About the time the August war with Russia had made the back pages of the papers and all the world’s great war hacks were checking out of the Tbilisi Marriott, I got a phone call from a guy named Ferguson in Atlanta and in one breath he said:
“Hi my name is Paul Ferguson and I represent the eight-hundred pound gorilla in broadcast news around the world today and we’re expanding, yes, at a time when the rest of the networks are cutting back, CNN is expanding our operations, extending them farther than any network in the history of broadcast news. This is your lucky day – we need a stringer in Georgia…”
I wondered why he had to sound like a telephone solicitor instead of coming out and just asking me if I wanted a gig.
“…Broadcast news is where the money is. We won’t pay you as a freelancer, we’ll put you on a monthly retainer you see, whether there is news or not. I used to be a print journalist but when I became part of the network it was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life. There was no turning back. Our correspondents make two point five thousand dollars an hour. That comes out to about two-hundred and fifty dollars a minute.”
There was a long pause.
“That was a joke,” he said.
“I’m laughing inside,” I replied.
I let the sales pitch continue racing around the phone line and wondered how long it would take to get a CNN business card if I chose the job. I also thought of my empty bank account.Then I pictured myself at the Marriott bar slipping Clarissa Ward (below) of ABC my CNN card with my phone number personally underlined and messing up US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza’s hair when he came to hug me.
“But I’m a writer,” I said.
“I was a writer too, still am, but broadcast is the mother, man. It’s the mother of all. Once you go broadcast you don’t go back, it’s where the bucks are my man and you’ll always have time to write…”
My brain had been blunted from a month of Gori and a diet of Snickers and Borjomi mineral water.
“Well, I’ve done some TV commercials,” I admitted.
My first job was an audio report for CNN World TV. Then I ran around following potential news in the event a phone call would come. I wasn’t crazy about that, for it started to resemble a job, but then CNN suddenly opened doors my previous surname tags never. Ministers even returned my calls.
Nevertheless, I was not convinced this was the work for me. I asked my friends for advice and there was nobody around to talk me out of it. In the meantime, Ferguson had become my handler. He stopped sounding like a salesman and more like an Atlanta desk professional.
“When the camera’s rolling look straight into the lens,” he instructed. “When you look away you appear distrustful. Practice in the mirror, I know it sounds weird but it works.”
The trick, Ferg noted, was to imagine you are explaining the situation to a relative. I pictured my uncle in Hollister California asking me “so what the hell are they fighting about over there, anyway?” and I had one minute to explain it all to him.
I got a call telling me Cindy McCain was coming to town and I was going to do a stand-up about her visit on tape. My big break. I called the US embassy press guy.
“Hi Steve, how are you? It’s Paul Rimple, CNN.”
Steve said Mrs. McCain doesn’t like the press but he would call me back. He had to. Cindy would not come all the way to Georgia and snub the 800 pound gorilla.
Her shtick was a visit to IDP shelters, which in TV English I was reminded are “refugee shelters.” She was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and had a lavender cast on her right wrist. Her eyes were blotto as if a big sheet of cellophane tape had been slapped on the front of her head. Walking through the airless and malodorous shelter, her expression never changed. She maintained a safe personal distance from IDPs, most of whom didn’t know who she was, other than an important blond-haired woman with a pink cast on her wrist.
After the tour, she accepted only 3 questions from a small group of 80 pound monkeys. What did I possibly want to ask her?
“How is your visit linked to your husband’s presidential bid?” somebody asked.
She answered it wasn’t, that it was her own private affair to help the suffering people of Georgia.
Two more questions. Somebody blurted the inevitable “Do you like Georgia?” I put my notebook in my pocket. When someone asked why she had a cast on her arm, I walked away.
Georgian villages were burning, tens of thousands of people were displaced, hundreds of people dead, corpses rotting in fields somewhere and Cindy McCain was news. When I got home Russia had recognized the independence of the two breakaway territories. I made some calls but the big-wigs were too busy for even CNN. I tried to call some colleagues to find out what they had heard but my phone picked a perfect time to break.
CNN had given me instructions to meet the Turkish camera crew stationed across the street from Parliament. I put on a smart shirt and got there in time to mentally put my Cindy McCain story together. I also managed to call my friend on a borrowed phone to find out what the president’s TV address was all about, but I had to go on camera before she could tell me.
The Turkish technical crew were set up across from parliament on one of the busiest streets in the city. I had a wire in my ear and couldn’t hear the anchor with the noise of the traffic in my other ear. The technicians turned the wire up which blasted distortion in my ear. Then the camera started and the anchor asked me to report the public and presidential reaction to Russia’s recognition thing.
“Well, people are upset, sure, and like, well, the, uh, president was just on TV rallying the nation to stand united against the Russian threat and well, you told me to follow Cindy McCain around all day.”
The anchor told me not to look at my shoes and to peer into the camera. “Okay,” she humphed. “Then tell us about Cindy McCain.”
“Well, she visited several refugee centers today. She stressed that her visit was in no way connected to her husband’s presidential bid.”
“We can see Mrs. McCain has a cast on her arm. What happened?”
“Yes, she broke her wrist.”
“Thank you, Paul Rimple, from Tbilisi.”
“Thank you Sarah.”
I went home and poured a tall drink. Ferguson called and asked me how it went. He saw how it went.
“I’m not nervous about being on camera,” I said. “I’m just nervous about fucking up on camera… Do I get a business card?”
He contributed a mercy chuckle as if he was laughing inside and told me not to wear patterned shirts and that I should consider shaving my mustache and goatee. He also suggested I go to CNN.com and do these homemade reports via Skype to practice. It was good advice, but I would never take him up on it. And they would never call me back.