Saturday, April 08, 2006

Drenching the Interloper

Be it a puffed up rent-a-cop or a pissed-off homeowner, people ain't breakin' out the welcome wagon quite like they used to. Just ask WFTV reporter Leland Vittert, whose sculpted hair-do was recently saturated with tap water in the line of duty. Seems the lady behind the door didn’t wanna play ball with the newsmaker, so she flung a pitcher of water his way and bestowed him with internet immortality in the process. Surely there’s more to the story, but then again, hostile receptions are all part of the gig when you’re (under)paid to pierce the heart of darkness...or stir up some smack for the evening news - whichever be the case. I just hate when my camera and I get dragged into it.

Early in my career, I rushed lens-up into a corner garage with a female reporter who was bent on avenging her roommate’s botched fuel pump replacement. It got dumb quick. As she hissed accusations at the towering mechanic in my viewfinder, I got the distinct feeling my partner didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. What followed was a bowing up of the redneck variety, one in which thick-necked grease monkeys in Nascar t-shirts poured out of the back and into our face. Seconds later, the front door slammed open as the in-house pit crew escorted the little reporter lady and her dopey cameraman out of the garage and across the gravel parking lot. Back in the news car, heated words were exchanged between members of the media. I never did get to the bottom of the whole fuel pump debacle, but I did learn a powerful lesson that day. Only fools rush in.

Then there was the time I was in an outlying county on a drug round-up when the deputies led the scariest hillbilly family by in handcuffs. Most freaky was the family matriarch - a beady-eyed little granny facing crack-trafficking charges, who glared angrily into my lens as she filed past in shackles. Hoping she hadn't already vexed me with some kind of backwoods outhouse voodoo, I positioned myself to get a better shot of her and her clan as they made their return trip. When Grandma CrackPipe saw me lying in wait, she nudged her oversized nephew, a lumbering giant who seemed to be missing a few fairly important chromosomes. Still, he had enough of his D.N.A. strand intact to dig deep and come up with the biggest, nastiest loogie ever captured on videotape. When he passed back by my position he let it fly - and the lethal concoction of snot, Mountain Dew and tobacco juice warbled in slow-motion right for me. Mercifully, the inbred saliva projectile fell just short of full-contact splashdown and only a little spittle struck the very center of my lens. Instinctively, I racked focus to highlight the hillbilly spit running down my camera's eye. Later, we ran that shot on-air so much the machine’s spinning heads stretched the tape.

One of the more memorable front porch encounters happened just a few years ago to a couple of friends of mine. Tara Defrancesco, a tall, well-accessorized reporter who’s since left the business, was turning a story on a local firefighter accused of embezzlement. In what’s become as common practice, photojournalist Kenny D set up his camera on a tripod across the street while Tara climbed the firefighter’s porch, wireless microphone in hand. Sheepishly at first, the firefighter came to the door to see what the familiar face from the evening news could possibly want with an innocent public servant like himself. As Tara explained she was hoping for an interview, the firefighter stepped out onto hs porch. Across the street, Kenny D leaned into his viewfinder and looked for the red light that told him he was indeed recording the still civil scene.

That’s when the firefighter's wife burst out of the front door and in a finishing move worthy of professional wrestler, pushed Tara to the ground. To her credit, Tara regained her high-heel balance, retained her composure and strolled back to Kenny and his camera, half-grinning in bewilderment all the way. Of course we had great fun with that piece of tape back at the shop. It aired repeatedly, made the wife and firefighter look like the white trash they were and prompted me to almost send Jeff Foxworthy an addendum to his trademark schtick:

"If you’ve ever pushed down the nice reporter lady ’cause your husband’s sticky fingers got him on the evening news, you might be a redneck."

