Volume IX, Issue 6, Page 131

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My ten seconds of fame or what I learned about the elite media

I was about to pour myself a cup of strong coffee, put an Oscar Petersen record on the turntable, pick up the Sunday NY Times and start enjoying Father’s Day as I hoped my fellow dads were going to do. But then the phone began ringing. It was actually producer types from The CBS Evening News and ABC radio, among others. They all wanted me to comment or educate them on the tragic accident that had taken place the previous day in Tennessee where six people had been killed and a dozen or so injured.

The CBS producer even asked me if I would do an interview for the CBS Evening News. I was a bit startled and frankly a little flattered that some very heavy hitters from this country’s electronic mainstream media were calling me to educate them about a terrible event that had taken place. Then my balloon burst when I asked one of them how they got my name and they answered that they had Googled “drag racing” on the Internet and Drag Racing Online was the first source that came up. So, I wasn’t chosen to help them because of my reputation as a drag racing journalist or anything cool like that; I just happened to win the “Google” lottery. My first brush with disillusionment.

But I digress. So, when these folks started talking to me about the tragic event that had taken place the day before at Selmer, Tennessee, three things were very obvious: First, they had no clue about drag racing in general; second, they had no idea that the event they were asking me about wasn’t a drag race; and third, they were actually trying to get a thorough education about drag racing in a short period of time and they viewed me as an expert.

I actually had some concerns about talking to the mainstream media, fearing that the story might be turned into an indictment of the sport of drag racing no matter what I said and despite that what had happened had nothing to do at all with organized drag racing other than the choice of car and driver. But I made an on-the-spot decision that if I gave these elite media folks, whose programs had the potential to reach literally hundreds of millions of TV viewers and radio listeners, an interview, at least I could be sure that I could try to bring the real facts to their report. I could make sure they at least heard the truth about drag racing as a sport and understand the difference between an entertainment event that resulted in the tragedy and an organized drag racing event. I hoped that my explanation might prevent organized drag racing from getting an undeserved and very public “black eye” due to a tragic incident that didn’t happen at a race and was neither sanctioned nor approved by any of the major drag racing organizations.

But, as the great Scottish poet Robert Burns penned, “The best laid plans of mice and men…”

As soon as I had finished with the interviews at the St. Louis CBS affiliate office, I drove immediately home and turned on the TV to see what part my two 20-minute interviews would be used in the network and the local coverage. 

As it turned out, CBS Evening News used a ten-second sound bite that really didn’t have any of the information about the event (like it happened on a street not a racetrack). The local CBS station did about the same thing. Ten seconds out of the 20 minutes I had spent explaining things. The Monday morning replays weren’t much better. Even though the reporters did mention that the incident happened at an exhibition, they used the word drag racing to describe the event and ran film clips of the accident intercut with actual drag racing. The entire news report on the accident took a couple of minutes at best.

The casual motorsports fan who saw the TV coverage could easily think the accident happened at a drag race, exactly what I wanted to keep from happening. The presentation of all of the TV coverage might lead casual race fans or a radio audience to think that there was indeed a drag race going on.

Despite my best efforts, my worst fears about drag racing getting a bad rap have been realized. Almost every newscast I have seen or heard today (June 18), both local and national, refer to the incident as occurring at a dragstrip or a drag race! I did an interview with a talk radio station in Nashville this morning and the host opened his conversation with me referring to the event as an illegal drag race. Man, you talk about some sloppy and unprofessional reporting!

Obviously the credo of the electronic media of the airwave broadcast variety remains “If it bleeds it leads” and don’t let all of the facts get in the way of a good story.
Famous pop artist Andy Warhol once wrote that in this society everyone would get 15 minutes of fame. By my count I have had just about 30 seconds worth, total. I’d like to request that the remaining 14 minutes plus that I have coming be added to tomorrow’s CBS Evening News, and that they run the rest of the interview I did with them so that their audience could actually get the real (albeit dull) information.

I really, really hate to say this -- being the certified liberal, lefty, libertarian that I am -- but maybe the Republicans have a legitimate gripe about the TV news. Network news seems to dwell on the shock news that pushes people’s buttons in the name of ratings. I wish that Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour or maybe even Howard Stern had an interest in drag racing. They have at least an hour to tell their audience all the information about an important story and don’t depend on the three to five minute short-attention-span theater to get the attention of their viewers.

From now on I think I’m only going to do live interviews. At least that way they won’t be able to edit what I say to fit the time.  


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com

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