The Ayatollah and Me

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Thanks AK!

The release of the British hostages from Iran brought back warm memories of how my TV career started. As it is Good Friday, I thought I would share them with you.

I did not start off looking for a job in TV.

I didn’t even start as a journalist.

I was actually a graduate student in Islamic History. And, like all graduate students, I needed money. So I applied to a company called Career Blazers. I had read their ad in The Times and they promised temporary employment for ‘college graduates’. The headline on their ad was ‘Creative.”

The job with Career Blazers involved filing, alphabetizing and typing. It paid $5 an hour, which was pretty good money in 1979. They used to call me in the morning and give me my assignment. I would get sent to a bank, or an insurance company, or a law firm. Then, one day, they sent me to a TV studio.

Now, I had watched lots of TV, but I didn’t know the first thing about working in TV. That had never really occurred to me. And this was a pretty big newsroom at that. My job, like all the other jobs before it, was to sit and type transcripts. That was the whole job: sit at a desk, put on a set of headphones, and type out transcripts of what had been on the show.

Well, it was better than alphabetizing piles of papers.

I had been on the job for a about three days, when suddenly all hell broke loose.

Phones were ringing, people were running around screaming, papers were flying. Of course, I was the temp typist, so this did not particularly bother me. I just kept typing. But the place went nuts.

I turned to the person sitting closest to me. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“The Iranians just seized our embassy in Teheran”, he said.

“OK,” I said, and kept typing.

This, after all, was not my problem. I was hired to type. I needed that $5 an hour.

Suddenly, George Merliss, the Executive Producer of the show flew into the room. Although he was a little Jewish guy with glasses, this morning he was more like General Patton. He began shouting instructions to everyone within earshot.

“You…. call the White House”, he commanded. Then he spun 30 degrees and his finger was directed at someone else. “You! Call the Pentagon!” “You…. call the congressional leadership”.

Everyone in the room got an assignment.

Well, I wasn’t expecting one. I mean, I didn’t really work there. I was just a temp. But soon, Merliss was pointing at me! “You! Call the Islamic Center in Washington”.

Well, OK.

I mean, it’s your $5 an hour. What do I care how you spend it. So I took off the headset and picked up the phone and dialed.

The phone rang, and them someone answered it.

Now….just for fun, or just because I was bored, or who knows why, when they answered the phone, I said,

“Salaam aliekum. Ana min al-Good Morning America”. (in my best Koranic Arabic).

Suddenly, Merliss was upon me. He grabbed at my collar and my $29 tie from Barney’s, choking me and staring into my face.

“You speak Arabic” he sputtered.

I looked up into his crazed eyes.

“Yes”.

“Where did you learn?” he demanded.

I had the urge to play around with him…

“When I lived in…..Iran”, I said.

Well, of course, they don’t even speak Arabic in Iran, they speak Farsi. But no one in the room knew that. It was network news! What do they know?

He released me in a moment.

“You lived in Iran?” he said, his eyes as wide as saucers.

Well, I had been to Iran, and I had been alive so that pretty much qualified.

“Do you know anything about these hostages?” he demanded.

Not a damned thing.

“Sure…..” I said.

“Can you write something?”

“Sure”. (I can write I don’t know a damned thing).

“Get this guy a desk and a typewriter” he ordered.

And so it was that I was hired as the Middle East Expert for Good Morning America, and my career in TV was started.

Oh yeah. Here’s an interesting coda to the story.

After this, we all went into a giant conference room, and all the big names at ABC News were sitting around a massive conference table and a woman who was the Senior Producer pulled down a map of the world, …..and took about ten minutes of running her finger around the map (no kidding)….. to find Iran.

Not much has changed, really.

One response to “The Ayatollah and Me

  1. you’re right, not much has changed.

    it would still take most folks 10 minutes to find iran on a map…if they had a map.

    one thing that did change is they’ve since dropped the second “e” from teheran (although i do like it better the old way).

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