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Book 'Em

Got an opinion about the war? Clinton? The Jenny Jones trial? Or...pets? You too could be a TV star -- provided a desperate booker discovers you.

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I have done Fox Pet News. Not just me, but Gracie, our cocker spaniel, and my daughter, Elizabeth, then 12. I was there to promote the Internet (this was when it still needed to be promoted), to explain to Fox Pet News viewers how we found Gracie (whom, in fact, we picked out at an animal shelter) on the Internet. "That is so charming," said the booker, who had heard about Gracie's invented provenance from my P.R. agent. "We got her from a girl in Brooklyn who I met in a pet chat room," Elizabeth was coached to say. While this was not my lowest ethical moment, it was definitely my lowest moment in the media pecking order.

Still, I must say, we were enchanting.

Elizabeth came with me again to Broadcast House at the BBC in London. A booker for National Public Radio had tracked me down on a family vacation to talk about the economic summit then in progress. "Why you?" said my wife. "I have no idea," I said. "But the booker wants me." Elizabeth sat across from me in the radio booth with a headset on. When a country was mentioned during the interview, she held up a flash card to prompt me on the name of its prime minister.

We are all "gets." We -- the authors, lawyers, magazine and newspaper journalists, generals, and sociopaths who appear every day on the nation's television and radio talk shows -- have been gotten by bookers. ("Great gets," you say, as the highest compliment about a booker.) Across the globe, Lincoln Town Cars (or their foreign equivalent) fan out to bring the gets to studios. Our arrival is the result of the daily trade-off between those of us the booker wants (good gets, supreme gets) and those of us who are vying for the booker's attention (standing at the velvet rope). The booker reads the papers, watches the other news shows, scans internal reports, and targets her (mostly her) favorite Get of the Day. Principals first, lawyers second, experts third, is how the basic get hierarchy works. At the same time, the faxes, voice mails, and e-mails are arriving. P.R. agents, book publicists, press secretaries, and the deluded of all kinds argue fiercely, persuasively, arrogantly for their time on the air. From this marketplace comes the daily news and arguably -- O.J., JonBenet, Monica -- the culture.

Court TV is now doing wall-to-wall coverage of (and recently booked me to comment on) the Jenny Jones trial, in which booking itself is on trial: Should the booking process be held responsible if one guest kills another?

Booking was once an entry-level job. Now bookers have their own agents. The protagonist in Laura Zigman's recent novel Animal Husbandry, about a 30-year-old woman in Manhattan with relationship woes, is a booker. (What might she have been in decades past? A copywriter at an ad agency in the sixties? A SoHo gallery worker in the seventies? A book publicist in the eighties?) In many ways, booking is a perfect career for a contemporary novel: A booker is on the inside but anonymous, someone who is at the exact epicenter of the media and culture -- but at the same time a witness to it. "When I get a trail, I spot the legal issues and the human issues and the entertainment issues," says Court TV's Susan Spedalle, "and then I start to book." A booker, in other words, has a pretty clear view of who we are, what we want, and how the world really works.

At least temporarily, the bombing of Serbia and the war in Kosovo have given bookers a respite from wondering whom they'll book after Monica. In a war with few pictures a booker is your key field officer. Without battlefield footage and front-line reports, you need to book a steady flow of generals, pinpoint experts, international legal scholars, and former prisoners of war.

Bookers often debate the event, the television moment, that brought them, and brought booking, into the forefront of the news business. "Booking reaches its first crescendo with the Gulf War," says Judy Milestone, who has been booking for CNN since 1981. And then it was the Simpson trial, says Bob Fasdender at Geraldo, "that created a genre, a live electronic op-ed page." And then, certainly, obviously, Monica, which institutionalized news as freelance opinion, and news gathering as an assessment of who will say what about whom and how to get that person on the air.

But it isn't just this new type of news that is responsible for the transformation of television into a soap box for the ambitious and opinionated. It's time. It's that great yawning expanse of airtime -- which has increased a hundredfold since the last TV generation -- that needs to be filled, and filled cheaply. Guests -- purported experts, self-appointed pundits, authors, congressmen, lawyers, former war-college lecturers -- are not only cheap but free.

