Cable TV can get snowed by quick shifts in the news

Storm moves away from New York and leaves TV reporters looking silly

About 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon, I noticed the email message inviting me to appear on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell. It would mean getting to the NBC studio at Universal City by 6:45, the high point of L.A. rush hour.

Naturally, my first thought was about the wrinkled shirt I was wearing.

O’Donnell would be doing a live segment on his show about the controversy surrounding Clint Eastwood’s hugely successful Iraq war film, “American Sniper.” The MSNBC folks were interested in my participation because of a column I had written on the topic. It looked as though I would be sharing time with Garett Reppenhagen who, like the movie’s main character, Chris Kyle, was a sniper in Iraq, but who, unlike Kyle, became deeply disillusioned with the military and with the war.

It sounded interesting. I agreed to come talk, but said no thanks to the offer of a car to pick me up. I figured I could drive myself and swing by home to upgrade my wardrobe on the way. Dumb idea. 

While I made my way through the jam of cars on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, I concentrated on a key lesson I learned long ago about television interviews: There is seldom enough time for anything close to a full discussion of whatever the topic may be. Because of that, it is important to think of One Big Thought to get across and then have a second and third ready, just in case there is an opportunity to say a few more words. By the time I got home, I knew what I wanted to say. That was good. But something was giving me a strangely familiar feeling of anxiety.

It did not take long to recognize what that was. My most frequent dreams always involve me trying to get someplace where I really need to be and, in the dreams, I am always wearing the wrong thing (or nothing but underwear) or I’m lost or I’m late or all of the above. Now, I was experiencing the same thing, not in unconscious sleep, but in the real world. Yikes! Did I leave myself enough time to wade through freeway traffic? And did I trust the instructions Google Maps gave me to get to the studio?

Before I hit full panic, I got a call from O’Donnell’s producer in New York. The plan had shifted and I was politely uninvited. Sure, I was disappointed, but I was equally relieved. There’s nothing that offers a greater chance for public embarrassment than appearing in front of a live TV camera.

I watched O’Donnell’s show from home to see who had taken my place. Apparently, Reppenhagen was dropped as well. Instead, there was a pop-culture blogger from the Washington Post who had some interesting points to make about the real Chris Kyle. With her was another blogger whose Skyped image made it look as though she were auditioning for a remake of “The Blair Witch Project.” Her voice sounded like she was talking through a tin can. Plus, she had not adequately prepared her One Big Thought. Fast-paced cable TV had claimed another victim.

As the producer told me later, putting together a one-hour news show every weeknight is a juggling act. I’d say it’s a juggling act where the objects being juggled are a china plate, a mouse and a chainsaw. Churning out a political cartoon and a column three or four times a week, as I do, is no easy trick either, but at least I am in full control of the process. In cable news, things change minute by minute.

Some have the talent to keep on top of those shifts; some do not. This was demonstrated in entertaining fashion Monday night when a small army of TV reporters fanned out across New York City to give witness to the predicted snowstorm of the century. Most of those reporters -- especially the snowblinded crew at CNN -- seemed to forget that not only could we see them, we could see what was around them.

They chattered and emoted as if they were hurtling through a frigid apocalypse, even as the images onscreen showed no more than a pleasant setting for a friendly snowball fight. Did even one of these news professionals change gears and take note of the real news: the worst of the storm had missed New York? Nope, they stuck with an obsolete script and, the next night, their obtuse reporting got skewered by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”

I don’t want to get too smug, though. Sooner or later, I will get another opportunity to look like an idiot on TV. I hope, at least, that I show up on time with all my clothes on.

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