Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hurricane Stew (1)

Don’t turn your back on an angry ocean. It is one of the many lessons I took away from my 1994 encounter at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Hurricane Gordon had just blown through and I was one of many surly journalists milling about the beach amid the wreckage of a collapsed vacation cottage. Actually, I was a 27-year-old news punk running around in a station windbreaker and feeling quite outgunned. All around me, three-person network crews in matching rain slickers roved about with their pistol-grip betacams and looming microphone poles. I however was a one-man-band, on the coastal edge of my rural TV news market and more than a little unprepared. It wasn’t my first time chasing storms, but it WAS my first time at a network-level Hurricane Circus. Maybe that’s why I stuck to the edge of the pack, ignoring the crashing surf behind me as I watched the big boys strut their stuff. In my stupor, I made myself an easy target. Why else would Mother Nature kick me in the ass?

A sharp yell kicked off the waylay. I don’t remember the exact words, but the tone of the distant voice snapped me out of my trance and I looked up over my shoulder. In an instant, I understood why strangers were shouting at me. An avalanche of whitewater quickly filled my view. As it did, I couldn’t fathom was how the Atlantic Ocean had raced up the beach so fast. But in the nanosecond I took the waist-high wall of tumbling seawater to reach me, I realized I was about to get my bell rung. I just didn’t know how long it would echo.

I tried to move. I twisted around to block the camera from the wave’s impact and wondered just how wet I was about to become. That’s when everything around me turned to foam and the rogue wave picked me up off my feet. Holding the camera in a death grip, I struggled to gain control, as the wall of water tossed me around like just another twig it intended to snap. Sand and saltwater filled my nasal passages as I cart wheeled in the Atlantic’s frenzied spin-cycle. I tried desperately to come up for air but the pounding surf planted my face into the sandy bottom and tried to rip the dying camera from my grip. My Nantucket Sleigh Ride had begun.

I’d like to say I tapped my inner Aqua-Man and rode that battered Panasonic into shore like an electronic boogie-board. But what I really did was suck seawater as the forces of nature gave me the Mother of all sand-wedgies. All I could do was hold on to the camera, determined not to lose what was most certainly a mortally wounded piece of recording equipment. But I wasn’t alone in the ocean’s crush. All those broken boards, metal shards and bricks I had been standing by were now part of that rushing river of sea foam. For a second I broke the surface and got a quick, scary look at the jagged lumber swirling around me. A piling the size of a telephone pole bobbed past and I prayed I wouldn‘t come to rest with a stick through my gut. Then the wave pushed me downward and I was break dancing underwater once again.

In times of great peril, time has a funny way of skipping a beat, slowing down to make seconds feel like several lifetimes. Thus, I had lots of time to contemplate my fate as I slow motion tumbled through the barreling surf. I wondered how I would explain this to my bosses, my wife, and my buddies. Mostly though, I thought about how I came to be swimming alongside an expensive TV camera in the first place.

Next Time: Road Trip...

Friday, December 17, 2004

Crash Test Dummies

Those who remember my mad dash from a speeding truck last month will be surprised to hear I revisited the Great Barrier 1 Net Test. Mike Lamore and his buddies assured us we wouldn't have to run for our lives this time, so reporter Erik Liljegren and I returned to the Randolph County holler these homespun engineers call home.

The mission was the same: Ram a full size moving truck into a giant kevlar net. Last time the assembled gearheads tried to drive the truck via a remote control. Aside from a total lack of steering control, it worked just fine. Wisely, Lamore hired a stunt driver this time - a lackadaisal young hipster who looked like he should be scooping yogurt off campus somewhere instead of strapping on a crash helmet and crawling into the truck's modified cockpit.

Still, the young man earned his coin, driving the familair truck (now sporting a giant Barrier 1 website address) into the net at 52 miles per hour. A loud pop rang out when the truck smashed into the net, followed by a few muttered curses from its designers. It snapped, wrapping it's heavy corded braids around the crumpled grill and quickly flattening tires. With the dust still settling, a herd of lenses pounded down the dirt road toward the smoldering wreck, the stunt driver stumbling out of the cab with only a slightly spacier look on his face than before.

