Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mopping Up In Blacksburg

Blacksburg Sat CityBy the time I got to Virginia Tech, Sat Truck City had shriveled to a village. But with a parked armada of media trucks still sprawled across the west end of campus, the electronic circus hadn’t completely left Blacksburg. Katie, Shep and Geraldo were gone - having winged their way back to Manhattan after the initial blitzkrieg of live remotes and breathless updates. In their wake, an army of lesser known faces roamed the grounds, regionally known wretches still forced to use both their names when signing off. As always they were flanked by countless photographers, sound crews and truck operators - casually dressed technicians who bore the true brunt of transmitting calamity 24/7. Everywhere you looked, they straightened cable, tweaked lights and attended to the many thankless tasks that makes all this continuous team smother age possible in the first place. Many were from local affiliates splayed across the country, some were network of course and a few didn’t seem to speak a word of English. It was through this wretched hive of trucks and tripods that I steered Unit 4 yesterday morning - just in time for the first day of class since madness and side-arms ended thirty three lives last week. I knew I’d end up here.

Bob at RestI wasn’t alone, however. Reporter Bob Buckley rode shotgun, offering conjecture and analysis, when he wasn’t scanning the dial for something more palatable. To my great relief, we arrived in Blacksburg before El-Rushbo took to the airwaves, sparing me a round of unbridled dittos and color commentary. No bother. We had a job to do. Seven days after an angry young man turned a serene campus into a killing field, the surviving student body was returning en masse to their beloved Virginia tech. Tasked with filing three separate reports on their arrival, we switched into work mode the moments our boots his the ground. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Before we began our hike to the now famous drill field, Bob and I made a wide arc around the satellite encampment, chatting up distant colleagues and admiring the rented tents and refreshment stashes of the well-heeled network crews. We even bartered for tape from the Fox folks, eliciting promises of shared footage at the end of the day. Not even the local guys batted an eye at the latest newcomers - with a few exceptions. Thrice, strangers with press passes of their own approached me to inquire if I was ’Lenslinger’. While not a wholly unpleasant sensation, being asked that always rattles my cage a tad.

More CrewsStill, whatever self-satisfaction I’d scored at camp dissipated on the way to the drill field. Trudging along with camera and tripod in tow, we grew silently as students in maroon and orange shuffled by. Most ignored us, but a few others bore holes into our skulls with angry glares, while others simply stared at the sidewalk as we passed. All thoughts of cyber-fame vanished a few minutes later when Bob and I turned a corner to find a landscape alive - the bucolic green drill field in the distance, dotted with mournful specks of maroon and orange. ‘Gimme my sticks’, I said and Bob gladly obliged. I powered up the camera and lined up shot after shot, struggling at times to catch up with the moving portrait before me. Gone were the Frisbees and grab-ass of normal college outdoor life. Instead, students sat on blankets and stared or stood in groups and whispered. Others milled about under white tents, stopping to scribble messages of remembrance on blank placards left by the college. It was a somber enough scene, and one I had no intention of invading up close. Using every bit of my glass, I gathered all the long shots I could before moving in closer to the makeshift memorial. All around, other camera crews did the same - moving in determined slow motion toward the heartfelt photo-op at the front end of the field.

Two Live CrewIt’s my belief that Virginia Tech handled the after-massacre media onslaught rather well. My many colleagues who spent last week here may disagree, but yesterday at least, we pretty much had open reign. Though I felt the eyeballs of many an official, no one from Virginia Tech’s vast faculty ever approached me. The same could not be said for the students. Still shell-shocked from their loss, they are understandably tired of the electronic press - the roving band of lenses and boom mic‘s that won‘t leave their campus. ’Media Go Home!, read a sign I saw - a sentiment shared in the grumblings of a few lads who brushed by me on the sidewalk. I understood their ire and offered nothing in return. One young fellow though insisted on engaging me . When I pointed out how unobtrusive I was being here on the crowd’s edge, he softened a bit. Eventually Bob and I interviewed him on camera, where railed against the papparazi invading his school. Afterwards, we couldn’t shake the guy, but that‘s cool. His rancor (and attraction) is quite justified by the actions of many in the Fourth Estate. I couldn’t help but realize this as I watched a muttonchopped dude with a tricked-out consumer-cam, working the pack of mourning kids like he was shooting a concert. Too cool for sticks, he cradled his lens awkwardly in his upturned palms, jamming the damn thing repeatedly in the faces of sobbing freshmen.



joey said...

even i got recognized from your blog in my time at sat truck city. face it, amigo - you're a star!

newmediajim said...

I can't believe I missed you there!!! What an awful week for everyone. The "intimacy" of small cameras doesn't work in a situation like this does it. On of the injured students visited the main memorial yesterday. I thought "what a moving shot!". As I rolled, his friend walked up and asked "do you mind not doing that?!" I shook his hand and said "not at all". I turned the camera round the other way and shut it off.

Jason M. said...

First off, let me preface by saying that I follow your blog as much as an engineering double major allows ;) and that I really enjoy your stories and your style of writing.

Please excuse me while I vent for a moment.

Regarding the previous comment, fortunately there were some members of the media who were nice enough to comply with our requests to be left alone. Unfortunately, for the most part, everyone wanted a scoop.

During the candlelight vigil, a group of friends and I were standing next to another group of people, one of whom lost it about halfway through. Instantly the cameras (many of whom appeared to be CBN News - aka the 700 Club) began to swoop in and wouldn't go away when we all told them (in more polite terms) to basically fuck off. So one of our group began singing and walked straight into his shot. Seeing this small spectacle, others joined and formed a wall around the grieving group - a wall that moved in tandem with the asshole photogs until they gave up and went away.

I understand the need to tell a story, but in such a situation I would hope that "journalists" would have more tact, integrity, and respect than I have seen over the past two weeks. I'm all for freedom of speech, but it seems like much of the media (especially TV, local just as much as the big guys) tends to hide behind the mantra of first amendment rights in order to ignore the fact that they're being completely insensitive pricks.

At the campus radio station, we've been keeping a "Good" & "Bad" media list (don't worry, 'el Ocho' is on the good list - I've got nothing but respect for how WGHP has handled the situation and how they've treated us through the entire ordeal). Incidentally, we've also seen that the English-language international news media (ABC (Australia)/BBC/CBC/RTE (Ireland)/Radio New Zealand have all been miles ahead of any domestic media in terms of tact, understanding, and journalistic integrity. Also, the ABC News radio people (and their freelancers) have been really respectful, too.

I think the main qualm people have had with the media over the past few weeks was the initial rape of our campus by invading hoards of "journalists," the majority of whom have seem to have forgotten their sense of tact, humility, and above all, respect.

Thanks for letting me vent,

- A first-year senior engineering double major (from High Point) at VT

Jason M. said...

Sorry to beat a dead horse, but I've also heard reports of members of the media sneaking into classes as well as following people into dorms.

Also, the fairly liberal visitation policy at Montgomery Regional Hospital has been done away with, due to members of the media trying to sneak their way in to interview those who were injured in the shootings.

The latter is what's really pissed me off, since a friend of mine is one of those very people recovering in the hospital, and the careless zeal for an exclusive has made it nigh-on-impossible for anyone other than his immediate family to visit him anymore.

Ok, I'm done for real this time.