< Playing One On TV

Transcript

Friday, April 11, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Listening to talking heads is hard, but sometimes being a talking head can be even harder. CNN’s got a workout this week when the Olympic Torch suddenly vanished off the streets of San Francisco.
[CLIP]
[AMBIENT SOUND]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
We have no clue where that runner is, where the entire delegation is, obviously, a mystery underway right now in San Francisco.
[CLICKING SOUNDS]
We don't see the torch. We don't see the runner. We don't know what's going on over there right now.
[CLICKING SOUNDS]
We see something over there. I don't know if that's a real runner with a real torch or somebody dressed up like that.
[CLICKING SOUNDS]
Maybe this is the real runner. Maybe we finally caught up with the Olympic Torch and maybe we know something.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
For some journalists, especially ink-stained wretches, bloviating on TV can be an excruciating exercise. But now there's help. A Washington public relations firm offers the less-than-glib some tips on pumping up the palaver.

A few years ago, we sent our own unassuming reporter John Solomon to pundit school, and he came back with this report. It's a painful but poignant tale, so we're playing it again.
JOHN SOLOMON:
I was once a promising TV pundit prodigy.
[TV SHOW THEME MUSIC – TO TELL THE TRUTH]
At age 13, I appeared as an imposter on To Tell the Truth, the old game show where contestants who are not experts try to play one on TV.
[THEME MUSIC UP]
In my episode, I pretended to be a hot young painter -
[CLIP]
ANNOUNCER:
Number two - what is your name please?
JOHN SOLOMON [AGE 13]:
My name is Vwodek Kos. This black and white painting –
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
- and to know enough about art to fool the celebrity panel, including Nipsey Russell.
[CLIP]
NIPSEY RUSSELL:
All right, Number 2 - do you do all abstracts or do you some representational things?
JOHN SOLOMON [AGE 13]:
I've done – I'm an abstract painter, but occasionally I'll do things that follow a - what would you say – a -
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
In the midst of my abstract answer, Nipsey jumped in and rescued me.
[CLIP]
NIPSEY RUSSELL:
I see. Who is your favorite painter, Number 2? I'm still -
JOHN SOLOMON [AGE 13]:
Jackson Pollock.
NIPSEY RUSSELL:
I see.
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
I didn't convince Nipsey, but I did get panelist Bill Cullen's vote.
[CLIP]
BILL CULLEN:
That, that is Number 2. I think Number 2 has it very well thought out -
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
And host Gary Moore seemed to hint at a limitless TV future.
[CLIP]
GARY MOORE:
- the rest of us too - what is your real name and what do you do?
JOHN SOLOMON [AGE 13]:
My name is John Solomon.
[APPLAUSE]
GARY MOORE:
You're a good contestant. I'll tell you that, and the same goes for -
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
However, it took me more than two decades to return to the tube. Fox News Channel invited me to talk about an article I had written for USA Today on a potential baseball strike.
[CLIP]
NEIL CAVUTO:
Welcome everybody. I'm Neil Cavuto, and this is Your World. My next guest says that a strike would be a good thing. He's John Solomon. He's a sports journalist right here in New York.
JOHN SOLOMON:
I say the sport needs a strike. Right now they're negotiating, really, a very stop-gap situation.
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
I was not invited back. So when the folks here at On the Media assigned me to do a story about a Washington, D.C. company that was training journalists for TV punditry, I saw it as an opportunity to jumpstart a career that had peaked just before my Bar Mitzvah.
[AMBIENT SOUND – IN TRAIN]
On the train down, I heard someone a few seats back speaking on his cell phone. He said, “Well, Tina heard me talk about Enron at a dinner party and asked me to be on the show next week.” Was there a real-life TV pundit aboard my train? I turned around. It was Joe Nocera - a long time print journalist, currently at The New York Times. Nocera moved into radio as a commentator for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, and now was a regular on TV. He tried to put me at ease about my own potential transition.
JOE NOCERA:
When people ask me why I'm so relaxed on television, I just say, it's simple. The stakes are so low. What is there to be worried about? For so many of these shows, the audiences are pretty small, because the knowledge required is so minimal, because - this isn't always true - but a lot of times the hosts are idiots.
JOHN SOLOMON:
Nocera quickly added that he wasn't referring to Tina.
TRAIN CONDUCTOR:
Ladies and Gentlemen, next stop will be Union Station, Washington, D.C.

