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Tales of Punditry, Revisted (Or, Who Was That Fat Man on CNBC?)

They say that it's the secret desire of every American to wind up on TV. I don't know who says that exactly -- probably some professor or social critic or propeller-head who writes long, heavily-footnoted articles for ponderous, inaccessible periodicals that nobody reads except for maybe grad students trying to come off as smart. But it's not like I have a name or anything. And I'm not really inclined to look it up. I mean, it's not like I'm editing "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" over here.

The point is someone said at some point that people have a yen for winding up on television -- just accept that. And if someone didn't say it, they should have.

Because it's true, after all. Yeah, those Survivor kids humped it out to the Outback and starved themselves into near-extinction and had various other indignities visited upon them because of the promise of a million greenbacks. But the weekly hour of face-time on national TV, the potential commercial endorsements and the fact that we as a nation are now on a first-name basis with people who we wouldn't have given the time of day to six months earlier -- that probably doesn't hurt, either. And what incentive would lure you to appear on Temptation Island other than the promise of fame via television exposure? Certainly, the prospect of disgracing yourself and your significant other can't be much of a drawing card. It's worth noting that those two knuckleheads suing Temptation Island's producers are doing so because they believe their hopes of parlaying their appearance on the reality show into copious acting gigs was compromised when the final editing made them come across as amoral ass-clowns.

So people want to be on TV. The sooner you accept that premise, the quicker we can move on to the business at hand.

It's not just aspiring grade-B actors and star-struck self-employed models who yearn to break out on the boob tube. Academics, experts and journalists -- respectable or otherwise -- are angling to get in on the act. And why not? At last count, the typical cable system sports three all-news channels, a couple of financial news networks, a headline news service, two outlets that cover the machinations of Congress and enough talk shows strewn out across the dial to guarantee that Geraldo Rivera need never fear the specter of unemployment. It takes an awful lot of pontificating, navel-gazing and general gasbaggery to fill that kind of 24-hour programming hole.

Fortunately, our nation's pundits are more than up to the task.

So alluring is the siren's song of television that many newspapers and magazines cut deals with cable news channels to have their ink-stained employees make regular televised appearances. Because having mastery over a subject area or a command of details not enjoyed by mortal men is nice and all, but what good is it unless television confers "expert" status upon you? Opinions are like assholes, after all -- everyone's got one. And the only way to stand out from the crowd is to make sure yours gets on TV.

Um... your opinion, that is.

It used to be that you had to have reached some level of achievement to be on TV -- write a book, guide a company, bed down a Kennedy. These days the only requirement seems to be that you're able to form a sentence with both a subject and a predicate and that you're not prone to unexpectedly shouting out profanities in public. Once the domain of only the beautiful, the intelligent and the accomplished, TV punditry has opened wide its doors so that any buck-toothed simp can walk off the street, sit down in front of a camera and spew nonsense to a rapt interviewer.

I mean, how do you think I got on TV the other day?

I don't just mean appearing on camera waving like a slack-jawed yokel while a TV reporter stands in front of me recounting the gruesome details of a horrible tragedy before throwing it to the wacky weatherman back in the studio. And I'm not talking about just being quoted on some penny-ante MTV special. That stuff's chicken feed. No, I'm talking about appearing on camera as an invited guest -- as a recognized and acknowledged expert in my field -- to give my two cents about the important issues of the day. And all I had to do was utter a short, easily digested sound bite on a subject I wouldn't have otherwise given a moment's thought.

I hear that's how Larry King got his start, incidentally.

It went down thusly: This TeeVee gig is a gas and everything but it's not like it pays the bills. Indeed, it does not pay any of the bills, as parents, high school classmates and ex-girlfriends are fond of reminding me whenever we broach the subject of society at large and my meaningful contributions to same.

So I have a paying gig -- a 9-to-5 job at a monthly magazine where I am paid much more than my skill set merits to write about computers. Or, more specifically, to write about one particular computer maker and its many fine products. My employers would prefer -- for various and sundry reasons involving legalities and shame -- that I not give any further details about what I do for a living. So, if you think I'm going to name the computer company I write about, you'd just better think different.

Anyhow, this company -- let's call it Acme Computers, just for kicks -- had released a new laptop computer. And CNBC, the financial news network of record for captains of industry, day traders, and Maria Bartiromo fetishists, wanted some computer industry expert wise in the mysterious ways of Acme Computers to appear on TV and explain how this latest product announcement would affect the computer maker's efforts to reclaim the education market.

Unfortunately, our editor-in-chief was out of town. And the next guy down on the totem pool had to go teach a journalism school class about new media, presumably telling the next generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins that if they didn't mind their Ps and Qs, they'd be relegated to writing for spectacularly unprofitable TV Web sites the rest of their miserable lives. And so, one editor after another begged off until eventually, I was the only person in the office available to appear on CNBC -- no doubt after the janitor, the building security guard and the intern in the mail room all took a pass.

