publication date: Aug. 31, 2018

Conversation with The Cancer Letter

It took an elaborate ruse to get NIH Director Francis Collins on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?”

John Burklow

John Burklow

Associate Director for Communications, NIH

 

Intricate deception went into luring NIH Director Francis Collins onto Sacha Baron Cohen’s television show.

A production company called Here and Now Television was created, as was its website. The show’s working title was priceless, in an Orwellian sort of way: AGE OF REASON. It turned out to be Showtime’s “Who is America?”

The production company staff members—presumably actors all—did considerable advance work, and did it well. Their letters were good enough to convince a seasoned professional, NIH Associate Director for Communications John Burklow, that the show is worth doing.

“Even though we were tricked into the interview, Francis really wasn’t pranked, so to speak,” Burklow said to The Cancer Letter. “I guess he was doing an interview [that was] not the type of interview he was expecting, but unlike some other guests that you’ve perhaps seen on the show, he didn’t say or do anything embarrassing. It’s just not in him, anyway. There was never any risk of that.

“But you still don’t want to be the guy who puts your boss in front of Sacha Baron Cohen.”

 

Burklow spoke with Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter.

 

Paul Goldberg:

I’m actually Paul Goldberg, and I’m actually calling from The Cancer Letter. I am not one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters.

John Burklow:

Thank you. That was my first question.

 

PG:

I am not him in disguise. Not that you’d see a disguise, because we’re on the phone. So, your boss, Francis Collins, was just on “Who Is America?” What’s that like?

JB:

What’s that like? Well, my first thought was, “So this is how my 30-year tenure at NIH ends.”

 

PG:

Well, yeah. You have been doing this for a long time, and I’ve known you for all of those 30 years. You’ve been through some real silliness, and we’ve been through some real silliness together.

JB:

Together, yes.

 

PG:

Is this the silliest thing that ever happened to you as a press dude?

JB:

I think it rates right up there, if not takes the cake.

 

PG:

Cool

JB:

Yes. An unforgettable experience, put it that way.

 

PG:

Yeah, yeah. But how did it happen?

JB:

Yes, how did it happen… To back up, last October we got a request from a producer, who was working on a new program for Showtime, and it was called… well, the tentative name was “Age of Reason,” and the stated goal was to present facts on important issues through conversations with experts in science and public policy in a way that’s clear and accessible to everyday Americans.

And so, they asked if Dr. Collins would be interviewed by a Cory Nicks; not sure if that’s a real name, producer for the project. And so, we thought, “Hmm, okay.”

Now, you might think, “Showtime? Why talk to Showtime?”

Well, we’ve noticed over the last few years that more and more people are getting involved in doing policy shows about health and science. So, it wasn’t that much out of left field. And also, the streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon were getting into this area.

Also, Dr. Collins feels strongly about communicating science to the public, to broader audiences. He’s had a history of going on shows that you might not think conventionally, “Oh yeah, there’s the NIH director.”

For example, he’s been on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR. Then there was the Colbert Report; he had been on several times. So, we were expecting a serious discussion about science and medicine in America.

We said, “Okay,” and we scheduled the interview. It was mid-November. They had rented space down at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, which, again, this stuff happens. It’s not that unusual.

What was unusual was that—and again, it didn’t really strike me at the time—Dr. Collins and I came from two different locations to meet up there. He got there earlier than I did.

And when I arrived, they said, “Oh. We took Dr. Collins up to the studio, and they’re already taping.”

And so, I said, “Well, can I go up there?”

And they said, “Well, this will be done pretty soon, so you won’t be able to go in, because they have cameras and all that.”

So, I thought, “Hmm, that’s not usually how it works with me.”

Everybody’s very knowledgeable, people talking to me very professionally, and everything leading up to this didn’t give us an inkling that there was anything awry or irregular.

They had a website, they had a production company, they had all this stuff lined up. They told us they’d interviewed other people, not mentioning Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, but other more scientific types. And so, well, okay, I wait down in the lobby, waiting for Dr. Collins.

I’m talking with the producers, who, again, are very knowledgeable, polite. And I’m guessing they’re either real producers or, in retrospect, hired actors. And I keep looking at my watch, and I keep wondering, “This is going overtime.”

And I’m presuming, Oh, Dr. Collins must be enjoying his conversation, because he’s going longer than expected.

So, he comes down finally from the studio, and he doesn’t look pleased. He looks rather irritated. And Dr. Collins almost never looks irritated, so this is not a good sign. So, I go from, “Oh, day’s going well,” to “Oh my goodness.”

And I’m sure those were the exact words I used, I don’t know.

 

PG:

These specific words? I would have used different words.

