This is all to say: Even though it was beneficial to talk to him, we should be 100 percent aware that I AM walking into an ambush. All Costas really has to say about the Web is, “why is everyone so mean?” I’m legitimately going to be called upon to defend not my site, not my book, not me … BUT THE WHOLE INTERNET. On the panel with me is Buzz Bissinger, who Costas described as “frothing at the mouth” about blogs. And moderating this discussion will be a guy who says, with a straight face, “I wouldn’t read those comments to my mother! Would you?” Because they’re on your site. Is this how you want to be known?”
I will be prepared, and I am doing everything in my power to overcome my natural tendency to sound defensive when challenged. I’ll be ready for this. But we definitely need to be aware of what we’re in for here.
David, being a New York media maven (he’s actually part of the “Jewish cabal” Judith Regan infamously cited, which makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a celebrity every time we meet), was friends with an HBO producer. He called that guy and said I was worried about walking into an ambush. David was reassured that there was no ambush planned, that it would be “an active exchange of ideas.” So I began to prepare. We were only a week away.
I had done some television before, but mostly fun, silly stuff, like FOX’s Red Eye and CNN’s Reliable Sources, programs not known for screaming matches (or viewers). But I knew we would be frying different fish on HBO. Also, I know my own limitations. One of my major failings is that I can, occasionally, sound defensive without realizing it. A small example: My mom once asked me how I was doing one morning, and I screamed, “WHY MUST EVERYTHING I DO BE SO TERRIBLY WRONG, MOTHER?” It seemed like something I should work on.
So I called my mom. She suggested I work on being “Obama Cool.” In the spring of 2008, every time you turned on a television, Barack Obama would be debating Hillary Clinton, and she would be screaming and hollering and trying to make him squirm, and he would just smile and let it roll off him. It must be a Hawaii thing. Mom said that if someone on the show called me an asshole, I should just smile, make my point, and move on.
For the rest of the week, I focused on nothing but Obama Cool. Have confidence; remember that you’re debating the camera (and the audience), not whoever is on stage with you. I internalized all this, to the point that, if Bissinger fired up a chainsaw, I would have flashed him a lopsided smile and said, “Well, sir, that’s an interesting point, and — heavens, that’s not nice, that’s my leg, sir.”
The night before, Mark Tupper, a reporter I grew up reading in the Decatur (Ill.) Herald and Review, called me after hearing a “rumor” that I would be on HBO the next evening. (This is about as muckraking as journalism in Central Illinois gets.) We spoke for about 30 minutes, along the lines of “hometown boy takes victory lap!” (Because not that many homes have cable, I found out later that my little town was host to various viewing parties, with groups of twenty or so people going to the rich folks’ houses that had HBO.) The story was nice: Mattoon’s own, Will Leitch, talking to Bob Costas! Bob Costas! On national TV! Live! A coronation. What could possibly go wrong? But I knew better than to think Mattoon was anything like the media world.
Before we showed up at the studio, David, my girlfriend Alexa, and my friend Aileen had a drink at a bar down the street. The fear was palpable. We barely spoke, and any attempts at humor were strained. Theoretically speaking, there was no reason for us to be that nervous. It was just a TV show, the producers had reassured us there was no attack coming. If I were there to talk about Sino-Christian relations, I might be a bit out of my depth. But sports? It’s just sports, man. But still: I drank two beers quicker than is healthy.
At the studio, Alexa and Aileen sat in the audience and David and I went backstage. The first person we met was Costas. In preparation for the taping, I’d gotten a haircut. Costas noticed. “So, did your mom cut your hair?” he asked. My synapses were too fried to do anything else but chuckle. Later, I told my mom this story, which was a mistake; during Costas’s notable (and extremely well-done) interview with President Bush a few months later during the Beijing Olympics, she said she shut off the television because she “couldn’t stand looking at that ass.” This made her the first person in recent history to see George Bush on television and change the channel because of another human being on screen.