Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ribbon Cuttings, Ride-Alongs and Rage

Isn’t it strange that we TV news photojournalists are widely renowned for our lousy attitudes? Why are we pissed? We have an all-access pass to life, dress like we're always on vacation, and basically sight-see for a living...Okay, there's more to it than that, but on the whole my profession calls for just as much daring as it does drudgery. Yet the classic stereotype of a news shooter is that of an anti-social, slightly subversive loner dripping in spite, self-loathing and cynicism. Of course we’re not all like that, but walks the halls of any TV station and I guarantee you’ll find at least one lost soul who fits that bill.

In fact, I think it's part of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act. Here it goes right here..
Article 19 Section 4 Paragraph 5...All broadcast facilities within the contiguous U.S. will seek out and continue to employ one badly-aging ENG camera operator whose sole purpose is to impress upon all others what a righteous sewer this place is, emphasizing to all how it could all be fixed if just every fellow employee would make a single file line at the nearest exit and GET THE HELL OUT OF HIS LIFE!
Okay, so I was a bit on edge that day, but you would be too if you spent three hours hunched over an dying eyepiece in a cramped shotgun seat of a tricked-out police car, all so you can obtain the same seven shots you did on your very first ride-along fifteen years ago. It’s enough to make the most affable of chaps go a little postal.

In fact, I sometimes get so fired up over the predicable anguish of The Job that I could french-kiss a chainsaw and come out the winner. What exactly that means I don't know, but I do sometimes wonder would If I'd get this pissed off if I were peddling carpet samples, or installing stereos, or assembling snowmobiles. Something tells me I would, but it won't stop me from swearing up and down I'm wasting my life away sometime next week. A thousand ribbon-cuttings will do that to a fellow.

For me though, nothing assures me I'm following the right path in life than a visit to good ole Corporate America. Ten minutes inside the hushed confines of a super-polite cubicle-farm and I break out in a cold sweat. I grow pale, get dizzy and want to rip down every Dilbert cartoon in sight before running down the hall to tip over the snack machine. For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I yearn to smell the pine tree air freshener hanging from my news unit's rearview mirror, to race it's engines to the nearest crime tape and soak up the ambience of live truck fumes, tripod clusters and chain-smoking strangers.

For it's only in this sordid, deadline-filled pressure-cooker world of daily TV news that I feel truly at home. Sure, I may mumble about the colossal stupidity of today's assignment, but pay it no mind. All that gruff and cynicism is simply a front - a defense mechanism to hide the fact that I'm still pretty stoked to be in such an unpredictable, improbable, inane profession. I somehow doubt furniture upholsters feel the same way about their jobs.

Then again, no one disturbs their sleep because an abandoned warehouse catches fire.

Real World Award Categories

I’m not one for entering TV news contests, but friends of mine spend lots of time and effort chasing those shiny mantle-somethings. Be it NPPA , The Emmy's or Bob’s Trophy Factory, the categories are all the same: Best Spot News, Best Feature, Best Series...BORING! If I’m gonna spend my time (and money) chasing accolades, give me some categories I can relate to...

INTERN DITCHING: The squirrelly little dude in the clip-on tie just asked if he could 'roll with you today'. How do you get rid of him without crushing his spirit? Extra points for mercy kills.

CASSETTE FIELD SURGERY: Just because you spilled diet Sprite on your shoot tape doesn't mean your down for the count. I've seen photogs armed only with a rusty Leatherman and sheer determination perform miraculous edit-bay tapendectomies. A timed event.

ODDEST CAMEOS: Staging schmaging, isn't that YOU walking past the camera's wide shot? From hand modeling to crowd control, how can you work yourself into the warm-body background? Special bonus for weird facial expressions of goofy limps.

COLOR CORRECTION: Your video looks great, but only because you spent thirty minutes frantically excising the sickening blue hue permeating the screen. Judging based on before and after pictures.

MOST FREEBIE APPAREL: If every shirt you own sports a station logo you may be eligible for this special wardrobe competition. Free t-shirts count, points detracted for special sauce stains.

SLOWEST EDIT: Yeah yeah, you slapped together a 12 minute documentary in 90 seconds. Big Deal! Give my blue ribbon to the cat who can stretch a 120 second story on Gardening Tips into two days of 'intensive editing'. Special penalties apply if caught dozing in the non-linear suites.

GREASY SPOON EXPERTISE: Test your knowledge of local eateries, their hours of operation, and menu items. Extra points awarded for identifying fast-food chains by building silhouettes.

