The first (and only) time I met NBC’s Brian Williams, he threatened to send sharks with laser beams attached to their heads after me if I didn’t return his copy of The New York Times.
I needed the newspaper to make a graphic for that night’s edition of “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Somehow, it seemed that Brian Williams was the only person at MSNBC who still subscribed to a print edition of the newspaper. And, of course, the interns who came before me on “Hardball” during the summer of 2001 had borrowed the newspaper and neglected to return it.
Eventually I was allowed to borrow the newspaper. I learned that no one could beat a news anchor’s ability to deadpan.
Since then, I’ve had the chance to meet a surprising number of high-profile pundits and journalists. Many of them probably don’t remember me. Some I can only hope have forgotten me.
Pat Buchanan falls into the latter category.
Buchanan was in a surly mood when he arrived at Ripon College in 2002 for a speech. Hours before, he had abruptly terminated a live interview with the campus radio station after taking umbrage at one of the questions. The stunned silence was quickly filled with Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”
It seemed not unrelated that I was relegated to interviewing Buchanan for the campus newspaper while he signed copies of his book after the speech. The problem was that Buchanan didn’t have a marker to sign the books. His constant complaints about not having a marker kept interrupting the flow of the interview.
Finally, I handed him a dry-erase marker that I had used earlier that day in the newspaper office. When he removed the cap, ink shot out of the battered marker and seeped into the sleeve of what looked like a very expensive shirt.
I learned not to become part of the story.
When I crossed paths with James Carville at an empty gate at Palm Springs International Airport, Carville checked his voicemail and pretended to talk on his cell phone rather than speak to me. Maybe Buchanan had warned him.
When Tim Russert arrived at my alma mater in February 2006 to give a speech on media ethics, I’d conducted enough interviews to make the memories of Pat Buchanan fade. Still, I went into the interview feeling a bit queasy. How exactly does one interview one of the toughest journalists in Washington, D.C.?
Because the speech took place during the Scooter Libby trial, I didn’t have high expectations. Like many journalists who were tarred by the Valerie Plame investigation, Russert seemed neither saint nor sinner. He had said little publicly about the case outside of “Meet the Press,” and since the trial was still raging, I didn’t expect that to change.
I sat down in a conference room among a small group of journalists hoping that he would be willing to talk about whether he thought there should be a federal shield law.
“I don’t take positions on the issues,” Russert said in response to my first question. For a moment I thought the 90-minute winter drive from Milwaukee had been in vain.
“I do not think it’s healthy or good for our country, our society and for our media that we are in a situation now that we seem to be being subpoenaed on a regular basis. Because I really do believe that will have a chilling effect on what we can do.”
Arianna Huffington had accused Russert of reporting on the Plame story while not explaining his involvement. “Maybe (the speech) will lead to a spin-off panel on the journalistic value of showing disdain for your audience,” she wrote days before his speech.
When asked, it was clear Russert was aware of the criticism. And that he found it unwarranted.
“It’s almost amusing to read the things that have been written, because in terms of transparency, there has been no organization that has been more transparent,” said Russert, who then opened a folder and began reading, “Meet the Press” style, from transcripts of previous NBC broadcasts to prove his point. When finished, he offered me a copy.
Others had accused Russert of having political motivations for trying to avoid testifying in the Plame case. Russert noted that The New York Times and Time magazine had fought subpoenas in the Plame case, and that other news organizations were also fighting subpoenas related to a lawsuit brought by Wen Ho Lee.
“If you don’t fight subpoenas, what you’re saying is, why should anyone talk to us?” Russert said. “Because what’s going to happen is, we’re going to go to court and just spill the beans about everyone who talked to us and what they said.”
I couldn’t resist asking Russert to put on his pundit hat before he left. I wondered: Would President Bush ever sign a bill to create a federal shield law?
“That’s a great question,” he said. “I do not know. I do not know. Mike Pence of Indiana, a very conservative Republican, and Richard Lugar have introduced one. My sense is when things get to his desk it’s a difficult bill to veto, politically. That’s my judgment as a political analyst.”
Before he left for the speech, Russert wanted our take as Wisconsinites: Would Brett Favre return? Had Aaron Rodgers’ unenviable day finally come to take the place of an icon?
I’ve never met Tom Brokaw. But after six years of meeting people I never expected to, I’ve learned not to discount the possibility. (Maybe we’ll cross paths in an airport.)
When NBC announced that Brokaw would become interim host of “Meet the Press” until after the election, it seemed a sensible choice.
Anyone else could have become the journalistic equivalent of Aaron Rodgers.
Brandon Lorenz is senior editor for Building Operating Management, a national magazine that covers buildings and real estate. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.