Milking the Cobra
A particularly memorable experience with the Marlon Perkins Theory of Effective Management Delegation (so named by a copy editor I worked with) occurred when a former boss signed me up to accompany him on a speaking engagement to a prison journalism class at the San Francisco City Jail.
Marlon Perkins, of course, was the silver-haired host of an old TV show called “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” that ran for years and years. He would talk to the audience about the exotic animals being featured on the show, then hand off the tough projects. “Now my assistant will show you how to milk the cobra.” Or check the lion’s teeth or look a wild rhino in the eye.
On this occasion, my boss and editor assured me that we would be addressing people who had a sincere interest in writing, people who might actually turn their lives around if they were given some encouragement, an hour of our time and a few journalism basics.
Once “Marlon” and I arrived at the prison class we found a pretty tough crowd and a pretty big one, too. It was clear that they were lured not so much by the opportunity to learn how to write effective headlines or snappy leads but by the prospect of a little break in their routine. I can’t say that the overwhelming feeling I got was a roomful of people looking for inspiration.
My boss, a pretty tough-looking ex-Marine, said a few innocuous things about newspapers and was doing fine until one of the prison journalists asked a not-so-friendly question along the lines of ‘How come you haves think you know how to write about us have-nots’ ” At that point, Marlon pointed to me, said,”I’ll let Susan answer that” and then froze, never to utter another word until we were safely outside the prison gates.
I babbled away for the remainder of class – anxiety never silences me; it always has quite the opposite effect. I was thinking I had done fairly well, except for responding to the inmate who had the idea I was personally responsible for what he saw as the flawed media coverage of the infamous Attica Prison riots in New York in the ’60s – even though I was not a practicing journalist at the time.
But as the inmates were filing out, a female prisoner paused, lowered her voice and said to me, “Don’t worry. It’s all a big meatball.” All these years later I still have no idea what that meant, but I took it as a kind sentiment offered at the point where a little kindness was welcome.
As we were driving back to the office from the jailhouse, my boss said with a perfectly straight face that he thought we had had a valuable learning experience. Maybe so, but it sure felt like cobra-milking to me.
There certainly have been other Marlon incidents over the years. One editor asked me to fill in for him on what he described as “some careers in journalism panel.” No sweat, he said. “They probably just want to hear about your job.”
Actually, they wanted blood – or at least one woman did. She took issue with a story my publication had done that displeased her mightily and harangued me for a good 45 minutes.
But every now and then, the cobra turns. At a small weekly paper outside New Orleans, which prided itself on covering all aspects of community news, I was the rookie, which meant I was given a Polaroid camera to keep at my desk for those occasions when readers would show up with prize tomatoes from their gardens or awards their kids had won or, as I found out, hunting trophies – as in dead animals.
I was at the office one Saturday afternoon in the late fall when the editor asked me to bring my camera and follow him outside. A group of hunters had pulled into our parking lot with a still-warm dead deer ready for his close-up.
As the hunters were jockeying for position around the carcass, wanting to make sure they got in the picture, I asked, in what I hoped was a sweet voice, why it took six guys with guns to bring down one unarmed deer. Was that their idea of a fair fight?
Before I got an answer, my boss relieved me of the camera and said he’d take care of this himself. I was never asked to take another hunting photo.