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For Experts, Instant Fame’s Vexing--but Fun

Times Staff Writer

As the Voyager spacecraft transmitted colorful pictures of Neptune to Earth, assistant project manager Ellis Miner bounced from interviews on the Cable News Network to a network news program to the British Broadcasting Corp. faster than he could say “frozen nitrogen crystals.”

When he finished with television, radio beckoned. He appeared on six call-in shows throughout the nation and scores of live radio interviews, including KNX and KFWB. During the three to four days before Voyager’s closest approach to Neptune, he said he spent 13 hours daily at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, about 10 hours a day answering press queries.

Miner’s backbreaking agenda during a major news event is not unusual for those considered experts by the media.

When China convulsed under the pressure of student revolt recently, Kenneth Lieberthal appeared on “Nightline,” CNN’s “Newswatch,” the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and “This Week With David Brinkley.” For a week, the specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Michigan averaged eight radio and four television interviews a day.

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“The calls would begin between 5 or 6 in the morning and not end until 10:30 at night,” he recalled. “I was either being interviewed or handling requests for interviews 100% of the time.”

These smooth pros, who thrive on frantic schedules, enjoy the exposure, the chance to reach millions of viewers, instead of dozens of students, and the boost in consulting jobs.

But newcomers used to lonely pursuit of arcane issues sometimes find the spotlight vexing. They complain that the media demands cut into their leisure time, take them away from research and force them to communicate directly with the public. Then, if they are even remotely successful with the media, they may worry that colleagues regard them as superficial.

Judith Siegel was more than surprised by the response to a paper she published last winter. With her first scholarly papers, the associate professor of public health at UCLA got no more than two or three requests for interviews. But when she published findings on how men and women resist sexual assault, reporters kept her on the phone for a full day and deluged her with questions for two weeks.

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“You could not put the phone down before another (call) was there,” she said. “Plus the phone in the (UCLA) media office was ringing all day. So there were people waiting in line to interview me.”

All the major morning news shows--NBC’s “Today,” CBS’ “This Morning” and ABC’s “Good Morning America"--competed for her appearance.

Siegel, who had planned to leave town on vacation, asked the UCLA news bureau to decide which show she should appear on. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I had lost interest in publicity. This was supposed to be my vacation and it was anything but relaxing.”

The news bureau scheduled her to appear on the “Today” show. “They wanted to fly me to New York,” Siegel said, “but I didn’t want to because it would take two days and it was too cold in New York in January. I agreed to do it in studio in Burbank, but what I didn’t realize is that it would be live in New York. So they picked me up in a limousine at 3:30 a.m. and I went on at 4:45.”

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Through all the interviews, Siegel worried because she thought the media were stretching her findings.

“The article I wrote was a summary of findings about what people did in response to threats of assault, and the media were trying to make me turn it into recommendations about what you should do in the event of assault,” she said.

After relying on professional jargon for years to speak with colleagues, some newcomers have trouble learning to talk in simple lay terms.

“Your own professional jargon is different,” said UCLA pediatrician Judy Howard, whose specialties includes child abuse and prenatal drug exposure, “and it’s important that you not be misinterpreted. . . . You try to make it extremely clear. . . . When you haven’t chosen politics as a profession, you have to learn all this.”

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Return Appearances

If they answer the questions intelligently and concisely just once, the media phone them again and again.

“I don’t think the media necessarily go to the best scholars in the sense of people doing the greatest theoretical work or most sophisticated modeling,” said Lieberthal, who nonetheless thinks good commentary on China requires good scholarship.

“I think the media tend to go back to people like me who can summarize things well--people who can do a good 40-second sound bite or who in newspapers can speak the king’s English rather than political science or sociology or economics,” Lieberthal said.

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While the work is demanding, there are payoffs. Their success can lead to sometimes hefty consultancy fees. Several professional teams have hired UC Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards, an expert on the black athlete, for example, and he has worked with the baseball commissioner’s campaign to move blacks into management.

Lieberthal says working with the media also provide heady opportunities. “I love it,” he said. “I like teaching. . . . Dealing with the media gives me an opportunity to have an audience in the millions, instead of the dozens.”

Although he says visibility has no effect on his academic career, he knows university administrators recognize his efforts.

When he appeared extensively on national media last May and June, Lieberthal said, “I was contacted by people in the administration concerned with public affairs to say how grateful they were.

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“Even the local newspaper ran a brief editorial which said, ‘Isn’t it nice that Michigan is recognized for something beyond it’s football team?’ ”

The Negative Side

Experts also see negatives to offering public opinions. “There is a slight sense that someone quoted a lot must be somewhat superficial,” said Peter Reuter, senior economist at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

If the researchers are perceived as experts, they feel they have a greater responsibility to the public so they review their work even more carefully than before. “That’s very trying at times because you keep rechecking . . . the specifics,” said UCLA pediatrician Howard.

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Some people talk so regularly to the media that it hurts their academic career.

“I get lots of requests to fly here or there to give a lecture,” said Dr. Paul D. Thompson, a cardiologist at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., and a frequent commentator on exercise physiology. “What that does is take me out of the lab and the chance to do research.”

The experts’ families may be more indulgent of the media demands than the academics themselves. Edwards says his wife and children, who cavalierly disregard frequent intrusions in restaurants by television viewers, put useful newspaper clippings on his desk.

In Eye of the Storm

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Lieberthal recalls that when he was in Tokyo late last May, he called his wife at home to ask whether she thought he should return to Beijing as Chinese troops organized a dangerous move on the city.

“I said my inclination was to go,” Lieberthal said. “She said ‘Frankly, you have spent your whole life studying Chinese politics. This is Chinese politics in the raw and you should go.’

“She also said that if you see them about to shoot, promise you will get the hell out of there and give me a call and tell me you made it. Which is what I did.

“The troops were about to move in on June 3 and the massacre came on June 4. I called just before midnight on the third and said I wanted to tell her I was in my hotel room because I had just come in from the street.”

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