Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Partner Departs

It was almost two years ago that Erik Liljegren breezed into the newsroom, twelve months removed from a six year stint producing at Fox News Channel. Despite the pedigree, we lensmen were skeptical. He had the hair and the suits, but could this big city scribbler cut it on the mean streets of the Piedmont? Laugh if you want, but the Triad is a hotbed of electronic newsgathering - a smattering of cities and towns where the local news cycle can kick into overdrive with the flip of a single school bus. In the daily hunt, the well-groomed goob riding shotgun in the live truck can make the difference between going hungry or eating the competition’s lunch. Don’t get me wrong - I‘ve worked with some masterful storytellers, but I’ve also carried more prom queens than a dozen parade floats.

Which brings me back to Erik Liljegren. Before we ever learned how to spell his name, this affable and erudite chap from New Jersey proved he didn’t just fall off the hairspray truck. With his poker face, sharp suits and just-the-facts demeanor, Lilly quickly earned a spot as The Photog's Favorite - a hard title to win among the seen-it-all shooters that populate our shop. The reason was simple: Erik didn't sweat. No matter what absurd assignment the desk threw his way, he delivered - often exceeding the most unrealistic of expectations. Aside from his considerable writing skills and on-camera presence, it was Erik's unflappable nature and easy-going eye-roll that endeared him to photogs, producers and viewers alike. If all reporters were this cool under the gun, my blood pressure would be a good deal lower.

Now he's leaving us, taking his polished shtick and sculptured hair back to the Big Apple, where he'll return to his roots at Fox News Channel. This time however, he'll be in front of the camera, a gig he’s had his eye on since the very first day he sauntered into Rupert Murdoch’s kingdom. We here on the local level are thrilled for him, but more than a little bummed at losing such an all-around stand-up guy. Especially me. As the crusty veteran of a thousand news wars who‘s something of a scribbler himself, I’m especially hard on the talking-hair-do set. But I’ve coem to know Erik as a trusted colleague and genuine friend, one with whom I’ve shared many a newsgathering misadventure. From the dicey neighborhoods to the icy overpass to the unlikely path of a speeding truck, this intensely casual young man has proven he has the chops to handle it all.

I’ve seen scores of reporters come and go. This time, it’s personal.

Merry Christmas!

All the best from Viewfinder BLUES...

Wanted to take a break from erecting Barbie Dream Houses to thank all five of you out there who frequent this site, plus a huge THANKS to all the Piedmont bloggers who have been so helpful over the past couple of months. Now, if you'll excuse me I have a tea party to get back to...

Friday, December 24, 2004

Hurricane Stew (3)

Kitty Hawk was dark, shuttered and seemingly empty. Only a passing TV truck gave the drowsy corner stoplight reason to do its job. With my other-guy radar pinging loudly in my head, I pulled in behind the brightly marked sat truck. ‘Virginia‘s News Leader‘ -- the logo boasted. Do it, I thought. It did, down the street and a sharp right into a crowded cul-de-sac, where I gulped at the biggest gathering of TV news vehicles I’d ever seen.

Satellite trucks, microwave vans, news cruisers and unmarked Suburbans sat parked at crazy angles. Beyond the pack of news chariots, a group of local sheriff deputies stood in front of a string of flapping yellow tape. I found a space and got out of the car in time to see a heavy man in a billowing orange poncho lift a bullhorn to his lips.

“If all ya’ll people will wait about thirty minutes, we’ll get ya down there! Them houses ain’t goin’ nowhere! We’ll take ya, but the road’s washed out and ya cain’t go by ya-self. We got some big army trucks on the way so just sit tight!”

A rumble of indignation traveled through the crowd. Grizzled truck techs cursed under the breath and a square-jawed reporter tried to negotiate a better deal from the man in the poncho. It was no use. Mr. Poncho - whom I later learned to be the County Sheriff, would not budge, no matter what the stranger with the pretty teeth said. After a few minutes, the pack of media jackals thinned, as individual crews retreated to the drier confines of their spacious sat trucks. I had no such luxury though , and as I leaned on the hood of my faded white Taurus Wagon, I realized I had to something if I was gonna keep up with these high-tech Newsonauts. Watching the crashing surf beyond the row of beachfront homes, I thought about my heroes.

‘What would Andy do?’ I thought. Andy Cordan, a brash reporter-photographer who had recently left my station was the ballsiest news-hunter I knew - a sawed-off tree trunk of a man who approached newsgathering like a SWAT team cop on truck stop speed. He’d been the top story every night I could remember, repelling down walls with firemen buddies, goading handcuffed strangers into on-camera confessions or ad-libbing a high speed chase while riding shotgun with cops who wouldn‘t even return my calls. Andy would never let something as flimsy as yellow crime-scene tape and a distorted bullhorn keep him from a story. Puffed up with young newsman bravado, I opened the hatchback and streamlined my gear. Closing the lid as quietly as possible, I held my camera down low and slowly faded into the background.

