- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Lately, the viral channels of the Web have provided a staging ground for a new kind of Kinsley gaffe - that is, when normally polished and professionally edited TV personalities accidentally act like themselves.

Fully nine minutes of outtakes from a fill-in Fox News Channel program, “Just In,” found host Laura Ingraham in an apparently terminal state of displeasure and pouting about her copywriters, the crew, teleprompter anomalies, a frightening sheen on her forehead.

“That’s the Fox way of doing things?” she chides at one point. “This is a train wreck,” she says at another.

The footage aired on an episodic Web series called “Found Objects,” spearheaded by the Renaissance man Harry Shearer on MyDamnChannel.com, where he has free rein to puncture the pompous and the hypocritically pious.

“There’s clearly a fascination people have with wanting to see things they’re not normally allowed to see,” says MyDamnChannel President and CEO Rob Barnett, a veteran of TV and radio who founded the new-media platform a year ago. “That’s what we’re tapping into.”

In some blogging circles, the Ingraham montage was inaccurately dubbed “the meltdown,” but Miss Ingraham never melted down; rather, she maintained a low boil.

Clearly, the more than 100,000 Web surfers who viewed the footage, either on Mr. Shearer’s Web site or in syndication, had a world-famous Bill O’Reilly clip - the “flip-out,” to use YouTube.com’s search-engine shorthand - on their brain.

Unearthed from Mr. O’Reilly’s early ‘90s stint on the TV tabloid “Inside Edition,” the clip showed the Fox News anchor in a tempestuous, profanity-laced rage over the use of TV newsroom jargon “to play us out” in his teleprompter.

Mr. O’Reilly couldn’t have known this at the time, but Steve Ridge, the president of television for the media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates, says, “There’s a new rule of thumb: If you’re miked up and on camera, don’t utter any words you don’t want to see on YouTube.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson recently learned this the hard way when Fox News amplified some whispered comments he had made about Sen. Barack Obama while awaiting an interview for, aptly enough, Mr. O’Reilly’s “The Factor.”

Already marginalized, Mr. Jackson probably obliterated any chance he had of playing a significant role in Mr. Obama’s historic campaign.

Moments of unscripted candor or so-called bloopers on TV are hardly a new phenomenon. The difference today is the explosive potential of viral media.

“If you’re a public figure in our culture, odds are anything you do in public is potentially done within earshot of a microphone or eye view of a camera,” Mr. Barnett says.

And there are not a few ax-grinding technicians and satellite-feed pirates who are happy to leak or propagate embarrassing footage.

“There are so many people who are in a position to nuke somebody on a whim,” Mr. Ridge says.

Of course, Mr. Barnett won’t spill the beans on sourcing. He’ll only say they chose the name “Found Objects” for what he emphatically calls a “very, very, very legally sound reason, which I can sum up in two words - ‘fair use’” (that is, the free-speech protection for using copyrighted material without permission).

Mr. Shearer and his producer, Karen Murphy, an old hand from the actor’s work on “This Is Spinal Tap” as well as the Christopher Guest-directed mockumentary projects, have had good fortune in the material they’ve, well, “found.”

The series’ first score was a clip of “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather and his crew weighing the pros and cons of a trench coat - more meticulously, the proper positioning of its collar.

Current “CBS Evening News” anchor, Katie Couric, got wind of it. Fresh from the sting of the shunted-aside Mr. Rather claiming his former colleagues had “tarted up” the Couric-era “Evening News,” Miss Couric parodied Mr. Rather between takes of an outdoor broadcast. “This tart is ready,” she joked.

Whaddya know, the Couric footage, too, wound up on “Found Objects.”

Couric fans, for their part, were ecstatic to see their old friend Katie acting like her charming self again. The “Found Objects” clip proved so popular that Miss Couric’s staff began feeding their own outtakes to YouTube.com, believing they reflected positively on their embattled boss.

Which begs the question: Are these unscripted moments revealing glimpses? Or can just about anyone be made to look like a peevish tyrant if he’s caught at a bad moment?

Viewers themselves are split. Commenters at “Found Objects” have defended Miss Ingraham and Mr. Rather, saying that the former was surrounded by incompetence and that the latter may just have been killing time during a hokey on-location broadcast.

Given that the outtakes themselves are edited to an extent, aren’t they, too, a kind of framing of reality? As Mr. Ridge says, “They can be both revealing and distorting, depending on the context. That’s the risk: You don’t know how the audience is going to perceive it.”

What we know for sure is that, increasingly, audiences want to perceive it, one way or another. In an age of gnawing distrust of and incredibly low esteem for the media, they want to peek behind the curtain of televised artifice - and confirm what they already suspected.

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