JB:

He said something went on there. He said, “I got set up somehow.”

And the producers with us were looking upset, and, “Oh gosh, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?”

And so, we got out of there quickly, and then tried to follow up with Showtime, tried to follow up with the Here and Now Television Company producers… All those folks, they were accessible to us for a little while, and then, all of a sudden, we couldn’t even have access to them.

So, they were pretty much a Potemkin village of production companies.

I don’t know how they did it, but they pretty much ghosted us after the interview. We tried to follow up with Showtime, which we did, but they pretty much said, “That’s showbiz.”

So, that’s last November, and we weren’t too happy… Nobody’s happy with being tricked.

 

PG:

But you didn’t know you were tricked. You were still not clear on this being Sacha Baron Cohen?

JB:

No, but Francis had a sense that something was going on, as he was-

 

PG:

The person—the character—Francis was talking to was an idiot. I mean beyond the usual, even.

JB:

So, as he told me later, he said he was in the studio, and then a heavyset man with sideburns and a mustache comes in on a scooter that’s usually associated with somebody who has disabilities, has trouble walking. And he comes in and introduces himself, and I’m sure that Francis is taken back a bit by, he wasn’t expecting this person.

But he had been told up there that he’ll be interviewed by somebody who doesn’t know a great deal about his world, NIH, but is very interested in learning about it. So, that’s how it was set up.

And so, Billy Wayne started with some very reasonable questions. And then they veered off into comments and questions that were anything but conventional or expected.

 

PG:

But the joke was to get him to answer some truly idiotic questions while trying to keep a straight face. Was there any point where he recognized that he’s being pranked?

JB:

Yes. He told me that at some point along the way he realized he was being pranked, or this was some kind of farce, but he had to decide, “Do I stand up and pull the microphone off and give them more to videotape? Or shall I just keep going with this and play it straight, and see perhaps even in spite of the absurd circumstances, maybe I can get across some important information.”

And so, even though we were tricked into the interview, Francis really wasn’t pranked, so to speak. I guess he was doing an interview [that was] not the type of interview he was expecting, but unlike some other guests that you’ve perhaps seen on the show, he didn’t say or do anything embarrassing. It’s just not in him, anyway. There was never any risk of that.

But you still don’t want to be the guy who puts your boss in front of Sacha Baron Cohen.

And also, I have to hand it to the makeup crew.

I never saw him, but just watching the shows, they did an incredible job disguising him. And Francis himself was saying that he knew who Sacha Baron Cohen was, but you know, he didn’t start his day thinking, “I wonder if I’m going to be pranked by Borat later today.”

He went in to do a serious discussion about science and medicine, to talk about how we fight cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer’s, and so on.

So, it doesn’t surprise me, but Francis stayed on message. It was like a study on how to stay on message in spite of all the absurdities that were thrown at him. What was captured was, as you’ve seen, their one … Billy Wayne contended that the government was trying to turn everybody transgender through the use of trans fats in their food.

And, that’s the other thing, Francis is always respectful, always compassionate, always caring. That’s who he is. Francis wasn’t playing any role, any character. Francis was being Francis. He is a concerned physician, as you can tell as the conversation goes on.

He’s very seriously explaining trans fats and the difference, and how they have nothing to do with transgender.

And then they go to the topic of AIDS. And Billy Wayne explains how he paid a homeless man $12 so he could take some of his HIV-infected blood and then he used the same needle to get his own blood. And that’s when Francis said, “What? What are you talking about? You put yourself at risk for contracting HIV?”

But throughout the whole piece, so when you look back, Francis could have been talking to somebody who was asking straightforward, normal questions, and he would have conveyed about the same information.

 

PG:

I guess what this says is that if you have an unwavering message, it’s impossible to trick you. He came out of this really not looking stupid at all.

JB:

I agree. I know I work for him, but I certainly do agree. Also, if you noticed, it wasn’t a wooden performance of, “Okay, I’m going to go back to my main message now. I’m going to bridge back no matter what you said.”

Francis had an authentic conversation and answered all of the crazy questions. So, he actually engaged fully in the discussion, but he stayed on message, because that’s what he came to talk about, and that’s who he is.

There was nothing that Billy Wayne was going to uncover about Francis, or Francis’ motives. Francis was just who he was. He’s there to tell you all about the latest in science and how it affects people’s health.

 

PG:

I’ve never seen more idiotic questions than these. And the objective was just to look at his face as he says, “No, trans fats have nothing to do with transgender. No, you should not exchange needles in the name of science.” What’s really funny is that Francis is not shy—he sings in public even!

This must be kind of growing on him, like a badge of honor, you know?

