Like many of you, watching television news is a solid staple in my daily life. Those of us of a certain age will remember growing up with Uncle Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Chet Huntley, Robert Brinkley, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner, Barbara Walters, and Tom Brokaw, who just announced his retirement after a renowned 55 year career. Taking in the daily TV news has been such a part of our life that when I completed the “Likes and Favorites” portion of the Kindergarten Round-Up form for my son, I wrote Clifford the Big Red Dog, Muddy Waters, and Jim Lehrer.
Before the beginning of cable news, our choices were limited to the three major networks and households found a station they liked and stayed loyal. We invite those news sources, journalists, and commentators into our lives, whether we access them through our televisions or our phones.
Even as many of us find ourselves working remotely, so are journalists and commentators. And, as we have been testing our best Zoom-worthy looks, so have they. After all of these years of being invited into our homes, we now get a glimpse into theirs and I find it fascinating. For a while, our local news anchors were delivering the news and sports from their dining room tables as we may be watching from our own.
I discovered Room Rater after I began compiling my own list of hits and misses. In full disclosure, I found them through a Google search because I just can’t with Twitter.
Jessie & Claude describe their Twitter account Room Rater as rating “bookcases, backsplashes, and hostage videos since April 2020.” They critique and rate the various locations where these interviews happen. For clarification, the term “hostage video” applies to talking heads in front of bare walls, often painted white, probably with overhead lighting or harsh spotlighting. They love Dr. Anthony Fauci’s office with walls and piles of books, “The room we need. Wise, experienced, honest, horizontal books allowed. Depth of knowledge. 10/10.” They are also doing great philanthropy by getting some usual commentators to donate toward school supplies and other necessities for folks living in tribal communities in the Dakotas.
My favorite interview locations are inspiring, comforting, and inspire trust in the individual, such as Room Rater’s comments on the office of Dr. Fauci. Here’s a rundown of mine – do you have favorites?
Of course, many interviews come from an honest-to-goodness home office with a backdrop of carefully curated bookshelves with art, artifacts, and of course, books. Titles to highlight are in view with full knowledge that these chosen books can make a statement just by sitting on the shelf. It is not uncommon at all for commentators to place their own authored books in plain view for shameless self-promotion.
My favorite home office backdrops include PBS News Hour host Judy Woodruff’s warm honey oak shelves packed with books and beautifully lit. However, my top home office is that of retired Lt. General Russel Honore. It’s worth learning more about the man who led the recovery effort in New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and was recently appointed to conduct a full review of the security issues on the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Definitely worth a Google search. The view from his rolltop desk shows a room filled with memorabilia, books, and framed items on display. It’s evident that all of these items have a history that belongs to the General or a time that is important to him. The extraordinary focal point of the room is his is beautiful saddle and deep navy U.S. Calvary hat. It is so unexpected that it can upstage the General at times. The General’s personality and his own presence is definitely engaging enough to keep attention on him.
Recently, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan did an interview from her kitchen table. It was completely unstaged and felt just like a zoom coffee date with your Aunt Debbie. Personal photos on the fridge looked just like our own kitchens. We don’t get a glimpse into the personal spaces of elected officials very often and for me, this made the interview about difficult issues intimate and real.
Intimacy and glimpses into other’s homes is best represented as a feeling rather than the actual setting. I recall watching an interview with an election official from a bedroom – with the well-made bed clearly in view. The lavender and white ruffles, the wall art with a romantic feel was so jarring and uncomfortable, particularly from a male speaker, that I heard nothing he said.
My other favorite kitchen table is that of former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. The opposite of Senator Stabenow, Gibbs’s kitchen table setting is perfectly lit, the shelves and counter behind him is sleek and carefully curated with great attention to detail. There is always a small vase of fresh flowers on the buffet over his shoulder.
My favorite living room belongs to Carol Leonig, journalist for The Washington Post. Interviewing newspaper journalists on television is a fairly new thing to me. I have enjoyed putting a face to a name on a byline, especially those whose work I particularly follow, such as Leonig. When she is interviewed from her home, there is a gorgeous deep blue sofa just behind her with a bright white kitchen beyond.
Hands down, U.S. Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss has the most gorgeous, Architectural Digest-worthy library. This is not at all a home office but a study. The room is warmly pristine with walls of books and perfect flames in a fireplace of what looks like the third floor of a D.C. row house. It is my sincere hope that just out of view is a hand-me-down desk with piles of books and manuscripts with a lived-in look that fits my stereotype of a historian.
All of these inspire me to consider my own backdrop in my home office. Granted, my “home office” consists of a corner of my bedroom and my options are limited. For us, there are many different backgrounds that one can add to any of their video conferencing platforms. We can look like we are sitting on the beach or a mountain meadow, a modern living room or a conference room. There are many benefits to these backdrops for employees, students, or anyone who wishes to maintain a boundary between home, school, and work.
While we remain physically distanced from each other, our view into each other’s homes has blurred these boundaries. There is a familiarity that can be comforting as much as it can be unsettling. It doesn’t look like this genie will be going back into the bottle anytime soon, if ever.