress. Maybe viewers outside of the Beltway are not interested in all-Beltway-all-the-time. Maybe if the net were cast a bit wider, a greater audience would follow a greater variety of guests.

Beyond ratings self-interest is the even more pressing issue of the responsibility of television news executives to work diligently at getting the entire story onto the airwaves. The D.C. opinion corps inevitably suffers from the same information gaps of any headquarters far removed from its front lines, no matter whether the business is sales or war. It shows and the audience knows.

Volokh and Eastman aren't hard to find. Make a note when you see them next. You will be watching a program with at least one producer working to attract a bigger audience with a new product line.

Hugh Hewitt is an author, television commentator, the syndicated talk-show host of the Salem Radio Network's Hugh Hewitt Show, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.