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The Tally Ho

Monday, February 14, 2005

How you, too, can learn to behave like Bill O'Reilly

The Atlantic's Joshua Green has a new piece in the March issue titled "J-School for Jerks" Mr. Green writes
Masters led me to a studio jammed with state-of-the-art equipment: cameras, teleprompters, video monitors, and sleek plasma-screen televisions on which to track and critique my performance. Qorvis gives its clients a choice of goals that, as best I can determine, range from politely assertive, for nonpartisan reporters simply wishing to sneak a word in edgewise, to partisan jerk, for aspiring cable-TV mainstays. I opted for the full-blown-jerk treatment, and Masters seemed pleased.

We began with a video presentation titled "How to Feed the Media Beast Without Getting Eaten," which ticked through the basics. When answering a question, look directly into the camera, put your message in sound-bite format, and never pitch it above a seventh-grade level. (Also sit up straight: "Better breathing equals better sound bites.") To this Masters has brought his own innovation: the Message Diamond. "People think and process information in groups of three," he explained. "Larry, Curly, Moe. Beginning, middle, end. Anytime you answer a question, first hit your message, then enhance it with a story or an anecdote, then hit it again. Narrow, wide, narrow." He made a diamond with his fingers.

Not every question is a welcome one. A Republican must occasionally grapple with news that reflects well on Democrats and (more likely) vice versa. In such instances the cornered pundit must "find the gloomy lining." Masters counsels clients to either broaden the question or narrow it, depending on what suits their partisan purposes. Was Bush helped by strong job numbers this month? Then the broader issue is the continual outsourcing of American jobs. Are Hillary's favorability ratings on the rise? No problem: in red states she still ranks below avian flu.

The truly professional pundit understands that although the bickering and shouting may appear to be a free-flowing drama, television is rigidly segmented, most segments running about three minutes. This makes it possible, Masters explains, to "filibuster"—a technique he himself employs. "When you're up against an opponent and a question comes your way," he says, "start talking and keep talking. A lot of times inexperienced hosts don't know how to control the interview, and you literally run out the clock—you get to hit your message repeatedly and prevent your opponent from getting hers out at all."

One of the fun things about Masters is that he shows clips of his own TV appearances to illustrate these techniques. We watched a snippet of him easily outmaneuvering one of the blonde replicants who host Fox News and launching into a disquisition on John Kerry. Masters's verbal dexterity called to mind the famous speed-talking Federal Express commercials of the 1980s, as he strung together diamond after diamond to draw out an impressive filibuster that left his opponent exasperated.

Also in March's Atlantic is a piece by Stanford University Pulitzer Prize winning Historian David M. Kennedy titled What "W" Owes to "WW". I've read Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War and Over Here: The First World War and American Society - both were very good.


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