FOULEST CAR INTERIOR: If you've ever spilled a cup of chewing tobacco spit inside your news unit and not stopped to clean it up, you may qualify to enter this highly competitive field. Any live animals, competitor's logo-wear or mid-seventies cheeseburger Styrofoam found in car doubles score.

OVERALL RESTRAINT: File a report on holiday shopping withOUT cash register nat sound. Cover the local groundbreaking with NO shovel shots. Simply execute a typical story resisting all cliché angles, shots and methods. Rack focuses and time-lapsed sunsets automatically disqualifies entrant.

Then maybe I’ll pony up some cash for an entry form…

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Press Conference Zombies

It’s the middle of the February Sweeps Period and boy, does it feel like it. From special reports to breaking news to endless live shots, the already grueling news cycle always reaches a fever pitch this time of year. It’s enough to make this self-avowed soft-news-junkie barricade himself in an edit suite and slice and dice timelines until his eyeballs bleed. But alas, the call of the wild beckons, and I’m soon hurled into the void by a frazzled assignment editor, or at least one who pretends to be frazzled until I’m safely out of sight. Either way, once I’m jettisoned from my edit cocoon, things usually turn far more pedestrian.

Like today for instance, when I covered my 47,361st press conference. Today’s focus? The shutdown of the Southern Loop - a new stretch of 1-40 that area motorists were just getting used to. But as my pal Tom Britt says, the D.O.T. giveth and the D.O.T. taketh away. So as I settled into my tripod position at the back of a crowded conference room, I daydreamed while the Transportation Wonks defended their decision to send thousands of travelers back through the dreaded corridors of I-40‘s ‘Death Valley’. Wonder if ‘Survivor’ will be any good this year?

Anyhoo, since the only thing worse for you than watching reality television is thinking too much about it, I turned back to the matter at hand. The head hardhat yammered on about traffic patterns and peak times, but I just couldn’t connect. As I absently-minded watched the audio needles dance in my viewfinder, I re-examined a mental blueprint of the edit sequence I’d been forced to abandon. Ya know, if I switched those two wide shots and slo-mo’d theose cutaways, I could probably stretch that footage to the closing soundbite. Sound like gibberish? Perhaps, but these are the things that run through the mind of the average photog while he tweaks the focus. Jeez - how long can this cat talk?

Apparently a long time, for he was still babbling when I whipped out my digital camera and popped off a few frames of my cross-town colleagues. This shot features two fellows I see all the time. Their names escape me at the moment, which is wholly inexcusable since I’ve shared more knowing glances with them than some members of my extended family. Be it a train wreck, an operating room or a hostage situation, we’ve hovered on the edges of more surreal landscapes than I could possibly ever cover here. Whatsmore, we share a common language based on a most uncommon vantage point - that of the lowly TV news photog. Yes, with nary a word exchanged between us, I can tell you these two seasoned lensmen are just as monumentally bored as I am, no matter how intently they may be leaning into those viewfinders.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a soft news coma to crawl back into.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Interview with a Newsbreaker

As I've mentioned before, I'm torn when it comes to the Newsbreakers. Part of me applauds their much-needed skewering of the electronic media, but if they showed up at my live shot, I'd hit 'em with a bag of chisels - or at least want to. So, I e-mailed spokesman Buck "Lucky" Owens with a few questions...

Lenslinger: What exactly are you trying to accomplish?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: We are trying to make media criticism an exciting topic for water cooler chat and backyard barbecues. As it stands right now, the people who care about improving journalism in this country are relegated to drowsy lecture halls and the smallest desks in the newsrooms. Everyone else is left to give up, tune out or find alternative means of informing themselves. We see this happening on an anecdotal basis and think the numbers bear it out as well. Meanwhile, from our vantage point, TV news is going down the sh!tter. We're here to say the pipes are getting clogged with too much corporate group think, government acquiescence (or worse) in the form of deregulation and personal buck-passing. We want to get regular people (read: non-newsies/non-academics) involved in the discussion before there's a fetid mess on the floor.

Lenslinger: How do you feel about the legion of photogs who are calling for your intestines on a stick?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: It's to be expected. Afterall, you guys feel the pain of our actions most acutely. What surprises us is the number of photogs who actually voice support for us. If anything, we expect all you guys to be haters. Based on and personal feedback, you're not.
Media professionals have a right and an expectation to "do their job." The question at the core of that statement is "For whom are you doing the job?" If you are just doing the job for the company who cuts your check, are you doing enough? We want more. We want to remind journalists about their duty to serve the public. That responsibility is what we believe attracted them to their careers in the first place.

