June 5 began as a freelancing day like any other, with the Three S's: sitting in my boxers, surfing news sites, sipping a Taster's Choice latte. Then a news flash interrupted my morning NPR/WNYC programming. Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd had stepped down at the New York Times. "Whoa," I thought. "Big story."
Little did I know I'd soon be asked what made this story so significant. Or that in less than two hours, I'd evolve from nonentity to overexposed.
I appeared on New York's WCBS. Then, in rapid fire, CNN Radio called, followed by CBS Network Radio, AP Radio and Bloomberg Radio. Boom-boom-boom. The airwaves were saturated with my take on Jayson Blair, the resignations, what it meant for the Times, for its readers, for journalism.
Now, if I were dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism, or president of the Poynter Institute, you'd understand why all these reporters came to me. But I'm not. I'm a freelance journalist who, after six years as a Budapest-based correspondent, writes about the United Nations for the Christian Science Monitor and other dailies, dabbles in documentary film, and, since January, teaches journalism as an adjunct professor.
Why me, then? Heck, not to knock myself, but even I had doubts. But this is a tale of PR savvy, the crush of 24-hour news, a dash of journalistic laziness. Here's how it happened:
Shortly after 11 a.m., the phone rang. On the other end was Peg Byron, public relations chief at Long Island University in Brooklyn. I'd never spoken with her, as I'd only begun teaching at LIU this past semester--sportswriting. Peg had heard about the Times and roared into action, understandably, to score LIU a share of the spotlight. She scoured the faculty for someone to offer to the media.
Sure, I figured, my day was flexible. Besides, my inner pundit was aching to debut.
But what about the department's eminence gris? I didn't want to step on toes. Peg explained that one had a background in law, another in PR and the third, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, was on a fellowship. Moreover, said Peg, I could offer unique perspective as a "working" journalist who taught and practiced what I preached. Plus, I was available.
We discussed talking points, which Peg simultaneously laid out in a pitch. She called Rubinstein & Associates, a heavy-hitting PR firm whom LIU had hired to improve its "outreach." Both sides then worked their media contacts. "It's sort of a race to see who gets there first," Peg told me later. "When someone is both available and articulate, the media eats it up. We were fast, and you were good."
Not only did radio nibble; Rubinstein was aiming for television--Fox and ABC. So, between juggling interviews on my landline and cell phone, I sweated: Is my wedding suit too formal (and by now a bit too shabby)? Will I have time to shower before they send a car? To my relief, those calls never came.
With each interview, my confidence grew. Why me? Well, why not me? No pundit patrols the "New York Times beat," tracking the Gray Lady's every move. And as a working and teaching journalist, I felt instinctively, as I'm sure all my colleagues did, the Blair imbroglio was not good for journalists, that each of us was tarnished in the eyes of those who paint us with the same brush.
I'd learned that back at the University of Missouri. "I'm not talking to the media," groused the water-district official. "A reporter burned me last time." How could I be blamed for someone else's actions? "I'm sorry to hear that," I replied. "But please, judge me on what I do." So, I had insight into the Times scandal.
There were other revelations. I may be naive, but I was surprised some media were outsourcing a traditional task. What happened to trolling for your own sources? "Sometimes the media isn't interested in a call from us, but on deadline, it's a rush," says Peg. "If they're doing the story, they're usually pretty grateful because it expands their story in a way they may not have had time to."
Still, I was stunned that five radio programs--including four national competitors--turned to me for a sound bite. Didn't they listen to each other? Or didn't they care? One thing was sure: Listeners didn't get a range of views at the top of the hour.
But things went so well, Rubinstein called late afternoon to say Reuters needed comment on Martha Stewart's campaign to rehabilitate her image. Was I interested? No. Not my bailiwick. Next week, David Brinkley's death. Another call from Rubinstein. Interested in commenting? No, I was too young to appreciate his impact.
More important, I didn't want to be guilty of overreaching. My Warholian 15 minutes were exhilarating, but they reinforced the same stark fact I drill into my students: Journalists only have their reputation; we risk it at our peril.