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Pissy and the Bellicose

Meet the TV news photog's natural enemy: the shopping mall security guard. Though usually found shooing Goth kids out of the food court, this breed of law enforcement flunkie becomes especially agitated in the presence of zoom lenses. Take Smokey the Bear here. He and his uniformed goons are currently starring in a most entertaining web video, in which they wrongfully harangue a Providence Rhode Island TV news crew who are simply trying to do their job. Not only do these particular rent-a-dicks repeatedly order the camera crew off public property, they make the spectacularly bad decision to threaten the crew in question with physical harm and even death! All this, because they didn't want to see one of their security vehicles dangling off a parking deck ledge on the six o clock news. don't these guys have a Baby Gap to stake out or something?

Though this case is a bit extreme, getting hassled by a rental authority is a familiar occurence to anyone who chases scanner traffic for very long. The phenomenon us especially pronounced at shopping malls, where a passing flash of a logo'd lens can draw a half dozen thugs in matching polyester. For all their attempts at an authoritative vibe, these cats rarely know the law. To them, every walkway within five square miles of their employer's property is off limits to the Fourth Estate - unless of course there's an Easter Egg Hunt or other promotional event going on inside. Then, we lens-pushers are welcomed into Center Court with open arms and free flyers. Otherwise, it's all harsh words, puffed up chests and rude walkie-talkie gestures.

It's one of the reasons I grew so tired of spot news. I just have no desire to debate Freedom of the Press with someone sporting a mail-order badge and a few Skittles in their pockets. I'd just as soon argue Right of Way laws with volunteer firefighters in oversized turn-out gear. Both, make me late for lunch. But sometimes you just can't avoid an encounter with these cop-wannabes. All you can do is keep rolling, know your rights and understand that very often, the smaller the jurisdiction, the bigger the Napolean complex. Problem is many field crews know little of property laws. Worse yet, the stations that send them to the edge of calamity rarely back them up when things go stupid. And when you mix testosterone, television cameras and trumped-up hall-monitors, stupidity is virtually assured. So if you're a photog, educate yourself as to where you can and cannot be officially unwelcomed. And if you're the hiring guy at a fancy schmancy shopping mall, be sure to brief your security goobs on who not to harrass. You may also want to tell them those big shiny things the TV guys carry on their shoulders actually records things as they happen and can be replayed on-air and on-line over and over again. Seems they missed that memo as well...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Into the Wild

Walk in the Woods
What better way to clear my head than a mid-morning traipse through North Carolina's newest state park? Well there has to be something better, but since Weaver beat me to the psycho rooster story, I didn't have much of a choice. Not that it mattered. I'm always up for exploring the many pockets of wilderness that dot the Piedmont - though I prefer to do so on the back of my mid-range mountain bike, not under the thud of an 18 pound fancy-cam. Still, it is my cross to bear, so I took to the woods in search of apostles. When none emerged from the shimmering distance, I settled for close-ups of spiders and such.

Flower PowerLong heralded as an environmental learning center of untapped potential, The Summit Conference Center boasts the kind of rolling topography I moved to the Piedmont for in the first place. Pristine wetlands, unfettered wildlife, a cascading network of root-infested trails - no wonder the wonks in Raleigh decided to make it Guilford County's first state park. It's already the site of family reunions, youth retreats and assorted feel-good gatherings. Now the well-kept secret is poised to becoming a statewide mecca for the tree-hugging set. All that's needed is a little publicity, something to let Sally Joe Housecoat know there's a slice of Eden right in their own backyard. That's where I come in.

Fence Post TripodWhen executive director Jonathan Frederick (who deserves his own reality show) suggested we walk through the park before I started shooting, I shrugged it off, grabbed my camera and followed him into the woods. A few minutes later I found myself in a love embrace with a fence post, sweating lightly and regretting the fact that my battered tripod was back in the car. Sure, a half-cocked shoulder-cam packs more swagger, but the pros know the power is in the sticks. That's why I was so eager to get back to Unit 4. No matter how I tried to slow my breathing, the flutter of the butterflies and the ripples of the creekwater were shirking the crosshairs of my heaving lens. After leaving the fence post my phone number, I shuffled uphill toward the car, all the while checking my person for splinters, ticks or any other embedded journalistic insects.

