Thursday, September 14, 2006

O Brother Where Art Thou?

Punk Ass HombresFunny thing about a blog. You put your thoughts on-line and people read them. Not just strangers either, but folks who knew you l-o-n-g before Al Gore twisted a series of tubes into what we now know as the internet. I was reminded of this very fact today when my buzzing cell phone flashed Richard Pittman on the screen. Seems my older brother had just finished reading the previous post and wanted to give me a little grief about all my belly-achin‘. Nothing unusual there, I guess. But considering our tumultuous past, the phone call was anything but insignificant. See, Richard and I haven’t always gotten along. In fact there was a time when the two us couldn’t share the same room full of oxygen without trading blows. Looking back I think I understand why.

He's the Alpha Male to my Omega Dork. He was an undersized punk trying to find his place in the world and I was his smart-ass little brother. Is it any wonder we tried to kill each other so often? Though I didn’t appreciate it then, I now credit my bellicose older brother for toughening me up a bit. Who knows how I would have turned out if he hadn’t regularly ripped the encyclopedias out of my and hands to enact his own lesson plan: Sucker-Punch 101. To this day, if a buddy sneaks up behind me I drop into a pseudo-Ninja crouch, instantly prepared to grapple to the death - or at least until Mom yells at us from the other room to knock it off. That’s real world man training you can’t find in a book.

As he grew older, Richard’s fondness for contusions served him well. Falling under the influence of the volunteer fire department we grew up near, he embraced his genetics and emerged as a natural born first responder. Today he’s a highly-skilled paramedic and a seasoned firefighter. He drives ambulances, whereas I just chase them. But the differences don’t stop there... I blow off steam on a mud-encrusted mountain bike. He tools around town on a shiny, tricked-out Harley. I stick my lens in the faces of the oppressed. He scrapes them up amid broken glass and administers IV‘s. He keeps his cool when others are bleeding to death around him. I lose my shit when one of the live truck gadgets fails to work as advertised. I suppose I should end this post by telling my big brother that I love him. No need. He knows. I just wanted to clue the rest of you in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Focused on the Prose

Lost in Prose
Not to get too existential, but the above photo really illustrates where my head is at these days. Quite simply, I'm fried. Sixteen years into this goofy career, I find myself highly skilled, gainfully employed and woefully underwhelmed. How did this happen? I used to be the guy who'd tackle any gig with unbridled enthusiasm, but lately ... it's all I can do to pretend to give a flip. Is it due to the fact that I'm a scant few months from the big 4-0? Is it because the industry I toil in has devolved into nothing more than pixelated gimmickry? Could it be that my tiny taste of writing renown has whet my appetite for more, more, more? My guess is YES. But whatever the reason, I find myself in the same state of mind that's driven generations of gifted broadcasters out of the biz.

So, am I quitting? Nope. My offsprings' insistence on eating every four hours precludes such a rash tactic, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it pretty damn often. It's not my station's fault. The people I work for and with produce a fine product and I'll happily crank out my share for as long as they'll have me. That said, I think I need a lobotomy, a sabbatical or a swift kick in the tripod to re-ignite my passion. Maybe then, I'll once again be as enthused and effective as this guy. Until then, allow me the occasional foray into self-absorption, would ya? See, this blog is my therapy - an outlet to express myself, to spotlight a few unsung heroes and to inch toward a lifelong dream.

But therein lies the rub. I spent the first thirty five years of my life thinking about writing. When I finally got around to developing the required discipline, I chose the one subject I have a love/hate relationship with: TV news. What was I thinking? Why didn't I choose something lofty and less tangible to hold forth on? How come I picked the one thing that infuriates me like no other as my topic of choice? Couldn't I have honed my skills with shrill political screeds and pet photo commentary like every other blogger? Why did I scribble myself into such an unsavory corner?

More importantly, why am I pelting you with rhetorical claptrap? You've been nothing but kind to me, checking in regularly to sample my tripe and lauding me with more praise than I ever deserved. I really should thank you - once I finish feeling sorry for myself, that is. I'm reminded of what best-seller Jerry Bledsoe told me last week. Actually, I don't remember his exact quote, but the delightfully cantankerous author took me into his lair and basically said, "Keep up the writing, Stewart - it's sure to bring you years of frustration." With that in mind I'll wrap up this little whining session - knowing that, by Jerry's logic, I'm right where I'm supposed to be. Join me next time for less navel-gazing and alot more snark. Until then, thanks for reading...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Reek of Sweatband Journalism

Ergonomics for the Video Blogger
Laugh if you will but I know some cats who would buy this rig if it really existed. And in time it just might. We already have cameras the size of finger-sandwiches, laptops that out-slice yesterday's fanciest edit suites before they're fully powered-up and cell phones that double as jukeboxes. Can it be too long before some knob straps a series of pullies and levers to his head and bills himself as the world's first Sweatband Journalist? I can see it now: a 24 hour feed of far-flung, fish-eyed forehead footage - squiggly images culled from the bouncing glass of the global vloggeratti.

