Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Adventures in Television Land: Osama bin Laden and Me

My experience as a television personality is quite limited. I have appeared as an expert on various cable television documentaries about superstition, and I had brief talking head stints on a book show on CBC Newsworld (described to me as “Canada’s CNN”) and a CNN International news program that was beamed to Europe and beyond but not seen in the United States.

However, my experience with television has been sufficient to expose me to one of this fast-paced medium’s particular disappointments: being bumped. Yesterday it happened again in the classic manner. At around 11:00 AM I received a call asking me to be on a local newscast to comment on the current epidemic of personal debt. A film crew would come to the college to tape me at 3:30 in the afternoon for air later that evening. It was a very sunny day, humid and in the 90s, and at the moment I got the call I was headed to a lunch date in a pair of shorts and a ragged polo shirt. I quickly grabbed a dress shirt and a pair of khakis to change into later and jumped in the car. As luck would have it, I got a call just as my lunch was ending: a large fire had broken out in a condominium complex somewhere in the state of Connecticut. The reporter was very sorry but her film crew had been diverted to this breaking news story. If it bleeds it leads. I felt a little like one of those Tonight Show guests who was last in line and never made it to the couch.

But my most heartbreaking bump experience was at the expense of what would have been my greatest media achievement. In October of 2000, the thirteenth day of the month fell on a Friday. This was three years after my book on the psychology of superstition was published, and the paperback edition had just been released. I got a call from CBS inviting me to appear on The Early Show on Friday the 13th as a live guest in the New York studio. Arrangements were made. CBS booked a hotel room for me for the night before, and a limousine was scheduled to take me to the studios, where I would meet Bryant Gumbel (recently recruited from NBC), Jane Clayson, Mark McEwen, and the rest of the gang. It was all very exciting.

When Thursday the 12th arrived, I planned to leave for New York relatively early in the day. It is a three-hour trip, and I hoped I would have time for some meandering and a nice dinner in the city. But an hour before I was to leave, the phone rang. The USS Cole, a destroyer harbored in Yemen had been bombed, killing 17 crew members and injuring 39 others. The CBS people were very sorry but the following day would be devoted to coverage of the Cole. I was disappointed at being bumped—my segment was never rescheduled—but I understood completely. This is the nature of the news media. They were doing their job, and periodically we should acknowledge how important a job it is.

Looking back, the USS Cole bombing was an even more momentous event than we realized at the time. It was later discovered the suicide mission was conducted by al-Qaeda, the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden, and it would be less than a year before Osama bin Laden next attacked the United States—in a much more disastrous fashion.

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