Friday, December 30, 2005

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The greatest quote whore who ever lived

In the University of Chicago Alumni magazine, Amy M. Braverman has an excellent profile of Robert Thompson, Syracuse’s trustee professor of radio, television, and film in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Thompson is better known as being the best quote whore in the business -- seriously, the could be asked to comment on wallpaper paste -- or That 70's Show -- and he'd come up with something worth putting in the first two paragraphs of a story.

What Braverman reveals, however, is that Thompson devotes considerable time and effort to hone this skill:

[A] large portion of his day is devoted to talking with reporters. Most mornings, after waking up at 5:30 to read a novel (favorite authors include Don DeLillo, Nicholson Baker, and Alison Lurie), he makes scheduled calls to a few radio shows. “If you’re a professor holding office hours,” he says, “you’ll talk to anyone who comes in. This is the same thing. If I have three calls—one from the student newspaper, one from the New York Times, and one from CNN, I’ll return them in that order.” When big television events occur, he’s inundated. After the 2004 Super Bowl, for example, “Janet Jackson gets her blouse ripped off, and that killed Monday.” In fact, the Janet calls continued for two weeks. For that particular story, he considered it important “to get another voice out there.” Nobody else, he says, was discussing how the Super Bowl “has always been a raucous, rowdy broadcast with cameras lingering on cheerleaders and crass commercials. What are you going to worry about more—the breast flashing at 50 yards or the countless commercials about beer and the good life? To me there’s no question.”....

It’s time to return some calls. He’s already spoken today with an LA radio station about the JetBlue incident, the Syracuse Post Standard about Martha Stewart’s Apprentice, the Los Angeles Times about the Weather Channel changing format for big weather stories like Hurricane Katrina, and WPRO in Rhode Island about the new fall television season. Now he plays phone tag with NPR, which wants him to reflect on Bugs Bunny for an upcoming “great characters in cultural history” series. He gets hold of Sacramento Bee reporter Alison Roberts and discusses JetBlue. The next day he appears in her story:

But did the coverage unnecessarily alarm passengers?

“The mode of American journalism is hyperbole,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.

At the same time, the attention can also be reassuring, he added. “If CNN and Fox are on you—if you’re considered breaking news—then you figure somehow surely all that can be done is being done,” Thompson said.

The key to Thompson’s savvy is staying ahead of the game. “You hope that by the time a journalist calls you’ve already been thinking about it,” he says. The 60th anniversary of the webbed aluminum lawn chair, he offers as a nontelevision, pop-culture example, is approaching, so he read up. The chair is fascinating, he says, “because you had all this extra aluminum after the war,” and some enterprising folks thought to “take this surplus of aluminum and match it with the explosion of the suburbs, which was helped with the GI Bill.” It’s his favorite type of topic. “It’s fun to learn the contextual history of things you take for granted. The stuff is so totally a part of who you are and you fail to see the significance.”
The webbed aluminim lawn chair. Wow.

I humbly bow before the greatest quote whore who ever lived.

[Isn't there a price to be paid for this kind of slavish attention to media entreaties?--ed. I dunno. On the one hand, Thompson does seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject domain, thanks in no small part to his willingness to talk to the media. At the same time, attempting to render a two-sentence judgment on any media trend or phenomenon under the sun might carry a cost in terms of deeper thought -- a point Josh Korr makes here and here. Er, can't you say the same thing about bloggers?--ed. I'll leave that question for the comments.]

UPDATE: Thompson might be the most prolific quote whore ever, but I'm pretty sure Virginia Postrel will win the award for most profitable.

posted by Dan on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM


Um, "deeper though"... "deeper thought"?

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

Whoops! Fixed now.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

As Linda Ellerbee likes to say, "It's only television."

posted by: art hackett on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

...but I like "That 70s Show"... It makes me laugh, and last time I checked, that's why I watch sitcoms.

(NB: I also like "Battlestar Galatica" [the new one!], and that certainly is about as far from a sitcom as one can get, I think, given that it's about genocide on a scale unheard of)

posted by: Jason Broander on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

If this guy's a quote whore, then it's time to start arresting the johns.

How many times have you heard this story?: Event X happened. Some believe this is the end of the world. Expert A believes this is the end of the world. Expert B believes that no, everything is fine. Time will tell. Back to you, John.

It's not the fault of expert A -- it's the fault of the boring reporter who doesn't respect their audience.

posted by: Klug on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

My brother had him as a prof in college and he somehow managed to make plenty of time to talk to and advise students outside of class.

posted by: Chukuang on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

for those of us who deal with design on a daily basis, little factoids like the lawn chair one are actually rather interesting. Every one of his pet topics interests *someone* out there, so why is it a bad thing that he's interested in pretty much everything and willing to talk about it?

posted by: jwc on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

Biggest quote whore??? I'd vote Larry Sabato!

posted by: DaveJ on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

I agree about Sabato...he's definitely in the top 10...has anyone noticed how often his predictions and analyses of ongoing political trends wind up being wrong?

posted by: jdfried35 on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

Sigh.... Daniel, you are so parochial it's pathetic. Try thinking outside the box we call the US.

The biggest 'quote whore' (if you must use that vulgar phrase) was undoubtably European, probably French. My first nominee is Jean Paul Sarte, although I'm completely open to other suggestions. Glib, often wrong but never uncertain, and above all taken seriously by people who should know better. Who is better qualified? Possibly Noam Chomsky? But Chmosky still doesn't approach the master....

posted by: Don Stadler on 12.30.05 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

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