Is that the inevitable evolution of broadcast news? Naah, we'll always have some hottie with good diction and even better gams spoonfeeding us the news. What will change are the field correspondents, the look of their reports and the staid way we insist on filtering the daily spew. That ain't all bad I guess - but as one who savors the languid pace of CBS Sunday Morning AND the latest slam-dancing dorks of YouTube lore - I sure hope both documentary disciplines are available on my cable dial, or wristwatch iPod, or whatever pocket-oculater we're crashing our flying cars over in the coming years.

I just hope I'm through squeezing life through a tube by then. Maybe move up to the hills and spend the rest of the Information Renaissance locked away in some unplugged cabin, wrestling with the written word. The wife says she's up for it too - as long as there's a Starbuck's, Panera Bread and TJ Maxx within ten easy miles...

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Hardships of Handheld

Joe PhotogOf all the things a TV news photog must learn to do with a camera, one of the hardest is holding it still. If that surprises you, then you’ve never counted the beads of sweat trickling down your under-carriage as some blowhard in a clip-on tie yammers on about the finer points of wastewater management. Do that a few times and you’ll surely experience the no-grip shoulder wobble, the three minute knee knock, and if you’re really hemmed-in, a recurring case of Carpa-Telethon Syndrome. That’s when you drop to the rug the moment the red tally light goes off, quivering on the floor with a twisted bladder and a pair of screaming knees - all because you insisted on shooting the ghetto preacher handheld. Who could guess a guy with gold teeth knew so many three syllable words? Next time you’ll grab your sticks and doze off like a pro. Until then, check out these helpful hints, with a little help from the sore-shoulder specialists at

Relax, Breathe, Pass Gas if you Have To

Sure, your buddies in the scrum may gripe but so will your bosses back at the shop if you’re footage looks like it was shot by a crackhead with hiccups. Loosen your limbs, push out your hips, cop a mental squat and for Nat Sound’s sake don’t hold your breath. All will be well for a bit when your lungs do give out your lens will shiver so violently, TV dinners will be upended throughout the tri-city region. Stay loose, Johnny, stay loose.

Make the World your Tripod

Just because your sticks are back by the podium doesn’t mean you gotta take the tour sans support. Find a wall, a wishing well, even a wino to lean against. Any foundation will help you score better static shots, be it ground level wide-shots of striking mill workers, medium range footage of a portly ribbon-cutter or a far-off frame of some squirrel getting’ his nut on. Just brush off when you’re done, Red ants and Ripple don’t go well back at the shop.

Curb the Caffeine

Sad but true - that hefty vessel of steaming java can come wiggle your lens in the most infuriating ways. It’s one of the three reasons I don’t indulge in my cherished Guatemalan Velvet Roast before work in the morning. (You don’t want to know the other two.) Just understand that what you put down your pipe greatly affects your inner camera pedestal. For that matter, those driver seat cardiac burgers you wolf down every six assignments ain’t good for the dexterity fairy, know what I’m sayin?

Be at One with the Lens

This one sounds like some NPPA mantra, but it’s solid advice that bears repeating. The same inner mojo that allows you to navigate a crowded bar without spilling your big-headed pilsner can also allow you inner lens serenity. Stare at the edges of your frame, affix your vision on the crux of your crosshairs, tweak your knobs with a lover’s touch. Whatever approach you take, there are effective relaxation techniques for every photog, from the puffed-up sports shooter to the beer-bellied burnout to that new skinny loner in the death metal t-shirt. So pick one, but hurry up, would you? Half the viewers are seizing up every time they take your shot and the rest are looking pretty glassy-eyed. Next time: When to Call 911.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Through the Eyes of a Child

Gabbie's 911.1
by Gabbie Pittman, age 7, September 11, 2001

Looking for Lost Boys (part 2)

Though at first I didn’t notice, the mood outside the Danbury Fire Department had subtly shifted. The throng of volunteers still milled about; but the deputies, good ole boys and grannies that made up the crowd were markedly quieter. Eyes darted back and forth from underneath pulled down hat rims, mud was picked off the soles of crusty hiking boots, Styrofoam plates bulging with food were passed out to all who would take them. But I barely took it in. Instead I bounded up the steps of the Satellite truck, opened the door to find Brent Campbell wrestling with an earpiece in the dimly lit cabin.. Behind him red digital numbers glowed the time: 11:30. A half hour before he was due on camera for a live(!) update.