Pointing my camera this way and that, I captured twenty second segments of the crash's aftermath as Lamore and company did their best to put a spin on the net's performance.

"It stopped the truck. If this was a bomb, he's not going anywhere now," he said as blue antifreeze poured from the truck's busted radiator.

I squinted through the viewfinder and wondered how much the dirt embankment just behind the net had to do with the truck's sudden halt. Hmmmm.

Snapped net or not, Mike Lamore and his screwdriver buddies are onto something. I have no doubt they'll eventually sell their Barrier 1 system to the military, once they get all the kinks ironed out. Until then, you can find them huddled at their Randolph County outpost, perfecting their 'Dukes of Hazzard' approach to Homeland Security - and making for some pretty good photo ops in the process.

What could be more American than that?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Perils of E.N.G.

Earlier this year, two television news photographers died in the line of duty. At the time I attempted an on-line eulogy of sorts, but came away with a plea to my brothers and sisters behind the lens.
Setting up a live shot in haste, darting across traffic for another tape - we’ve probably all done it more than we care to admit. But this week those thoughtless actions took two colleagues from us, one an eager rookie, the other a trusted veteran. I knew neither, but after hearing of their tragic plights, I’ve come to think of them as fallen comrades.

Maybe that’s because they were brothers-in-arms, the kind of guys I might strike up a conversation with by the roped-off crime scene. We behind the TV news lens are a loose-knit lot, as a breed we are not ‘joiners’ but individualists who enjoy being insiders and embrace our unique perspectives . But pluck two shooters from either coast and they’ll quickly find something to talk about. Despite whatever size market or region we practice our peculiar craft in, we share a common language built around our most uncommon points of view.

Which is why it’s so easy to identify with the latest two victims of the news-gathering war, for they are versions of every one of us. I look at Matt Moore’s picture online , and remember the unbridled enthusiasm of my own early days behind the lens. I read about the award-winning work and winning nature of Jeff Frolio, and I think about the kind of photog I want to grow into. That neither of these two men will get to complete their own journey fills me with regret and trepidation; for succumbing to their same fate is all too easy to imagine.

Some cynics have cited Jeff and Matt’s apparent lack of judgment - an easy thing to do from the safety of a cushy cubicle. They’re free to say what they will, even when it goes so far to insult the freshly dead. But until all those critics have walked a mile in a photog‘s shoes, their blustery words mean damn little. Ironically, the most savage attacks have come from those too used to getting their news handed to them on a silver platter. It’s different when you’re in the field. I’m not defending the disastrous actions of young Mr. Moore and not so young Mr. Frolio, but I can certainly understand what led them to the brink.

Too often we photogs adapt a soldier’s mentality, hunkering down under the weight of our gear and slogging through day after day of battle. Unseen generals page us hourly, issuing forth battle plans at a feverish pitch. Strategies vary, but all involve using every bit of our blood and sweat and sometimes even our tears. But we barely break stride, for the grueling pace and the outrageous demands are all a part of the conflict at hand. It should surprise no one that occasionally we foot-soldiers end up jumping on a few grenades. After all, life on the front-lines comes with a few scars.

But unlike real soldiers, those of us who peer through viewfinders for a living often suffer delusions of immortality. Perhaps it’s because we see the best and worst of mankind in tiny black and white. So accustomed to perching on the edge of tragedy, we squint through our eyepiece and compartmentalize our feelings, instead focusing on our own special blend of guerilla storytelling. Fancying ourselves as post-modern action figures, we wrench the most from our various gadgets in a daily footrace to pull off the improbable, to make slot at any cost.

This week, however, the price was the very lives of two beloved photojournalists, a terrible fine that no manager, station or network truly wishes to pay. Everyone involved in the dissemination of information will agree - there is no story, no intrigue, no drama of the day is worth the life of it’s messenger. For those in the newsroom, it’s little more than benign policy - for those of us in the field, it should be a daily mantra.

