Recently we have all been bombarded with Donahue, Oprah and a seemingly endless array of clones who are intent on talking us to death. I hadn't paid a great deal of attention to this sobering phenomenon until the other day.
I was invited to appear on a Boston television talk show called "People Are Talking." The show fills one hour every day following the noon news. Its themes are as current as the producers can make them and highly sensationalized for maximum viewer interest.I was supposed to be a historical expert who could respond to the authors of the book "The Mormon Murders." Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith were anxious to promote "their true crime story," and Gerry
D'Elia, a prosecutor in the Mark Hofmann case, was flown in from Salt Lake City.
Since my "pre-interview" on the phone with the associate producer of the program included substantive questions about my critical views of the book, I was not fully prepared for the sensational nature of the show. Until I heard the host, a very young, loud and short man, intone this intro: "A story of greed, forgery, deceit and death - all involving the richest church in the world - the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City - NEXT on `People are Talking.' "
Before that teleprompter lead-in, I had been quite nervous about the appearance. I had studied the book carefully, developing several solid reasons why it should be regarded as a weak, inaccurate and sensational account of an important Utah story. The associate producer had told me that I should feel free to "jump in any time during the course of the interview" with my opinions or disagreements.
But now I was waiting to go on, freezing in this incredibly cold warehouse known as a TV station, while the host was already asking the authors to explain the thesis of the book. I realized quite suddenly that this entire exercise was not really very important at all.
The format was very loose indeed. Not only could anyone seated in the small studio audience chime in with a question or comment should the urge hit, but anyone at home could readily interrupt the entire proceedings with a phone call. These comments were rushed to the forefront - over the "panel of experts."
I knew it would be virtually impossible to make a coherent argument about anything in this shady environment built almost totally on confrontation. And so I relaxed. In spite of my frostbitten toes, I sank into some kind of oblivion - an unbelievable calm, serene state. A colleague who watched it at home claimed that I seemed just as calm as I do every day in my college office when she comes in to talk with me.
I could easily see that as David Letterman has observed, "Television is not brain surgery." Ironically, the others on the panel did not see it the same way and they confronted each other in several escalating, heated exchanges. Just what the producers had in mind. When I chimed in with some critical comments, one of the authors seemed ready to carve me like a turkey.
I was more concerned about why it was that I could not get comfortable on the strange sectional couch I was awkwardly sharing with the other participants.
I had become more caught up in the process than in the topic being treated. The program was divided into six segments, separated by lengthy commercials, meaning that the actual subject was treated in just 46 minutes.
After each commercial, the dapper but vacuous host would race to the side of the set for a prep session with his producer. She would excitedly tell him what was going wrong so far, what approach to take next, and EXACTLY what questions to ask. Before I went onto the set myself, I could hear every word of instruction. At one point, she said, "It isn't clear yet why the Mormon Church is being singled out. Hit the Mormon Church hard this time!"
The host was actually the paper doll creation of this producer, and she was programming him personally. I thought it was highly reminiscent of the well-received recent movie, "Broadcast News," a story about a network anchor who was told every question to ask through his earpiece.
As the program faded off the air with credits showing while the host stuck in three more inane comments from the studio audience, but offering no summary or conclusion, I thought, how unfortunate that such a great number of people all over the country actually get their information from this cynical, ineffective, anti-intellectual vehicle known as the TV talk show.
There must be a better way.