The Breakfast Table

The Pulls and Perils of TV

Dear Margaret:

I confess. I don’t read your column regularly, but I like it a lot when I do read it. But you missed the point, I think. Which is that even columns that have opinions are written, or supposedly are written and in your case certainly are written, by reporters. And reporters writing columns can have opinions, but those opinions ought to be what’s in their columns, where they can be carefully explained. Again, I fall back, pathetically, on my law experience, and make the analogy to judges. Judges write opinions, but they don’t go around telegraphing them or sound-biting them on television.

I should also add that your columns are much, much better than your television stuff, and I happen to think you are good on TV. It’s just that if you take a transcript of your TV stuff (or mine, for that matter) it would pale against what you write. Yet, I bet your friends and certainly your relatives think you’re an important person more because you’re on TV than because you’re in Time. And that’s what can get you paid more on speaking gigs.

Which brings me to a favorite subject: fame. Television confers fame. And fame is often confused with quality or importance. I remember about four years ago when my kids and wife and I were in the car going up to our country house. The phone rang. My then-12-year-old answered it. The call was for me. She asked who it was. The caller said, “It’s Johnnie Cochran.”

My daughter got all red in the face. “Oh my God, it’s Johnnie Cochran,” she told her brother and sister. After the call, I asked her why she was so impressed with Johnnie calling. “He’s famous,” she blurted out. “Yes, but he’s famous for defending a guy who was charged with cutting off his wife’s head and letting it roll down the sidewalk,” I answered, embellishing only a little. (Actually, he’s a good guy and deserves to be famous for more than that, but Emily didn’t know that and that’s another subject.) “So what?” She replied. “Well, what about O.J.? Would a call from him impress you?”

I think you know her answer.

To get back to my point (what was my point?) , this, more than anything, explains some of the economics of journalism. Fame means money. But quality work does not bring fame; television does. Put differently, Sam Donaldson gets paid more than a reporter who’s out there this morning digging up a scandal at the local zoning board.

It also explains why we keep seeing all those kids on TV in Littleton. They are drawn to it, because they know that being on TV makes them famous and “important.” Which is why you and I do it, too, I guess. You can’t imagine how much easier it is for me to get in to see some big advertiser who might buy ads in our magazine, because I’m on TV a little. Basically, as long as what you’re doing on TV isn’t being brought through a perp walk with the raincoat over your wrists to hide the handcuffs, people are impressed.

There are lots of reasons you or I should do TV, including in your case that you have great ideas and can express them better than almost all the people you’re on with. In my case, I think I should be especially willing to go on when something we’ve published is being attacked. But at least a large part of the reason for you and for me is that lure of fame and the money that comes with it (maybe in your case from being paid for the appearances and in my case from being able to market the magazine more easily).

Which brings me to Maureen Dowd. We’re doing a big profile of her in our next issue, and it’s a terrific piece. She may like it; and she may not. But I’ll tell you one of the things I admire most about her from reading the piece is her refusal to do television. What self-control.

One more small point: When I gave money to Clinton I was not in any way involved in journalism dealing with politics. As soon as I began even the planning stages of the magazine I stopped making political contributions of any kind for precisely the reasons you outline.

Second small point: Since I have now discovered that Microsoft was prepared to pay me $800 for this gig, can you or any of our readers pick a charity to which we can have the check mailed? Why don’t we let readers make suggestions, and you pick the best one.