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Learning by Doing: The Internship

POSTCARD FROM LONG ISLAND

By Daniel S. Aibel

This summer I didn't want to endure the hour commute to New York City, I had told myself in January. I could work in the yogurt place in town, at the local park district. I'd rake in some money and have time to hang out with friends. The job might even be fun.

These days, as I gear up for my commute every Tuesday through Friday, waiting for the 9:22 train to Penn Station, the oppressive heat brings me back to those midwinter convictions, and I often wonder how someone as stubborn as myself could have undergone such a change of heart.

Don't get me wrong; I'm quite happy with my job. I work at "Charlie Rose," PBS' answer to Letterman, the late night interview show famous for its simple wooden table and plain black walls. I was lured into the city by my admiration for Rose--the journalistic antithesis of Ricki Lake--and his audacious attempt to construct a program that, in a sea of sound bites and gossip, truly delves into issues and personalities. The prospect of an "internship" heavy on research and light on gophering in such an environment of meaningful journalism seemed irresistible, so I applied. Sadly, none of my research has led me to establish precisely what an "internship" is, though my best stab is that it entails far less in the way of remuneration than, say, a "job."

My duties involve more in the way of clerical work than was originally advertised, but my days are rarely boring. The pace is often dizzying, accelerating as deadlines loom and crises arise. At 11 a.m., a guest will be added--setting the office into a researching frenzy--only to be dropped at noon. In the morning, I typically spend about half my time tracking down articles, scanning headlines for interesting stories, photocopying, filing, faxing and messengering.

While I have become a master of all that is Xerox (I taught Mr. Rose himself how to use the 'Document Feeder' function of our machine) the other half of my mornings, the research component, is far more interesting.

Research usually entails pulling together information about a guest for that day, using recent newspaper and magazine articles, books etc. to compose a 4-5 page synopsis of who they are, why they are coming on and what questions "C.R." (as he is known by his very young 10-person staff) might want to ask them.

Writing a research paper every day is somewhat taxing; I sometimes feel like I'm on a never-ending cycle of all-nighters. It can be especially frustrating because Charlie has been rumored to disregard the information completely at times and instead pursue the interview on his own terms.

In my earliest research projects, Charlie showed no signs of having considered my synopsis in his interviews--whole hours down the drain. More recently, as I've patterned my reports on those of the permanent research "staff" (an assiduous and humorous pair of recent graduates from Fordham and Amherst), I've found questions quite similar to those I've proposed creeping into the interviews. Somehow, that's very rewarding. Still, each day I am struck by the seemingly absurd variety of my assignments--one minute I'll be asked to elucidate the political philosophy of Michael J. Sandel, the next minute, to alphabetize magazines. Comparing notes with both high school and college friends, however, it seems I'm not alone.

At about 4:30 p.m., all the research is compiled and taken to Mr. Rose's office (one of the interns places it on the table outside, knocks and leaves). The second phase of the extraordinarily long work day begins, just as the rush hour crowds begin to fill the elevators.

Those who haven't found time to eat grab a quick "lunch," and by 5 p.m., the entire show has moved four floors down in its 499 Park Ave. headquarters to the television studio.

One or two of the five interns wait to greet arriving guests--a job that is coveted or evaded, depending on the group slated for the evening. Another intern is stationed at the studio-adjoining "green room," a woodpaneled room the size of a Wigglesworth double. He or she is prepared with water and coffee for the set, to wait on guests and their handlers and to resolve minor crises: What if, for instance, the car scheduled to pick up Rev. Jesse L. Jackson picks up someone else instead? ("You're telling me your driver doesn't know what Jesse Jackson looks like?" I asked, incredulous.)

Mingling with the powerful and the famous is a bit of a rush, whether it's Woody Harrelson arriving fashionably late, Ted Sorensen dozing off in the corner or Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, his wife and Russian official Sergei Karaganov conversing and laughing in Russian.

It's also interesting to watch the different attitudes and approaches of guests to the young man standing obediently in the corner. While some have completely ignored me, and others treated me like they might a busboy, Cokie Roberts and Wendy Wasserstein were charming. I had a 15-minute conversation with The New Yorker's baseball writer, Roger Angell '42, much of it even before we began discussing the philosophy classes we'd taken in Emerson Hall. And watching the interview of a political pundit who preceded him on the show, James Cann asked me, as Sonny Corleone himself might have, "What's gonna happen with this Whitewater business?"

Questions remain, however, about the merit of the entire project, of going to Charlie Rose every morning instead of, say, the yogurt place. My career plans are still completely up in the air. I have no acknowledged or covert desire to succeed Charlie, and I don't see this summer as a way to get my foot in the door for a career in television. "It's the experience," I am told by some, mostly parents' friends and Ivy Leaguers, and there is something to that. I feel as if I'm learning something, however intangible it may be at the moment. I certainly hope I am.

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