Lenslinger: Are you seeking serious media reform, or are you just getting your rocks off at all the fuss you've kicked up?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: I'm sorry. Are these two activities mutually exclusive?

Do we have fun? Of course, because we want our work to be accessible. We don't claim to function like the PEJ or FAIR. What we do, hopefully, is drive people to check out these types of organizations. We're carnival barkers inviting people into the tent of serious media reform.

Do we support the ideas behind initiatives like micro-broadcasting and the Two Minute Media Revolution? You betcha. (Christ, I'm sounding more like Donald Rumsfeld these days.)

Lenslinger: How much does the internet mean to your seizure of the airwaves?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: The internet has its pros and cons. Obviously it allows us share our work with a large number of people in as close to real time as we can handle. That's a drawback, too. Everything moves so quickly on the 'net that we have to bust our balls to keep up. There's a blogger out of Albany, NY who writes about us. Three weeks after our January bust, he wondered publicly if we had disappeared since he had heard about us lately.

Lenslinger: Who picks your costumes?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: Responsibility for costuming decisions are shared between the group and the product of our favorite brewers.

Lenslinger: What's next?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: Now what fun would answering that question be? We're taking requests, though.

Stay Tuned...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

My Time on The Dark Side

I remember sitting in a darkened conference room, watching a lurid three-part sweeps series from a sister station...

Onscreen, a handsome reporter leads the camera through an anonymous hotel room. The lights dim noticeably as the talking hair-do walks around the room and gestures theatrically. As he talks, the lens wanders away and pans the cheesy landscape of the Cockroach Inn’s floral bedspread. The lights dim altogether as the square-jawed Anchor-in-waiting yammers on...

Suddenly a black-light snaps on, bathing the bedspread’s outdated pattern in eerie night-vision. Dramatic music swells in the background as an odd-shaped discoloration shimmers to the surface of the spread. The camera pushes in on the ugly stain and it stares back defiantly, like some toxic, tattooed paramecium frozen in time, born of some cross-state illicit tryst, and waiting, just waiting to someday give you the clap...

"So what ARE these stains?" the voice says as the camera pans over to the reporter, his carefully-plucked, furrowed brow bathed in black-light. "We'll tell you, after the break..."

The screen faded to black and someone popped the lights on in the conference-room.

"Now THAT'S a series piece!," the station manager declared, grinning at the assembled yes-men. "And WE'RE gonna do it the EXACT same way! Why reinvent the wheel? Hmm? Am I right?"

The Yes-Men shifted in their seats for a second, then quickly chortled their approval. As they jockeyed for position to congratulate their leader, I sat in the corner and stared at my clipboard.
Somehow, after six years of clawing my way up the small market food chain, I found the one job in local TV I didn’t want…Promotions Manager.

Eighteen months earlier, I’d followed a whim and walked away from gig as a one-man-band reporter/photographer for an even more thankless position, churning out dreck for The Man. It seemed like a good idea, Burnt to a crisp from life as a one-man news team in an under-funded bureau, I ignored my gut instinct and took the job as head Promo Hack, er Guru for the backwaters affiliate that employed me.

Bad move. Within hours, I knew it was not for me - despite the office, the assistant and the apparent autonomy. As I settled in to a steady regiment of half-baked ideas, badly-planned campaigns and unreasonable demands, I quickly rued the day I left the newsroom. But what was a young father of two to do - take a step DOWN the corporate ladder? Surely not I thought, as I loosened my necktie and swallowed my bile. Surely not.

I believed it for awhile. Instead of daily news stories, I concentrated on quarterly sweeps campaigns. Instead of interviewing movers and shakers, I propped up anchors and rounded up stagehands. Instead of setting up my tripod on disaster’s edge, I wheeled out a barrel fun of viewer’s postcards for the wacky weatherman to pull from. Instead of piloting my news car from one vista to the next, I learned every inch of the rundown studio and antiquated control room. Instead of looking forward to the next day’s adventure, I lay in bed cursing while the alarm clock screamed.

All the while, I told myself I’d made the right move. But that day in the conference room, a white-walled torture chamber I’d come to know intimately, my well of reassurance ran dry. As the GM and his hens cackled in the background, I stared holes through the yellow-lined paper before me.

‘I can’t do this anymore,‘ I thought. ‘I cannot pretend to care any longer about whatever these clowns come up with. I want to tell stories again, not crank out cheesy promos for a man I’ve come to hate. Anything would be better than THIS - even...GULP, shooting news.’

