Mfume erases line dividing TV, politics

December 12, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Oprah.

Sally.

Geraldo.

Montel.

Kweisi.

Kweisi?

Yes, Kweisi.

As in Mfume. As in the congressman from the 7th District of the state of Maryland. As in, more relevantly, the host of "The Bottom Line," a weekly television talk show and ratings surprise on WBAL.

Every Sunday morning the congressman wades Donahue-like into an excitable studio audience, thrusting a microphone into the crowd. Inevitably, the questions or comments prompt applause, even if the point contradicts the preceding one. But then, as in most talk shows, enthusiasm seems to be as much the intent behind "The Bottom Line" as illumination.

"Be animated," Mr. Mfume instructs his guests before air time.

Be animated and do not, DO NOT, refer to his other role.

"I'm not the congressman tonight," he amiably instructs his guests before the hourlong taping. "He's in Washington. Just call me Kweisi or Mr. Mfume. Or hey you."

Less than 24 hours earlier, he was the congressman sitting in the Speaker's chair while presiding over the NAFTA debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. (It was he who ordered the Greenpeace demonstrators arrested when they threw play money from the gallery. "I had no choice," he sheepishly explains.)

Tonight he's the TV talk show host heading into a studio to moderate a debate of a different kind, this one about television violence, a subject that is working its way toward him in Congress.

Got that?

If the role-reversing Sununus, Gergens and Buchanans had already blurred the line between media and politics, Mr. Mfume, 45, completely erases it. Unlike those others, he fulfills both roles simultaneously, acting as host of a television program while holding elective office. This cross-pollination ruffles neither Mr. Mfume nor his bosses at WBAL.

"We're not approaching this program with Kweisi from the point of view that he is a politician," said Emerson Coleman, WBAL's director of broadcast operations. "He was just a good person to play the role of moderator."

But others see more nefarious alchemy at work. Mr. Mfume's television work, they say, is part of a continuing trend that confuses news makers with news gatherers and entertainment with news.

"I don't think politicians should be in the business of talk shows and I don't think talk show hosts should be in the business of politics," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Baron Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and a former reporter for CBS and NBC. "It further blurs the distinction between talk shows and real news shows in the eyes of the viewers and the voters."

"The Bottom Line" also provides Mr. Mfume steady access to tens of thousands of voters. "Personally, I have problems with it," said Frank DeFilippo, the Maryland political commentator. "At the same time there is legislation in Congress to minimize the advantages of incumbency, this show gives [Mr. Mfume] a distinct advantage with this kind of wholesale exposure every week. Who's ever going to challenge him?"

Polished performer

It is an advantage that doesn't escape others in Congress, who use government studios to produce their own shows for use back home. The difference is that while their programs appear on obscure, little-watched cable channels, Mr. Mfume is on a network affiliate.

A few minutes before the taping, Mr. Mfume is closeted in a small room watching "Beavis and Butt-head" and practicing the voice-over he will deliver as part of the show's introduction.

"Try to do it with a little more animation," says Terry Todesco, the show's producer.

"Do we really need to show that?" he muses while peering at the cartoon characters.

"No," Ms. Todesco, a 30-ish TV veteran says in mock exasperation as they leave the booth. "We'll show Ozzie and Harriet for a show on television violence."

The head of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the five most influential African-Americans, according to National Public Radio, laughs.

In Ms. Todesco's office, Mr. Mfume settles under a plastic sheet, eating a turkey sandwich, rehearsing the pronunciation of guests' names ("ra-KAL-to, ra-KAL-to, ra-KAL-to," he says over and over) and listening to Ms. Todesco's instructions as a woman paints makeup on his face. When the director pokes his head in, Mr. Mfume asks him to use tight camera shots.

"What kind of audience do we have tonight?" he calls to a production assistant.

"Lively," she replies. "Very lively."

While Mr. Mfume is the marquee name, it is clear that "The Bottom Line" is at least as much Ms. Todesco's show. She selects most of the topics and the guests and does the research. Though they talk frequently during the most of Mr. Mfume's preparations occur just before the Friday evening tapings.

In the year they have worked together, star and producer have developed a comfortable, patient mother-naughty son rapport. She will chide him over his tie selection, warn him not to walk in front of the camera, order him to stop socializing so he can read the material she has prepared for him.

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