I'd pretty much given up on writing about TV News, but this morning's slaying of a news crew on live television has compelled me to log in on this long-forgotten blog. Forgive me if I ramble...
If you're a member of a TV news team, you know what a small business it really is. Reporters and photographers leapfrog from station to station, often crossing paths with each other several times over as they further their quest for a better job. Long before the internet made our world a smaller place, everyone knew everybody.
If you're NOT a member of a TV News team, you probably hold us in low regard. Night after night, we preen, pose and over-emote on the edge of someone else's worst day ever. It is, by far, our least admirable trait.
But despite what you see in the movies, we aren't all vultures. I've shed many tears on the scene of tragedies and so has every reporter I've ever worked beside. Rarely do you see those tears on the air and when you do, it always seems fake. But heartache and empathy lurk just under the surface of our implacable facades. If we seem heartless, it's little more than trick photography. Sure, we act tough and trade rude jokes, but it's only a defense mechanism, a protective cloak we don when standing so close to the fire.
I did not know reporter Alison Parker or photographer Adam Ward, but I know their type. Morning live shot news crews are, by definition, relaxed and affable. You have to be when you spend five dawns a week pointing a spotlight at something palatable for the morning masses. Bake sales, blood drives, blimp conventions ... those frothy few minutes of fun you watch out of the corner while getting dressed don't happen by themselves. News crews rise in the wee hours, travel many miles and splay out truckloads of gear to make it all seem spontaneous. It isn't. Just as much planning goes into these soft-boiled segments as does a late breaking apartment fire, often more. And the people who produce these disposable live shots are, very often, the best of our business. From the torrent of information spilling out in the wake of this killing, Alison Parker and Adam Ward were among those numbers.
So what's my point? I don't know that I have one. Certainly the live murder of a TV news crew is no more tragic than any of the other senseless murders that seem to be plaguing our planet. But this one hits home. I have staged thousands of morning live shots. I've daydreamed half-asleep under those white hot lights and learned to love the colleagues there beside me. I've fended off weirdos and looky-loos while shielding my lens from the rising sun. We news crews often felt abandoned at these stagnant broadcasts, but never felt like the sitting ducks we so obviously were. This world is indeed a fucked-up place.
If you're the praying type, do me a favor and lift up the broken hearts in Roanoke. If you're a news crew out in the field, watch your back. If you're simply a curious sort surfing the web, take a moment to remember these friends I've never met. And if you're still reading this, please accept my sincere thanks.
It's the only way I know to heal.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
And so begins a NEW chapter in The Book of Lenslinger, in which our elusive news shooter sheds his street cred for a peek at the bigger picture...
When last I left you, my head was in a fog. Some days, it still is. But if eighteen months of lurching uncertainty have taught me anything, it's that 'Living in the Past' is a better Jethro Tull album than recipe for glee. Ya feel me? Probably not. Doesn't matter. I'm writing for myself these days. When I'm writing at all. Once upon a time, frothy blather dripped from my every pore and formed unsettled puddles of snark.
No more. Now, I struggle with where to begin and how to end. What gives? I use to dry-fart shiny passages while waiting for stoplights to change. Hell, I once sneezed an entire thesis while ordering take-out! These days, I can't so much as scribble a grocery list without struggling over tone. What gives? Why can a guy who used to churn out words at a dizzying clip find himself unable to jot down a web address without hours of soul-searching? It's simple, really....
If you can't understand how such a thing can affect one's literary output, you've obviously never had your soul stepped on. I have - the day my beautiful wife announced she didn't want to be my beautiful wife anymore. To say it shook me to the core is underselling it. I curled up into a fetal ball and wept for the better part of a year. After a great deal of wallowing, I got up off that floor and followed some of the smartest people I knew straight down the interstate. That's right, if the collapse of a twenty-three year marriage wasn't enough personal upheaval, I decided to leave a job I truly loved. Which is why you'll find me ninety minutes south of the Piedmont, thrusting lenses into the hands of Millennials and pleading for a little sequencing. You guessed it...
I turned house-cat.
Officially, my title is 'News Operations Manager'. It's a lofty appellation, alright, but after seven months of equipping young journalists with all the tools of television, it's one I'm comfortable with. And now that I'm seemingly secure in my new surroundings, I'd like to get back to writing again. 'About what?' you ask. TV News, of course. It's what I've always written about and for the past half year I've been preaching my prose to a collection of twenty-somethings - most of whom have never even heard of 'Lenslinger'. I'd like to change that and this long-delayed blog post is the first wobbly step in that direction...
So join me, won't you, in my renewed efforts to get my mojo back. I greatly appreciate all the reader e-mail I've received - even the ones calling me a coward for staying quiet so long. I have no idea where this blog will go next, but I can assure you, it's going somewhere. The tone may change, the bitterness will surely fade - but I promise you I'll call it like I see it (at least as much as I can I can while staying employed). Whether or not you'll join me remains to be seen, but in the end it doesn't matter. A writer's gotta write, a bird's gotta sing and this bruised news shooter simply has to run his mouth on-line.