Which to make a long story short, is what I did. Following some of the smartest people I’d ever worked with to a place called the Piedmont, I found there are second chances. Now that I’ve been back in the news saddle seven years, I gotta tell you, everyday ain’t a picnic. But whenever I get frustrated with the vagaries of the chase, I think of my time behind the deceptively serene walls of one DownEast television station and realize I’m back where I belong.

Sad, isn't it?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Bam Saves the Day

Forgive Bam here if he‘s not looking his best. But you’d be a little frazzled too if you just saved your family from a early morning house fire. It happened just before five in the morning, when a spark in the hundred year old house’s electrical system sent Bam into a barking frenzy. Soon Bam’s master was stirring in her sleep, wondering what in the hell had come over her homely mutt. Dense smoke in the hallway quickly answered that question. Suddenly wide awake, Bam’s owner rousted her sleeping aunt from a back bedroom and the two women escaped unharmed.

But Bam was nowhere to be found. Firefighters tried to flush the dog out, but couldn’t coral the hyped-up pooch. Only when Bam collapsed from smoke inhalation did they manage to extract him from the burning house. He looked all but dead, but fire and rescue workers revived him, using a whole bottle of oxygen in the process. As Bam the wonder dog was rushed to a nearby animal hospital, his owner began to realize what had happened: the mangy cur she’d rescued from the pound back in December had just returned the favor - and nearly died in the process.

By nine o clock, Bam was ensconced in a veterinarian’s office, a little worse for the wear and only wanting a little rest. But there’d be little downtime for Bam, as he was quickly being transformed from a lowly family pet into a full-blown media sensation. Annoying TV cameramen clamored for close-ups while newspaper reporters collected details by phone. Before Bam could cough up all the smoke he’d swallowed, radio commentators were opining on one Piedmont dog’s untold bravery. An hour later, TV news editors were splicing footage of the mixed breed hero with shots of the smoldering home. By noon, Bam had made the transition into a one-named media darling, as graphic artists picked his most noblest pose for the glossy over-the-shoulder graphic that would hover between the anchor team at five.

I only wish I’d gotten his autograph when I had the chance.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Birth of a Photog

As a kid I was once struck by the sight of a long-haired newspaper photographer prowling the edges of my little league ballgame. From my usual spot on the bench I watched him - noting how out of place he looked amid the screaming Moms and Dads. The game was in it's final minutes - every set of my eyes (including his) on the field except mine. But I was thoroughly transfixed by the hippy with the lenses. The way he moved through the crowd, watching the horizon and chewing his toothpick held me in rapture. 'Bet that guy's been places', I thought, 'wonder what he's seen through all that glass?'

From there I was hooked. I soon bought an eleven dollar camera and started hanging around the darkroom at my junior high school. I soon proved to be extraordinarily average behind the lens and eventually moved on to other interests, namely cigarettes, truancy and the opposite sex. Hey, what else are the formulative years for? By the time I first conned my way into a TV job years later, that wandering long-hair with all the zoom lenses was but a faded image in my memory banks. After all, there was too much to learn to question the psychology of my motives. So which filter do I use outside again?

These days I KNOW which filter to use outside, and there are weeks that I foolishly think I've used them on every type of news story there is. That's usually when the pager comes humming to life and I'm off to the races, leaning into the wheel and cursing at my cell phone. Don't worry though, by the time I roll up on scene, I'm one cool customer. No matter the tragedy, stupidity or joy at hand, I'll mill about and take it all in with my thousand yard photog stare. Once in awhile I'll catch sight of some awkward adolescent clocking my every move. Sometimes I stop to talk but more often than not I try not to linger - afraid their pointed questions will stick with me throughout the day.

"How do you work that thing? Do you meet famous people? How much money do you make?"

It's enough to make me think about my friends outside the business. They all have nicer stuff, fancier vacations and more free time than I do. They've already been home an hour or so when I roll in every evening and their yards look better because of it. They have alot more neckties than I do, along with business cards with abstract, wordy titles. It all seems nice until you hear them talk about work, really watch their eyes glaze over as they stare at the dogs on the grill and remark how incredibly soul-sucking their working hours are.

Worse yet, they all think I have the coolest gig on the planet - that I cruise around all day and play with my camera. What are they - dreamy young kids on ballpark benches? They can't fathom the demands of our work, let alone the relentless pace. To them it's all fun and adventure, grab a beauty queen and go play TV...I guess in some respects they're right, for all the headache and deadlines, it's a pretty cool gig. We get a backstage pass to life, and launch countless sorties into hostile and surreal territories. Surely it must beat being Vice President of Staple Arrangement.