J-School for Jerks
Joshua Green has an amusing piece in the current Atlantic Monthly (yes, my issue arrived today) on the fine art of being a media talking head, aptly titled, “J-School for Jerks.”
….the political shoutfests on cable television: Hardball, Crossfire, Hannity & Colmes, and the reigning king, The O’Reilly Factor. Each features an endless procession of motormouths, the most successful of whom display their shaky grasp of current affairs with the belligerent energy of a loutish barfly. Yet the format has spread. It’s easy to assume that all this vitriol flows naturally from the contentious politics of a difficult time. But that isn’t quite true. As more shows adopt an adversarial format, people who wish to appear on them must be equipped to survive the ordeal. (Any channel-flipper has surely seen Bill O’Reilly steamroll an overmatched guest.) The idea that someone would create a school to train aspirants in hand-to-hand political combat may sound farfetchedÃ¢€”but not in Washington.
Rich Masters, forty-two, is the managing director of media relations at Qorvis Communications, a mid-sized public-relations firm in Washington, and a Jedi master to television pundits. Last year a Qorvis partner spotted an unmet demandÃ¢€”hardcore pundit trainingÃ¢€”and hired Masters to devise a cutting-edge program to fill it. Qorvis built a faux television studio in downtown Washington solely for this purpose, identical to the real thing in every detail, including decorative books and a rubber ficus.
The truly professional pundit understands that although the bickering and shouting may appear to be a free-flowing drama, television is rigidly segmented, most segments running about three minutes. This makes it possible, Masters explains, to “filibuster”Ã¢€”a technique he himself employs. “When you’re up against an opponent and a question comes your way,” he says, “start talking and keep talking. A lot of times inexperienced hosts don’t know how to control the interview, and you literally run out the clockÃ¢€”you get to hit your message repeatedly and prevent your opponent from getting hers out at all.”
Often, of course, one is pitted against an equally capable foe and must break a filibuster. This, too, is an art form. “Don’t scream,” Masters warns. “You’ll look nuts. Wait till they breathe and then pounce!” Masters believes that demeanor is crucial. He recommends interrupting in a funny way (“Whoa, hold the wagon, lady!”) and shouting down an adversary only as a last resort. As long as you’re not Al Gore, loud sighs and theatrically rolled eyes are good signals to the host that you’d like to butt in.
Mastering these techniques, which are the polar opposite of polite discourse and simply manners that have been drummed into most of us from our earliest days, is clearly an artform. Apparently, though, most hosts prefer screamers who look nuts, since they seem to be the guests who get invited back most frequently.