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Just Say No

If Dr. Drew asks you to be a guest on his show...think twice.

Here's the thing about TV: I don't watch it enough. I wasn't allowed to watch it as a kid, and as an adult, I've never gotten into the habit. I watch "Weeds" and "30 Rock" and occasionally "Parks and Recreations" but that's it. I don't watch talk shows or reality shows. I don't have friends in TV production. But the way my career has worked out, I've been on TV a bunch of times. In every instance, I was interviewed about a story I'd written, and it was pleasant and easy. No one strung me along or misled me. It was good exposure. What I'm basically saying is that when it comes to dealing with TV people, I'm a rube.

So when a producer from the Dr. Drew show called on the last Friday in April and said he had seen me being interviewed about teens and drinking on the CBS Early Show and wanted to know if my son and I would do an interview on the same topic via satellite with Dr. Drew, I said yes. 

I knew nothing about Dr. Drew except that he was a doctor who dealt with celebrities and rehab. For some reason, I thought he was a psychiatrist. I went onto the CNN website and watched him interview Nikki Sixx, the front man for Mötley Crüe. I knew that Nikki Sixx had briefly dated Denise Richards, Charlie Sheen's ex-wife. Dr. Drew seemed intelligent. So did Nikki Sixx. A musician and former heroin addict, he was talking about his new book of photography. I decided to order Nikki's book from Amazon. 

Our interview was set for the first Monday in May. Then Bin Laden was killed. The show was pushed back to Tuesday, then Friday, then the following Monday. Along the way, a second producer reached out to me. Between the third and fourth delay, he called and said that Dr. Drew wanted to interview us live in LA. Would we come? We'd fly out Sunday, which meant cutting Mother's Day short and having my older son miss a day of school. But my son is an aspiring actor and stand-up comic, and I knew he would jump at the chance to go to LA. I said yes.

That was last Friday. Saturday morning, Producer #2 emailed and asked for some pictures of my older son and me for "production value." I don't know what production value means, but I spent a couple of hours going through pictures from my older son's bar mitzvah, our trip to Israel and our recent trip to Colorado. Finding pictures of yourself and your kid that are appropriate for a national TV show about teenagers and drinking isn't the easiest task in the world. We had zillions of great bar mitzvah pictures, but they were taken almost two years ago. My older son is now almost 15 but in his bar mitzvah pictures, he doesn't look a day over 13. Did I want my then baby-faced boy to be the poster child for teens and drinking? Not really. The pictures from Israel were more recent except it was 100 degrees while we were there, and in every picture, we look like we're wilting. Finally, I found a few good ones from last year's piano recital. The producer asked for more. I said yes.

Then I went to get my nails done. Producer #2 called again. He started to describe the other people who were coming on the show: A woman whose son had been killed by a drunken driver and the president of MADD. I felt as if I'd been hit by a bowling ball. This was starting to sound like a piss-poor idea. Who was I to talk about kids and drinking? I had occasionally given my son a couple of sips of wine and written a Moms Talk column for  about it. There is some substance abuse in my extended family and I had given the subject of teenagers and alcohol a lot of thought but I'm hardly an expert on teenage alcohol consumption. I'm a writer and a mother. I try to be thoughtful and funny. But there was going to be nothing funny about this show. 

I told producer #2 I would not debate the president of MADD---and did not want to appear on set with either woman. Producer #2 agreed. 

It was a warm, beautiful day but I was starting to feel jittery. I had to think long and hard about what I was going to say on the show. Though I knew that this show, like all TV shows, is ultimately supposed to be entertainment, I could not afford to be entertaining. The segment was scheduled to last eight minutes. That was a long time.

My husband came home. We sat down on lawn chairs on the driveway. My husband is a seasoned traveler. He started to ask me about flights to and from LA.  "The production people are taking care of that," I said.
"I think you should check out the flights," my husband said gently. 

I should mention that my husband never thought that going on Dr. Drew was such a fantastic idea. My agent also had reservations. I had emailed her and told her this might be a good way to interest publishers in my book of humorous parenting essays. My agent thought another TV appearance might help me sell a book but not necessarily the funny one I had in mind. "I think if you want to do this, you should," my agent emailed. "This media exposure now would only help your cause in getting a deal. However, if you don't feel comfortable being the go-to parent on this subject matter, that's a different story."

Smart as she is, I had brushed her caution aside. Now it was descending on me like a wet blanket. But I kept my reservations to myself, poured a glass of wine (I needed it now more than ever) and went upstairs to take a bubble bath. I told my son to pack a bathing suit; maybe we'd have time for a swim. Then producer #1 called to talk about flights. The fact that it was now Saturday night at 9 p.m. and he hadn't bought the tickets was a little worrisome but he said he'd call travel in the morning.