Simply put, Matt Moore and Jeff Frolio didn’t have to die. But they got caught up in the thrill of the hunt and before they knew it, they went from predator to prey. It would be criminal for those of us still in the pack not to learn something from their fatal mistakes. Remember their names and why you know them. Let their deaths be a grim reminder that the Job has inherent perils, and twenty years under your belt doesn’t make you immune to its many risks. It’s an unavoidable truth we all need to think about the next time we hurl ourselves into the void. Jeff and Matt didn’t plan to end their lives that day, and we should all learn from the awful finality of their momentary missteps. To do anything less is to dishonor their memory.

Look Up, Slow Down, and Go Home at the end of the day. Your loved ones deserve it, and so do you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Diagnosis: Blogger

I'm sick, I tell you - feverish with thought, pregnant with prose and increasingly addicted to blogging. How this came to be is still a mystery, but I can no longer deny it. Consider the signs:

Today at a stoplight I came up with a great blog-topic. I was three paragraphs into the mental screed when a trucker behind me blasted his horn, snapping me out of my crossroad torpor. Seems he didn't care what epistle might be brewing under my lid; he only wanted to offer me the finest in one-fingered driving instructions. Who says chivalry is dead?

Later I was scribbling in a pocket notebook with a cell phone jammed in my ear. Not an unusual thing for a married man, until I caught myself adding html code to the wife’s grocery list. Anybody know where I can two bags of, lemme see... {li}{a ref ='cat food'}{/a} ? Harris Teeter doesn’t seem to stock it.

Worst of all, I can’t seem to keep my new disease to myself. Today at a lengthy Governor’s press conference, instead of daydreaming into my lens, I scribbled my blog address on three business cards and shoved them into the palms of one Jerry Bledsoe, Senator Kay Hagan and eventually, Governor Easley himself.

No wonder the bodyguards were looking at me funny.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Scenes From A Day Planner

As a struggling memoirist, I do ALOT of looking backwards. Which is why you'll find me hunched over my battered Day Planner this time of year, trying to assign nuance and meaning to twelve months of dashboard chicken scratch. Some of the terse entries ('Fatal House Fire','Danville Primaries','New Wal-Mart) tell the whole tale, but others ('MoonRock Madness', 'Robotic Prostate','Toxic Ditch') beg to be explained. So grab your own calendar and join me, as I flip a few coffee-stained pages and trounce back through a pretty average 2004,"The Year in E.N.G."

A perfectly good news story fell from the sky in early March, and for a few days the local telescope mafia did nothing but hyperventilate about it. In between hits off their collective inhalers, they pronounced the mysterious mass of metal that pierced the roof a north High Point home to be Not Of This World - a meteor maybe, a piece of space junk, the cam-shaft to a late model UFO. Imagine their reaction when the Amazing Space Rock turned out to be a broken cog from a nearby industrial wood chipper. I don't have to imagine it - I was there, and since then the truly weird tale of 'MoonRock Madness' had richocheted inside my skull. But more on that one later.

Days after that astro-debacle I plummeted back to Earth and witnessed animal cruelty of the lowest order. Hours after animal rights activists rescued a dozen diseased and neglected horses from a Randolph County farm, I met the group in Dobson and surveyed the status of the starving herd. You didn't have to be a horse-person to spot the abuse: jutting ribcages, malformed hooves, grossly-dialated pupils, all signs of unfathomable neglect. The flannel-clad rescuers shook with anger as they told my camera how God had a special place for those who torture animals. I hope they're right. It's been said that horse-people prefer the company of their beloved steeds over that of humans. Now I know why.

