Monday, June 09, 2008
The look on Bryan Bell's face alone would've made the whole thing worth the effort.
A current senior producer on CNN's American Morning and, ironically, the man who moved me up to New York from the network's Atlanta hub -- unwittingly setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to me being fired -- Bell was one of the first people I ran into upon faux-casually strolling into the lobby of the Time Warner Center last Wednesday morning.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asked, sharply breaking his stride in my direction and contorting his face into a wide-eyed mask of appropriate surprise. He was, after all, suddenly standing face to face with a ghost -- someone who four months previously had been shown the door to the building and wasn't supposed to be allowed back in under any circumstances. Yet, there he was. There I was.
I shot Bell a smirk tinged with as much subversive attitude as I could muster, which, given the situation and the level of insurgent impertinence required of me to bring it about, was quite a bit. "Going to the internet conference up on 10," I said as I glided past him, spinning and pushing a quick fist into his shoulder. "Good to see you, man."
He was still staring in some form of disbelief as I turned and squeezed between the closing doors of the elevator, locating the familiar button for the 10th floor almost involuntarily and punching it.
We're just about at the end of "Internet Week '08" here in New York City, the first of what organizers hope will be an annual event aimed, from what I can gather, at bringing together the powerful movers and shakers of the digital and media worlds in a concentrated effort to better understand and more fully utilize the internet to jack the American consumer. All week long, various seminars, panel discussions, cocktail parties, meet-and-greets and opportunities for hipster hook-ups have been going on throughout the city. And while Internet Week probably isn't the sort of boon to New York's prostitution industry that, say, last month's annual Fleet Week celebration was, it's admittedly allowing for an unusual confluence of ideas and cultures, as at least a few of the gaunt and scruffy Red Bull addicts of the internet underclass -- still basking in the post-orgasmic afterglow of Comic-Con -- are granted entrance to the Emerald City and afforded a rare audience with the mighty media wizards who usually prefer to remain safely behind the curtain of their office doors. For the people at the top, it means a chance to get a better handle on that whole "internet thing," while for the young upstarts on the bottom, it presents a host of opportunities to kiss a little Illuminati ass in the hope of landing the kind of job that will allow them to pay their hefty student loan tabs and fulfill their dreams of transforming themselves into that Ferrari-driving techno-smart-ass kid from the National Treasure movies.
As someone who violated the accepted protocol and did everything backwards -- slipping from the warm embrace of corporate media favor to tumble down and land in journalism's not-so-soft underbelly -- I haven't been sure of my personal place in the Internet Week festivities. Almost everyone in attendance has either already "arrived" or is looking to devour his or her way up to the top of the food chain; I've recently taken up residence near the bottom. A lot of them are nursing big aspirations of getting in; I still have a fresh shoe print on my ass from being kicked out.
In other words, I knew going into it that I'd probably spend a lot of time asking myself just what I was doing there, regardless of where there happened to be at any given moment.
But the Time Warner Center wasn't like any other stop on my Internet Week itinerary: It's the building that houses CNN's New York studios, which means that it's where I worked for three years before being fired a few months ago for, of all things, blogging. Bryan Bell, my friend and former co-worker, was right in echoing and putting a finer point on my own sentiments: What the hell was I doing there?
I only had a few seconds to ponder whatever combination of brass balls and rank stupidity led me to venture back into the belly of the beast before the elevator doors separated, depositing me on the TWC's 10th floor for last Wednesday's "Conversations on the Circle" breakfast panel discussion, sponsored by Time Warner and moderated by CNN's porcine D.C. bureau chief, David Bohrman. As I stepped out of the recessed and muted lighting of the elevator, the first thing that struck me was the contrast. I'd never considered the Time Warner Center public office area from the perspective of a civilian and therefore hadn't noticed that everything a visitor sees -- from the moment he or she walks through the revolving door entrance and navigates security to the ride up in the high-speed elevator -- is covered in light-absorbing black slate and brushed steel. The whole place looks like the Death Star, only slightly more imposing. Walking in, you get the impression that somewhere in the building, there's a control room for a laser cannon mounted on the roof with enough firepower to destroy 30 Rock. But that sense of foreboding lifts the second you arrive on 10 -- the top visitor-accessible floor and the main conference area. It's almost as if the building's interior designers purposely aimed for a William Blake-style "heaven and hell" motif, with the dark and spare street-level lobby representing the heretical netherworld and the lofty heights of the 10th floor symbolizing the kind of elysian hereafter that awaits only the most noble servants of the mega-media ethos.
