The independent news organization of Duke University

In demand

Imagine you are a professor, and you come into your office one morning and see a message from a reporter requesting an interview. Sure, you're flattered, but you're just not sure if you have the time to respond.

Now think of hundreds and hundreds of those messages - so many that your voice mail fills up and the reporters start calling random department numbers trying to track you down. Not only that, but they call you at home. Think of deranged callers threatening your wife. Think of requests from the likes of Tom Brokaw to fly you to New York or Washington, D.C. Now think of all this happening within a few days, and you may get a sense of the sudden celebrity of Duke Professor of History Alex Roland.

Roland, one of the country's pre-eminent space policy experts and a former NASA historian, has been swamped by the press since the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia upon re-entry Feb. 1.

He finds himself subjected to a "constant" barrage of phone calls from news outlets ranging from CBS to The Herald-Sun of Durham. The teeming masses of media, finding him unreachable, often resort to alternate avenues.

"The secretaries go crazy because they have to field all these phone calls," said John Thompson, professor and chair of the history department. "Literally, [administrative assistant to the chair Vivian Jackson] could do no work for the department because she spent all her time fielding phone calls."

Roland currently has 35 pages of names and numbers queued up awaiting his response, many of which he will not be able to answer.

"I try to select the ones that seem most important," he said. "First of all, I respond to the media outlets that reach a really wide audience. I [also] try to do as much as I can of supporting local news organizations."

This is not Roland's first brush with celebrity. When the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, he was perhaps even more sought after.

"At the time that the Challenger went down, Alex Roland was huge," Thompson said. "It was crazy - no one in the department had ever become famous like that."

Roland said he was more involved with the media at that time because of the dearth of critical experts.

"There were three or perhaps four of us in the U.S. - and I'm not exaggerating at all - who had any significant familiarity with the shuttle and who were willing to speak out publicly about criticism of the shuttle," he said.

He was whisked off to radio and television interviews across the country, appearing on a number of shows in Washington and New York, including ABC's Nightline.

During one of these interview trips, his wife was threatened by a caller who said Roland's scarcity was a matter of national security.

This time around, his teaching schedule has made it more difficult for him to travel like he did in 1986. He had to decline an offer to appear on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, one of his personal favorite programs, in order to teach his class.

Thompson praised Roland's conduct during the media blitz. "He has not failed to fulfill a single duty," he said. "He has not allowed this celebrity to go to his head, has not had to cancel any classes."

Still, Roland admitted that the time commitment of his celebrity has affected his work in subtle ways.

"I felt sort of badly Thursday in my afternoon lecture course that I wasn't as prepared as I'd like to be, because I hadn't spent enough time on preparation."

Despite the media barrage, Roland has not become bitter about the press.

"I enjoy talking to them," he said. "I learn as much from them as I think they learn from me, and I have an appreciation for the constraints under which they work."

Roland has picked up some of the characteristics of a savvy interview subject through his hundreds of conversations with occasionally aggressive reporters.

"You also have to be on your guard," he said. "Whenever you're talking to the press, they may well have a story line already in mind. If that's the case, they will ask you leading questions, so they can quote something you say in support of something they already believe."

Though he is a frank and occasionally forceful critic of NASA and the shuttle program, Roland nonetheless chooses his words carefully.

"Their dearest hope is that you'll say something really provocative and outrageous, so they're often trying to up the ante," he said. "Anything you say, you must be prepared to see it [in print]."

He has the highest respect for media outlets that delve deeply into the reasons behind events, such as The New York Times, National Public Radio and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

"Those leading newspapers have their reputations for good reason," he said. "They're very informed, very responsible - they have a very high-quality staff, so I always talk to them. In television, in radio, the same sort of criteria apply."

His chief complaint about certain news outlets, particularly network television, is a "short attention span" in covering stories.

After the Challenger disaster, Roland recommended to several reporters from The New York Times that they continue to write about the problems of the shuttle program, even when the initial shock had faded. Roland said they agreed at the time but did not do anything about it.

"By and large, over recent years, with a few exceptions, nobody was writing critically about NASA," he said. "They would take NASA press kits and news releases and just paraphrase them."

The news organizations that stood in contrast to this rule - particularly Florida and Texas newspapers - have received special favor from Roland.

"There are a few newspaper outlets that have been following this story continuously, and I always try to get back to them, because they're the ones that have remained informed over all these years," he said.

If his previous experience is any indication, Roland's fame will not fade entirely.

After the Challenger explosion, he said "another wave" of media attention came his way regarding the future of space policy. Furthermore, his celebrity meant that he became a sought-after lecturer, which further sapped his time.

Roland is prepared for the long haul.

"We are probably entering a long re-examination of our space policy," he said. "I expect that I'll be talking for to the press for a while."


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