Once upon a time, when you asked someone for an interview, you didn’t plan on calling him names.
Then again, once upon a time, we used leeches to cure the common cold.
Times have changed. So it didn’t surprise me when an NFL quarterback named Jim Everett went on a cable talk show last week, and the host insultingly called him “Chris” — as in Chris Evert, the female tennis player — not once, not twice, but three times.
“I’ll bet you don’t call me that again,” the quarterback warned.
“I’ll bet I do,” the host said.
“Chris,” he said.
The quarterback jumped up, knocked over a table, then knocked over the host. The cameras cut away.
Since then, however, the incident has been replayed a thousand times. And people have been asking me what I think. Could I believe it?
The answer is: of course. First off, I know both men. The quarterback, Everett — whom I spent a week with once for a magazine article — is a pretty basic, nice-guy athlete who grew up in the Southwest, was hailed as the next great NFL passer, and never blossomed. After fruitless years in LA, he was exiled this winter to the New Orleans Saints.
The host of the program, “Talk 2,” is Jim Rome, an LA radio talk guy who was given his TV shot by ESPN2, the new network aimed at younger, hipper sports fans. You know, people who call each other “Dude,” or “Chris.”
Rome made his radio reputation on being acerbic. Surprisingly, some TV critics say he’s too nice to his guests, he butters them up.
Not anymore. From here on in, Rome may host the show with a billy club.
‘Please welcome a real jerk’
But the question of surprise? Why be surprised? After all, isn’t this just the natural progression of our interview-soaked society?
Consider the confrontations already on the tube. CBS’s “60 Minutes” regularly storms into unwanted places, sending interview subjects scampering down the fire escape.
Oprah, Phil and Geraldo book guests so argumentative, they scream, smash things, and, at least one time, broke the host’s nose.
Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern seek interviews, then chop their subjects into little pieces.
Barbara Walters gets big names on her TV specials, then pokes into their private lives in hopes of getting them to cry.
You know what? In each of these cases, the ratings are huge. We love it. There is a sense that we are somehow seeing the real thing when people lose their cool, hurl insults, or, best of all, slug each other.
If you ask me, this is the problem: Too many damn people are being interviewed in this country. We’ve got all-day news TV stations and all-day news radio stations. We’ve got countless daytime talk shows, and a late night full of interviews by David Letterman, Jay Leno, Ted Koppel and Conan O’Brien.
We’ve got the 700 Club, where people are interviewed for religious conviction, and the Home Shopping Network, where people are interviewed for the value of an old baseball.
We’ve got “Face The Nation,” “Meet the Press,” and even shows like
“Crossfire” and “The Sports Reporters,” where the media talks to the media.
These days, the question isn’t who’s being interviewed, but who isn’t? Calculated confrontations
In such an environment, it’s only a matter of time before some host, in an effort to stick his head above the pack, makes a reputation for being confrontational, surly, and explosive. Ratings will jump.
So even though Rome acted like a child in a sandbox, the result will be a piqued interest in his show. That’s how controversy works.
A better question would be this: What did Rome mean by “Chris Evert” — one of the best female athletes ever? Was it a “sissy” insult? Did it mean that Jim Everett likes Lipton tea, or handsome skiers?
This was never explained. No more than Madonna’s recent sludge-mouth comments to David Letterman were explained. What mattered, it seems, was the incident. That’s what made it news.
In the early 1800s, a newspaperwoman named Anne Royall got tired of being turned down for an interview by the president, John Quincy Adams. She followed him one day to the Potomac River where he took his daily swim — in the nude. She stood on his clothes, and when he swam toward shore, she demanded that he answer her questions right then, in the water; if he didn’t, she would scream.
So confrontational interviews are not new. But at least back then, the subject was worthwhile. Why do we even care what a mediocre quarterback says to a cable TV host? Are we that bored, or worse, that boring?
Interestingly enough, Royall and President Adams went on to become good friends.
And she never called him Morticia.