Put simply, everything on the 10th floor is so damn bright. The floors gleam with the polished reflection of overhead lighting, the halls are coated with an eggshell matte; there's even a surreal Vegas-like array of white pinpoint lights that flashes uselessly along one wall leading to the conference area, which is itself an awe-inspiring separate section of the floor complete with 20-foot high ceilings and massive picture windows providing spectacular views of the city beyond. At no point during time spent in the TWC's conference area will anyone cease to be impressed by its grandeur and reminded that he or she is being given a chance to converse with the enlightened beings atop Olympus.
I edged past the seemingly life-like welcome drones, the thin attractive women dressed in smart black Nehru suits waiting outside the elevators. Their job was to direct attendees to the Hudson conference room where the morning's seminar was being held, but I figured I knew where I was going and didn't need to ask directions -- plus, the further I kept my head down, the better. I'd already signed in downstairs, in hell, so when I arrived at my destination -- a spacious room dotted with several high, circular tables and featuring a spartan coffee and juice buffet station against one wall -- I dropped my shoulder bag and immediately made a bee-line for the food, my thinking being that if I was going to listen to Dave Bohrman for an hour-and-a-half, at least I could do it on a stomach full of high-quality freebies.
I had staked out a table and was engaged in a conversation with one of the morning's other attendees -- each of us about half-way through a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin -- when the announcement was made that it was time to begin. Slowly, everyone around me picked up their things and began filing into a separate room, some grabbing a road bagel or final bottle of water off the food table as they passed it. I didn't say anything out loud, but the revelation that we weren't going to be forced to stand throughout the seminar drew a small sigh of relief out of me; up until that point, it had been impossible not to notice the giant screen on the wall opposite the breakfast table, upon which was the projected image of four empty chairs -- one would assume, the places where our esteemed panelists would soon be sitting. At one point, I wondered if they'd just keep us happily noshing while, somewhere far removed from the riff-raff, Bohrman and company addressed us via teleconference. Either way, the sight of those four empty chairs looming over me and my fellow guests as we snacked was more than a little unnerving. I kept waiting for the faces of the Kryptonian High Council to suddenly appear, bellow that we were all "GUILTY" and banish us to the Media Phantom Zone.
I was the guiltiest man in the room, after all.
But as I joined the herd pushing into the next room -- as I readied myself to come face to face with one of CNN's most powerful news managers -- I wondered if I was the only one who knew it.
I followed the crowd of a couple hundred into the conference room proper, and the first thing I noticed was the view.
In what seemed to be a deliberate effort to further impress upon the attendees of the "Time Warner Conversations on the Circle: Internet and News" seminar just who the hell they were dealing with, the guest seating for the event faced toward the giant floor-to-ceiling windows which made up one entire wall. Opposite the glass was a panorama of the West Side of Manhattan that was even more breathtaking than anything we'd seen previously. I made my way over to the far side of the room and took a comfortable seat in the third row, the raised platform and four empty panelist chairs now no longer a projected image on a screen but a three-dimensional reality just a few feet in front of me. I reached into my bag, pulled out a reporter's notebook and waited for the discussion to begin -- or at least for security to realize the mistake that had been made and forcibly escort me out of the building.
Thankfully, the former happened before the latter.
David Bohrman was introduced as an award-winning producer and the "inventor" of the CNN/YouTube debates by a grinning representative from Time Warner who then flitted away to grab a seat directly in front of the dais. Even for a company flack, the rep seemed a little too eager to be there -- particularly so early in the morning; as I watched him adjust his front-row seat, I found myself waiting to see if he'd suddenly produce a clear, watermelon-proof tarp with which to cover himself. My split-second reverie was broken by the sound of Bohrman's voice in front of me and booming from the speakers overhead, drawing my attention back to the stage.