I'd tell ya what I found, but it's not that kind of blog. Get your mind out of the creek-bed, would ya?

Nothing to Report

Thunk MonkeyFunny thing, this urge to write. Several times a day I break off in mid conversation to scribble broken phrases in a tattered notebook I always carry. Yet now, when I need it the most, the inclination to elaborate has suddenly waned, like a wireless microphone gone to static when the 9 volts fade. It’s enough to worry a guy who’s accustomed to purging his thoughts on a nightly basis, especially since this latest period of creative silence is so ill-timed. Proposal, product review, essay - I got a lot to document. But here I sit, edgy and unfocused without a clue as to where to start. I wonder what successful authors do when they need an imagination laxative?

Reflective SurfacesOh well. There’s no use faking it. 18 months of blogging have taught me that. All I can do is listen for the voice in my head to start babbling again. Most times it won’t shut up, spewing out fractured prose at the most inappropriate times. Now, however, it’s fallen mysteriously quiet, leaving me with nothing else to do but stare at the desktop talismans I’ve gathered in my new writing lair. So far even my beloved Ape in Thought isn’t helping. He just sits there, staring at the human skull in his hand and ignoring a certain lenslinger who’s slowly pulling his eyebrows out one by one. Stupid monkey.

Where to start?No, it’s my fault. Something I’ve done has clogged my noggin’ and like a boozy hangover the only cure is time and solitude. Alone-time I got, but a distant whistle is blowing and I got a train of thought to catch. Otherwise I’ll be forced to update you on my lack of updates, to further explain why I’m not explaining. Too much of that and you’ll grow weary, leaving me with a constipated blog and only a ceramic primate to blame for my lack of narratives. Before long, I’ll cast him off into yard sale exile and search for another inanimate object to credit for my creativity. But then again, that would be a waste of perfectly good office clutter. Better I leave the monkey alone and heed the advice of a childhood favorite:
“You cannot wait for inspiration. You have to go after it, with a club.” -- Jack London
Sage advice from a man who knew. Someday I’m gonna re-read The Sea-Wolf in his honor. Meanwhile, I have a monkey to bludgeon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Congrats to the Colonel

While I veered away from the blogosphere for a scintillating course in possession conveyance, Colonel Ken Corn celebrated a (blog) birthday! The Charlotte news shooter has long been a supporter of yours truly, e-mailing me gracious notes of encouragement during the formulative years. Who knew he was a gifted scribe in his own right? Ken's been around the ole photog block, having peered through the lens at WRAL and even in Iraq. Once he returned to the states, he shrewdly turned his stint in the desert into a glossy article in NPPA magazine. Not bad for a guy who still carries his own camera!

A little more than a year ago, Colonel Corn brought his storyelling acumen to the blogosphere and has since filed weekly essays that are both thoughtful and entertaining. You could say I'm a fan, but I like anybody who's got the grapes to slather their inner most thoughts across the internet - especially when they're as well composed as Ken's steady dispatches. I only wish he wouldn't give me quite so much credit for getting him started, as I was merely ventilating my own head when he came along. Every now and then the News Gods thrust us into the same sat truck convention and we have a large time trading war stories and blogging tips - usually while a president bloviates or a hurricane hurls trashcan lids across a deserted parking lot.

So do this shore shoulder a favor and report to the Colonel ASAP! You'll come away with a better grasp of the soul-stretching job that this silly gig is and you won't have to wade through any tortured exhortations or old mullet photos along the way. SA-LUTE!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Thinning the Herd

If you heard screams of anguish emanating from your local broadcast outlet last week, it was just the guys in the Sports Department doubling over from the NFL’s latest gut punch. You’d holler too, if the makers of the marquee event in your town revoked your backstage pass. That’s pretty much what the National Football League's 32 team owners did last week when they decreed television affiliates could no longer position photogs along the sidelines of all NFL games. Since the inception of the press pass itself, local stations have sent their own cameras to capture game day footage - footage they use to flesh out the many profiles and highlight reels that so make up the weekend sportscast. But that habit is history if the gridiron bigwigs get their way. Now, only the NFL’s TV cameras will be allowed to perch their lens just out of bounds and it’s gonna effect the way you follow your favorite team.

