The TV news networks, which only a few months ago were piously suppressing emotional fireworks by their pundits, are now piously encouraging their news anchors to break out of the emotional straitjackets and express outrage. A Los Angeles Times colleague of mine, appearing on CNN last week to talk about Katrina, was told by a producer to "get angry."The identity of the mysterious colleague had the blogosphere abuzz – TVNewser wondered, "Who was the LA Times "colleague?" Who was the CNN producer? How often is this happening?" The Drudge Report, meanwhile, reacted to the passage with outrage, complaining that CNN is "coaching guests to artificially enhance emotions!"
We're not looking to beat up on a competitor so early in Public Eye's young life, but a mini-media controversy has raised media issues we feel are important to look at. A quick search of which Los Angeles Times employees have recently appeared on CNN revealed a likely suspect: Jon Healy, the paper's editorial writer, who showed up on "Paula Zahn Now" on Sept. 2. We called Healy, and he confirmed that he was the mystery colleague. He also fleshed out the story a bit.
Here's what happened, according to Healy: He had earlier penned an unsigned editorial for the Times critical of the response to Katrina. A producer from "Paula Zahn Now" – Healy doesn't remember her name – called and asked if the author would appear on the show; Healy agreed. Roughly an hour before Healy's appearance, he got another call from the producer. He wasn't sure of her exact words, but he said the gist was "I know this is going to sound tacky, but when you're on the show, could you be angry?"
Healy says he replied that he was willing to reflect the editorial's content – he characterized it as "a combination of mystification and anger" – but that he wouldn't express more anger than he otherwise would have. "I'm a news guy," says Healy. "I'm not an actor. If they ask me a question, I'll answer it."
CNN disputes Healy's characterization; in a statement e-mailed to PE, a CNN spokesperson said: "When booking opinion writers, we frequently express that their commentary ought to reflect the sentiment in their columns. We have been doing this for 25 years. Regarding this report, we never told anyone to get angry."
As it turned out, Healy didn't have much of a chance to get angry, or argue, thanks to the show's format – though he said he would have liked to, since "the guy who came on after me said a number of things that were patently not true." (Here's the transcript.) He also said it would be a mistake for media watchers to read too much into his experience, since "you can't extrapolate from one question from a producer to a guest a philosophy that extends not just to CNN but to the entire media."
Still, he suspects his experience was fairly typical, since, he says, it's important for shows like Zahn's to keep viewers entertained. "I can't imagine in the history of these kinds of programs, they haven't always said, 'in this bit of Kabuki theater, here's your role.'"