Most political junkies spend a lot of time watching talk-show television — the Sunday-morning network shows on the major networks, but also the regular feeds from the cable news stations: CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
Memphians watching those latter networks may occasionally experience a twinge of deja vu. It is axiomatic, of course, that people you see regularly on television become as familiar to you as your own neighbors. That's certainly true of the on-air personalities of local television stations. It can be true as well of the aforementioned national television broadcasts, where the face you see on TV may actually be that of a neighbor.
In fact, it is probably impossible for an inveterate channel-surfer of cable news stations to avoid seeing locally resident talking heads Ben Ferguson, Philip Mudd, and Steve Mulroy.
Ferguson, 36, has had the longest on-air career of the three. He began his radio broadcast career at 13 and progressed through stints on various Memphis stations to become a regular presence on TV as well, via Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox Business, CNN, and CNN Headline News. An inveterate conservative, he is the author of the 2004 book, It's My America, Too.
Mudd is an author of two books: Inside the Hunt for Al Qa'ida and The Head Game: High Efficiency Analytic Decision-Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly. The first of these reflects Mudd's lengthy career at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he served, post-9/11, as second-in-command of counter-terrorism analysis. The second title is more in keeping with Mudd's day job as director of enterprise risk at SouthernSun Asset Management in Memphis.
Mudd is a consistent presence at CNN, where he is called upon to discuss the ramifications of spycraft, foreign policy, or any crisis of consequence within the Beltway. It helps that he once served as deputy director of the FBI's National Security Branch under one Robert Mueller.
Then there's Mulroy, the University of Memphis law professor who ran for Shelby County mayor in 2014 and served two terms as county commissioner. Like the others, Mulroy doesn't just talk, he writes. He is the author of a plethora of scholarly articles on the law. His recently completed first book, Rethinking U.S. Election Law, is shortly to be published. Mulroy appears frequently on local television; nationally, he divides his time between MSNBC, the news network whose liberal attitude toward politics most closely parallels Mulroy's own, and Fox News. Ironically, Mulroy is probably called upon more often by Fox to discuss matters of law and politics.
"It usually makes little difference," says Mulroy, explaining that he is generally asked not to advocate but merely to supply a competent analysis of legal issues. He no doubt speaks for his fellow talking heads when he discusses both the excitement and the perils of being summoned to a local broadcast studio, there to be interrogated remotely about important issues before audiences numbering in the millions — often without much advance coaching as to the direction of the questioning.
On MSNBC, recently, Mulroy was asked to explain the background and legal import of the arrest of Maria Valeryevna Butina, a Russian national accused of spying. Butina had just been nabbed, and the details of her work were as yet undisclosed. Mulroy, caught cold by the question, managed to do a creditable job of reading between the lines, but the moment was typical of the high-wire act a TV talking head can sometimes encounter.
Still, Mulroy says, "I like it because it provides a national profile for the University." And? "Sure, it's personally gratifying."