Next Time: WIPE OUT!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

We Cook, You Decide

Originally uploaded by Lenslinger.
Not every day is filled with drive-bys, bus wrecks and house fires. This morning I rose early to share some holiday recipes (LIVE!) with the Greater Piedmont Triad Googaplex, proving you CAN shoot a cooking segment while sleeping on your feet.

Oh yes - the shrimp and grits were exquisite.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Of Floaters and Feelings

A fellow photog talks of trauma and television, bringing to mind MY very first time...

I remember a boating accident from 1990. I'd been in news only a few weeks; the veteran of a half dozen press conferences, three meetings and little more. But suddenly I found myself at river's edge, sandwiched between two tripod veterans as would-be rescuers dragged the depths of the mighty Tar for a missing fisherman.

As I brought the small dinghy into focus, I pressed the 'RECORD' button and grew entranced. The man in the boat was down on his knees, pulling aboard a metal chain hand over hand. When it kept coming up empty, he'd motion the boat pilot to rev the motor and move a few more feet downstream.

This went on for quite some time and I stayed glued to the viewfinder, rolling tape and grinding my teeth. On either side of me, the other TV news photogs rolled their eyes at the new guy. I barely noticed them, as all my attention was drawn to tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyepiece. As heart beat increased with every pull of the dead man's chain, my two more experienced colleagues talked shop, traded police scanner frequencies and cracked on each other's Mom.

Not me. I followed the boat in my viewfinder as it moved slowly down it's invisible string. It was almost halfway to the nearest bend when family members started to arrive. At first there were only, but before long five large farm women paced up and down the dock beside us, wrininging their hands and muttering prayers. My two future buddies quieted down a bit, but still exchanged bored glances.

Feeling newly uneasy myself I leaned into the camera and zoomed all the way in. Backlit now by the setting sun, the silhouette of the men leaning low out of the boat was dowright iconic. I didn't know what that word meant back then, but I did realize I was documenting things I had never seen with the naked eye.

Panning slowly to keep up with the boat, I almost missed it, but out of the lower edge of the screen, the slumped head and shoulders of a very large man bobbed to the surface. The men onboard almost went into the drink as they pulled the body toward the boat. My eye buried to the eyepiece, I heard two cohorts lunging for their own lens.

That's when the screaming started.

Three or four voices. of varying pitch but related timber, howling ill-formed syllables of unmistakable pain. Forgetting my shot, I jerked my neck to the left and saw them. As if recieving electrical shock, the women convulsed and dances on the small pier, in much the same way you might if you saw you loved one at the end of a hook.

The next sounds, heavy metal clicks in close succesion, woke me from my stupor. My two competitors tore their cameras from their tripod heads and quickly shouldered them. As they began to advance on the wailing women with their looming lenses, I found myself torn between duty and decency.

I did NOT want to point my camera at those poor women, but I immediately understood I had to. As a small part of me wretched in disgust. I unlocked my tripod head and picked up the camera, realizing this was just the kind of drama I'd been seeking. Who knew it would feel so lousy?

Fourteen years later, I still attend the occasional drowning, and I've put more sad people on television than I care to count. It's my job. But I've never forgotten that day,when I had to get my hands dirty in the name of news. These days I employ more distance and tact in the pursuit of truth - knowing you can document the truth without getting in the way.

Most of the time.

Hurricane Stew (2)

“No sweat - drive up early in the morning, shoot a couple hours worth and boogie back for the early shows.”

I nodded in agreement, as my bureau mate packed up his briefcase. We had just finished a conference call with the news director, who wanted one of us to head to the Outer Banks in the morning to cover Hurricane Gordon. My colleague had a few years on me and seemed more than a little eager to pawn off the long workday on yours truly. I didn’t really mind, though. This televised storm tracking was a blast! Recently, I’d chased a few spats of bad weather up the Carolina shore, including the weird trifecta of systems later immortalized in ‘The Perfect Storm’. I had even covered some hurricane aftermath, but never the powerful storms themselves. That evening I left the office and went straight home, eager to prepare for the next day’s adventure. Little did I know just how much adventure I‘d get.

The next morning I rose early, kissed my sleeping wife and climbed into my mobile office - a thoroughly dogged-out Ford Taurus wagon with bright peacock logos and a fading white paint job. They called it Unit 11, and as I pulled out of my neighborhood, I hoped it would get me to my destination. It did. Three hours, two Mountain Dews and half a pack of Marlboros later, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and crossed over the Albermarle Sound. Entering Nag’s Head, I lingered long enough do a live report, thanks to the station’s latest addition to my newsgathering arsenal. In fact, I couldn’t stop fiddling with the shoebox-sized ‘bag phone’ sitting in the floorboard the whole trip.

