You bet I'll do things differently next time. Not to eat humble pie. I'm getting decent reviews from friends and relatives tuning in CrossTalk to witness my 24.5 minutes of "talking head" fame.
I'd always wondered what it's like to play guest commentator on a newsy show tuned in by thousands or millions. I found out last Thursday.
It's Fear and Loathing meets the Twilight Zone. Up-tempo music and voices buzzing in your right ear. That
unblinking camera. Audio techs adjusting your mike, hiding the cord behind your
tie, hooking an ear jack on as digital time speeds down,
obscuring inevitable lags from Moscow to London to D.C. to Knoxville, throwing
off timing, conspiring to make grave subject matters--war and peace, limits of
power, bombing Libya--seem trivial, background only for a showbiz event.
When you're on international tv, it becomes all about you, no matter the subject. How could it be otherwise. This is not like crafting a 650-word essay in the solitude of your home office, with an audience of precisely one. When you're feeling all those eyes refracted through the one camera staring at YOU, the experience becomes personal before you remember how to breathe--so you understand now why talk shows are often vapid, strained, unenlightening, sometimes shrill affairs, though CrossTalk is better than most. On balance.
I had no inkling of such things before last Tuesday. I was tapping and scratching away at my last column, when I heard an email drop in, and clicked over to read it. Here's an edited version:
I sent her a link to the column.
Later I learned I'd be debating William Schnieder, senior political anaylist for CNN (in D.C.) and Tariq Ali, famous Pakistani novelist, journalist and activist (London). I also learned that CrossTalk is a product of Russia Today (www.RT.com) available around the world on cable, satellite and online. In Europe, South Africa and North America, Russia Today has an audience of around 200 million pay-TV subscribers.
200 million! Gulp. I had to get smarter fast! I spent hours with our mutual friend who goes by the jolly name of Google. I honed up on Iraq, Libya, deserving Nobel Prize winners from Third World countries. I spent much of the next evening cramming as if for a final exam. In the end I over-prepared. I found Bill Schneider and Tariq Ali to be courteous, if spirited debaters, and host Peter Lavelle a thoughtful and good-humored arbiter of air-time.
When I look at myself on TV, I'm alternately appalled and astonished. In answer to Lavelle's first probing question, I mostly read from my column, though I could've quoted much of it verbatim from memory. OK, it was a crutch when I needed one. There came a moment when I had to ad lib, and that was when I felt most natural and honest. In the end I managed to navigate the on-air jungle of notions and words without betraying my basic values, world view and body of work, and I escaped with the reassuring notion that it wasn't really about me.
At least I think I did.