Good Morning America

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“We’ll be back with sports and weather after this….”

Yesterday, we were talking about Videovolunteers and the idea of empowering local people with cameras, edits and training. This reminded me of a story. Stick with it, it has an interesting end.

I did not intend to go into the television business.

After I graduated from Williams College, I got a Watson Foundation Fellowship which paid for me to spend three years traveling the world photographing.

I spent a lot of that time in the Middle East.

When I came back to the US, I was awarded a full fellowship to study for a PhD in Islamic History at NYU. And that is what I did.

As a graduate student, even one on a full fellowship, I did not have a lot of money, so I got a part time job with Career Blazers, a temp. agency. They found me jobs at $5 an hour typing.

They would regularly send me to banks, or insurance companies or law firms. The work was all transcription – hardly fascinating, but it paid. One day, they sent me to a TV studio.

I knew nothing about TV, except from watching it like everyone else. And in the studio, they put me at a desk and gave me long interviews to transcribe. It was little different from doing legal depositions.

Then, on the third or fourth day there, all hell broke loose.

The phones began to ring like crazy. People were all running around, screaming and yelling. I was still transcribing.

But I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “what’s happening”?

“The Iranians just seized our embassy” he said.

“OK”, I said, and I went back to transcribing.

At that moment, the Executive Producer for the show came bursting into the newsroom. He was like General Patton in Europe on D-Day.

“You”, he said, pointing at someone. “Get the White House on the phone”.

“You” he pronounced, wheeling around and pointing at someone else, “get the pentagon”.

This went on for a while, as everyone was assigned a job. Then he pointed at me. I wanted to say, “hey, I’m just a temp”, but I sat frozen amidst the frenzy…

“You”, he said, pointing directly at me, “get me the Islamic Center”….

Ok, I figured, it’s your $5 an hour. If you want me to get you the Islamic Center, I will get you the Islamic Center. So I took off the headphones and dialed up the Islamic Center in Washington.

They answered the phone.

Now, I was bored. Let’s be honest, transcribing even at $5 an hour is not the most fascinating work in the world. So when the people from the Islamic Center answered the phone, I said, “Salaam aleikum, ana min al-Good Morning America”.

Suddenly, I felt a hand grab the back of my shirt.

It was George Merliss, the Executive Producer.

“You speak Arabic?” he asked, staring down at me.

I affirmed that I did.

“Where did you learn?” he demanded.

Now here, I should have said, at NYU, which would have been true. But I was bored, so I said, “when I lived in Iran”.

(Now, they don’t speak Arabic in Iran (which I had at least visited), they speak Farsi. But this was American network television. No one would know).

“You lived in Iran??” he asked, now his eyes a big as saucers….

Well, it was true. I had been in Iran and I had been alive, so, yes, I had ‘lived in Iran’. I affirmed that indeed I had.

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

Well, I knew that they were hostages and that they were in Iran, so again, I answered yes. Seemed reasonable.

In a moment Merliss sprang into action.

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

And at that moment, I was hired as the ‘middle east expert’ for Good Morning America.

Now, strange as this story is, it gets a bit stranger.

We then all filed into the big conference room – all the big names who were at ABC News that morning. And in the front of the room, a woman who would later go on to become a Senior VP for news at ABC pulled down a map of the world, and, this is very serious, spent about ten minutes search for Iran as she traced her finger around the map.

The scarier part is that a few hours later we were going out live to millions of Americans, attempting to explain what had transpired in Iran. Trust me, not a living person in the room had the vaguest idea about Iran, Iranian history, Iranian culture, Iranian anything. Now, there is some news.

So, is the concept of ’empowering’ Iranians, Iraqis, Indians or just about anyone else… with video cameras, and teaching them to tell their own stories so nuts.

I don’t think so.

We do a pretty crap job of it on our own.

2 responses to “Good Morning America

  1. I love this story. Heard it before in one of your presentations, but it’s great theater and it points out that our “pro” journalists are actually amateurs in ALL subjects except those with which they have had personal — and long-running — experience.

    I could talk (or “report”) to you all day long with deep expertise about the things I have studied or done in my life, but there are far more topics in the world I could never cover accurately. Everyone’s the same way. Why do we treat Brian Williams differently?

    Spending all day reading a teleprompter in a cushy studio does not make you an expert in anything except teleprompter usage. And maybe makeup application, I suppose.

    A democratized media allows for experts to appear anywhere. There appear to be three tricks going forward:

    1. getting everyone to participate in media, not just consume
    2. teaching everyone the basics of media creation, the tools and techniques
    3. figuring out how we sort the wheat from the chaff, quality-wise and accuracy-wise

    Personally, I think this will be fun. Frustrating sometimes, but fun. And ultimately good for the democracy — returning the power of the media to the populace rather than concentrating it in fewer and fewer hands. Hands that aren’t any more expert in life than you or me.

  2. have dvx100B & ready to shoot – LA,ca contact me for volunteer brigade!

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