Still, it's nice to be wanted.

I've appeared on TV before, mind you. There's a computer-themed cable channel called TechTV that beams its programming to an estimated 73 viewers scattered throughout the continental U.S. Among its programming was a trouble-shooting show called Call for Help, a thoroughly entertaining hour of tech-support-themed television whose only black mark was the three or four times it was unfortunate enough to have me on as a guest. I appeared on the Tip-of-the-Day feature, a segment that was supposed to take up two minutes of air time but usually felt like it ran on for 93 hours. Diligent Internet surfers can probably find a clip or two of me stammering out some horribly simplistic tip about rebuilding your hard drive or switching your default browser as I awkwardly banter with the host and silently concede that I owe Tony Danza an apology for all the mean things I've said about him over the years. Say what you will about the thespian powers of the big palooka -- but he's probably able to spit out a helpful hint about external FireWire drives without drowning in his own flop sweat.

So the fact that each of my previous TV appearances was followed by a frantic phone call from Call for Help producers to my employers begging them to never ever send me to the TechTV studio again -- that had me slightly rattled about my upcoming stint on CNBC. That, and the pitiable state of my physical appearance.

I'm not talking about my appearance in general. I've long since made my peace with God over the fact that I will not be posing for underwear ads soon or that I've been given a face best suited for the Internet -- and not one of those "CLICK HERE FOR HOT PIX!" Internet sites either, but the kind of text-heavy HTML pages where it's just as well you don't have to look at or listen to me. But on this particular day, at least, I wasn't terribly concerned about the cruel hand genetics has dealt me. After all, on television, viewers only care about what you have to say -- not how you look saying it.

Am I right, Maria Bartiromo?

No, on this particular day, I was concerned because I looked especially more slovenly than usual, like I had just emerged from an eight-day soak in a tub of gin. I blame this on a number of factors including, but not limited to, a) my wife being out-of-town, thus removing whatever incentive existed for staying fresh and clean as a whistle; b) my unfortunate habit of waiting until special occasions like holidays, weddings and the occasional church service to shave; c) a high pollen count, leading to the mother of all allergy attacks; and d) my recent decision to bathe myself entirely with gin. Add to that the fact that I was wearing a shirt that made me look like I was vying for first ukulele chair in the Don Ho Symphonic Orchestra -- kind of a sartorial no-no if you're planning to go on TV anytime soon -- and it was clear that changes had to be made before I went before the camera's unforgiving eye.

Quickly then, someone was dispatched to a local drug store to pick me up a disposable razor. The editor who was on his way to lead a journalism school lecture was told to surrender his shirt -- I was going on TV, loud Hawaiian shirt or no, and if he wanted to be responsible for thousands of CNBC viewers bleeding profusely from their eye sockets, well, then so be it. He gave up the shirt with only mild protestations. Whether or not he wound up teaching his J-school charges bare-chested, I am blissfully unaware.

And so, clean shaven with only a few minor nicks that would hopefully clot by air time and dressed in another man's clothing, I headed off to CNBC's San Francisco office for my 15 seconds of fame -- 10, if I spoke quickly.

My TechTV appearances hardly conditioned me for the lap of TV luxury. There was never any green room, no bowls of fruit and trays of little luncheon meats, no thick-necked Swedes offering to work out any kinks before you have to go on camera. And yet, compared to the spartan offerings of CNBC, TechTV is Gatsby's mansion on West Egg, complete with lavish parties and clinking cocktail glasses and twin girls in matching yellow dresses.

On TechTV, for example, they send you off to makeup, the theory being that perhaps generous helpings of pancake can make the home viewer forget there's a reason people who look like me write for a living. A very nice young lady combs your hair properly and slaps on a layer or two of make-up, which, should you forget to take it off before you leave the studio to return home on San Francisco's public transportation system, can generate plenty of strange looks and thoughtful invitations to sample more exotic ways of life than you might otherwise consider.

At CNBC, they don't put makeup on you. They don't even ask you to wipe off the dry blood from your chin if you were stupid enough to shave just minutes before coming to the studio. No, when you take to CNBC's airwaves to address the nation's financial community on matters of great import, you do so as God made you -- pasty-faced and pie-eyed and covered with blemishes.

The differences between the TV studios themselves are just as stark. TechTV has one, CNBC does not -- or at least, its San Francisco office doesn't have one. What it does have is a room about the size of a walk-in closet. There's a stool in the middle of the room and a camera on the opposite wall that's controlled by a technician back at CNBC's Fort Lee, New Jersey, headquarters. Presumably, there are a bunch of producers back in Jersey as well gathered around the monitor and commenting on how pasty your face looks and wondering just who in the hell leaves their house each morning wearing a shirt like that.

Not me, I can assure you.