Weeks later, another kind of animal dictated my day. A doe, a deer, a female deer upset quite a few Subway patrons when it burst through the glass of the restaurant's front door, obviously hungry, confused and dying to meet Jared. Twenty seconds after it crashed the party, the punch-drunk doe left through the gaping hole it came in through, causing the young counter help to speak in tongues. I knwo this because I watched the in-store surveillance camera footage until my eyes bled tartar sauce. After some judicous editing and an interview with the friendly store manager, I had what turned out to be one of the easiest, most inconsequential and frequently asked-about news story of the year. Who needs in-depth coverage of weighty topic when you have cute and fuzzy animals in dire peril?

In May, a foul hot wind blew in and sparked the first in a series of inner-city police stand-offs. These midday gatherings are a hallmark of local summer news coverage - as predictable as house fires after a sudden cold snap. I arrived a little late, and after doing power hits off my news unit's air conditioning vent, I slunk into the humid lunchtime air, taking my place amid the other cameras, drunks and looky-loo's. Police cars and SWAT team members shimmered in the distant heat waves and I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at. Spotting a hunched over woman in an orange housecoat, I made a polite inquiry of the gathering citizenry.

"'Scuse me Ma'am - what's going on?"

"Some fool beat his girlfriend", the woman said, leaning in close and bathing me in cheap liquor and cigarettes, "Now he's holdin' off the PO-lice."

Straining to make sense of the flashing blue lights through my viewfinder, I pulled back from the eyepiece and tried to get my bearings.

"You mean that blue house down there", I asked my new boozy friend, " the one kinda blocked by that old barn?"

At that, the woman jerked her gaze in my direction and with bloodshot eyes delivered what might very well be the line of the year...

"That ain't no BARN, Cracka - that's MY HOUSE!"

Flush with ignorance and shame, I stifled a laugh and never felt whiter. Later, back at the station, I shared the exchange with several co-workers. I probably should have kept it to myself, as a few of them have called me nothing but 'Cracka' ever since.

Who can blame them?

Next time on The Year in E.N.G. -- June and Beyond!

Confessions of a Video Vulture

I'm lucky. I truly enjoy my work. For the past fifteen years, I've witnessed more froth and wonder than many do in a lifetime, thanks to the ever-present camera on my shoulder. But the job isn't without it's dark side...

...Like having to approach the families of murder victims in hopes of an interview. It's the least favorite part of my job, but sadly, it's something I've become quite adept at. My method is simple, park my rolling billboard as far away from the family's house as possible and walk up the driveway WITHOUT the camera. I'm usually met outside by a teary-eyed relative, wanting to know what the hell I'm doing on their property.

I apologize for intruding at such an insensitive time and explain the reasons for my visit. I offer condolences on my station's behalf and ask if there's anything they'd like to say to our viewers. Sometimes I'm asked to leave immediately, and I do, but more often than not the person will talk. It's not fair, they say, Johnny was so young, he was never given a chance, who could do such a thing? I stare at my feet as they wipe away their tears. Many times I'm on the verge of choking up too, but I forge ahead, asking if they would consent to an on-camera interview.

Surprisingly, many agree. Soon, I have the camera trained on them as they reluctantly answer my questions. I use to marvel at the number of people who will go on-camera and talk about their slain relatives before they are even buried, but not anymore. Enough years behind the lens has rendered me quite immune to surprise of any kind, and in a way that helps me get through such unsavory assignments.

But just WHY these victims of tragedy talk to a stranger with a camera still eludes me. Some understand that news of their loved one's demise will air anyway, and seek to straighten out the rumours and innuendo that swirl around such cases. Others are merely fullfilling their newly appointed roles as reluctant spokespersons in our media-soaked culture. But most of those who do talk, do so as if they have no choice, wrongly assuming the electronic media represents some kind of authority figure.
It's that belief that disturbs me most.

Their pained expressions stick with me. I'll never forget the large black man who sat on the porch of his public housing unit, swatting away flies as he told me about his ten year old daughter, who had been found beaten to death the day before. Or the frail young woman who balanced her baby on her hip, telling me that her younger brother's mile-long rap sheet was no reason for him to be gunned down in cold blood. Or the old couple who clutched the framed picture of their grand-daughter, and asked my camera why anyone would want to kill their baby.

