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Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007

Saucy Plate dishes out some choice morsels


Confessions of an American Media Man: What They Don't Tell You at Journalism School by Tom Plate. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2007, $16.50 (paper)

One day, media maven cum academic Tom Plate — a frequent contributor to The Japan Times opinion page — arrived for an appointment at the office of an executive at CBS television. Waiting ahead of him was a gorgeous young model with an Alabama accent who had been sitting there for about half an hour.

"I proposed to her she should simply knock and go in," Plate relates. "I knew this guy and formality was not his thing."

Taking Plate's advice, the woman barged in, and this scene ensued: "The door swung open . . . and the two of us could only see the lower half of the executive's body and the back part of that, as it were, was unclothed; and two legs of the female persuasion wrapped around his back in the well-known architectural tryst of passion. He looked over his desk at Miss Alabama (but fortunately not at me, whom he could not see). 'Oh, sorry to delay you,' the executive said. 'Can you wait 10 or 15 minutes more? This won't take any longer than that.' "

Plate, whose career resume should be viewed only after donning protective goggles, serves up a cornucopia of select peeps at the glamorous side of journalism. His closeup encounters with media moguls and political figures provide an insider's look into a world that those of us on the front lines rarely see, where editors and celebrity writers fly first class and are accommodated at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington D.C.

Anyone buying this book in the expectation of finding a mean-spirited polemic will be disappointed — as this reviewer was, briefly. And then I realized that Plate's success came not only from his intelligence, but from his personal warmth, tact and self-deprecatory humor, even when he is being critical.

At a party given for Plate upon his departure from Time magazine, a well lubricated writer launched into a windy testimonial, saying, " 'In all my years at Time, the only senior editor who would talk to me for more than five seconds about the ethical implications of a story was Tom Plate.'

"Then . . . he fell over [and] several less-inebriated editors caught him just before he hit the floor. It was nice for once to be at a drinking party where I was not the first to fall over!"

Indeed, Plate is deferential to almost everyone who populates his book — the one exception being editorial cartoonists.

"Even if I adored editorial cartoons, I rarely found the artists themselves so adorable," he writes. "Some were outright nasty; all were major egomaniacs; only a few were major talents; and very few were gentlemen or 'gentle-ladies.' "

To "oversee" one such creative giant, L.A. Times cartoonist Paul Conrad — winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and described as "the Michael Jordan of cartoonists" — Plate developed a special technique for handling Conrad with kid gloves.

If the cartoon was superb, he would say to Conrad, "That is a very great work of art." And if it was unfocused, could be improved, missed the point altogether or would trigger thousands of subscriber cancellations, he would say, simply, "That is a great work of art." If the latter, Conrad would invariably reply, "What? You don't like it? What's wrong with it? Gee, I think it's perfect."

Humor aside, Plate writes he is "rather embarrassed that after 10 years I am still [America's] sole regularly scheduled Asia columnist. And maybe we should all be more than a little annoyed that Asia does not get more respect from the U.S. media."

Asia aside, Plate's unequivocal message to aspiring journalists is, "You need all the education you can get just to understand what [intelligent people] are saying — or, more likely, trying to avoid saying . . . . The world is too complex to wing it anymore, which is what American journalism has been doing for too long. . . . If I were king of the U.S. world, I would require a credentialed journalist to have, as a minimum, a master's degree."

This opinion, however, is not shared by everyone. Michael Carlson's postscript to Michael Connelly's "Crime Beat: True Stories of Cops and Killers" (Orion, 2006), offers a diametrically opposite view. "The greatest skill a good reporter can have [is] the ability to understand people. . . Too often in our world, journalists move from graduate schools to hermetically sealed newsrooms . . . cut off from the real lives of the people about whom they are supposed to report."

While Plate's "Confessions" sometimes goes overboard on celebrity gossip — or name dropping, if you prefer — its pages brim with sophisticated phrasing, humor and quotable passages. It may even convince a few starry-eyed youngsters to take up careers in journalism.



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