Monday, September 09, 2013
It's a fact: If you stumble around in an existential haze long enough, people will start calling you out! At work, at the deli, at the random head-on collision... if ONE MORE person asks me why I'm not blogging anymore, I'm gonna have to come up with an answer! So far though, I've only mumbled a half-response while stifling the deployment of my middle finger. Just today, I was touring WRAL-TV when some very nice strangers piled accolades on the words I used to string together. If that wasn't enough to make me stare holes through my windshield on the way back home, I plopped down in the middle of what was once The Lenslinger Institute only to discover a eulogy of sorts from News Blues editor Mike James...
"Veteran news photographer Stewart "Lenslinger" Pittman, whose Schmuck Alerts and flowery prose always made us smile, hasn't posted to his blog 'Viewfinder Blues' for more than a month. Last we heard, he was recovering from a painful divorce and was struggling with writer's block and career fatigue."No. He. Didn't. Okay, so he did. And you know what makes it so much worse? He's 100% correct. I am recovering from a painful divorce (to-be) and I'm damn sure struggling with writer's block and career fatigue. That first condition is more my business than yours, but I can tell you this: my wedded bliss is distant history and while I will never, ever, ever understand why, it's something I'm learning to accept. This realization, of course, hasn't come without some collateral damage: depression, self-doubt and enough unanswered introspection to make Dr. Drew huff a can of paint. As for writer's block, well, she's the only mistress I've ever had ... a frigid bitch who moves in and makes me pay for all the nights the Muse had her way with me. I'll run that hag off soon enough, but probably never for good. (Perhaps I should file for a restraining order.)
And career fatigue! Does twenty three years of riding around with gear in the rear even qualify as a career? Did Dr. Seuss take over the last half of that sentence? Is this thing even on? You show me a person who's slept, stepped and crept through as many deadlines as I have who doesn't have career fatigue and I'll show you an unfeeling schlub with a musty ball of gaffer's tape where his shriveled little heart used to be. Career fatigue, PFFT! I got three week old camera batteries with more wear and tear on 'em than the occupational distress I've shared with you people! I have not yet begun to bitch! So bring it on, snarky office mate! Take your best shot, creepy delicatessen lady! And you there, with the badly-wrapped sat truck and feigned concern for my well-being - come at me, bro'! I'll turn your latest mistake into Top Ten fodder, get plugged by News Blues in the process and STILL have to drag some beauty queen into the abyss tomorrow morning! And as for that whole blogging phase I went through....
I'll get back to it eventually.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Traipse through your days with a lens aloft and people will naturally assume you care. More times than not, you don't, for after awhile the homicides, new brides and camel rides all blend together, until a choice parking spot outside your favorite diner thrills you far more than the meth-lab bloodbath just down the road. It's why I try to keep a low profile... head down, eyes up, deadline in the middle distance. It's a crucial insouciance, the kind you find in Waffle House waitresses, cab drivers and other hollow-eyed zombies. See, only the brain-dead know what a dozen-yard stare will do for your outlook. It also comes in damn handy when you're trying to blend into a crowd of strangers with a fancycam for a face.
That's where I found myself last week, navigating through stacks of tobacco, before briefly traveling back in time. I should have seen it coming, I suppose. But who can spot a rip in the time-space continuum with one eye shut and twenty men trying to step on your feet? I can't even find my car keys most mornings. So is it any wonder I backed right into a portal of sorts, a distorted corridor where the tobacco glowed, my own hair bristled with thickness and '1999' was still just a futuristic Prince jam. Back then, opening day at any self-respecting warehouse was a gala event. Growers, buyers, beauty queens and politicians, all soaking in the aroma of the selling floor. There would be speeches and ice cream and high noon live shots. That's where you'd find me, scanning the crowd for flashes of pageantry and the free Krispy-Kremes...
I hovered there for awhile, watching my twenty-something self almost slip on the canvas corners of now obsolete tobacco sheets. It's there I first perfected my back-pedal, that languid lope you try to fall into as the prisoner/politician/pervert at the center of your screen tries to walk right through your pupils. I faltered at first, but after getting trampled a time or ten by men with tobacco spit on their chins, I learned to get the hell out of the way. These days, my biggest obstacles are flashbacks, time warps and the occasional urge to break-dance like no one's watching. Yes, middle age isn't pretty. Neither is the view that ensued I returned to my corporeal form... The crowd was smaller, the golden leaf moldy and I ... I, was still a freakin' cameraman...
This gig really should come with a Surgeon General's Warning.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Every once in a while, something unexpected wanders into frame and drains the moat around my soul. It usually happens at soldier homecomings, Special Olympics or certain City Council meetings. Okay, so I'm lying about that last one, but the fact is we TV stevedores ARE occasionally capable of human emotion (like those conflicted cyborgs of Science Fiction, who bring civilization to a grinding halt with their incessant meddling). Lately, I've strained in vain to keep my pathos under wraps. What can I tell ya - parts of my life continue to suck. But since I hold no patent on that predicament, I choose to lose myself within the lens. That I do, puttering around the eye-cup like some creepy lighthouse keeper.