I have no answers for these people, only questions. And sometimes, when the interview is over, the strangest thing happens. They'll thank me for being sensitive to their grief, for understanding their emotional state. I've held hands with some family members, shared hugs, even closed my eyes as they launched into prayer. And while the reason for my presence isn't entirely pure, my empathy is heartfelt. I've even kept in touch with a few, checking in on them when I'm in their neighborhood. It doesn't help their pain, but maybe it helps my guilt for intruding in their lives during such a horrific time.

Later, when I'm in my news car and heading back to the station, I turn the radio off and drive in silence. Despite how much tact I may have employed, I usually feel like a heel for succeeding in my hated task. I know my producers will be estatic over my bounty. They'll view my footage of crying relatives, family portraits and crime scene tape as just more fodder for their latest lead story. An editor will extract the most emotional moments and condense it to a tidy minute-fifteen report, ending with a slow-motion zoom of the deceased's once smiling, living face. Carefully groomed anchors will put on their most somber faces, and relate the facts of the latest homicide in the inner city. Ninety seconds later they'll move on to the next story, the tragedy immediately forgotten. But I don't forget, even though I sometimes try.

I used to be proud of being callous, wearing my hard candy shell like a newsman's badge of honor. Then I had kids. Children of your own have a funny way of re-examining your life. As a result, I'm a bit more feeling than I used to be. Recently when I was out of state on assignment, an elementary student got run over and killed by his own school bus. Thank GOD I wasn't around to respond to THAT story. Having children that same age, I doubt seriously I could have handled such a tragic scene. Call me a wimp if you want to - but far more important people call me 'Daddy', and I owe it to them not to be a totally heartless bastard.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Footage Shouldn't Fizz

A colleague from Australia tells the story of how a single ant brought his newsgathering day to an unceremonious finish. I can relate. Though never been infested with ants I pulled the equivalent a long time ago in a news bureau far, far away...

It was back in my one-man band days when I toiled as a reporter-cameraman-roadie. Lodged away in my seedy little office, I hacked away at an ancient typewriter, trying to bring a little wisdom to the rash of break ins I was covering that day. As usual my desk was a mess: shoot tape, Chinese take out plate, soda, car keys, pager, camera batteries, all the weaponry of a modern day news warrior. Hey, who has time for desktop feng shui when you're committing television in the first degree, anyway?

No, office ergonomics were the farthest thing from my mind as I stared at the corkboard and mumbled aloud like broadcast writers have done for decades. Not happy with the cliché on my tongue I turned my trusty thesaurus for another one. That's when my elbow collided with can, toppling the freshly opened Dr. Pepper onto my freshly ejected shoot tape.

Before I even noticed an arcing carbonated plume instantly soaked my news gathering efforts, leaving my bright yellow beta tape a sticky, syrupy mess.

After a few moments of staring in disbelief, I made a very unpleasant phone call to my News Director. There wasn't much I could do: it was ninety minutes to Showtime and my important news footage was covered in frothy cool refreshment. Lacking the acumen to repair the tape, I meekly offered to do a live shot from the bureau and act out the rash of break-ins using shadow puppets.

My bosses were not amused.

Since that day I've cleaned up my desk and adopted the wise practice of using tape boxes, something I should have figured out on Day One. Now that I'm recording straight to disc, I'm equally paranoid - not wanting to pioneer news ways to corrupt Sony's much-heralded format. Though I'm scatterbrained by nature, I always know where my media is, as without it - I'm just a bystander in logowear.

And though the skill has always escaped ME, I've witnessed incredible tape-endectomies over the years. In the edit bay, the engineer shop, the live truck, I know photogs who can perform emergency surgery with nothing more than a Leatherman and a looming deadline, Long after I would have given the patient up for dead, they've rescued sound and images from that Great Tape Pile in the Sky. I've always considered that ability to be a hallmark of a True Photog - not some lens-pretending, squinty scribbler like myself.