Saturday, October 07, 2006

Not Your Father's Press Conference

Hey, here’s something you’ve never heard me say before: "Mmm-Hmm. I’m sorry I missed that press conference.” Now, before you demand to know what I’ve done with the real Stewart Pittman, lemme 'splain...

Intrigue is afoot in Greensboro. At first, the bungled regime change of the city’s police department held little interest for me. I’m all for bureaucratic uproar, mind you - but the cries of racism and political wrongdoing in the Wray Case sounded an awful lot like the kinds of stories I’d covered before in other Southern cities. Happily, I avoided those assignments like the plague I believed them to be, training my lens on the happier side of the newscasts instead. But last week, as I slogged through a profile of an upscale clothier thirty miles away, news hawks of every description gathered around a podium at City Hall and a new media feeding frenzy ensued. Throw in coffee and donuts at the end and you may have the perfect presser…

But it wasn’t just the salacious source material. Sexual skylarking, dirty police and tracking devices - they’re the ingredients of a buddy cop blockbuster, all right. Just ask Jerry Bledsoe. Currently, the best selling author is doling out weekly morsels of the steamy controversy in his serialized investigation of the Wray matter - and moving lots of copies of a certain free weekly in the process. If that weren’t enough, the Gate City’s aggressive bloggeratti is also on the case, offering weekly synopsis, color commentary, and staggered jabs at satire. Whether you consider the whole affair to be proof positive of widespread corruption or a sordid witch hunt, even the most casual news consumer has to admit the coverage is cutting-edge. Take Friday’s microphone fiesta:

Alarmed at the weekly bombshells being lobbed by Bledsoe and the aftershock of blogger analysis, the city leaders called a news gathering to announce their answer to the swirl of cyber-chatter: their own website! Brilliant! Or so they thought. Truth is, the city only made it worse for themselves, for the gallery of rogues present at their podium were more than just the usual suspects. Sure the local newspaper and four TV news outlets showed up, but so did the citizenry - a plugged-in populace that make up for their lack of fancy lenses with their encyclopedic knowledge of the whole sensational mess. It’s that kind of acumen that can shame the professional chattering class come ‘question and answer time‘. Did the speakers squirm more at questions lobbed by the over-coiffed, or was it the insistent queries of the laptop press that made them fumble their attempted spin?

Hard to tell. But one thing’s for sure, the way this story is being unfurled is just as interesting as the myriad of misdeeds it chronicles. Whether you peruse the hard copy of each week’s installment, skim a local physician’s timely summations, admire the collation of a prophetic columnist, or chortle at a gadfly’s trenchant take - there are countless ways to absorb all this local shock and awe. As for me, I still check in with the lights and lenses crowd, surf my favorite aggregator and top it off with a local editor’s newspaper view. Maybe then I’ll be able to coherently dish the dirt with those linked above and many, many more - as Greensboro’s vibrant cyber-scene coalesces at that yearly summit known forever more as ConvergeSouth. It’s free, smart and perhaps a little hip. I’ll be there, ruining the cool ratio and looking for YOU.

Friday, October 06, 2006

VeeJays on NPR

Ever heard two friends debate an issue on NPR? I just did, thanks to a report on All Things Considered examining the hotly-contested V.J. model. For those not keeping score at home, it goes like this: Some TV stations are ditching the classic two-person news crew for multi-tasking one-man-bands, individuals who shoot, write, edit and front their own reports. As you might imagine, this move hasn't set well with the Photog Nation, who've for years honed their street-level cinematography skills while their over-coiffed partner sweats the details. Now, a debate that's burned up the industry message boards has hit critical mass, spilling over to the bucolic pastures of National Public Radio. I'll give 'em this though: the NPR people went to the source...

Up first, my old mentor Andy Cordan. A swashbuckling cop-shop reporter, Andy's one-man-band roots and brash delivery makes him the perfect VJ candidate. But even he was skeptical when his bosses announced they were going solo."There was a genuine sense of fear in this building," says Cordan.
"People that have been doing this for 20 years, and suddenly, like, it's no longer doing that. You used to make pizzas. Now you are going to polish rocks! Enjoy yourself."
Next, we hear from Brad Ingram, award-winning photog and current co-worker of yours truly. Brad's the quintessential news shooter - a practicing master of lighting, editing and the lens. He sees little merit in truncating skill sets.
"It comes down to adding more responsibilities to everybody's everyday duties," Ingram says. "That is where it gets to be a problem. When you are trying to multitask everything, you lose that quality."
Brad's got a point. So does Andy. Fact is, I'd gladly watch both their on-air products, from Brad's pristine camera-work to Andy's in-your-face lenslinging. Which newsgathering method will prevail ten years from now? Too soon to tell, but I'm guessing an amalgamation of both approaches will infiltrate every newsroom. By then, I'll probably be locked away in some upper room by then, cranking out greeting card scripts and raving about the good ole days while Cordan and Ingram break new ground in their respective disciplines. I'm okay with that.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

One March Morning...

