I called Cameron and Heidi because I cannot imagine what it feels like to be an entirely likable person.
I cannot imagine that the day will ever come when drill squads of military men will tramp across the TV screen and chant about me some version of, "We like Cameron and Hei-di! Because they are so friend-ly!"
I don't know what I would have to do to be rewarded with a New Times ad campaign that would be about inoffensiveness: "We think you should read Deborah Laake because she's a nice person."
Yet these are the things being said about the news anchors at Channel 3 in the advertising blitz that, during February sweeps, is radiating down from billboards and droning out of TV sets and radios everywhere. Many times a day I am hearing about these two celebrities' agreeable natures.
I hunger to know what it's like. I yearn to learn how to endear myself, too. That's why I phoned.
"How does it feel to be such a nice person?" I asked Cameron Harper, about whom I know nothing except that he is nice. Although that is enough. "It feels nice," Cameron said.
"And how about you, Heidi?"
"Very nice," said Heidi Foglesong.
"What about you is so nice?"
"Well, for one thing, here at Channel 3 we report about nice things," Cameron said. "We tell the viewers how to keep their skin nice if they're using Retin-A." "And we did a report about a baby who tested HIV-positive when he was born but who tests negative now," said Heidi. "That report was nice for him and nice for us."
"And I, personally, have done a story about a mother who is being helped out by the Ronald McDonald House," said Cameron. "Part of the story was sad, since the reason she needs the Ronald McDonald House is that her little boy has leukemia. But the part about the Ronald McDonald House was exceptionally nice, and I've discovered that sometimes a little sadness even heightens the niceness."
I grew thoughtful at these revelations. And discouraged. "Those are certainly very uplifting stories," I congratulated the news team. "But I know I'm going to have a problem if you're telling me that ignoring everything that's not upbeat about Phoenix is the road to making readers perceive my personal niceness."
"Oh, you're taking your role too seriously," Heidi said. "What you do as a news person doesn't matter. Whether you're genuinely nice doesn't even matter. What matters is the appearance of being nice. It matters absolutely, but it's an easy thing to accomplish. In Phoenix, most people believe you're nice if you just tell them repeatedly that you are, no matter what else you do. That's the principle our advertising campaign is based on."
Cameron chimed in. "We studied the local leaders and saw that hardly any of them are really nice, and yet they are popular. Look at Terry Goddard. He's overly ambitious, blame-shifting and bumbling. Not to mention the way he monopolizes conversation at a party. And hey, this is a guy who can't even convince the city council to leave the palm trees on Central Avenue alone. But isn't he irresistible when he gives his public that open, earnest look? I figure that if he comes up with one stroke of public relations genius a year, something like the Christmas card that showed him on his front porch with his dog, the people of Phoenix will not notice anything else about him."
I was pretty taken aback. "I'm surprised that a positive guy like you would mention Mayor Goddard's downside," I said.
"Listen, I read," said Cameron.
"And what about former Governor Evan Mecham?" Heidi asked. "Even though he has proven himself to be the meanest white man to ever walk the face of the earth, an astonishing number of Arizonans believe he's a caring and religious man because he stood in front of them for more than a year and insisted he was. Those supporters are so incensed their kindly leader has been ousted that they've practically commandeered the Republican party in this state."
I wasn't sure I understood exactly. "You're saying that my readers want to believe I'm nice?" I asked tentatively.
Cameron was growing a little impatient with me. "Don't you get it?" he barked sharply. "What they want is to not be disturbed. They don't want to get stirred up with uncomfortable thoughts about poor leadership or racism or pollution or complexity. They want to play golf. That's what this Valley is all about.
"They'll believe anything you say as long as it's nice. So if we say we're nice, we can't lose.
"If this is an insipid promotional campaign, it's not because Heidi and I are insipid. It's because it's an insipid town, and we're smart enough to cater to it."
I have to tell you that at this point Cameron was sounding cross with me and unlike any genuinely nice guy I've ever known. This was maybe because of his exalted position. The Channel 3 news is more highly rated than ever before, and so perhaps I should have expected from Cameron the haughtiness that comes with success.
His station's mushy newscast has had to dig its ratings out of the ground for years. Sometimes it has been rated not third, but fourth, after the dolorous Channel 5. But since advertising has helped viewers realize that Heidi and Cameron are swell people, things have changed: Last November, the newscast tied for first place at 10 p.m. and came in second at 5 p.m. These were the best ratings in the station's history.
Now Cameron was talking to me in a tone of voice that had victory in it. I became worried that if I, too, learned to be liked by my audience, its affection would go to my head. "Hey, Cameron, try to remember that people are only watching you because you're nice," I cautioned him. "You've still got room to grow. You could quit catering to the very most one-dimensional viewers and do some real news. You could set a trailblazing standard in a city without a single example of broadcast reporting more energetic than a Lionel Richie love song.
"Hey, you could take inspiration from that Florida TV reporter I heard about the other day on National Public Radio. You know the one in Tampa who was arrested for using his station's computer to pirate files out of the newsroom of a competing station? You, too, could be aggressive. You could be a pro."
"What's National Public Radio?" asked Cameron. "I didn't hear about that guy."
"Me, neither," said Heidi. "But that wasn't very nice." "You're saying that my readers want to believe I'm nice?" I asked tentatively.