Besides maybe salesman-of-the-month at a Hummer dealership, David Bohrman looks like he could only be one of a few things: the unhealthily stressed-out head of a newsroom, a noticeably overindulgent corporate shill, or the manager of a political campaign. The fact that he is, in reality, all three should come as no surprise to anyone. Bohrman's a large man, with a hairline that's receded to just about the very top of his head and a well-groomed salt-and-pepper beard. He wears thin-framed eyeglasses that all but vanish against his prodigiously round face, as well as the kind of suspenders and J.C. Penney tie combo that make it seem as if he's purposely attempting to be a walking promotion for Larry King Live. Bohrman would be intimidating if he weren't such a damn news cliché in the Jerry Nachman vein, only infinitely more acquiescent to the hatchet men in the adminisphere. His claim to fame when it comes to supposedly bringing CNN into the 21st century is twofold: He was the chief architect of The Situation Room -- that daily sonic onslaught and tribute to the short-attention span -- and of course, he was, as was previously touted and would be throughout the length of the event, the "inventor" of the CNN/YouTube debates. (For the record, to hear CNN refer to these debates and their place in history, you'd have thought the things had cured cancer and aligned the planets.)
Bohrman quickly took a seat, leaning back to allow everyone an inescapable glimpse at the desperate effort the buttons down the belly of his shirt were undertaking to avoid popping off one-by-one into the crowd. I started to wonder if I should've brought my own tarp. He introduced the rest of the panel, the members of which were all conspicuously younger than him: There was Nadira Hira of Fortune magazine, and, as we'd find out, the group's designated "Gen-Y" expert; Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube (also, "the cute one"); and Michael Scherer, a Washington bureau correspondent for Time magazine who appeared, at least from where I was sitting, to be wearing a clip-on tie.
Bohrman started in almost immediately, posing the burning question "what is the internet?" to no one in particular. His own answer was hilariously ironic in its anachronism, given the subject matter.
"It reminds me of that old Saturday Night Live skit that asks, 'Is it a dessert topping or a floor wax? It's both!' Well that's kind of like the internet."
In my notes, I jotted down:
INTERNET = DESSERT TOPPING, FLOOR WAX
What I didn't bother writing down -- because I knew I'd remember it -- was that Bohrman started things off by referencing a gag that had been on TV at least three years before anyone on the panel was even born. It was readily apparent that this kind of just-not-getting-it would be standard operating procedure throughout the discussion -- at least as far as the CNN end of things was concerned.
For the next 20 minutes or so, the panel pontificated on the role of the internet not simply in politics in general, but in this particular presidential race. Hira, once again possessing a virtuosic grasp of "kids these days," brought up Obama's popularity on Facebook and compared the Obama campaign's use of the web and the McCain camp's to the Yankees taking on a little league team. Upon realizing that someone had broached the Facebook phenomenon, Bohrman interjected and reacted with surprise that people could actually forge any sort of meaningful bond with someone who's nothing more than a flat presence on a computer screen, then drew the only analogy he could, saying that a lot of people feel the same kind of connection to Wolf Blitzer.
"He's like a Facebook friend," he said.
I found myself wondering how Wolf would respond if I Superpoked him.
Bohrman then once again brought up the CNN/YouTube debates, just in case anyone had forgotten about them within the last two minutes.
What seemed to outright shock David Bohrman the most, however, was the notion that the panelists -- this new breed of journalists -- actually interacted with their audience, and did so free of many of the constraints that had previously been carefully put in place to shield both the members of the media and the organizations for which they worked. Bohrman may be a trailblazer when it comes to updating the philosophical mindset of the mainstream media, but both the technology and its true impact on what journalists do and what's expected of them is still well beyond his grasp. As I sat listening to him, I realized that likely without meaning to be, he was almost comically arrogant in his apparent belief that the multifarious corporate media giants could embrace the technology needed to thrive in the new world, yet still preserve the single most important necessity to their bottom line: control. Over and over again, the young panelists hammered home the fact that the internet has brought with it an unprecedented level of transparency in our society and culture, particularly when it comes to media organizations, and that the upcoming generation can smell marketed bullshit a thousand miles away, even through a broadband line. Bohrman, meanwhile, seemed to cling to the idea that the heavily-controlled CNN "brand" could translate perfectly to all forms of new media -- that those who are relying more than ever on the internet for their information will trust a big-profit-driven news organization without question the same way they did when they, quite frankly, had no other choice.