Then along came Brenton.
A seabird of some distinction, Brenton met me at the back door of the Greensboro Science Center's new penguin exhibit. Unlike the rest of her colony, Brenton wasn't as interested in the bucket of fish as she was the cameraman who came with it. I was flattered, if not a little weirded out, at the creature's curiosity. Like a cat, she rubbed against my ankles, then stopped to stare up into my eyes like a homeless Basset Hound. So I returned the favor, twisting the macro ring on my lens until my new girlfriend snapped into focus. Brenton didn't flinch. Instead she met my gaze with deep black eyes that seemed to flicker with wisdom. Chances are she was checking her reflection, but as we stared across the great divide, the glacial malaise of these last six months melted away and for just a moment the present felt better than the past. That's when I heard someone laughing and realized it was me.
Don't worry, though. I'm sure the feeling will pass.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
News crews have it rough. They're overworked, underpaid and labor under a false sense of relevance. All of which makes me very reluctant to ridicule them - even from afar. After all, I'M one of them and when it comes to putting dodgy content on the air, there is blood on my hands as well. But never in my rashest hour have I foisted the kind of foolishness willingly broadcast by certain employees of WJAR-10-NBC in Providence, Rhode Island. Perhaps you've seen it: A young reporter caps off her live shot on a bear attack with a few helpful attempts on how to stave off a similar incident. What followed was an abomination. The reporter (we'll call her Julie Tremmel) cavorts, overacts and generally displays behavior better suited for a game of stoner charades than an actual newscast. While not privy to the logic behind this ill-advised addendum, I do believe I recognize the the sordid core of this report. Sooo, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy (I prefer 'curmudgeon') I'd like to offer some unsolicited advice, First, though, some background:
For as long as I have hoisted a lens, local TV stations have done their best to drive themselves out of existence. The sins of the fathers have many. Vacuous ass-hats and admitted degenerates have always gravitated toward our field. Long before early engineers knitted the first color patterns from stolen Indian blankets, folks who couldn't make it in the real world have found solace and acceptance underneath our heavily-logoed tent. This is nothing new. What is new(ish) is our industry's insistence on hearing the cheap, the young and the inexperienced. Major market shops that used to hand pick journeyman staffers now fill their newsrooms with folks barely out of college. Considering the salaries they offer, this only makes sense. But the corner-office crowd has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, replacing exiting veterans with a generation of journalists whose sum life experience comes from binge watching Jersey Shore.
Don't get me wrong. I work with plenty of young reporters who strive for nuance and intelligence in their work. But I know many more whose idea of a sound journalistic skill-set is a stack of glossy head-shots, some far flung agent and a wardrobe they really can't afford. It is these pretenders I'd like next to address...
ATTENTION YOUNG BROADCASTERS: You have dedicated your days to an industry in decline. What used to be considered a vibrant signal of society is now just so much noise. Loyal viewers are dying off by the hearse-load and they're not being replaced. Your Mother may be impressed at seeing little her baby on the tee-vee, but the rest of the nation considers your ilk somewhere between tax collector and pedophile. By no means is this your fault. Generations of buffoons before have long ago paved this road to irrelevance with ego, affectation and hard hitting reports on how this washcloth could kill you(!). But while you're not totally responsible for broadcasting's prolonged demise, you did willingly jump aboard this listing ship. If you have any hope of treading water, let alone lap your competition, you must remember this:
Credibility is key. People at home and on the street already assume you're a preening idiot.
Ain't nobody got time for that.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Up next on our runway, young Dustin Etheridge in a whip-smart ensemble that just screams professional regret! With his cherry red slicker and musty black trousers, this is one broadcaster who knows how to make a splash! Whether he's grilling a tipsy Senator, accosting shoppers outside his least favorite Wal-Mart or just plain dumpster-diving under heavy deadline, Dustin dazzles with a minimum of chafing! And those shoes! Sensible yet sassy, you'd never guess they spend most of their time buried in the floorboard of a nameless news unit. Which is exactly where you'll find this strapping glass-handler - once he's fended off the affections of fans, a family of geese and that homeless woman with the Last Supper tattooed on her throat! Is it any wonder so many TV News types ape his trademark look (and smell)? Yes, the next time you're fleeing the island for higher ground, drop by that shabby hotel where the sat trucks gather and soak in the sartorial splendor! Oversized logo's, wrinkles that stink and enough ill-advised head-wear to make a once proud milliner slit his wrist! But you don't have to commit to a life of late shifts and dollar menu items to capture this look! Simply troll the discount bin at your local sporting goods store, stash what you score in a forgotten gym bag and you'll be dressed to impress the next time the News Gods take a dump on the Fourth Estate!
At least until Cantore shows up... Dude goes nowhere without a trunk full of windbreakers and shoe-lifts.