The stool, incidentally, is set up in front of one of those faux city-scape backgrounds that make it look like the person being interviewed is answering questions from a space pod orbiting high above the San Francisco Bay. If the interview went poorly, I told myself, I could always turn around and threaten to take my wrath out upon the puny city behind me, Godzilla-style.

Which would certainly play havoc with the Nasdaq, I'm thinking.

So the guy manning the CNBC San Francisco bureau led me into the walk-in closet, sat me on the stool, hung a microphone on the shirt that isn't mine, and put an earpiece in my right ear so that I could hear the questions they were asking back in Fort Lee. Or at least, that was the working theory, and a fine one it would have been, too, were it not for the fact that I'm slightly deaf in that ear and couldn't hear a blasted thing.

"Can you hear anything now?" CNBC's man in San Francisco asked me as cranked the knob up to "Spinal Tap"-levels of volume.

"No," I said. "Though perhaps I might be able to if we were to use the ear I can actually hear out of."

"How about now?" he said.

And on it went, until the volume was set at a level that could drown out jet engines, allowing me to hear faint murmurings from our friends in New Jersey. To help out even further, the reporter in Fort Lee offered to shout questions to me at the top of her lungs. I mention this only because if you see the interview and wonder why I have my hand pressed up against my right ear, it is not because I'm afraid that my brain will start leaking out of my eardrum.

The earpiece now lodged into the deepest recesses of my eustachian tube, we could now begin the interview on Acme Computers, its laptops and what this meant vis-a-vis the education market. The interview wasn't live -- my pithy answers to the reporter's penetrating questions were going to be edited and inserted into a larger news story on the fortunes of Acme Computers. Which was fine by me, frankly, since I need all the time allowable to muster the ability to form a complete sentence.

"So, Phil," the reporter said, as charmingly as one can sound when one is shouting at a deaf man, "the CEO of a rival computer maker recently had some disparaging things to say about Acme Computers. What do you think of that?"

And to be honest, the answer to that question is, "Not very much at all since it wasn't the topic you said we were going to discuss when I was told to come on this show." I mean, I hadn't done much preparation for the interview, since I only found out I was doing it a half-hour earlier, but what research I had done -- in between the shaving and the trying on of other men's clothing -- had been predicated on the belief that I was going to talk about computers, not people. So the sensible thing to do -- the responsible thing for any self-respecting pundit -- would be to plead ignorance on a subject I knew next to nothing about and then try to steer the questioning to topics I was actually qualified to speak on. Only a blowhard and a fraud would try to bluff his way through an interview like this.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And I? I took the one more traveled by.

"Well," I said, after what felt like 14 minutes of mental deliberation but was probably closer to 11, "everyone's entitled to their opinion, I suppose."

With pearls of wisdom like that, it's hard to imagine why I'm not a regular on The McLaughlin Group.

The rest of the interview pretty much progressed in that vein. The reporter would ask a question that would have nothing to do with my area of expertise, I would hem and haw for a few minutes and then spit out some sort of trite observation that shed minimal light upon the issue. During the long, pregnant pauses that characterized every one of my responses, the reporter would say encouraging things like "Take your time," and "we can fix that in editing" while doubtlessly rolling her eyes and setting fire to my contact information in her Rolodex. Of the dozen or so questions I was peppered with, I only managed one response that came across as clever, clear and well-informed. Coincidentally, it also happened to be on the subject I had prepared to talk about.

Funny how that works.

I can't imagine I'm the only person this has ever happened to -- that every day someone reasonably well read on a particular subject goes on TV to talk about it, only to discover that the interviewer has an entirely different set of questions in mind. And I suspect that a number of the pundits you see on Sunday morning news roundtables and cable shout-a-thons hosted by the likes of Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly do exactly what I did when CNBC asked me questions that I was not in any way prepared to answer -- serve up pure, unadulterated mule muffins.

It sure gives you pause the next time you see Bill Press and Tucker Carlson hamming it up on Crossfire. Although, admittedly, they're probably spewing bullshit while wearing their own shirts.

I never saw the final version of the Acme Computer story. For all I know, I was left on the cutting room floor -- a development that wouldn't disappoint me in the least, let me assure you. With my luck, they probably kept the part of the interview where I sputtered a string of inanities -- they certainly have plenty of material to choose from. At any rate, I'm sure that was my first and last appearance on CNBC, probably my last appearance on TV ever. And I can't say that's necessarily a bad thing. I don't look at ease. I don't feel at ease. And I'm never sure if I'm actually speaking in coherent sentences or just throwing together words that sound like a coded message in a 1950s spy movie. Yes, Lynn. Acme Computer's prospects for future growth remain bright. And the fat man dances near Seattle when the peaches are in full bloom. In short, it's not a very pleasant experience for me. I can't imagine it's any better for the viewer at home.

So if it is the desire of most people to wind up on TV in some way, I can safely say that I'm not among the majority. And it only took going on TV for me to find that out.


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