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The Blur of The Media

Mon Jan 11 2010
Robert Groves
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I’ve lived a quiet academic life for the most part, doing my research and teaching graduate students. The last week was one like no other for me.

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I found myself walking the halls of TV networks and entering cramped makeup rooms at 6 am while makeup artists (who themselves had awakened at 3 am to come to work) tried to make me look human. Then, to on-air interviews that lasted between 2 and 5 minutes. First, Secretary Locke and I hit the Today Show to promote the national road tour vehicle. Then we and his security detail went to Harlem for a meeting with a set of important partners getting the word out about the 2010 Census. We had a joint meeting with Rep Rangel, and we listened to the concerns of groups about the difficulty of counting in some areas of the city.

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I ended the day at NY1, a local news TV station for an interview. Then up again Tuesday morning for Fox and Friends. The studio interviews are interesting from a process perspective. Since the programs are scheduled down to the second, there are multiple staging areas to feed the “raw materials” (i.e., guests) into the production process (i.e., the interview). You have seconds to move from behind the cameras to the interview location, depending on the setup. Once your interview is over, you’re out fast. Next?

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The next day, for several hours, I did satellite media interviews with local TV stations around the country – over 20 of them in a row, of 2.5 minutes each or so. I’d talk to a reporter in Paducah, followed with a 30 second break with one in Waco, then Denver, and so on. The rapid fire set of interviews was conducted in a cold sound stage in Brooklyn, in front of the national road tour vehicle. I faced a camera lens and heard in an ear microphone the voice of a news anchor at the local station. After spending my life preparing either 50 minute or 1.5 hour lectures, it was pretty difficult to give answers in bits of 15 seconds or 30 seconds, and to have a conversation that lasted between 2 minutes and 2 minutes 15 seconds.

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TV makes for an odd discourse medium – a very short set of questions, with single answers, not much probing and dialogue, a penchant for pithy comments, and little shared background between speakers. My performance target was to complete the events without totally embarrassing the Census Bureau and discrediting the entire enterprise of the 2010 Census. Who knows whether I succeeded. I have to work hard to listen to make sure I detect any misunderstandings of the basic knowledge about the census. Some think that we send census forms to just some households; some think the road tour is the way people can fill out the forms (inside the vehicles); some think that the only thing the Census Bureau does is the decennial census. I have to keep my answers short or face the consequence that the interview will be over after one question (so tightly scheduled are TV news programs). After controlling the classroom lecture time, it’s tough for me to adhere to the TV rules.

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Director Robert Groves

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