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Media Pundits in Training Get Ready for Their Close-Up

November 22, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

If there's one clear result from the brouhaha surrounding the presidential election, it's the instant creation of opportunities for what seems to be the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population: television pundits.

Turn to any of the news or financial channels and you'll find talking heads yammering away about something, from the origins of the electoral college to the long-term prospects of biotech stocks.

Sometimes, the same person you've never heard of can show up on two or three programs in the same day. It's best not to worry about credentials. They're on television, after all, so they must be special.

Still, true pundits don't always spring from the ground fully formed like those skeletons in "Jason and the Argonauts." Sometimes, they need a little help, which is where media training and such folks as former talk-radio host Carole Hemingway enter the picture.

Many will remember Hemingway from local stints at KABC-AM (790)--where she worked as a talk host for eight years before being fired in 1982--followed by out-of-town jobs and a six-year return engagement on KGIL-AM (1260), whose format switch in 1992 marked the end of her radio career.

In the late 1980s, Hemingway started a side business as a media trainer, designed to help politicians, business executives, advocates--indeed, any people who might find themselves staring directly into the jaws of the media beast--tailor their messages and better understand how news outlets operate.

What Hemingway--and for that matter, anyone else--couldn't have fully foreseen was the explosion of channels requiring such personalities, from the introduction of two all-news networks in 1996 to more specialized cable outlets CNBC, Court TV and E! Entertainment Television, all of which rely to an extent on specialized "experts" to flesh out their program schedules.

Suddenly, print journalists, professors, dot-com gurus and chief executives who never would have needed to fret about what color tie goes with a blue backdrop find themselves splashed all over television, and Hemingway's vocation has the makings of a boom industry, inspiring more and more public-relations types to add media training to their list of services.

"It just keeps growing exponentially," said Hemingway, whose office is in Beverly Hills. "Just look at this election. Everyone knows how important it is to present themselves well."

To witness the process, Hemingway allowed me to sit in on a media-training session with Barbara Jeanne Polo, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign, a nonprofit environmental organization founded by actor Ted Danson.

Passionate about her cause, Polo clearly felt ambivalent about the idea of going before cameras. Yet the fact such groups must be fluent in television--and subject themselves to its whims to get their message out--is indisputable.

"I want them to talk about us," Polo told Hemingway regarding the media, summing up the dilemma, "and the only way they will is if we talk to them."

Hemingway tapes an interview with Polo and analyzes what aspects of her presentation need improvement. The goal, she explains, is not to "spin" the media in the pejorative sense, but to package the delivery in a way that will ensure the message is heard.

As opposed to seeking to control or manipulate media outlets, Hemingway suggests a presenter must endeavor to make such appearances a win-win situation--providing the media what they need while still getting the subject's points across. In Hemingway's eyes, the media are value-neutral, simply looking for interesting and entertaining material to funnel through their lens.

In this context, it quickly becomes apparent style matters as much as substance--or rather, a lack of style threatens to render substance moot, no matter how compelling.

"If you don't hit them emotionally, you're not going to hit them with any other information," Hemingway tells her client, adding later, "There has to be a lot of time spent deciding what messages you want to send to the media."

The questions Hemingway keeps returning to are the height of simplicity: "Why am I going to do this interview? What's my purpose? And what's the message I want to get across?"

The subject goes through a TV-style interview, discusses the responses, then repeats the exercise. Hemingway admits the experience--especially for those who are titans in their respective fields--can be humbling. She also cautions against being defensive even when under attack, or appearing so programmed as to look stiff and unnatural--a shortcoming that seems to describe much of the discourse during the recent political season.

Discerning the roots of that banality may be a chicken-and-egg question, but it gave rise to an intriguing exchange last week at USC's Annenberg School for Communication regarding the media's role in transforming politics into entertainment.

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