How do the TV news programs round up their experts when a crisis occurs? It is not a hit-or-miss proposition. Every network has on call men and women from our leading universities and the Brookings Institution, as well as former employees of the State Department and the CIA -- all eager to explain what is really going on.
Almost all the experts come from Washington, D.C.
This is not because the people in Washington are better informed than experts in the rest of the country, but rather because it's much cheaper for the networks to pay their taxi fare to the studio than to fly them in from Stanford.
The reason I know so much about this is that I have a buddy, an acclaimed Middle East expert named Prof. Victor Fortunato, who recently wrote a book, "Sticking Sand in Your Head." The book predicts the downfall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein as soon as he runs out of suntan oil.
I stopped by to see Fortunato at his Georgetown home, but he wasn't there. His wife, Olga, told me he had had an emergency call from Tom Brokaw. NBC wanted him down at the studio to explain the rumor going around Washington that if King Hussein of Jordan keeps backing Iraq, he will become six inches shorter than he is now.
Olga said, "Victor likes Brokaw because Tom calls him whether Victor knows anything about the subject or not."
"Does Victor work exclusively for NBC?" I asked.
"I should say not. Last night he was the Tibetan expert on 'PrimeTime' with Diane Sawyer, and this morning he was interviewed about Abu Dhabi's space program. After he's finished with Brokaw, Victor is going to stop by Larry King and take a few telephone calls. Later on he'll spend 30 seconds with Ted Koppel on 'Nightline.' The reason that Victor is so much in demand is that he is the only one in America who knows where Iraq is."
"It must be great to be an academic and to be wanted as well," I told her.
"Victor is basically a snob, but he loves appearing on television."
"Why is that?"
"People now recognize him on the street -- his students never did."
Olga took me up to the second floor and said, "Victor is prepared to get the call day or night. When the bell tolls from '20/20' he can jump straight into his boots and slide down the pole over there. He has a red light on his car that flashes C-Span. Sometimes when Bryant Gumbel is short on information, they send a police car for Victor. He is probably the most sought-after crisis expert in the business. It helps that we live so close to all the studios. They even use him on the Louis Rukeyser show to explain inflation."
"Does Victor know anything about inflation?"
"No, but most studios let him have a TelePrompTer."
"I've seen fellows from Brookings and ex-employees of the CIA and State Department used as experts on the networks. What does Victor think of the competition?"
"He has nothing but contempt for them. He says most of the TV experts have been out of the government for so long that they are still talking about what President Jerry Ford should do to stop Lumumba in his tracks."
"It's good to have people like Victor to set us straight," I said.
Olga told me, "There is a saying at the networks. 'In times of crisis, one expert like Victor Fortunato is worth a thousand Oprah Winfreys.' "