My night in blacked-out New York.
I am not going to appear on The Big Story With John Gibson (Fox) after all, which is frustrating since I was extremely well-prepared to enter into a hot and hollow dispute with two radio talk-show hosts about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kobe Bryant.
I was even prepared to invoke Theodore Roosevelt on last night's show, whose producers had booked me yesterday morning. I planned to argue that it was his Progressives who made provisions for the California recall by introducing initiatives to keep democratic checks on entrenched political parties. Roosevelt, once a scrawny kid, went west to work on a ranch and build his muscles, much as Schwarzenegger had traveled from Vienna to Venice Beach to build his.
This last analogy I had an iffy hold on. It came to me in the limo that Fox News had sent for me, a black Lincoln stocked with Poland Spring water and copies of the New YorkPost and the Star. I'd brought a friend, a man with firm opinions about the Progressives. My friend had ridden with me for the fun of it; now he was packing my head with complicated and powerful notions for me to espouse on national television.
We arrived at the Fox building in no time, and I bade farewell to my friend and to the driver, Dwayne, who assured me he'd wait on the other side of the building. The lobby was packed, but I figured that, as a guest on a live show, I could be assured of jumping the line. Not so. "The power's down," the receptionist told me, as I went to use the building's phone. "Wait like everybody else."
This seemed democratic, if not progressive. A similarly delayed woman rambled in a way I half-ignored, lost as I was devising aphorisms about Roosevelt at the ranch. I wondered whether I should try an Ahnold accent; too risky? Oh hell, I'd do it. Then I suddenly caught some of what the woman was saying: There was a wicked blackout, which had left power out in … well, first in the Fox lobby, they said New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, and later Detroit and Cleveland were added. We were told erroneously that someone had lit a ConEd building on fire, and a woman's knees buckled. Her brother worked in that building.
Though the elevator wasn't running, and neither—it seemed—were the phones, I only half-surrendered my plan to appear live on Fox. I imagined a newsroom in which the show always goes on, and I wasn't going to let down the 24-seven, barking, tough men just because I was afraid to walk up stairs.
At last two women emerged with Fox News badges. I introduced myself, played it cool. "I'm sure that Arnold isn't a huge story tonight—you all have bigger things on your mind—but I wonder whether I should tell Gibson or his produce—"
"Come with me," one of them snapped, taking my wrist and tugging me out to the plaza in front of the building. I felt like a child or a celebrity. We mounted some steps, as the mom told guards that I was a guest and had to get through.
Finally I laid eyes on Gibson. He's exactly as you've seen him, if you have: Scant pigment, square shoulders, a fine man. He was calling off wire reports—"Grid," he said, then more about a grid—with the camera on him; somehow he managed to meet my eye and smile hello, as someone whispered something to him. I was handed off to a man named Chris, who took me back inside Fox, but the back way; outside, the ticker, still working, was reporting on a German woman whose boyfriend had bitten off her nose. I was led into the newsroom and given to Gibson's producer, who seated me next to her and gave me a phone.
With the office on a generator, lights were blazing, phones were ringing, computers were flashing with breaking news. And the televisions—they were all tuned to Fox, which was showing Gibson framed in a box next to aerial shots of Midtown, close to where I'd just been. That mob: It looked like Woodstock or the Isle of Wight. I was torn. I wanted to go back into that fray, but I also wanted to be here with these lights and televisions and the palpable need for news.
Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.