Of course, the cost of free is that traditional news -- that remote, unemotional, disinterested I'm Edward R. Murrow and this is London voice -- has mutated into something of a carnival of huckstering, proselytizing, and naked career-building. This is both liberating, making the stiffness and dispassion and big hair of network newsmen seem hopelessly out of it, and ludicrous, making authorities out of a wide range of side-show oddities -- Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, for instance, and, my favorite, Ann Coulter, famous both for her long blonde hair (she's one of two Republican blondes, the other being MSNBC's Laura Ingraham) and for her blithering inarticulateness.

What bookers want from us, they say, is standing. That is, the booker wants the person with the closest and clearest relationship to the news event. But those people get used up quickly -- as soon as a story breaks, "you'll find all the good bookers under the hoop throwing their elbows around a lot trying to grab the biggest get," says former CBS News executive vice-president Jon Klein. In a competitive world, the real art of the booker comes into play after all the great gets are gotten. After proximity, the attribute a booker seeks is credibility. What credentials -- academic, journalistic, experiential (if you've been a prisoner of war, for instance) -- do you have that an audience will think are relevant to the story being told? (Celebrity, of course, is a credential that gives you credibility on almost any topic. Helpfully, the more you appear as an expert, the more of a celebrity you become and therefore the more credible you are to comment on anything that needs commenting upon.)

Notably, Ed Rollins and Dick Morris had their credibility upped during the impeachment debate by the fact that their credibility had previously been damaged in their own scandals.

In the event that you have no credentials or relationship to the news event, then "high energy" is what the booker will gladly settle for. Now, what a booker means by "high energy" is really lack of ambivalence (a rarer commodity than you might think): the ability to give a succinct opinion and to answer gamely any question put to you. If you can do that, chances are you'll be invited back to answer questions outside your expertise, and to opine on subjects you in fact have no opinion about.

Three years ago, when MSNBC launched, the new network tried to lend some structure to the booking process (most bookers have a set of fall-back, good-in-any-situation guests) and set out to book -- and, in this case, hire -- a team of regular guests. This is a sensitive subject, because guests are not hired (would you pay people to come to your house for dinner?). So at MSNBC, they called the 30 guests they auditioned and hired on one-to-three-day-a-week contracts "contributors." These original talking heads included left-wing writer Eric Alterman, conservative Laura Ingraham, current New Republic editor Charles Lane, and New York Internet personality Omar Wasow.

Wasow was perhaps the least likely and certainly the least credentialed of the guests. He was 25, had written a few magazine articles, and had started a local Internet service. But Wasow had what his friends and acquaintances call "the hair." He didn't just have dreadlocks; he was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of dreadlocks.

Wasow's three-year stint at MSNBC -- most of the original 30 guests were axed or departed of their own accord -- offers something of a model for a career as a television guest, or prototypical on-air American. While people look at him familiarly in airports, regular TV appearances have hardly made him a celebrity. While MSNBC pays him for his time, he can't live solely off his TV work. Indeed, he sees the world of television guest as just one facet of a new sort of media profession. "Because I write, I'm more credible on TV; because I'm on TV, I get more writing work, which helps get me more speaking engagements. No one medium is your sole source of income. Each feeds the other. Still," he says, "it's not really clear where you go as a pundit."

Why, when the bookers make their calls, do people drop everything and rush to a studio for a few minutes -- most often two or three minutes, no more -- on the air? Because it's television. But that's a very old idea of television (when Tiny Tim could become Tiny Tim). Now, with perhaps thousands of people on television and radio every day, a guest can hardly expect even a flicker of recognition.

Anyone who is a regular guest often begins to suspect that no one is paying attention at all. "Does anyone watch MSNBC?" I said to my P.R. agent, who replied with equanimity, "Other bookers."

Television, in fact, is more and more the opposite of a celebrity medium. It's extraordinarily democratic. Bookers are like the old-time ward captains in Cook or Hudson Counties -- the gets are who the bookers select to represent the larger viewing constituency. The rewards are small (someone might tell your mother that you were on television), but sometimes you can work your way up.

"I saw you on Geraldo," says my dentist. "You were good. But maybe you should have your teeth whitened. By the way, what P.R. firm do you use?"

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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