Yes, I was living on the technological edge as I idled in a convenience store parking lot and repeated what I had just heard on the radio into the phone’s receiver. Back at the station, the director punched up a frozen picture of me from the previous day’s story and daydreamed while I yammered on about sea swells and wind gusts. After some phony cross talk with the morning anchors, I signed off, dropped the news wagon into drive and pulled onto the deserted street. Enough talk - time to back up my words with pictures.

Trouble was, there wasn’t a lot to shoot. Since it sprang to life in the western Caribbean several days earlier, Hurricane Gordon had veered drunkenly all over the Atlantic - killing more than a thousand people in Haiti before ending eight more lives in Florida. But by the time it swerved onto the Outer Banks that morning, Gordon has lost most of his lethal punch. The most damage the highly erratic storm could muster was the toppling of five dilapidated beach houses; abandoned cottages condemned a year earlier after Hurricane Emily’s visit. At the end of a drunken spree of violence and death, the intoxicated weather system took a few last swipes before stumbling back out to sea.

Next Time: The Big Boys...

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Chill of the Hunt

As much as anything else, Television News Photography is about driving. Lots of driving. From the screaming interstate to the silence of the back road, I log many a highway mile in the name of news.

Take today for instance. I walked into a morning meeting to learn everyone gathered around the conference table thought it was a good idea if I were to immediately race to the town of Advance. Seems high winds had knocked out power overnight, hundreds of people were shivering without heat on the coldest morning of the year, and they wanted me to ‘put some eyes on it’.


Minutes later I pulled out of the parking lot and steered my frigid Ford Explorer onto the bypass ramp - cranking up the heat and trying like hell to remember where Advance was.

Out along the highway, amid the revved out engines and mad lane changes, I settled into the familiar confines of my mobile office. Holding the wheel steady with one knee, I worked the station’s ancient cell phone, gathering data as I hurtled toward Davie County.

The sheriff department dispatcher had no exact addresses, but plenty of rumors about outages near the Davie/Davidson County line. I dialed a number the station gave me and spoke with a lovely grandmother in the Fork township who’s lights had just flipped back on. She sounded ecstatic, but I was bummed. With Duke Power working furiously, they’d have every Christmas tree in the region lit up before I ever pulled in town.

So I leaned into the steering wheel and pushed the news unit a few miles faster. Not too many, mind you. I learned long ago that the flashy logos on the outside didn’t make my news unit invisible to radar. I merely stayed in the front of the law-abiding pack, as a dozen lead-foots drafted in behind me.

Just before ten o clock I exited the highway system and began plying the back roads of the area surrounding Mocksville. I’d consulted maps, called the authorities and fended off my own rabid producers. It was now time to act on instinct, intrinsic real-world knowledge honed from fifteen years of chasing scanner static and making improbable deadlines.

When a fire station appeared through the windshield, I swooped into the parking lot and pulled along side a beefy fireman thawing out a frozen-stiff mop head with a bucket of dirty water.

‘Ya got any ball caps?” came the familiar refrain. Sadly, I didn’t. All I had were questions - questions he heard before.

“Yeah, they’s all out a power down People’s Church Road. Duke Power’s down there now tryin’ to throw the switch.”

Before the firefighter could finish his sentence, I was down the road, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and hoping the power guys would drag their feet. Five minutes later, I turned onto People’s Church Road. It was a narrow winding country pass and I slowed to just under the speed limit, turned down the radio and cranked up my newsman’s radar.

All looked normal along People’s Church Road, the modest homes that flanked each side of the road showed no outward signs of distress. But as I cruised by the one story ranch numbers, I noticed several garage doors halfway open, a closer look revealed tell tale orange drop cords running haphazardly across shrubs and driveways. Slowing down, I noticed the feint sparkle of tinsel on a decidedly unlit Christmas trees.

I had arrived.

Soon I was out of my news cruiser, knocking on doors and blowing warm air into my hands as I hopped from frigid foot to frigid foot. I must have looked pretty silly, because the first few houses produced no occupants, even though I could clearly hear them rustling around inside.

The third door I knocked on opened almost immediately, a frail looking woman in a nightgown and overcoat meeting my gaze.

“Yes Ma’am - I’m from Channel X, looking for people who still don’t have power...”

“Oh no, I have power” she said, her crystallized breath blowing through the screen door. “All fine here!”

Something in the woman’s wide eyed expression made me question her facilities, but I thanked her and promptly exited her porch. Seems she was all stocked up on crazy and didn’t need none of my voodoo, thank you very much.

For the next twenty minutes I played meter reader, stopping at every house whose doorbell light was dim. Three teenagers answered one door, stoked at the chance of being on Tee-Vee. I hated to disappoint them but there parents weren’t home and I didn’t feel like dealing with three wisecracking adolescents, having been an intolerable pioneer in the wise-ass arts at their age.

