Thursday, January 27, 2011

BS 2: How to Treat Acute Dumbass (An Intern Tale)

     There’s an old adage I’ve seen proven countless times:  “Nothing brings people together like a common enemy.”
     We all like to relate to others; to find common ground with them.  It makes us feel less ordinary, enhances our self esteem and brings forth a greater level of confidence in us.  In the business of BS,  I call this the “Common Ground” method.

     While working at WSMV TV from 2006 – 2008, I bore the bold title, Problem Solver.  Viewers called me, e-mailed me or sent me long letters explaining how they had been ripped off by a business or how, despite their numerous complaints, a government agency had turned a blind eye to their problem.  It was my job to verify the validity of the problem and once verified, go confront the business or agency – camera rolling – and persuade (a nice word for strong-arm) it to fix the problem.   Ultimately all this would play out on TV and I would take all the credit as the hero who saved the day.

     You can imagine the hundreds of calls, emails and letters I received each week.  I took that kind of response to mean my Problem Solver segment was successful and decided to use it as leverage to ask my boss for some help.  It did, after all, take a lot of time to shuffle through the massive pile of  requests for my services.  I wanted – no, I NEEDED – an assistant. One day  I  bounced into my boss’ office to say so.  That conversation went something like this:

Tatum:   I’m overwhelmed with the number of people who need my help.
Boss:     That’s good.  You should be proud.  It shows people like what you’re doing.
(Yes, he is a master Bull shitter, too)
Tatum:   Aha! You just admitted my segment is successful.  That means it’s making money for the station.  (notice I tried to hang him with his own words).  I’ll bet it would become even more successful - generate even more money - if you’d hire me some help… an assistant…  even just part time.
Boss:      No!
Tatum:   I would think you’d want my segment to become more successful.  (Two    professional bull shitters going head to head.)  Please, at least think about it.
Boss:  I don’t need to.  I will assign an intern to help you.  We’ll pick one for you and they’ll start tomorrow. 
     An intern? That was the best solution he could come up with?  Oh well, at least he offered a solution.  I really had no further argument at this point.  (Actually I did but my gut (and his body language) told me now was not the time.  For once I listened.)
     “Fine!” I snapped, and stomped out of his office wondering how anyone so cheap could run a newsroom.  Rest assured, if that conversation didn’t prove he was a tight wad, my salary did.

     The next day a blond-haired girl approached me at my desk and informed me she would work alongside me for the rest of the semester.  I quickly sized her up.  Young, pretty, wants to be an anchor, probably a sorority girl who thinks she’ll build a brilliant TV career with her looks.
     “The biggest responsibility you’ll have each day is to log my Problem Solver phone line,” I explained as I jotted down the password to access it.
     “Okaaaaaay,” she replied, stretching six or seven syllables out of a word that needed only two.
     I showed her how to log the phone line, where to type the extensive notes I’d need and she leapt right into her new assignment. 
    “Hmmm, this might actually work,” I thought to myself as I began tapping on my keyboard, the script for my story that would air that day.

     I arrived at work an hour early the next morning, eager to sift through the notes she’d taken, to choose which problems I would tackle the following week.  I logged on and clicked the icon that would take me to a file titled “Tips.”
     “What the hell?” my mind screamed before my vocal cords could muster a mumble.  The intern had logged the callers’ names and summed up their problems in short blurbs.  She didn’t even put them in complete sentences. 

         “Sally Jones… Paid cable bill - disconnected.
         Steve Thompson… Moving truck damaged house.”

     I needed more information than that to even consider tackling someone’s problem.  This intern left out phone numbers and didn’t mention any documents that callers might have had to support their claims against these companies.  Even worse, as she logged each call she had deleted it.   Unless those people called back, I would have no way of helping them.  “An intern, huh?” I wanted to scream at my boss.

     I sat at my desk and stewed in my self-righteousness for a couple of hours.  I tried to convince myself that this buxom blond might be dyslexic or have ADHD but I couldn’t get past my initial diagnosis of her problem:  Acute Dumbass.

   Eventually my frustration – alright, anger – began to subside and I started to realize – REALLY REALIZE - I had to make this work.  After all, I did need help.
     When the intern arrived at work - perky, pleasant and ready to perform, I had simmered down.  I asked her to pull up a chair next to me. 
     “I must say, you’ve impressed me with the way you logged these notes,” I told her.  You summed them up into very succinct statements.”  You know, in TV we write very tight.  We have to say a lot with very few words,” I explained.  “You are way ahead of most interns who come through here.  Heck, you’re ahead of where I was when I was an intern.”
     Her blue eyes now beamed as she brushed her blond bangs out of her face.
     “You’ve got a bright future ahead of you in TV.

     I could have made the mistake of telling her what a lousy job she’d done.  But by reminding her that I, too, was once an intern,  I no longer seemed like such a domineering force for her to reckon with.   She was by no means the brightest intern at the station that semester.  But once I made her feel like we were on common ground, we connected differently.  Suddenly the door was opened for me to politely explain why the information she had omitted  in her notes was critical for me to assess people’s problems and how gathering even the most menial details would one day make her a sharper, more focused reporter and anchor.
     From that day forward, I always had the details I needed to do my job.  And that intern has since graduated and gone on to become a TV news reporter with a bright future.
     Turns out, my boss was right.  That intern made my job much easier… So much easier, I hated to see her go at the end of the semester.
     FOOT NOTE:  Acute dumbass is now a cute anchor in another city, making far more money than me. 

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