Editors Note:


EDITOR'S NOTE: Fresh off a three year managerial stint, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is back on the street and under heavy deadline. As the numbing effects of his self-imposed containment wear off, vexing reflections and pithy epistles are sure to follow...

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Scrum and the Numb

'It's TV news at its best and TV news at its worst.'

That was the assessment of one colleague last week as broadcasters from across the hemisphere converged on a shell-shocked Virgina Tech. I can't agree more, for rarely have newsgathering forces turned crisis into commodity quite so precisely. Before the sun set on the day of the shooting, a growing herd of TV trucks grazed on a campus hillside, a labyrinth of cables and light stands spilling out from behind their overly lacquered logos. As the unfathomable death toll echoed across the globe, more and more media outlets dispatched crews to Blacksburg. Midwest affiliate reps, foreign bureau chiefs and every network hotshot you can think of soon roamed the grounds of what some consider the largest sat truck summit ever convened. At dusk, hundreds of tripods lined every inch of the grassy ridge, those tricked-out HMI rigs spotlighting the very edge of Virgina's darkest day. Over coiffed correspondents stood almost shoulder to shoulder and nodded gravely on cue, before introducing their own uniquely assembled dissection of the day. Walk that line of talking heads and you'll find whatever spin you're looking for, from the shrill demagoguery of cable news outlets to the melodramatic whispers of the public broadcasting set to the indecipherable rapid-fire of the Spanish-speaking channels. Translation aside, the incident at hand had already transformed. Hours before, the massacre at Virginia Tech had been but a madman's depraved fantasy. By nightfall it was a slick and salacious sat-shot juggernaut, available in every skewed perspective the 24/7 news universe has to offer.

But at what cost? For every talking head, sound tech and camera-hump scouring the Virginia Tech proper, there were countless more local folk sleepwalking in grief - trying to wrap their heads around the crushing loss and a dark new legacy, all while news crews clamored for close-ups of their still-falling tears. With classes cancelled for the week, only the media and the bereaved remained to duel it out. The resulting frenzy was ugly at times. No sooner could a crew corner a subject than a gaggle of new logo'd lenses would descend - turning an impromptu one-on-one into a gang-bang of obscene proportions.The melee of microphones was pack journalism at its worst - a phenomenon in which truth is lost in fervor and the signal turns simply to noise. Certainly not every member of the Fourth Estate so egregiously devolved on spot, but even the accepted tactics - from celebrity reporters using their household names to get to the victims' families to the rampant bum-rushing of the many memorials - were pretty damned unsavory. But don't take my word for it - I was only there for a day. Listen instead to a VT student named Jason M., who left this reply to an earlier thread:
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 began to swoop in and wouldn't go away when we all told them - to basically piss 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'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.
However you might envision the above scene, it wasn't our finest hour. But among the victimized were members of the media itself. For many local news crews, the long-gone crush of jet-setting competitors has left a lasting impression on those who remain.
You national/international folks really messed up my community. A place where I've done more than a hundred stories is no longer welcoming. The people stare and harass us, something never done before. I know it will never change, but a lot of y'all need to check into the school of respect. I'm glad you're gone as is my community. I hate it that we have to pick up your mess. Thanks to all the unethical bastards that invaded my space. Those that posed as students, hospital staff and who knows what else. Thanks to god that there's a new disaster to take you away so our community can start to recover from our disaster. Adios. -- Newsman
It must be noted that Newsman has been pretty much eviscerated by his fellow photogs, most of whom credit the assassin Cho for Blacksburg's remaining woes. I don't totally buy that, for asinine behavior on the part of strangers cannot totally be blamed on a homicidal college kid lying dead in a classroom. In my short time on the drill field a full week after the attack, I saw enough boorish camera behavior to make me wonder why I ever wanted to sling a news lens at all. That's not to say I think we should revert to two cans and a string . Wonderful new tools are at our disposal; hell, the web alone makes the idea of a 500 channel universe seem hopelessly quaint. But is it too much to ask that we retain some air of civility amid all this mass communicatin'? Apparently so. It's something this reformed southerner will never get used to - even when I myself am caught up in the ugliest of scrums. It sure doesn't make defending my profession any easier - not when its glaringly obvious that despite your favorite newscast being late-breaking, localized and live(!), basic human decorum is all but dead.

No news-flash there, I guess...

6 comments:

FlutePrayer said...

My first experience in a national disaster area was the Whittier Narrows Earthquake on Oct 1, 1987. It occured almost directly underneath my home. Every window was broken, part of the ceiling collapsed, the cupboards emptied, personal items destroyed, water main broken. It wasn't pretty. I had to go Uptown to see if my business was still standing. That was my first experience with the sat truck camp. I couldn't believe my eyes. I also couldn't believe my ears. There were news crews laughing and joking around while my hometown was in a shambles. (I even made the Denver Post as I held my head in my hands in despair). A network sportscaster friend explained to me that the crews needed to step back and not get personally involved in their stories. That helped me to understand a little, but it was still surprisingly wounding. I think what might have been worse, though, were the lookie loos cruising my quiet neighborhood only hours after the first jolt, slowing down and pointing at the destruction.

Disasters aren't a movie. They are someone's real life. Thank you for your perspective. It is much appreciated.

Jason M. said...

I had never even stopped to think about the local media. It is an incredibly hostile time right now, media-wise. I really feel for those poor WDBJ, WSLS, and WSET journalists as well as the Roanoke Times reporters/photogs next time they have to come around here.

Newsman was right - up until last week, VT students had a fairly easygoing relationship with the media - two fall semesters ago, WSET (ABC/Lynchburg) actually went on a weeklong tour of local colleges, doing the 6pm news live from each campus. At VT, they rolled their sat truck out onto the drillfield, were casually dressed and easygoing, and brought along freebies for students. Everyone got along well.

I think if they (or any of the other locals) rolled a sat truck onto campus today (you can't do a microwave shot from Blacksburg b/c the town sits in a hole), people would be after them in a heartbeat.

It's good to hear someone else's perspective - especially from someone behind the lens.

From someone behind the mic (and the dingy transmitter room), thanks.

Brit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.man.I aka The Urban Reporter said...

As my brother (and editor for an NBC station said) "The media bled that story." Whether you call it pack journalism, a gang bang or cluster.... I can only imagine what it was like. Prayers to healing, and prayers for the media.

Rosenblum said...

Lovely writing Stewart.
You are limiting yourself by sticking just to photography.You should merge the two. Your style and your insights make you a great journalist of our times.

Roelly Winklaar said...

cool