Over the years I've taken great pleasure in issuing Schmuck Alerts, those cheeky warnings in which I poke fun at pampered athletes, parolees and other pariahs who lash out at local lenses. Most often, the incidents are a tad trifle; harmless if if not regrettable episodes featuring otherwise lucid souls who, for whatever reason, suffer a momentary lapse of reason. THIS, is not one of those times.
It happened in Florida, Orange County to be exact. Hundreds of relatives of a 15 year old boy killed in a hit and run incident were wrapping up a memorial service when anguish morphed into rage. Exactly what caused that tipping point is unclear, but it's believed the father of the deceased took exception with the way a Spanish language news crew interviewed his surviving son. From there, logic quickly crumbled. Witnesses say the father confronted the news crew, a move which led other family members to target additional journalists on scene. A photographer from WFTV-TV paid the price. The opening frames of his video resemble a late night zombie flick, as angry strangers lunge for him and his lens. You don't have to be in the habit of carrying a Sony on your shoulder to be frightened by that scenario. What followed was a flurry of curses, kicks and punches as what can only be described as a violent mob descend on the unarmed photog.
'Big deal', you might think, 'some nosy newser got his ass kicked after invading a poor family's piece of mind.' You'd be wrong. From all accounts, the WFTV crew was merely the closest target available. Video from other sources shows the photog in question putting up no resistance as the emotional crowd overtakes him. When he can, he scrambles to his feet and hurries toward his waiting live truck, only to be further attacked by two men who apparently felt wronged by the red light of the retreating camera. That last assault is especially ugly, the photog is pushed down and punched before he manages to once again get away. At no time did he challenge his aggressors. No matter - his mere presence enraged the by now felonious mourners.
Are there extenuating circumstances that led to this seemingly unjust beat-down? Couldn't tell ya. But there is one I'm fairly certain of. The WFTV photog didn't want to be there. Shooters never do. No, that kind of urge to witness misery up close and personal usually comes from within the newsroom. We lenslingers are merely the tip of the spear. Very often we're also the most rational members of the media, less inclined to shit on people we know we're going to encounter down the road. It's easy to be cocky when you never leave the newsroom. Smell a few bodies burning, watch a few widows weep and that bravado fades. The news shooters I know can gather in a pack at the edge of atrocity and still find ways to show respect. We're not a particularly noble breed, but we do know how to gather data without drawing blood. If you don't believe me, you really should get out of that news cube more often.
Even if you do, you'd be hard-pressed to vilify a family coping with unspeakable loss. That seems to be who these mourners were and while my heart bleeds for their sorrows, it dries up pretty quickly when you come for my jugular. Do we news photogs have an unsavory occupation? At times. Do we take pleasure in hounding victims in their worst hours? Hardly. In fact, most TV stevedores would rather shoot a hundred ribbon cuttings than loiter outside a single house of pain. Still, it's our job and until Flip phones and Twitter accounts fully replace us, you can expect we'll gather at the rim of unfortunate incidents and try to stay out of the way.
But mercy is shown where mercy is given. You don't have to like me. Feel free to flip me off. You won't be the first. And while I may grimace at the digits, I won't return the sentiment. After all, it's just another lousy assignment to me. To you, it's very often the worst day ever. I get that and will give you far more that the benefit of the doubt. But lay hands on me and the empathy dissolves. I may not succeed in planting my boot in your crotch as you take me down, but I reserve the right to try. Whatever happens, keep smiling, as your every action will grace the next several newscasts I have anything to do with. Until then, you have my deepest sympathies...