“Is it real?”

This week I realized just what a fraction of media society I belong to.  I was in DC Monday afternoon and with Typhoon Haiyan and the Illinois tornadoes, Greenpeace got the soundbite call from the cable networks.  None of the usual suspects were around.

I keep a gray suit (purchased for C$12 at a church bazaar in Montreal) in DC for such misadventures.  I donned it and walked across town.  Nice evening. (Climate change has plenty of downsides.  You get a nice evening, take it.)

I periodically appear on cable tee vee, but almost never watch it, so I’m always surprised by it when I see it.  I have a serious news habit, for professional and temperamental reasons, but get fixed off the Internet and a sliver of dead tree publications.

If I am on tee vee, it’s usually at the site of some disaster and rarely in a studio; the green room is always strange.  A production assistant showed me in.  A Bruce Willis lookalike and a blonde woman sat on a sofa.  We nodded acknowledgement. They were smartly, expensively dressed.  In the C$12 and no tie, I looked like deputy foreign minister of a small, ethically compromised nation.

Bruce and I were pulled into makeup, so he was the guest.  The woman was his wife, attorney, or flak?  Hard to tell in this town.  On the big screen in the green room, the Rob Ford story was getting its update.  This was the day he knocked the city councillor over. (That’s how they spell it in Canada.)

The tape played over and again, the mayor ran around, the councillor went down,  various heads in various studios said nothing particularly different than you’d get in another medium, but with cable effect – percussive repetitions of an arresting piece of footage and just enough (or maybe not enough) information to loop the tape around one more time.

Awkward silence in the green room.  Couldn’t tell why.  Maybe the proximity of the huge screen presentation of Mr. Ford dashing about, then saying odd things.  Maybe Bruce Willis thought we’d be on the same segment, disagreeing.  Maybe he was nervous about being on tee vee.  Maybe it was the joke I made in makeup about having a big forehead and there he was with his head shaved. (OK, that was dumb.)  Everyone seemed a bit embarrassed to be there.

The production assistant took Bruce into the studio – which turned out to be a tiny room with camera and a chair, everything else was in Atlanta – and warned me we’d have to switch quick between segments.

The Rob Ford segment dragged on, I began to chat with the blonde woman, who turned to be the wife, not of Bruce Willis, but Shawn Henry, retired executive assistant director of the FBI and expert in cybercrime.  Wish I’d known, would have loved to chat him up.

Ms. Henry ID’ed her husband for me, told me about his segment.  He was still standing by in the booth, a silent picture on yet another monitor, moving occasionally like a portrait in a Harry Potter movie.  (BTW, what’s the protocol here?  Do I assume she goes by Ms. Henry?  Mrs. Henry?  Goes by her own name?  Wouldn’t be hard to find on the internet, but looking it up seems kind of creepy.  In a “do unto others” sort of way, since the government does it to us so much.  I want to set a good example.)

RetExAssDir Henry was asked to comment not on cybercrime but a cable-notorious traffic stop in New Mexico in which an officer fired three rounds at a minivan occupied by a woman and five children.

(No, I’m not gonna give you links.  That’s the point.  Conflicting media.  You’re in my yard now.)

His wife and I made pleasant noises about how there’s no such thing as a routine trafiic, stop, etc.  I began my career as a police reporter and have great respect crazy things that happens when constantly dealing with people at their worst, but not everyone should be a police officer.  Some not everyones are in New Mexico.

I didn’t envy Mr. Henry running shovel and bucket duty on that one but he didn’t, perhaps mercifully, get to say much as the other pundits – one a comedian – vied for the cable oxygen.

In the green room, I gave my name and affiliation, said I was there to discuss climate change.  Ms. Henry grew quiet for a moment, then asked, “Is it real?”

I didn’t read much into the question.  Green room banter is a particular strain of small talk, not improved by analysis.  Nor was the genre improved by my response, which was to blather about methane hydrates in Siberia.  Regret at having asked was plain on the lady’s face.

Having gotten six and a half words of airtime, Mr. Henry’s segment ended; he was hustled out, I was hustled in.  “Good luck,” he said as we passed.  I think I heard a tone.  I was fortunate, didn’t have to compete with a herd of heads, allowing me to an expansive 15-20 words and then it was top of the hour and a wrap.

Strolling back to the office in the still-warm evening, I kept thinking about the question: Is it real?  A polite question, showing interest in the other’s area of interest?   Or is it that at this late date, an otherwise knowledgeable adult in our nation’s capital still has doubts about climate change?

I can get righteous about important information I think every citizen should know, but how much do I know about issues Ms. Henry deems important?  Or even what they are?  Am I part of the problem?  I showed up and uncorked a few soundbites to go with images of devastation.  If cable news makes 1976’s Network look like PBS, am I not a participant?  Greenpeace knows things about arresting images.  We’re all Marshall McLuhan’s children, elbowing around a Thanksgiving table.  Perhaps the medium is the message.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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