by Ben Campbell
NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s something for Jeff Rossen to ponder after a crazy week: Is being called a “rock star” by Charlie Sheen good or bad for his career in television journalism?
Rossen, an NBC News correspondent who works chiefly for the “Today” show, played a prominent role in the actor’s bizarre media tour to bash his bosses for suspending “Two and a Half Men,” and explain a lifestyle of drugs and “goddesses.” Andrea Canning of ABC News, CNN’s Piers Morgan and radio star Howard Stern also spent extensive time with Sheen.
It was Rossen, however, whom Sheen later described as a “rock star” whose interview was “pure gold.” Sheentold Morgan live on CNN that Rossen was awesome and should be a guest on his show.
“I think what he meant by calling me a rock star is that I kept my word to him,” said Rossen, who joined NBC News in 2008 after working for seven years at ABC’s New York City station.
Rossen had been trying to get Sheen to come on the “Today” show since shortly after the actor trashed a room in New York’s Plaza Hotel last fall. He said he spoke frequently with Sheen’s management team and met the actor on the “Two and a Half Men” set in November. Sheen subsequently spoke to Rossen for background on other stories, but didn’t go on camera until last weekend.
Besides taped interviews that appeared on “Today” Monday and Tuesday of last week, Rossen convinced the actor to get up — or stay up — for a 4:30 a.m. PT live interview the morning after he lost custody of his twins.
Rossen didn’t pull punches. He asked Sheen about his drug use and whether he provided a healthy home environment for his children and his role in making the future of television’s most popular sitcom shaky.
“I told him from the very beginning (that) I’ll make no agreements,” Rossen said. “I’m going to ask you whatever I want to ask you. The questions will be tough. Sometimes they will be uncomfortable. What I promise to you in return is that I will keep your answers in context. I’m not going to have any clever, tricky endings. I’m going to let you explain.”
Rossen’s boss, “Today” show executive producer Jim Bell, called him a versatile and relentless reporter.
“Literal and figurative doors were slammed in his face along the way but he simply wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Bell said. “His work on this story is consistent with the many stories he covers for ‘Today,’ from comprehensive investigative pieces to breaking news.”
Sheen’s interviews were a brilliant piece of performance art or evidence he’s off his rocker, or some combination of the two. He probably set a record for inserting more catchphrases into the public lexicon in the shortest amount of time. The more he talked, the sadder it became.
Rossen said Sheen told him that he wanted to upstage the Academy Awards.
Is he nuts? “It’s tough to tell,” Rossen said.
“I’ve been given a very limited snapshot of Charlie Sheen,” Rossen said. “I’ve spent about 10 hours with him over the course of several days, sometimes with cameras and sometimes without cameras. You can’t judge a person fully on the basis of 10 hours. I would hope nobody would judge me that way.”
Clearly, Sheen is at a crossroads in his life and struggling with that, he said.
How much the “rock star” line sticks with Rossen is an interesting question. Journalists usually look with suspicion at praise from interview subjects, perhaps seeing it as evidence that not enough tough questions were asked.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” said Suzanne Lysak, a professor of broadcasting at Rossen’s alma mater, Syracuse University. “But this whole situation is just so crazy.”
The more important issue is the media’s role in giving Sheen a platform. James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times wrote that news outlets are Sheen enablers and, in the case of ABC and NBC, “aiding and abetting the epic meltdown of a celebrity who happens to be the biggest star on the biggest comedy hit at rival CBS.”
Networks have swiftly responded to the market. Morgan’s interview with Sheen did so well in the ratings CNN reran it Friday. After Canning’s “20/20″ interview proved a big draw, Rossen put together a “Dateline NBC” special Friday. Celebrity substance abuse expert Dr. Drew Pinsky is doing a VH1 special on Sheen and even Spike TV can’t resist, ordering a countdown of Sheen’s most outlandish moments illustrated with Taiwanese animation.
“I don’t know how you don’t cover it,” said Richard Wald, a Columbia University professor and former executive at ABC and NBC News.
“It’s a bit like (O.J. Simpson’s) White Bronco,” Wald said. “It has little or no meaning, but it’s fascinating: Are you taking advantage of Sheen? Are you helping him or hurting him? These are interesting questions, but I don’t know if they are questions for journalists. I don’t know how as a television producer you can ignore this. It’s the human equivalent of a train collision.”
Rossen also disagrees with critics who say the media should have turned its back on Charlie Sheen.
“This is a public figure,” he said. “He’s in the throes of a life crisis. As we would for a politician, as we would with a celebrity, as we would with any public figure that the public is interested in hearing from, we are telling their story. What better way to tell someone’s story than with that person?
“If that person is making himself accessible to you,” he said, “I would argue that it would be irresponsible not to talk to him.”