Faking, flubbing, and cramming with the media's talking heads
IT'S A DRILL THAT VETERANS OF THE Washington press corps know all too well. The booker from a highly-regarded talk show calls you four hours before air time. They're doing a story on the turmoil in Zimbabwe. Could you help them out? You're not 100 percent sure where Zimbabwe is but, what the hell, it's a chance to be on TV. You tell her you'll do it, grab the Times, reach for the Atlas, and start to cram.
And what if you don't get it all sorted out before your views are broadcast into 20 million homes? You won't be the first. "I don't want to embarrass anybody, but sometimes people come in here and they're not quite ready," talk-show host Diane Rehm says carefully. Walk into the "communication room" minutes before Rehm goes on the air with her Friday "News Round Up" and you will see some of Washingtons top journalists poring over the day's papers, speaking urgently into their cell phones, and doing whatever else they can to get the latest word on Rehm's discussion topics. But sometimes Rehm introduces late breaking topics, and sometimes her guests just can't get up to speed in time. In those cases, Rehm says that "Reporters will wing it with the Times or the Post or the Wall Street Journal sitting in front of them" When one of Rehm's guests recently blanked on a question, a co-panelist gave an assist by handing over a newspaper article on the subject.
If we've gotten to the stage where talk show guests are pretty much reading the newspaper into the mic, it seems fair enough to ask--what's the point of these programs? Amazingly enough, a big part of the answer is "public service" The talk show formula has been developed in part to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission's requirement that all TV- and radio-broadcast networks air a certain quota of programming that offers "significant treatment of community issues" But the pace, format, and substance of these shows don't allow for a significant treatment of anything. That's fine with the networks; they're happy enough to have a cheap and easy vehicle for parading celebrity journalists. And judging by the level of participation, it's fine with the journalists as well, who are happy to have a vehicle for enhancing their fame and padding their bank accounts. As Washington Post media watchdog Howard Kurtz points out in his book Hot Air, journalists who join the punditocracy generally see their lecture fees spike up by thousands of dollars. Moreover, some of the shows pay their guests and many reporters even receive bonuses from their publicity-happy employers for each time they make a talk show appearance--regardless of whether they say anything worth hearing.
Of course, given a choice, most journalists would rather be able to get through a show without having to resort to the sort of on-air tactics that Rehm has observed. So after they've been called by enough bookers, talk show regulars tend to develop preparation strategies that can be applied to a wide range of topics, and that can be successfully employed in less than twenty-four hours--which is the maximum amount of notice that most shows...