A Little Research Can Save a Lot of Embarrassment
Awhile back I wrote about the most embarrassing moment of my life. But there have been plenty of others, on television and off. As I look back on them, I find one common thread painfully evident, and it's simply this: I didn’t do my research.
Let me give an example. Early in my television career I sometimes got assignments to interview celebrities and other media types. Once I was among a gaggle of reporters who converged on a big-city hotel for a media junket to interview the famous and soon-to-be-famous. As a young reporter in my mid-twenties, I was star struck.
The climax of the event was a huge public extravaganza in the city’s downtown, preceded by a caravan of limousines to the glitzy venue, each car carrying three people: a network TV star, a network PR employee, and a reporter such as myself. I couldn't wait to find out what famous person I was to ride with.
As I approached my assigned limousine, an older woman was waiting there, smartly dressed, but looking a little sleep deprived. I guessed that the TV network was working their people long hours for this event. After nodding hello, we stood in awkward silence for a few minutes waiting for someone else to show. Finally, I decided to make conversation.
“Do you know which celebrity we’ll be riding with?” I ventured. The woman looked at me blankly for a few seconds, then turned away, obviously not wanting to engage in small talk. In the next moment, a drop-dead gorgeous woman wearing a black dress and spiked heels joined us.
Wow, I thought. Am I the luckiest guy, or what? I get to ride with the most beautiful celebrity here! I didn’t recognize her, but who cared? This was going to be a trip to remember.
It was, but not for the reasons I thought. The lovely newcomer promptly greeted the older woman warmly and introduced herself as a representative from the network's promotions department. What? I thought. She’s not the celebrity? Well then who is?
I followed the two of them into the limo and our vehicle pulled into the caravan, joining a couple dozen other identical black cars. The older woman was of course, (to me) the unknown TV star. I was, of course, (to everyone else in the car) the young reporter with egg on his face and nowhere to hide.
Embarrassed, I was silent almost the entire trip. I had lost my chance to gracefully introduce myself to our older celebrity. The one time I tried to make conversation with the stunning woman sitting between me and the mystery star, she gave me a look that simply said, “Don’t you just wish, sonny boy?” and then turned away. It was my second strike-out in just a few minutes' time.
When our car arrived downtown and our VIP stepped out onto the roped-off red carpet leading into the venue, hundreds of fans, mostly female, erupted in spontaneous applause. An announcer bellowed over a PA system, “Would you welcome, from NBC’s longest-running daytime drama “Another World,” its most popular and enduring personality, Constance Ford!”
I never watched the soaps, but found out later what I should have researched, that Ms. Ford was a veteran actress with impressive movie, stage and television credits. I climbed out on the opposite side of the shiny black vehicle and slinked past the crowd of TV fans, totally flustered as I skittered inside.
That was not the last time a lack of research was my downfall. Also early in my career, I worked as a news reporter in Wichita, Kansas, where I was privileged to meet some successful entrepreneurs whose world-famous businesses had started right there in south-central Kansas. I met “First Lady of Aviation” Olive Ann Beech of Beech Aircraft as well as Sheldon Coleman, head of the renowned maker of camping and outdoor gear. Both were in their mid 70s at the time.
Not long after taking that job, I was assigned to do a story about the 20th anniversary of another locally-based company, Pizza Hut, a multi-million dollar business with franchises in several countries. I was introduced to a man named Frank Carney, a casually-dressed youthful and energetic forty-ish guy with a warm smile. As I positioned the microphone in front of him for an interview, my video photographer asked me to get a sound level. I asked Mr. Carney to state his name and title so we could adjust the volume of his speaking voice.
“Frank Carney, founder of Pizza Hut,” he said, the smile never leaving his face.
I laughed, sharing in what I thought was a joke. Having talked with much older company heads before, I assumed anyone as young as this guy was probably only middle-management at best. “No really, what is your job title?” I asked again.
“I’m the founder of Pizza Hut,” he repeated, his smile fading. I heard a low groan from my photographer, obviously embarrassed for me.
After the interview, I sheepishly asked my photographer, “Does everyone in Kansas know who Frank Carney is?”
“Yes, now that you do,” was his answer.
Not long after that debacle was a memorable election night in Wichita when I was getting ready to do a live telephone interview with Senator Bob Dole who had just won re-election. Placed beside me on the news desk was an actual corded telephone which I was to pick up at the appropriate moment in order to talk to Senator Dole live on the air.
The receiver was hardwired into the audio system to broadcast our conversation to viewers across the state. What I failed to observe was that whomever used the phone before me had set the receiver into its cradle in reverse. As I did my on-camera introduction to the interview, I casually reached over, picked up the telephone receiver without looking at it, put it to the side of my head and began speaking. “Senator Dole, thank you for joining us on the phone this evening.”
There was silence. Dead air. I spoke again. “Senator Dole, are you with us?”
More silence. In my peripheral vision I saw the floor director pointing violently to his ear. I had never seen such a cue before. Confused, I looked at him and spoke again, “Are you there, Senator Dole?” All the while, the camera beamed my helpless face into thousands of homes as I struggled to understand what sort of audio problem I was dealing with.
The floor director became more animated, holding his fist to the side of his head as if he were holding a telephone and began twisting it, another unfamiliar signal. Not comprehending the code, I looked past the camera at him and shrugged my shoulders.
Finally in a frustrated outburst the floor director yelled, “Turn the phone around!”
That's when I looked at the receiver, realizing I had been speaking into the earpiece and listening through the mouthpiece. As my face filled the TV frame, I slowly turned the phone to its correct orientation and went on with the interview, so red-faced that some viewers at home probably rose from their sofas to adjust the color on their sets, once they stopped laughing.
My colleagues didn’t stop laughing about it for a long time. For weeks afterward as I walked past their desks, each lifted their phone receivers, holding them mouthpiece-up and saying, “Nick, phone call for you from Senator Dole.” Every time, the entire office howled in laughter.
It wasn’t nearly as funny then as it is now. But it did make me resolve to, from that day forward, pay closer attention to details, and always, always do my research.
© Nick Walker 2018
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