Three more times I found a suitable no-power victim, but no matter how many times I dropped the call letters and lay on the ‘Aw Shucks’ routine, they wouldn’t consent to an on-camera visit. Geez...all I wanted to do was come in their home, run my lens through their discomfort and squalor and document it for all their neighbors to see. It’s not like I’m selling Amway or something.

After a few more turn-downs, I was growing frustrated. Worse yet, every third house I passed now had porch lights blazing, taunting my newsgathering attempts with their newly-returned power source. As I took the curves of the country road at a mile or two under reckless, my cell phone rang for the third time in twenty minutes. It was the station, wanting to know if they could send a late-arriving reporter my way, to assist me on the scintillating expose I was working on.

Tightening my grip on the cell phone but holding the steering wheel loose, I tried to explain to my bosses how back-up was the last thing I needed.

“Right now there’s no reason to sen him. I’ve been up and down this road and can’t find anyone who wants to play ball. Now I’m seein’ porch lights pop on.”

As always, the suits were unhappy to hear reality wasn’t conforming to their wishes. In the background I could hear them discuss bringing me back to the station and having me start over on something new. The kiss of death at 11:30 in the news morning. Straining to hear their chatter, I kept driving but stopped paying too much attention to the road.

“Yeah, Stew, why don’t ya head back here and pick up Hunter? You guys could do something on the City Council...”

Alarms and sirens were going off in my head and all the air sucked from my lungs as I gripped the wheel. In no small part did I want to enter the fray of in-town politics, for more reasons than I can list here. I even considered feigning stomach pains, but my work ethic prevented me. All I could do was try not to whine to my superiors as they set my news-day back to zero.

That’s when I saw him, a lone figure bundled up and waiting for the world’s scrawniest dog to baptize a patch of frozen dirt. Behind him, the door to a double wide trailer swung open, revealing only the flicker of candle light from within. When he saw my flashy news wagon, the bundled figure waved heartily and broke into a dented tobacco-stained grin.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Anarchy at Center Court

With less than a week until Christmas and four more days of work left, I’m sure to get it: The much-maligned Holiday Shopping Story. It’s an assignment most TV News folk dread - the ones of us who leave the studio, anyway.

It’s not that it’s difficult, mind you. Spend an hour or so on-scene and you’ll fill your viewfinder with more Christmas consumer images than you can record. Still, the lens-toting loner has good reason to gripe as he schleps gear through the sliding double doors.

For starters, it’s almost impossible to fly under the radar. As a pretty low key guy, I love nothing more than hiding behind the lens. I’m quite adept at being the nameless face behind the flashy station logo. But that sort of invisibility is impossible on the selling floor...especially this time of year.

You try blending into a sea of hopped-up holiday shoppers with a Channel X news camera on your shoulder. It can’t be done. For every sensible citizen that averts your gaze and keeps on walking, a dozen loitering yahoos strut and preen for your attention. Pop on your light and you'LL turn the Food Court into a mosh pit. It’s enough to make a WEARY photog run for the live truck.

Ah, the live truck: another curse of continuous holiday coverage. Producers love to park reporters at the mall to intro their piece, but that twenty seconds of television can break your back and your pride. Why? Try dragging five hundred feet of dirty camera cable into a herd of frazzled consumers and setting up a live remote in their midst. There’s not enough duct tape in the world to make that a good idea.

But we do it, year after year and I don’t expect it to change this joyous season. The only upside is all the shopping I do between wide shots and soundbites. One year I completed my entire list with the heavy strap of my camera digging into my shoulder. ‘Make a hole - the cameraman wants to buy a Lean Mean Grillin’ Machine for his in-laws.’

Yes, the holiday shopping live shot is here to stay, despite its utter lack of news value. I‘ve yet to hear of even one Billy Joe Six-pack bolting up from his La-Z-Boy and bellowing to his bride in the kitchen.

“Myrna - come quick! The Tee-Vee sez there’s people swarmin’ the shopping mall in time fer Christmas! Quick! Git in the storm cellar!”

Who knows though? Maybe that has happened. How would I know, anyway? I’m stuck here in line waiting for Santa and dodging rent-a-cops. The whole world could explode and I’d barely hear a rumble beneath the sappy Muzak. Hmm...maybe it’s not so bad.

Just do me favor, would ya? If you pass a TV news crew camped out in the middle of a packed shopping mall these days, be nice. They’re having as much as fun as the schlub collecting trays in the Food Court.

No, the only worse gig this time of year is the snowy overpass, after a few paltry flakes have sent news managers AND the public into a bread buying, car wrecking, TV watching tizzy.

On second thought, forget I even mentioned that.