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Fear and Loathing in the Twilight Zone of Talking Heads

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Wing it.
No reading out loud.
Wear a darker jacket.
Trim the droopy moustache.
Don't glance away, distractions be damned.

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:

Dear Mr. Williams,
I am writing on behalf of Russia Today TV - 24/7 English language news station in Moscow broadcasting internationally. My name is Inessa, I am producer of a panel discussion program called CrossTalk. Our guests are well-known journalists and high-ranking officials from all over the world".
(Here she inserted a list, and I recognized several of the names. Scholars, pundits, START negotiators, ambassadors. The usual suspects....)
We would like to invite you to our program. We're recording it on Thursday, March 31, at 10 am DC time. We can arrange a studio in ANY major city in the world.
Our program lasts 30 minutes. The topic of our discussion will be:
Should Obama's Nobel Peace Prize be revoked? Should he simply return it for supporting still another war, particularly in the Arab world? More generally, should politicians of all stripes be banned from the Peace Prize? Should the Peace Prize be abolished?
It goes without saying that we'll be honoured (sic) to have you on the program.
Would you be interested in joining us?
Sincerely, Inessa, CrossTalk, Russia Today.
I emailed back that I'd be glad to accept, then promptly forgot about it, but she didn't. Inessa emailed back to ask my opinions on the topics mentioned for debate, and I answered so:
I'm pressed for time just now, having spent all morning writing a column.
Short answers: Should Obama's Nobel Peace Prize be revoked? ***Not just yet.
Should he simply return it for supporting still another war, particularly in the Arab world? ***No, because his motivations were morally correct.
More generally, should politicians of all stripes be banned from the Peace Prize? ***No, Jimmie Carter and others have done great works after leaving office.
Should the Peace Prize be abolished?***No, it does much good, especially when it comes to so-called Third World peace champions who would otherwise be exposed to greater violence. Examples are legion.

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 ( 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.

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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)
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