JOHN SOLOMON:
As Nocera and I walked off the train, the first person I saw was an old college acquaintance. I hadn't seen him since - well, since he was on TV as a legal pundit during the Clinton impeachment. He has since returned to real law and didn't want to be interviewed. As I continued through the station, I recognized yet another face from cable - Joe Watkins, a conservative co-host of CNN's Crossfire.
JOHN SOLOMON:
I mean, should you feel somewhat bad if you haven't been on TV –
[JOE WATKINS LAUGHS]
- and you're in Union Station?
JOE WATKINS:
[LAUGHS] They're everywhere.
JOHN SOLOMON:
A few weeks before, I had asked Watkins' co-host Paul Begala whether a class at Pundit U. could make a good Crossfire guest out of me.
PAUL BEGALA:
No. [LAUGHS] Maybe you either got it or you don't.
JOHN SOLOMON:
If I had it, I would find it in the thousand-square-foot mock TV studio located at the downtown offices of Corvis Communications. I was welcomed by my punditry professor Rich Masters, a gregarious 42-year-old former rock disc jockey, local television reporter and U.S. Senate aide, nattily attired in a tan pinstriped suit and ostrich-skin boots. Masters sat me down on a chair about ten feet in front of a video camera. He fit me with an ear piece.
RICH MASTERS:
Yeah, yeah, this is a baseline. So feel free to screw it up, so that you look really great when it's all done.
JOHN SOLOMON:
He then disappeared into a sound booth. Suddenly, klieg lights clicked on from above. The next thing I heard was:
[CLIP]
RICH MASTERS:
Good afternoon. Welcome back to Late Edition. John Solomon, will Tom DeLay survive?
JOHN SOLOMON [ON AIR]:
I think, uh, uh Majority Leader DeLay's days are, in fact, numbered, and, uh, we're, we're, uh - we'll be – uh - at any point, uh, we should – uh -
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
I was in a spiral. And Nipsey Russell wasn't around to bail me out.
[CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON [ON AIR]:
- to – to – [LAUGHS] - he'll be gone. Uh, he - he's doing as well as I am doing right now.
RICH MASTERS:
Well, I guess only time will tell. Thank you again, John Solomon, NPR, for joining us.
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
The klieg lights were switched off.
JOHN SOLOMON [IN CLASS]:
That's just to show that that was for the baseline - to really -
[LAUGHTER]
RICH MASTERS:
Thank you. very – perfect.
JOHN SOLOMON:
Next, Masters gave a PowerPoint presentation with some pundit do's and don'ts. Sample Do: Prepare and practice in advance. For each likely question, create what Masters calls "message diamonds," which should include your main point, then a lively anecdote, and finally the same point repeated in a slightly different form.

Sample Don’t: A pre-show cocktail. Masters made that mistake himself and ended up inventing a new word, "authenticification" live, on Fox's Hannity and Colmes. Now briefed, and still sober, I return for another appearance on fake life TV.
[CLIP]
RICH MASTERS:
Welcome back to MSNBC. Gun owners have long complained that they don't get a fair break from the media. National Public Radio's John Solomon went into the field to find out what the problem was.
[END CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON:
After I finished explaining what the problem was, we went into a conference room to replay the tape so Masters could show me, on a huge plasma TV screen, what my problems were.
[TAPE RE-PLAYING]
JOHN SOLOMON [ON TAPE]:
- after the election, uh, there was a big hue and cry about the fact that the blue state media didn't understand the red states. And one of the big issues was guns.

JOHN SOLOMON:
Masters froze the frame.
RICH MASTERS:
I cut you [LAUGHS] a couple of things - energy - energy, energy, energy - a little bit. As you can see from this, there's a need for makeup.
JOHN SOLOMON:
The plasma TV had also apparently sucked all the blood out of my alarmingly peaked face.
RICH MASTERS:
- You know that, because you can't control the sweating thing, but you can see you got a little bit of a 5 o'clock shadow. But you have a little bit of a head-bobble thing - a kind of a little bobble-head thing but not as bad as I've seen a lot of folks have it.
JOHN SOLOMON:
He turned back to the screen and pressed the remote.
JOHN SOLOMON [ON TAPE]:
I think a lot of people view gun owners as people who are unsafe.