As the discussion went on, Bohrman seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of an outdated way of thinking. He dismissed The Daily Show and defended the top-down model of information dissemination, which basically dictates that the organizations at the supposed pinnacle of the media carry the most authority. By the same token, he belittled -- probably inadvertently -- the news gatherers and aggregators at the forefront of the new media revolution, saying that the stories they break can be judged by whether or not they "percolate up" to the major networks -- whether the king-makers on TV and in print deem them worthy of a place within their hallowed ranks.
At one point, Bohrman even mentioned his excitement at reading a column on The Huffington Post which linked back to, of course, CNN.com -- ostensibly proving his point.
It was right about then that my hand shot up.
For the next 45 minutes, I sat quietly as Bohrman looked directly at me -- meeting my gaze several times -- but never called on me. This, despite the fact that there were rarely more than a half-dozen hands raised at any given moment as the forum morphed into a question and answer session.
I continued to take notes and continued to keep my hand up, but was strangely by-passed over and over again. Whether Bohrman was aware of just who I was personally and/or my status as an ex-CNN employee and current troublemaking blogger I couldn't tell (although I'd bet that if he reads HuffPost, he's familiar with me in name if nothing else). One thing's for sure though: The conference wrapped up without me being able to ask my question.
Which is why, as the event ended and invited guests began making their way toward the doors, I stood up and headed in the direction of David Bohrman.
"Hi, Dave, my name's Chez Pazienza," I said, smiling and extending my hand. "I don't know if you know who I am -- I used to be a producer here at CNN."
He returned my smile and handshake, but seemed distracted. Later, while leaving the building, I'd call my friend and fellow ex-CNNer Jacki Schechner, who used to work closely with Bohrman, and ask her if he was always so nervous and twitchy; she'd say no.
"I'm just curious," I asked, my eyes glued to the face atop his towering frame, "you mentioned reading The Huffington Post and said you were thrilled to see links there leading back to CNN's website. Do you ever read the comments from HuffPost readers whenever someone writes about CNN or, I hate to use this term, corporate media in general?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, they're not usually very complimentary. A lot of people who get their news from the internet are doing it because they don't trust you guys anymore."
He shifted on his feet, his eyes darting well above my head before finding their way back to me. "I don't know -- I mean, I don't think that's true."
"My question I guess is, do you feel at all like CNN as a television organization -- your 'brand' -- is in competition with new media? How do you fight the perception that there's something very wrong with the mainstream media in this country?"
He paused for a moment, then gave me a relaxed smile. "I think organizations like CNN complement new media. There's a symbiotic relationship between the two. We don't see new media as some kind threat."
And with that final word, he took a step back, giving me the international symbol for polite dismissal.
"Alright, thanks for talking to me, Dave -- I appreciate it," I said, then, just for the hell of it, threw him a curveball: "By the way," I smiled, "Jacki Schechner says hi."
See, Bohrman was Jacki's immediate supervisor during her time as a CNN internet reporter, and despite having hired her, he was either unwilling or unable to take a stand in the face of network president Jon Klein's decision to fire her last August -- which might prove better than anything I witnessed at the "Conversations on the Circle" forum that both he and CNN have no idea what matters to those who subscribe to the internet ethos, as Jacki Schechner knows the blogosphere inside and out and was an incalculable asset to an organization attempting to assert its new media dominance.
Either way, I knew she'd be a sore subject, and watching Bohrman suddenly falter and fidget restlessly at the mention of her was even more satisfying than the look on Bryan Bell's face when I first walked in the door.
"Oh, well," he sputtered. "Yeah, I really miss her." He adjusted his shirt and ran his palms down the front of his pants.
"I'll tell her you said that," I said with a smile, turning and walking away.
Less than 60 seconds later, I was back where I'd been for the four months since being fired: outside the Time Warner Center and beyond the purview of CNN and mainstream media in general.
As I silently wandered the massive shopping area directly under the Time Warner Center's glacial blackened glass towers, I did my best to figuratively pat myself on the back for being willing to go back into the belly of the beast and face whatever I found there -- to stick to the ideals that might've gotten me fired in the first place.
I'd made it inside and back out again. I was safe.
So, to celebrate, I took the escalator up to the Bouchon Bakery and rewarded myself with a sandwich and a bowl of soup -- which I paid for with the unemployment debit card issued to me by the state of New York.
(Photo Credit: Time Warner Center, from southwestern corner of Central Park, by Braesikalla. More of his photographs can be found at Light Infusion. They're all fantastic. Please, you buy.)