Media March 2005

J-School for Jerks

How you, too, can learn to behave like Bill O'Reilly

Not every question is a welcome one. A Republican must occasionally grapple with news that reflects well on Democrats and (more likely) vice versa. In such instances the cornered pundit must "find the gloomy lining." Masters counsels clients to either broaden the question or narrow it, depending on what suits their partisan purposes. Was Bush helped by strong job numbers this month? Then the broader issue is the continual outsourcing of American jobs. Are Hillary's favorability ratings on the rise? No problem: in red states she still ranks below avian flu.

The truly professional pundit understands that although the bickering and shouting may appear to be a free-flowing drama, television is rigidly segmented, most segments running about three minutes. This makes it possible, Masters explains, to "filibuster"—a technique he himself employs. "When you're up against an opponent and a question comes your way," he says, "start talking and keep talking. A lot of times inexperienced hosts don't know how to control the interview, and you literally run out the clock—you get to hit your message repeatedly and prevent your opponent from getting hers out at all."

One of the fun things about Masters is that he shows clips of his own TV appearances to illustrate these techniques. We watched a snippet of him easily outmaneuvering one of the blonde replicants who host Fox News and launching into a disquisition on John Kerry. Masters's verbal dexterity called to mind the famous speed-talking Federal Express commercials of the 1980s, as he strung together diamond after diamond to draw out an impressive filibuster that left his opponent exasperated.

Often, of course, one is pitted against an equally capable foe and must break a filibuster. This, too, is an art form. "Don't scream," Masters warns. "You'll look nuts. Wait till they breathe and then pounce!" Masters believes that demeanor is crucial. He recommends interrupting in a funny way ("Whoa, hold the wagon, lady!") and shouting down an adversary only as a last resort. As long as you're not Al Gore, loud sighs and theatrically rolled eyes are good signals to the host that you'd like to butt in.

A more advanced maneuver includes strategically dispensing obsequious praise to co-opt an opponent—a kind of verbal jujitsu that thwarts a loaded question by exploiting an adversary's ego or rare streak of intellectual honesty. Masters played a Fox News clip in which he was pitted against the former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, a noted conservative. The host asked, in the taunting way that Fox hosts do, whether Kerry's attacks on the Patriot Act didn't signify a general wimpiness among Democrats. Masters, realizing that Keating hailed from the libertarian strain of conservatives who look askance at government oversight, returned serve: "Well, Governor Keating has done some remarkable work on this subject, and I actually agree with him that the Patriot Act raises serious concerns." Point to Masters.

Part of the Qorvis experience includes a Madden-like play-by-play breakdown of one's prior talk-show appearances. (The company also provides "scouting reports" on the major hosts.) Because the nettlesome FBI agents had carted off his computer, Masters told me, he was not able to pull my clips. Instead we adjourned to the studio for some role-playing exercises. Masters assumed the persona of a self-important talk-show host and began peppering me with questions. Though I considered myself battle-tested, he effortlessly picked apart my performance when we reviewed the tape. He gently explained that I had a "bobblehead problem"—that is, as the "host" delivered a question, I assumed a stern expression and nodded my head vigorously, aiming, I suppose, for an air of calm sagacity. But as he fast-forwarded through the replay to illustrate his point, I plainly looked idiotic, my head apparently fixed on a piston. I made a mental note to maintain rigid posture and a plastic smile in the future.

More troubling was that I committed a cardinal sin while attempting to maintain a filibuster: I ran out of things to say. This is a problem that plagues inexperienced pundits, but Masters has an easy solution: come up with a list of talking points and commit them to memory. "To train yourself," he went on, "be prepared to weave your points into any conversation. It's a fun thing to practice at cocktail parties." Also, I thought, deeply illuminating as to the stultifying conversation at most Washington parties. Masters was serious, though. "As a training exercise, make a bet with a colleague and see who can weave their talking points into the conversation without the rest of the guests' realizing it."

He sent me on my way with a suggestion concerning my pale complexion and the attendant need for makeup. True black belts, he advised, carry their own "base powder" in the event that a tardy arrival precludes a visit to the makeup artist, and he stressed that I should too. As we parted company, Masters encouraged me to wangle party invitations and put my new skills to work, which I intend to do—assuming, once my training secret is out, I still get any.

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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