JB:

Yeah, I’m not so sure. Well, he knew what happened in the conversation, so he’s not surprised that they were able to capture what he said. But I think he’s relieved, as I am, that it’s behind us.

Yeah, some people have said, “Isn’t this some kind of honor?”

I think we’d both gladly go back in time and give that honor back to whoever gave that to us, but, well, it really brings up the point: okay, so what are we going to do now? Do we do things differently?

I would say, admittedly, I’m a bit gun shy.

But we’re not going to slow down, we’re not going to stop talking to reporters, talking to the media. And put it in perspective, Francis has done well over a thousand interviews since becoming NIH Director nine years ago in August.

And he probably did thousands before that. And he’s going to keep going. He’s going to keep taking opportunities to talk about NIH and how medical research affects people’s lives. And we’ll have to check the makeup better on the interviewers, but other than that we’re going to keep going.

 

PG:

Are you going to print out a screen grab and have Sacha Baron Cohen autograph it, so you can put it on the wall of respect? I think that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I’m actually not making a joke.

JB:

Yeah. Yeah. I hadn’t explored that option. Yeah. I was thinking, if it happens again, perhaps he could come impersonating a reporter from PBS News Hour perhaps, or something, but that-

 

PG:

What about The Cancer Letter?

JB:

Or The Cancer Letter. Right.

 

PG:

Please… PBS… But, actually, as far as I’m concerned Sacha Baron Cohen is doing journalism. It’s another way of doing journalism. It’s an unconventional way of doing journalism, but he’s getting people to respond, to reveal things beneath the surface, beneath the facts. My hat’s off to him as a reporter.

JB:

Yeah. Well, I’m probably not the best person to ask right now, but I have to say that he revealed what Francis had to say. Francis came in there to talk about health and science. Not just to talk about it, but if you watch how Francis engaged him, no matter what the man asked, Francis treated it like a logical, reasonable question.

And he answered it respectfully. And he was very concerned, especially when he heard that he shared a needle.

 

PG:

Right, right. That’s really an absolutely incredible story. When did you first figure out it was Sacha Baron Cohen?

JB:

I guess it was early July. I was talking to some of my colleagues here on staff, and I said, “I wonder what ever happened with that Showtime piece?” And I looked down on my phone, and Francis had sent me a note and said, “Was this possibly what I was part of?”

And we all saw it at the same time … because it popped up on my phone as well … the reports of Sarah Palin complaining that she was on the show. Or she was tricked into being on the show.

And so, that’s how we learned that, because she said that the character being Billy Wayne interviewed her. And that was a forehead-slapping moment for me. Oh, gosh. We’ve been punk’d by none other than Sacha Baron Cohen.

 

PG:

Well that’s, again, an honor. But what’s really hilarious is that the joke’s on the character who’s doing the interview. This is not the first conspiracy theorist that Francis ever saw.

JB:

Right. And this was just a small segment of a longer conversation. Francis had to field all kinds of these questions and assertions.

Another one he told me, he said, was, Billy Wayne asserted that vaccines are dangerous. His son was in a car accident on his way to getting his flu shot. But he made the conclusion that since he was in a car accident, it was … it was almost like Henny Youngman jokes.

 

PG:

Well, but this is actually scary. Because how close is he to some of the folks that you run into all the time? I’ve written stories about people who said that there’s no such thing as AIDS. So, it’s not like we’re completely in the world of hyperbole.

JB:

No, I think that’s an excellent point, that even though we might say, “Oh, trans fat, transgender.” But it’s really important to remind people, “No, those two things do not have anything in common, other than they start with ‘trans.’” It’s important to say, “Yes, AIDS does exist. HIV does exist, and it’s important not to share needles.”

So, all the things you might take for granted that it’s already commonly known, it’s actually important to re-emphasize those messages.

 

PG:

And storming out would have been an absolutely disastrous act, which I guess they were hoping for.

JB:

I don’t know. The last words I heard from the person posing as the production assistant said that, “We will not put Dr. Collins or NIH in a negative light.” And I thought, “Okay, well, let’s see.”

So, I had to subscribe to Showtime, and I’m watching every Sunday… there was a pit in my stomach as each Sunday night approached. And he didn’t appear until the sixth of seven episodes.

And as I’m watching the others, I’m thinking, “Well at least he didn’t do this. At least he didn’t do that.” But still—

 

PG:

I don’t think Francis could have done what other Baron Cohen guests did.

JB:

No, there’s no way. No way. I wasn’t afraid that he was going to do any of those things. It’s just that you start thinking, “Okay. I’m sure it went well.”

But I still didn’t know, because I hadn’t seen it.

I was kept out of the room.

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