Fat Man Talking

Everything I ever really needed to know about television I learned from Jerry Nachman

Photo byJjack GouldAfter his death last week at the age of 57, MSNBC editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman was hailed as a dogged journalist and a man who enjoyed a good cheese sandwich. We here at the Weekly will always remember him as a man who ruined our television careers.

It was five years ago, January 1999; everywhere people were talking about the Clinton sex scandal and Michael Jordan's upcoming retirement while grooving to Carlos Santana's "Smooth" and the new cast album of Annie Get Your Gun featuring Tom Wopat, TV's Luke Duke(s of Hazzard).

Orange County was still reeling over the Christmas Eve death of a tourist outside Disneyland's Columbiaride. The Weekly's Nick Schou and Tim Meltreger had written about the tragedy and raised questions of how downsizing and a cozy relationship between Disneyland and local police may have compromised safety and the accident's investigation. Based on that, they were asked to appear on KCET/ Channel 28's Life and Times. This wasn't unusual. Nick had been on the Los Angeles public television station's news show four times in the past year talking about subjects ranging from nuclear power to the Zapatistas.

I had been on Life and Times the week before and, quite frankly, had killed with some hilarious material culled from my Political Football column. Hosts Patt Morrison and Hugh Hewitt laughed and shook my hand and said they wanted to do this again—soon—a not-so-subtle offer of a recurring role.

So when I got a call to be on the same show with Nick and Tim, I wasn't surprised. Me, Patt and Hugh would have a fun time discussing my critique of the cult of Jordan that argued that while Michael was a great basketball player (though not the greatest), comparisons with the likes of Muhammad Ali and especially Jackie Robinson were insulting since Jordan's greatest contribution to the culture was showing how effective an athlete could be as a corporate pitchman.

On the drive to the KCET studios, I remember mentioning to our editor how great this added exposure was for the paper all the while thinking how great this exposure was for me, public television having long been a pipeline to national network-TV success. Did I fancy myself the next Sister Wendy or Louis Rukeyser? Yes, blast you, yes, I did, and Patt and Hugh were going to help me get there.

And then we got to the studio and found out that we would not be talking to Patt and Hugh. Instead, we would be talking to someone named Jerry Nachman, a hard-driving East Coaster who used to be editor of the New York Post. Nachman was now trying his hand in front of the camera, and KCET, interested in giving its news program more of a contemporary edge, was giving him a chance.

What this meant we weren't sure until Nachman introduced Tim Meltreger and Nick Snow, and then he proceeded to put them on the defensive about their stories. He asked Tim, a former Disneyland employee, if he ever spoke up about problems. When questioning Nick, who had become Nick Seecow, he called one of his answers "strange" and said he didn't see anything unique in the Anaheim PD's relationship with Disneyland.

"Don't you think the Seattle Police have a warm spot in their heart for Starbucks," he reasoned(?).

He dismissed them and introduced a taped clip, and then it was my turn. He introduced my piece, then proceeded to rip it apart. Said I was too hard on Jordan, that I held him to too high a standard because I worked at a "nonprofit," and finished by saying that I would be back later to "pound on the Easter Bunny."

It was all kind of a blur. We never made any real eye contact, and I got the feeling that his hard-hitting one-liners, like the "nonprofit" line, had been written in advance since they never really seemed to mesh with what we were actually talking about. The whole thing felt like a "show." There was really no interest in getting at any information or concepts; issues or subjects simply provided backdrops for various broad poses, stereotypes and accusations. In a word: television.

Nachman went on to host his own self-titled TV show. He got it. We were never asked back on KCET, no doubt having proven ourselves weak in the arena. I knew as much when I returned home and, bending over to kiss my five-year-old son, asked if he had seen me on TV.

"Mmmm-hmmm," he said, drowsily.

"Did Daddy do good?" I asked.

"Mmmm-hmmm," he said. "But why was the fat man so mean to you?"

 
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