It is a measure of TV journalism’s unhealthy self-regard that Wolf Blitzer launched today’s edition of The Situation Room (CNN) with a story that one of his colleagues, chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, might have a new job.
Blitzer blared, “And we begin with the breaking news—a surprising prospect for a high profile job in the Obama administration. The post—surgeon general of the United States. This is a story that hits all of us here at CNN close to home. …” John King had the deets: “Here in the CNN family, we call him the good doctor. We may soon be calling him General Gupta.”
Gaza was wreckage, the president-elect was forecasting trillion-dollar budget deficits, Lindsay Lohan was denying breakup rumors, and Wolf led with this. No wonder some members of the public reacted to the news with a kneejerk huh?!—as if Gupta weren’t a doctor just because he plays one on TV. It sounded a bit like a joke, a circumstance helped along by the fact of surgeons general having been figures of fun in recent decades: Joycelyn Elders had a fine run as a late-night punch line after stating support for teaching masturbation as a part of sexual health—an infraction that got her fired by Bill Clinton!—and C. Everett Koop has that beard, this pop-culture résumé, and those commercials for Life Alert bracelets.
But Gupta is a brain surgeon, a policy wonk, and a fine broadcaster. Never mind the run-of-the-mill cable-news nonsense he’s committed to video—the storm-lashed stand-ups in hurricanes and spot commentaries on celebrity autopsies—he’s a journalist whose talents for transforming jargon into English and spin into sense are appropriate for a gig that is, at its best, pro-health PR work. Upon the release of Sicko, he gave a cool rebuttal to Michael Moore’s bluster on Larry King Live, marshaling what I would call an impressive knowledge of the medical system if I had the patience to watch the whole tedious neutering.
As a TV presence, Gupta is confident and not too slick, with a common touch and a healthy blandness—the equivalent of the warm bedside manner he described to People upon being named one of its Sexiest Men Alive in 2003: “A recent study said that most doctors interrupt their patients within 11 seconds. … I don’t, I think I’m an emotional doctor.” People also ventured that Gupta is “so sexy that he makes you forget he’s reporting on the flu, SARS or pesticide levels in farmed salmon,” and that is his trump card. Joycelyn Elders caused a scandal by saying that self-pleasure was a positive thing. Sanjay Gupta conveys the same message without speaking a word. He just makes the scene and flashes a smile, and things take care of themselves.