We were supposed to tape the interview in LA on Monday at 2 p.m.. The producer, a fun and chatty sort, said we wouldn't get back to the airport before 6 p.m, which meant the only flight we could make home would be the red-eye. If we took that, we'd be home Tuesday morning. My older son could theoretically go to school but we'd both be exhausted. 

My husband overheard my conversation. "Ask him if you can fly back business class," he said. 
I knew that was ballsy but asked anyway. "Could you fly us back business class so we can sleep?" I asked, cringing. "If not, we should probably go back to doing the interview in New York."
There was silence. The producer's tone changed. "I have to ask my boss," he said. 

The next morning was Mother's Day. My older son and I showered and got dressed. We were packed and ready to go, giddy with anticipation. Producer #1 called me on my cell phone. "We found someone else," he said. "Someone local. I know it's inconvenient for you so you don't have to come out."

What the??? I felt as if I had been whacked in the face.  My moral compass may have been ambivalent but my ego still wanted my eight minutes. And how was my son going to take this? The producer and I exchanged words. He was apologetic. I was not. I asked him to get on the phone and explain the situation to my son. He wouldn't. I asked him if he had kids. He didn't. I asked him to imagine this was him 30 years ago and his mother was about to tell him that his fun trip to LA had just been cancelled. He said nothing. We got off the phone. I told my older son. He was angry and disappointed. He had told all his friends on Facebook that we were going to LA. I told him not to give up, maybe they would have us on after all. 

Forty minutes later, producer #1 called back. The show would have us on, he said. We would do the interview via satellite in New York on Monday afternoon, as originally planned. The cynical journalist in me suspected he was throwing us a bone, and would eventually cancel on us, or not use the interview. But I thanked him and said okay.

That night, my kids started throwing a football around upstairs. Normally, I would have screamed at them to stop, but my older son was finally laughing. I decided to just let them have fun. Then I heard the sound of glass shattering. I rushed to my older son's room. The football had crashed into his framed Latin award. There was glass all over the floor. I stepped on a piece. My foot started to bleed. 

The next morning, the kids went off to school and I sat down and watched Dr. Drew. There he was interviewing the stars of the Teenage Mom series. The girls sounded as if they had rehearsed their lines. There was Dr. Drew interviewing Kat Von D, who was promoting her book The Tattoo Chronicles and talking about her relationship with Sandra Bullock's ex-husband, Jesse James. Kat didn't want kids, which seemed to bother Dr. Drew. He patted her on the arm and said he was surprised she didn't want to be a mom. "I'd make a good buddy," Kat said. After Kat, I watched the Nikki Sixx interview again. Nikki had dark hair. So did I. Nikki meditated. So did I. Dr. Drew was kind and gentle with Nikki. Maybe I could go on this show without getting pummeled.

 I went into the kitchen to make brisket. I heated up the vegetable oil and salt and peppered the meat. I was putting the brisket into the pan when it slipped out of my hand. Hot oil splattered onto my face. I jumped back. My cell phone rang. It was a 404 number. That meant Atlanta and CNN. It was the senior editorial producer, producer #1's boss. She said there was a technical difficulty. They didn't need to interview any more people via satellite. They were canceling our interview. The show would go on without us.

"I knew it," I said. "It's because I asked to be flown home business class, isn't it?"
Yes, she said. We had asked for too much. She was nice enough but her goal was to shut me down. Part of me felt relief, part of me felt fury. What was I supposed to tell my son now? He's been let down by the Dr. Drew crew twice in 24 hours. She said she was a mom herself; she understood. 

"I can't believe someone who works for a psychiatrist and is putting together a show about how to keep kids safe would treat a child this way," I said.
Producer #3 corrected me. "Dr. Drew's not a psychiatrist," she laughed. "He's an internist who observes human behavior."  Oh. 

I asked her to call my son and explain the situation to him. To her credit, she did. When son arrived home, my cheek started to blister. I had been burned by Dr. Drew! My right foot was still hurting from the glass. I went onto the patio and held an ice pack to my face. My son went into the kitchen to talk to the producer. When he was done, he came outside. He was more cheerful than he had been in a while.

"From what I know about show business, there are a lot of mean people who do the hard production work," my son said. "Then there's the nice person who calls the people they don't use and says, 'I'm sorry.'" My son smiled. "I just spoke to that person. She was the closer."

He understood the situation better than I did. I walked out to the front porch. There was a box from Amazon. Our Nikki Sixx book had arrived! I opened it. The book was interesting but strange. There were black-and-white pictures of people with tattoos and one of man who looked as if he was being tortured. Nikki wrote of texting Kat. There was a picture of Nikki and Kat as Siamese twins. I got in my car, drove to the post office and mailed Nikki Sixx's book back. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the title: This is Gonna Hurt.