But, in fact, when you - you're around gun owners, you find that they're as concerned with safety because, in fact, they're going out hunting with their relatives or their family and, in fact, safety is paramount to them, so -
JOHN SOLOMON:
I told Masters that at NPR, we got a 10-dollar bonus every time we used the phrase "in fact."
RICH MASTERS:
Now, mine's "clearly."
[CLASS LAUGHTER]
"Clearly" - "clearly" - "clearly." I say "clearly" a thousand times in a two-minute deal. Word crutches, there's nothing wrong with them. You only -
JOHN SOLOMON:
He said it gives you time to get ready for what you'll say next. But, in fact, that was my biggest problem.
JOHN SOLOMON [IN CLASS]:
I realize that every time I added more, I got myself in trouble. Is that a common thing, where you kind of hit it nicely –
[OVERTALK]
RICH MASTERS:
Yes, absolutely.
JOHN SOLOMON [IN CLASS]:
- you get a nice little double, and you go for the home run, and you, and you start wandering, and you say, why did I add it?
[LAUGHTER]
I was so – doing well and – or decently, you know. [LAUGHS]
RICH MASTERS:
That's absolutely common. Television ain't splittin' the atom. You want to get in and out. It's laser surgery, baby. You get in and out, and you just keep it as tight as you possibly can. When you feel that need to take it one step further, that's when you're going to end up rambling.
JOHN SOLOMON:
Masters said I also needed to bring some of my personality on the air with me.
RICH MASTERS:
In sitting here, you've got just this great energy - engaging, talking – and, watch this - it drops off. Your energy level drops off a full quarter, if not more than that.
JOHN SOLOMON [ON TAPE]:
Because, in fact, there is much more common ground on this issue than has been portrayed in the press.
RICH MASTERS:
Thank you, John Solomon - National Public Radio.
JOHN SOLOMON [ON TAPE]:
Thank you.
JOHN SOLOMON:
The screen went black, and I awaited my final evaluation. Was I any good at this TV thing? I used to be.
GARY MOORE:
You're a good contestant. I'll tell you that [ECHOING] - tell you that, tell you that, tell you that -
JOHN SOLOMON:
So, I was excited when Masters asked if he could use part of my performance as a model to show future students, until I found out what part.
JOHN SOLOMON [ON TAPE]:
Majority Leader DeLay's days are, in fact, numbered, and, uh, we're, uh, we're – uh - we'll be - uh-
MAN IN CLASS:
What do they call that, in the business?
RICH MASTERS:
[LAUGHS]Oh, that would be a, a brain freeze.
MAN IN CLASS:
A brain freeze?
RICH MASTERS:
That's what we call “the Solomon."

JOHN SOLOMON:
Still, Masters saw enough potential in the full Solomon that he offered to pitch me to talk show bookers. It turned out I didn't need his help to get my next TV interview, about another type of delay.

The following morning I was waiting in Union Station, because brake problems had caused rail cancellations all along the Northeast Corridor, and a local television reporter was looking for reactions.
[TV NEWS SHOW INTRO MUSIC]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Live, from the area's leading news station, this is News Four, at 4.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Amtrak's Acela trains are still out of service. Some passengers at Union Station this morning had to switch to regional service, which makes more stops.

JOHN SOLOMON:
So I upped my energy, answered concisely in message diamonds, and I had just shaved. Soon, I would no longer be the only one in Union Station not recognizable from TV.

But alas, my interview didn't make it on air. A few days later, I got an email from Joe Nocera informing me that he, too, got bumped. At the last minute, Tina Brown had decided to switch the panel discussion from Enron to Michael Jackson. Well Joe, I guess that's television. For On the Media, at least for now -
[CLIP]
JOHN SOLOMON [AGE 13]:
My name is John Solomon.