Go Back Inside!When David changed from his bartender’s uniform into camouflage and ski mask, he had no idea how many lives he was about to change...his own, the friends he was about to take hostage, and to a lesser degree, mine. I don’t claim to know what was going through his mind as he slipped out of the supply room dressed like some kind of masked G.I. Joe, but I guarantee he wasn’t thinking about SWAT cops, TV cameras and police negotiators. No, he was most likely planning on simply taking the money and running. But as he skulked around the just-closed restaurant, his sweaty palm gripping the gun handle, it was already too late. He’d set in motion a series of events that would alter the way a lot of people saw their world, including one long-haired TV geek - who more than fourteen years later, still thinks about that chilly March morning...

Gun to HeadBy now, long-time readers of this site are familiar with, if not sick of, The Applebee's Incident - a 1992 botched robbery turned hostage standoff that among many other things, launched my newsgathering career. Even though I wasn't exactly a practicing writer back then, I knew I'd attempt to fully describe it one day - if only to gain some badly needed perspective. Over the years I've occasionally tried to do just that, with mixed results. Accurately chronicling such a convoluted tale requires more than a tumbler of Bourbon and wishful thinking, I've found. It takes research - the kind of hard work I've yet to pony up. Instead, I pour over my notes, my timeline, my memory. Now however, I have the video.

Take DownCredit Dustin Miller, a old buddy of mine whom I really wish lived closer. His recently unearthed gift of a DVD contained more than stupid bloopers and silly haircuts. It featured the Rescue 911 episode CBS crafted around the footage we shot that day. As a result, I've gleaned facts I'd forgotten and dusted off visual impressions that had grown hazy over the years. While I'm still a l-o-n-g way from completion, brother Dustin's contribution has brought new life to my abandoned manuscript. Why I'm so entranced with this distant episode isn't so easy to explain. To the veteran detective it was your typical stand-off - one in which no one got killed and the gunman ended up in cuffs. However, to the young production dork I was that day, it was a highly cinematic kick-off to a passion play I'm still living. Any writer-wannabe worth half his adverbs would clamor at the chance to tell this tale.

Young Life, RuinedTrouble is, emotions get in the way. The young lady held hostage that morning is a friend of mine. We haven't chatted in years, but on that fateful day my heart stretched and nearly broke at the sight of her suffering - even if I was zooming in for the evening news at the time. As for the gunman David, I hold no real malice. He received a pretty stiff sentence for his stupidity that morning and no doubt regrets his actions more than anyone. I was merely a bystander, a peripheal player who did nothing more than press 'Record' and try to grasp the impossible scenes playing out in the camera's eye. I guess I should just let it go. But if I'm truly destined to document my adventures behind the lens, I can't forget it - for everything that followed still pales in comparison to the footage and feelings I gathered that fateful day.

To (eventually) be continued...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Minister of Ingress

Were I a hip-hop impresario, I’d call myself Channel X. I’d swagger on stage in baggy station logo-wear, spit mad tracks into a ridiculously crunked-up Bob Barker microphone, pour out my 40 ounce Sprite for each and every one my dead camera batteries, while a pasty-white overnight editor turned deejay scribbled furious beats out of early-80 news music. Why, it’s just the kind of groundbreaking performance that could launch a whole new career, bring me valuable endorsements and send my children into permanent hiding. For their sake, I’ll hold off on a rap career until they’re off in college. By then, I’ll be a middle aged white guy with a bigger paunch, fewer hairs and even less rhythm. I'll be DOPE!

Okay, my act needs a little work.. But spend three days smelling deep-fried twinkies and prize-winning pig-shit, and you too will grow a bit punchy. Besides, this Channel X persona is one I’ve cultivated for years. Lemme ‘splain: Despite my parents’ best intentions, my given-name is pretty unremarkable. ‘Stewart’ (and it’s many unfortunate permutations) conjures up visions of turtle-necked board-game nerds or homicidal cartoon babies. “Pittman’, while a fine and noble surname, doesn’t exactly scream ‘Remember me!’. Together, the four syllables sounds like the name of your average I.T. guy. Until I get it etched onto the spine of a white-hot hardback, those fourteen letters won’t throw open a lot of doors. Not like Channel X will.

Just ask your local receptionist. Whether she’s fronting for a car dealership or a congressman, she’ll usually drop whatever she’s not doing and patch me right through to the boss, once I penetrate her first line of office-defense.

“May I ask who’s calling?” comes the oft-repeated, icy refrain.

“Sure,” I say, “it’s Stewart…from Channel X.”

Now, I don’t actually say ‘Channel X’. Instead, I mutter the highly-marketed moniker of my current employer, a catchy combination of animal imagery and whole numbers. But whatever the household name and numeric, it has the same effect. Instant ingress. Why? Well, lots of reasons. One is the ubiquity of the brand. You see, Channel X floats across the living rooms of much of the state every few minutes or so. People fall asleep to it, wake up with it, half-ignore it when they're making lunch. Also, there’s the Trumped-Up Authority Factor. Like midnight rubberneckers at an inner-city drive-by, front office folk will promptly clear a path for my logo under the assumption that I belong there. Couple that with fear of being over/underexposed and a walloping dose of personal vanity and you have but a few reasons why I’m pretty much welcomed just about anywhere. How else could a grumpy schlub in a rumpled shirt garner instant and extended access to the movers, the shakers, the con-men and the debutants of an entire region?