Though I hadn’t seen Brent in months, we skipped any niceties and got to work. Playing back the footage I’d just shot, Brent scribbled a few notes into a skinny notebook while I plugged a hard wire microphone to the back of my camera. Minutes later I hunched over the eyepiece and watched the audio meters dance while Brent recited his lines into the microphone. By quarter to twelve I’d assembled the framework of our ninety second report on the laptop’s digital timeline. With a few memorized keystrokes, I began dropping video clips over the audio tracks’ jagged green read out as truck operator Joe McCloskey mumbled coordinates into his own cell phone. Beside him Brent combed his hair while silently mouthing his intro. Just another day at the Tragic Factory.

Once I finished editing the noon package, I left it in Joe’s hands and threw my weight behind the truck’s heavy door. Half stumbling down the steps, I managed to stay upright while holding my camera in a certified death grip. Once the ground was beneath me I lurched toward Unit Four and popped the tailgate. Grabbing the tripod and my runbag, I half-walked/half-ran to the front corner of the fire department’s yard, where two other TV cameraman loitered by their own set-ups.

Even as I rushed to plug in my camera and microphones I noticed the crowd of volunteers had swollen. All around me, locals in Carhartt overalls and well worn flannel paced about, chewing, smoking, and trading tobacco-stained whispers. If Brent noticed, he said nothing. Taking his position in front of my lens, he nodded as the producer in his earpiece went over his rundown. I turned on my own earpiece to listen in. As the anchor’s voice threw it to Brent and the director punched up our shot, I watched an old man motioning to others to turn down their walkie-talkies. Something about the way the old guy hurried from deputy to deputy told me the news was bad…


After the live shot Brent and I walked back to the Satellite truck to re-group with Joe. About that time Brent ‘s photographer partner Kenny Cravens pulled up in his own news unit. Kenny had been tried keeping up with a Sheriff’s deputy car when it left the command center earlier, but no he was back with little more than a feeling that something indeed up. Breaking out a rumpled county map, Kenny showed the rest of us where he thought the searchers were gathering and where a third crew of our own colleagues was located. As we talked, we couldn’t help but glance at the swarm of locals around the fire department; open bay doors. A few competitors’ camera glistened in the crowd, a sight which left the lot of us uneasy. Quickly, we decided Brent and Kenny would head back out to try and finds the supposed spot of interest, while Joe and I kept our ears close to the command center. As Brent and Kenny pulled away, we sauntered down the hill, trading the kind of good natured insults grown men like to dish out to each other. From our relaxed pace, we may as well have been strolling to a church picnic.

But that changed seconds later when a woman I’d been chatting up earlier walked by shaking her head. “They found them.” she croaked. “ Dead in the River.” Despite all the earlier clues, her proclamation surprised me. But her tone and body language convinced me and immediately I yanked my cell phone off my hip and punched Kenny’s number.

“Turn around, turn around,” I told him. A few feet away the other news crews crowded around a side door as firemen and deputies poured out. “Gangbang imminent…”

The following few minutes were barely more than a blur. Hearing the news for himself, Joe ran back to the satellite truck to re-establish a signal. I called the station to let them know what I was being told. That four year old J.W. and three year old Jacob White had indeed been located. A canoeist searching waters near the Dodgetown bridge had found the two small bodies a few yards from each other. As word spread through the crowd of rescuers outside the fire department I made a mad dash for my camera. I’d barely made it back to the side door before the head rescuer came out and addressed the media. Every camera present pressed in tight to record the exhausted man’s sober words. My back ached and shoulder throbbed as I held the shot, while reporters peppered the official for every last detail. When he was done, the lenses dispersed - each team in search of a would be rescuer to interrogate. Over my shoulder, I saw Brent go live from Kenny’s camera. As he explained to viewers what he’s just been told, I ran back to the truck to feed the sound-bites I’d just recorded - grim snippets that would find their way to my station’s website before they led the next three newscasts.

An hour later it was all but over. As the bad news echoed across the land, search and recovery teams paused to pay quiet respects. My own colleagues had recorded countless interviews after their live shot, then drive off to find just where the searchers found the boys. As for me, my shift was done. Sitting behind the wheel of trusty Unit Four, I watched a stream of glum townsfolk file past. Flipping through a book of CD’s, I searched for something to listen to during the hour long drive back home. Despite the horrific outcome of the four day hunt, I found myself emotionally removed from the whole thing. I was there to do a job, and now that it was done, I was leaving. Might as well dig on some tunes while I did, I thought as I thumbed through my collection. That’s when I saw her, a girl no more that ten, being led to the fire department by her red-eyed parents. The girl too was sobbing, her small chest heaving with jagged breaths. I thought about my own ten year old at home and instantly felt bad about not feeling worse.

I drove home in silence.