Web site catches newspeople unaware

By David Bauder

Harry Shearer mines gold with off-air videos.

NEW YORK — As the red light switched off and her program went into a commercial, Laura Ingraham’s face dissolved from a smile into a frown — then, a look of pure disgust.

In a nine-minute video clip of on-set behavior at Fox News Channel, Ingraham radiates hate at everyone around her. There’s a word misspelled on her teleprompter, her script makes no sense, a stranger hanging around annoys her, a producer is talking too loudly in her earpiece.

“Oh, my God,” she says. “This is a train wreck.”

It wasn’t the only locomotive going off the rails, particularly after comic Harry Shearer posted the visual evidence on his Internet channel last month and it spread virally across the Web. Those who don’t like Ingraham’s politics had something to ridicule her for; others had reason to question the sincerity behind her smile.

Shearer’s “Found Objects,” a semi-regular feature of the “My Damn Channel” Web site, is a place where news personalities don’t want to find themselves.

His videos capture them in that television netherworld: on set or on location but before (they might think) the cameras are rolling. It’s the time that obsessions about hairstyles or worries that they’ve done their homework surface — or when real personalities bubble through the makeup.

If anyone should realize that the camera is never really off, it’s the people who make their living in front of it.

When they forget, Shearer has his material.

The first posting last fall was an excruciating 17-minute video of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather on a chilly rooftop in Seattle, obsessing over whether to wear an overcoat during a standup, or whether the coat’s collar should be turned up or down.

A month later Rather’s successor, Katie Couric, turned up online from a remote location, makeup people hovering around her. She purposely fiddled with her coat.

“I’m going to be like Dan Rather on YouTube,” she joked. “Geez, don’t you think he deserves a little payback? This tart is ready to go!”

(Rather had been quoted as saying CBS had tried to “tart” up his old “CBS Evening News” after Couric took over.)

Shearer has been fascinated by such moments for decades, ever since he saw a tape of Richard Nixon shortly before he announced to a nationwide television audience in 1974 that he was resigning as president. His years working on “Saturday Night Live” at NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters gave Shearer access to video outtakes from around the world.

“Some people collect coins,” said Rob Barnett, a former MTV Networks executive who’s president of My Damn Channel. “I collect vinyl albums. Harry collects this footage.”

Shearer, the Spinal Tap bassist who’s just released a disc of parody songs where he impersonates Bush administration member, won’t talk about his sources for the material. A powerful satellite dish might collect some. And it’s not hard to imagine some technician who’d been berated by Ingraham being tempted to take revenge by slipping Shearer some video.

One popular “Found Objects” feature is the “silent debates.” Shearer collects footage of politicians and journalists waiting quietly on camera for an event to begin; he fashions them into “debates,” where one participant appears to smile in response to someone else’s silent gesture.

“Found Objects” taps into the insatiable appetite people have for witnessing their favorite personalities in moments they’re not supposed to.

If a video camera were installed in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s home, Barnett admitted he’d rush to watch it — even if it just showed the stars eating corn flakes or taking out the garbage.

“There’s a combination of reality and voyeurism that captures the imagination,” Barnett said.

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