It ain’t my rappin' skillz.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Berated by Carnies

Of my particular profession, the astute author of Chewie World Order once noted:
"On a good day, it must be like being a rock star. On bad days, it must be like being the tax collector."
So true. There are times when a camera on your shoulder is equal to an “S” on your chest, like the many times I’ve waded into a mob of American Idol wannabes only to have young and old genuflect toward my lens. Then there are the times the reception is a good deal icier - say, when you wanna tour Death Row. Luckily, you get used to it. After a while you view both reactions with a healthy dose of protective cynicism - at which point you’re well on your way to becoming a veteran photog. Today’s reaction, however caught even me off guard...

I was wandering around the midway of the Dixie Classic Fair around lunchtime, scanning the crowd for interesting visuals and recalling a most enjoyable book I read this summer, Eyeing the Flash. In it, former carnival con artist Peter Fenton recounts his lifetime as a sideshow barker and, with his irreverent wit and gift for dialogue, paints the local midway as a cesspool of scams and debauchery. It’s a great read - if only for Peter’s self-deprecating descent into complete huckster-ism. But I digress, as I often do. In fact, I’d mentally checked out altogether when a familiar cadence snapped me back to reality.

“That’s right any prize for any price. Just have land a disc on the ducks and you too will walk away a winner…”

The carny’s shtick was as wrinkled as his death-metal t-shirt, but I was entranced nonetheless. Something about the way his singsong delivery sounded coming through those tinny speakers held me enraptured, even if it did fail to ‘turn a tip'. An avowed recordist at heart, I fished a wireless lapel microphone out of a pocket and approached the ‘talker’, who at first seemed to welcome the attention. But as I drew closer and attempted to attach the tiny microphone to his shirt, the young man suddenly recoiled, scrunching his nose at my camera as if it smelled of elderberries. I, of course, didn’t relent. Years of staging spontaneous interviews have inured me to rejection; I can usually pin a wireless mic on a pickpocket before he has time to come up with a proper alibi. Some guy in a Slayer t-shirt and bad skin wasn’t about to give me the slip. Or so I thought.

“Naw man, I don’t want nothin’ to do with you.” he spat as he eyed the logo on my camera’s side. “Rupert Murdoch’s The Devil’.

With that, the young man turned on one combat-booted heel and retreated back into his sanctuary of plush yellow ducks. I remained frozen in space, hands outstretched, microphone in hand, slowly realizing I’d been politically rebuffed by a guy who didn’t have a permanent zip code or from the looks of it a working toothbrush - let alone a solid voting record. As I slunk off unceremoniously toward the livestock barn, I could still hear him mumbling obscenities my way. Halfway there, I remembered Chewie’s quote and began to laugh. This gig really can resemble that of a tax collector’s. Today wasn’t the first time someone mistook my station’s logo for that of the allegedly evil Fox News Channel. It probably wont be the last, either. Once, a student at Guilford College - wearing Birkenstocks, white-boy dreadlocks and pampered indignation - dressed me down for being a part of 'the world-swallowing cabal' that is FNC. I tried to tell him he had the wrong guy, but how do you discuss global broadcasting with a guy who, judging from his wardrobe and walking staff, is studying to be some kind of shepherd?

Too Legit to Quit

In a sure sign that the end is nigh, your humble lenslinger has been quoted in the American Journalism Review. Okay, so two months ago, I didn't know there was an American Journalism Review. Big deal, I figured it out when a lady by the name of Deborah Potter contacted me back in August. A former network correspondent herself, she wanted my thoughts for an article she was writing on the VJ Principle. Pretending as if high-minded institutions clamored for my opinion all the time, I agreed and we spoke by phone days later. I hope I didn't overwhelm her with my overwrought linguistic hyperbole, but she caught me after a couple of stout vats of the good bean. Besides, she was asking me about a sensitive subject: Should TV stations embrace the solo-newsgatherer model en masse? It's a question I got alot of answers to, and still don't know exactly how I feel. Thus I gave the lady an earful and promptly forgot about the interlude, until a week later when a 'fact checker' from AJR called me at the scene of an apartment fire to verify a few quotes. Funny thing, this journalism...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

High Atop Hanging Rock

Atop Hanging Rock
This post has nothing to do with TV news, other than the fact that I've schlepped heavy glass to this lofty spot on two separate occasions. Today's trek to Stokes County's summit was a pleasure trip, however. What else do you call a quick drive through rolling countryside followed by a languid hike led by your offspring? From the low-slung Window Falls to the quartzite apex of Hanging Rock, we scrambled up the ancient mountain range just so we could dig on the view. While we were there we met Mulligan, a Labradoodle of some distinction, whose owner gladly pointed out Moore's Knob to the bearded stranger and his panting children. Of course one does not drag a nine and twelve year old up a jumbled boulderfield without a bit of bribery. Thus, we did the only decent thing one can do after clambering up and down Hanging Rock. We made a beeline for The Hillbilly Hide-A-Way and gorged ourselves silly on high-octane country cookin'. Sa-LUTE!