Basically, it’s a power grab. Eager to bolster its own network, the NFL seeks to control every frame of imagery captured on field. Who cares, you might ask. Well, a lot of people and not just my lenslinging buddies who are used to viewing the gladiatorial clashes from just feet away. They may not be straight-up newsies, but most of those cats can really shoot. You try zooming in tight on a spiraling pigskin as it rockets in real timer from one goalpost to another. When you’re through catching unfocused sky, come back to the shop and we’ll conjure up some anchor banter to make up for all that fuzzy blue stuff onscreen. Meanwhile the pros with the all-access passes hanging from their lockers can gather about and tell you how we did it back in the day. Maybe then, you’ll get the undiluted scoop on your uniformed lunkhead of choice. You damn sure won’t get it on the NFL Channel…

Why? Because the arbiters of professional athletics are in the game to entertain; they’re not about to sully the waters with anything near the truth. They’ll just crank out gauzy tribute with fawning slow-mo shots and slather the whole thing in solemn baritone. That way you’ll pay less attention to the scandal of the week, be it the defensive end with the nose candy in his glove box or the running back with a penchant for adultery, automotive excess and armed bodyguards. Your local news station will still fill you in, but without the b-roll to back it up, they’ll have a much harder time dropping that knowledge. Instead, you’ll be forced to watch the same stale game highlights they’ve been playing since before the last Astro-Turf divot was replaced. Sure, it won’t make me turn in my TV, but it’s just the latest body-blow in the heated street fight between local sports broadcasters and the rest of the known universe.

Hopefully though, this deal is far from done. The NPPA, NAB, RTNDA and even the KGB have cried foul over the floated plan to oust all unsanctioned cameras. But the NFL holds all the cards and they seem to enjoy watching the other players squirm. Despite how much the local affiliates may threaten to stop covering sick kid visits and off season fund-raisers, your neighborhood news station cannot afford to ignore these operas of offense that foster such rabid allegiance among ad-watching viewers. You’d think the National Football League would want to enable all those hype-dispensers, but they appear more intent on embracing Gestapo tactics in order to alleviate ‘sideline congestion’. You really wanna thin the hash-mark herd? Try kicking out the fattened pack of still shooters clamoring for a close-up, or better yet do something about the fat cats, well-connected Shriner types and high priced call girls who so populate the edges of America’s athletic infatuations. Then maybe, we’ll sacrifice a few rookie shooters to appease the Lords of the Press Pass. Until then, GET OUTTA MY SHOT!

Fables of the Reconstruction

I'M NOT DEAD! Though after schlepping everything my girls and I own up a new set of stairs, I feel as if I should be. While there is still cardboard on the premises, the Pittman Relocation Program is, for the most part, complete. It wasn't easy. Between my love for dusty books, the kids' Barbie kingdom and my bride's unabashed shoe fetish, we have a ridiculous amount of claptrap for a family of our tax bracket. But alas we are here and after a back-breaking weekend of new neighbors and Feng Shui, I'm ready to assume the Lenslinger mantle. Too bad I got nothin' to write about. Sure, I could tell you how the car overheated on the way to the house-closing, how confusing daylight savings time is when you can't find your clocks, how closely my new backyard resembles an Indian burial ground - but it all seems so...domestic. No, you come (came?) here for tales from the open news road, an electronic world seething with well-coiffed buffoons, shackled villians and a certain cameraman who thinks too much. So stand by for a breathless dispatch from the news front in the coming hours, whatever the subject may be. I'll even conjure up a photo or three - provided I find my digital camera. The last time I saw it was in backseat transit, jumbled among the crockpot and a few hula-hoops.