Mesa Musings: Man bites dog on campus? 'Zounds!'

A sight stopped me in my tracks during my morning walk last Wednesday.

The spectacle took me back to my 37-year career as community relations director at Orange Coast College. Somewhat like Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, I served as OCC's spokesman to the news media — print and electronic. It was ever a challenge!

What I saw at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday was a television news van parked in front of Costa Mesa's City Hall. The truck had its microwave antenna fully extended in preparation for transmitting City Council budget alerts to "Nerve Central" in Hollywood.

Though City Hall appeared quiet at that hour, following a contentious late-night public session on the city's budget, a TV camera and microphone were set up in front of the building, presumably to grab interviews with soon-to-be-arriving municipal employees.

At that moment, I experienced a jolt of adrenaline and a budding sense of anxiety. That's exactly how I'd felt each time TV trucks visited OCC's campus during my tenure. It was my duty to run interference.

Most reporters would call in advance and say: "Jim, we're headed to your campus. We'd like to interview you about XYZ story, and we'd like to talk with students and staff members. We'll be there in an hour."

Some reporters, however, chose to pull "ambushes" — dropping in unannounced.

Usually, I'd get a call from a campus security officer saying: "Jim, there's a news truck pulling into the parking lot." I'd track it down.

Let me pass along some advice to would-be "flacks": If you're the PR professional for a Southern California college and a Los Angeles news truck lands on your doorstep, that's not necessarily a good thing.

PR-types are notorious for trying to cajole media outlets into covering their institutions. I was guilty of that. But, be careful of what you wish for! If a TV truck arrives unsolicited and hoists its microwave antenna, chances are you're in for a bumpy ride.

They almost never show up in response to a press release touting a "feel-good" story about the college. They generally arrive with an agenda.

Conflict is the mother's milk of the news biz. TV reporters are drawn to controversy like kelp flies to mounds of putrefying seaweed.

I was involved in several hundred on-camera interviews during my time as spokesman for the college. It was my responsibility to give the institution's position on a given matter.

Was I nervous? Always! One slip of the tongue and the college — not to mention yours truly — looked awful. The pressure was substantial.

Was I ever successful at getting them to come to campus to report a positive story? Once, maybe twice, in 37 years.

OCC's culinary arts team wins a national championship. Yawn.

More than $350,000 is awarded to students in the form of academic scholarships. "Pass the cheese doodles."

Transfer rates hit an all-time high. "Snooooze."

But man bites dog on campus? "Zounds!"

TV news reporters, I've discovered, are not the best "journalists" in the trade. Sorry, glamour-pusses, but that distinction belongs to the ink-stained wretches of newspaper newsrooms. They're the ones who truly work news stories.

At the major network TV level, most assignment editors are guided by what they read in The New York Times or Washington Post. They frequently lift story ideas directly from those publications.

The same can be said for local coverage. L.A. television reporters scan the pages of the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register for story ideas. At OCC, I was acutely aware of that. If a substantial story about the college appeared in one of those two publications on a given morning, I could be assured that TV crews would start arriving by noon.

But, if I attempted to pitch a story to the electronic media without it first gracing the pages of said publications, well, lotsa luck!

Last week I felt an instinctive surge of angst as I spied the truck parked in front of City Hall. Then I took a cleansing breath and resumed my walk.

Ah, the joys of retirement!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs on Tuesdays.

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