To see the show Dr. Drew's crew did end up putting together, click here. It turns out there were a couple of titles for the show: "Should parents host teen drinking parties?" was one. "Should parents let teens drink at home?" was the other. The producers found a mother named Julia Louiza and her 14-year old son, Charles Rick, to replace us. Dr. Drew and his sidekick, Bob Forrest, a drug counselor from "Celebrity Rehab," lectured Louiza on the dangers of giving alcohol to minors. Louiza's comments were measured and responsible but the show used her as a pretty punching bag. The goal of the show was simplistic: Teens shouldn't drink. It did nothing to address the reality: Teens do drink and are constantly being tempted. How do we teach them to manage temptation and behave responsibly? 

My neighbor watched the show as it aired Monday night. "You were better off not being there!" she emailed. Seeing it now, I'm grateful we got bumped. If I watched more TV, I might have seen this coming.

Sheri A Saperstein May 14, 2011 at 05:59 PM
I'm so glad you posted this, and parsed out the experience. I haven't read an account like this. It deserves wide exposure.
Judy May 15, 2011 at 01:35 PM
The majority of these talk show hosts have an agenda that is designed to shock and titillate the viewer. If they can bamboozle the invited guest into appearing and change the stated purpose of the interview, they will do it. I don't watch these programs for this reason. I'm glad you were cancelled so you and your son were not ridiculed, humiliated and made to feel as if you were doing something horrendously wrong. (Though I suspect you are a strong enough woman who would have been able to hold your own against Dr Drew and his strange "expert"!)
Lynne May 15, 2011 at 02:51 PM
I truly think that you dodged a bullet by not appearing on the Dr. Drew show. The written word is so much more powerful, and reflects what you really want to say. That poor woman seemed very reasonable, but that wasn't the message the producers wanted to convey in their segment.
Nathanael West May 15, 2011 at 04:05 PM
Great writing on a powerful contemporary topic - the "reality Doc" TV show world. Twenty years ago we didn't have this media circus on TV. After your previous excellent blog on introducing your teenagers to responsible drinking - which really hit home - it sounds like Dr Drew just wanted to crucify you and your son. I fear it's the continuation of these archaic viewpoints (teenage drinking - either total abstinence vs. you're a raging alcoholic/drunk driver) on shows like Dr D that is doing much more harm than good -
Kate Levin May 15, 2011 at 05:44 PM
I agree with the above commentators that you were lucky (although I'm sure that Matthew was disappointed) not to appear on the show...you would have been made the bad guys--which since your position is highly reasonable and responsible, is ridiculous. I admire your approach to this complicated issue (which is not black-and-white and should be done on a case-by-case basis, depending on the kid's personality, family's values, etc.), and find it highly useful in navigating it for our own family!
LF May 15, 2011 at 06:14 PM
The woman who took your place was fairly articulate, but seemed unprepared for the attack, and was rather there to have a sensible discussion of how to raise children to appreciate alcohol as a beverage and not use it as a drug. I also got the impression Dr. Drew was making up his statistics on the spot, which you can't argue with other than accusing him of lying. I wonder what Dr. Drew would have done if his guest had come in on the offensive rather than being tricked into the defensive. Would he have run the show if it was a debate rather than a pillory? CNN used to be a respectable news organization. It should be ashamed of itself for shows like this.
Katie Colaneri May 15, 2011 at 11:41 PM
Dodged a MAJOR bullet, Laura! I was on one of these shows myself (Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell) when I was reporting on a missing persons case. It was actually a great - if rather rushed and jittery - experience and I'll never forget my father making a decent "set" out of my childhood bedroom so I could Skype in from our home in Millburn. I was supposed to be the "facts" person, laying out what the latest details were on the case while a "psychological expert" analyzed them. As I sat there and answered every question with "Police officials are not offering details about that at this time," I realized I was part of a larger media conspiracy with everyone from my own editor to this CNN show trying to make a real-life episode of "Missing" out of what was actually a sad story of the mundane realities of life. Off the record conversations with people who knew the missing person filled in a lot of the blanks and it seemed like no one wanted to face the real story. Looking back on it now, you actually asked yourself a lot of the questions I should have asked myself before appearing on the show. But all I could think about at the time was how I could wrap up my last article of the day and make the 5:11 train home in order to get in my 4 minutes.
Julie Fingersh May 16, 2011 at 05:13 PM
What a great account and peek into the creepy world of these TV "News" shows. My two cents is: sounds like a HUGE blessing in disguise that you didn't make it onto the show. Whatever you write about is thought provoking in your column here. Your piece on your son was a great example of the kind of truth-telling you rarely see in columns like yours. Your candor, great sense of humor and humanity, and your willingness to acknowledge your own doubts and struggles reflects our own, as mothers, women, and thinkers. Thanks for another great piece.
J S Beckerman May 16, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Bottom line. Reporters rarely tell the truth and often promise the world...all they want is a story and your feelings are meaningless. TV news producers are even worse. You are a thing to them...a means to an end and you will be used and discarded moments post-story.

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