Barrage of 'experts' shopped by opportunistic publicists

It could happen to anyone in TV news — remember Peter Jennings getting punked by a Howard Stern fan? — but this week it was those eager beavers at “Fox & Friends” who fell victim to someone drawn by the lure of appearing on television, getting pranked by an aspiring comic the channel billed as a disaffected, twentysomething Obama supporter.

Aside from being wildly amusing, Fox News’ latest omelet-on-face episode underscores an increasingly treacherous combination for news outlets: the insatiable demand for “experts” to fill yawning hours of TV time, and a booming industry built around capitalizing on that appetite.

Innocent third parties can be dragged into the act, with the fall TV season as the latest example of this burgeoning trend — where everyone wants to, and often can, be on TV. Along those lines, a seemingly unprecedented barrage of “experts” are being shopped by opportunistic publicists, looking to capitalize on coverage of new programs.

Producers racing to meet production deadlines are likely oblivious to this phenomenon. Yet virtually every series premiere now unleashes related pitches, however tenuous, from would-be experts determined to ride the publicity wave associated with these shows, in much the way remora fish follow sharks around looking for a meal.

“How would you fare if everything around you collapsed?” asked one email, offering interviews with a “disaster survival expert” in connection with the NBC series “Revolution,” a sci-fi premise focusing on U.S. society 15 years after all electricity stops working.

For starters, if the power stopped, I would presumably be spared such silly press releases.

A family law specialist who deals with gay adoption was proposed to provide insight about NBC’s “The New Normal.” Marketing/brand gurus and college professors have a lot to say about the upcoming Emmys. Divorce experts crawled out of the woodwork reacting to a blog post about HBO’s special “Don’t Divorce Me,” in which kids speak to parents about divorce. This fosters the depressing image of poor publicists Google-ing any reference to “divorce,” hoping to unearth some journalist willing to talk to their clients.

For the media, this steady stream of people yearning to become the next Oprah — or simply advance whatever political objective they hold dear — requires an extra level of vigilance.

Despite the emphasis on product tie-ins, producers and networks have no control over these hangers-on. Hollywood denizens can choose their friends, but not those attempting to piggyback on their premise, potentially harboring dubious motives (although the goal is usually some variation on self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement) and questionable credentials.

Journalists know how common this has become, with publicists pouncing to pitch clients (or most annoyingly, themselves) to weigh in on any breaking news story, having long since realized desperate news orgs — especially in TV or radio — will often grab the next available warm body with an official-sounding title.

While one might think our instant-information culture would help weed out hucksters, hoaxers and hype-peddlers, inexperienced and overworked news employees — operating at a frenetic pace, akin to a media MASH unit — can tip the scales the other way. In that regard, the Fox News segment was a small moment, but an illuminating one.

As a news hound, it’s difficult not to be conflicted about the Fox prankster, who, like Voldemort, shouldn’t be named. In serious times it’s hard to applaud rewarding people for behaving like numbskulls. Moreover, it’s not the anchors but rather some faceless booker who will likely bear the brunt of any potential discipline.

On the flip side, such a clear illustration of news organizations’ incompetence and flimsy standards does qualify as something of a public service, even if one balks at embracing the messenger.

Frankly, the one real surprise Monday (granted, a busy news day) was how few rivals who would normally revel in Fox News’ discomfort bothered to highlight the hoax segment, which, strictly as TV, was pretty irresistible. Then again, presumably even producers at MSNBC no doubt realized, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Still, the wannabe comic did convey one bit of cosmic truth during his fleeting moments of fame, when he told flummoxed Fox host Gretchen Carlson, “I’m on national TV. I feel like I’m doing good.”

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