Sunday, October 16, 2005

Access to Anarchy

Apparently it’s no longer safe to drive a marked news unit down the mean streets of…Toledo? You heard me. As anyone with cable news can tell you, a planned march by neo-Nazis sent a crowd of locals into outright apoplexy, sparking a lightning round of vandalism, arson, and the pre-requisite looting. Somewhere amid all the lawlessness, the Fourth Estate took a few hits. From b-roll contributor Seagate News, this abbreviated report:

“We (WUPW) lost a back window on one of our Jeeps and a photog got tear-gassed. We are very lucky that we have unmarked units, as from what I've heard the other stations' trucks were completely smashed.”

Now, certainly there are far graver consequences from the anarchy in Ohio than a couple of smashed-up news cruisers. But if there’s one thing the corner office and the cameraman can agree on, it’s that there’s absolutely nothing funny about dented logos. At the photog’s online watering hole, shooters are chewing anew on an old debate: marked cars versus unmarked. Many a TV news lenser professes great detest for the bright graphics our bosses insist on draping across our chariots. Instead, we behind the lens prefer a quieter mode of transport, a little stealth if you please. Personally, the half dozen or so news cars I’ve driven to a finish have all been gaily festooned with numbers, call letters and promises. Though it can be a pain at times, I’ve found a logo on the door gets me out of more jams than it gets me into. If anything, it’ll sure make you stop picking your nose at stoplights. Curious viewers looking for famous faces don’t need to see THAT….don’t ask.

Where was I? Oh yeah - rocks, racists and rioters…bad combo. I remember my first couple of Klan Rallies (who doesn’t?). I was still in my early twenties when the video-camera I’d starting carrying on my shoulder dragged me through a long, hot summer of KKK events. I attended several, there in part because I was fascinated by such acutely bent thinking but mostly because I worked weekends back then and the local inbreds-in-bed sheets favored marching on Saturdays. Most that I went too were relatively quiet affairs, just ten to fifteen hillbillies waving flags and looking silly as they sauntered and strutted down the deserted streets of some Downeast downtown. Most of the spectators wore blue helmets with face-shields, the rest hid behind oversized fancy-cams.

Once, I spotted a throng of unhappy onlookers - denizens of a nearby public housing complex who’d turned out in force to shout down the sheet heads, only to be cordoned off by cops into an out of the way corner. When I approached with my camera, catcalls, gang-signs and challenges answered my requests for interviews. When the tallest of the group issued yours truly a verbal street thrashing, I rocked back and forth on my heels, listening absently-minded to the crinkle of videotape roll across the heads in the strange new machine beside my head. My awkward silence surprised my would-be intimidator and he emitted several deep chuckles to prove it. Minutes later, I pinned a lapel microphone to his throwback hoodie and we had an interesting on-camera discussion about the role of race in the New South. Not surprisingly, the resulting soundbites towered over the feeble intellect on display by the toothless brigade on center-stage.

But again I’ve wandered. I started down this path to say a thing or two about news crew safety but I keep getting tangled up in the underbrush of aimless anecdotes. While I fumble about for my metaphorical machete, consider this: A TV camera will get you into ANY situation: dangerous, titillating or mind-numbingly dull. However it won’t protect you once you’re there. What it WILL do is escalate matters beyond control with barely a glimmer of its non-blinking lens. So be prepared. Situational awareness isn’t enough, for the boxy news camera next to your brain makes a tempting target in times of strife. Call it the dark side of the all-access pass. Better yet, call me a cab - I ain’t drivin’ straight through the Valley of Death in a Ford Escort wrapped in rainbow peacocks.

1 comment:

Billy Jones said...

Reminds me of a night I spent towing cars in a riot zone...

Then, the next day when a paying customer called me to tow his car from the same neighborhood to a garage where it could be repaired, I heard someone shout, "They towin' our cars again!" Seconds later I was surrounded.

And now you know why I had a sawed-off shotgun laying on the seat of my tow truck and a .357 hanging in a Dirty Hairy shoulder holster.