How to Become a Cable-News ‘Expert’ Overnight

In a recent piece for New York, Jeff Wise reflected on how he became obsessed with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over a yearlong period—falling in with a virtual group of borderline-obsessive amateur aviation sleuths, formulating his own theory, and ultimately paying out of pocket to hire translators and researchers. But before he went down the conspiracy rabbit hole, he was just a pilot and science writer who’d written a big piece for Popular Mechanics about the mysterious crash of Air France 447 way back in 2009. A few days after MH370 disappeared, an editor at Slate emailed Wise asking him to write a short piece about it. It ran on March 12th, and the next morning he was invited to go on CNN. Soon, he was on-air up to six times a day:

There was no intro course on how to be a cable-news expert. The Town Car would show up to take me to the studio, I’d sign in with reception, a guest-greeter would take me to makeup, I’d hang out in the greenroom, the sound guy would rig me with a mike and an earpiece, a producer would lead me onto the set, I’d plug in and sit in the seat, a producer would tell me what camera to look at during the introduction, we’d come back from break, the anchor would read the introduction to the story and then ask me a question or maybe two, I’d answer, then we’d go to break, I would unplug, wipe off my makeup, and take the car 43 blocks back uptown. Then a couple of hours later, I’d do it again. I was spending 18 hours a day doing six minutes of talking.

As time went by, CNN winnowed its expert pool down to a dozen or so regulars who earned the on-air title “CNN aviation analysts”: airline pilots, ex-government honchos, aviation lawyers, and me. We were paid by the week, with the length of our contracts dependent on how long the story seemed likely to play out. The first couple were seven-day, the next few were 14-day, and the last one was a month. We’d appear solo, or in pairs, or in larger groups for panel discussions—whatever it took to vary the rhythm of perpetual chatter.

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