Friday, April 27, 2007

The Scrum and the Numb

'It's TV news at its best and TV news at its worst.'

That was the assessment of one colleague last week as broadcasters from across the hemisphere converged on a shell-shocked Virgina Tech. I can't agree more, for rarely have newsgathering forces turned crisis into commodity quite so precisely. Before the sun set on the day of the shooting, a growing herd of TV trucks grazed on a campus hillside, a labyrinth of cables and light stands spilling out from behind their overly lacquered logos. As the unfathomable death toll echoed across the globe, more and more media outlets dispatched crews to Blacksburg. Midwest affiliate reps, foreign bureau chiefs and every network hotshot you can think of soon roamed the grounds of what some consider the largest sat truck summit ever convened. At dusk, hundreds of tripods lined every inch of the grassy ridge, those tricked-out HMI rigs spotlighting the very edge of Virgina's darkest day. Over coiffed correspondents stood almost shoulder to shoulder and nodded gravely on cue, before introducing their own uniquely assembled dissection of the day. Walk that line of talking heads and you'll find whatever spin you're looking for, from the shrill demagoguery of cable news outlets to the melodramatic whispers of the public broadcasting set to the indecipherable rapid-fire of the Spanish-speaking channels. Translation aside, the incident at hand had already transformed. Hours before, the massacre at Virginia Tech had been but a madman's depraved fantasy. By nightfall it was a slick and salacious sat-shot juggernaut, available in every skewed perspective the 24/7 news universe has to offer.

But at what cost? For every talking head, sound tech and camera-hump scouring the Virginia Tech proper, there were countless more local folk sleepwalking in grief - trying to wrap their heads around the crushing loss and a dark new legacy, all while news crews clamored for close-ups of their still-falling tears. With classes cancelled for the week, only the media and the bereaved remained to duel it out. The resulting frenzy was ugly at times. No sooner could a crew corner a subject than a gaggle of new logo'd lenses would descend - turning an impromptu one-on-one into a gang-bang of obscene proportions.The melee of microphones was pack journalism at its worst - a phenomenon in which truth is lost in fervor and the signal turns simply to noise. Certainly not every member of the Fourth Estate so egregiously devolved on spot, but even the accepted tactics - from celebrity reporters using their household names to get to the victims' families to the rampant bum-rushing of the many memorials - were pretty damned unsavory. But don't take my word for it - I was only there for a day. Listen instead to a VT student named Jason M., who left this reply to an earlier thread:
During the candlelight vigil, a group of friends and I were standing next to another group of people, one of whom lost it about halfway through. Instantly the cameras began to swoop in and wouldn't go away when we all told them - to basically piss off. So one of our group began singing and walked straight into his shot. Seeing this small spectacle, others joined and formed a wall around the grieving group - a wall that moved in tandem with the asshole photogs until they gave up and went away. I'm all for freedom of speech, but it seems like much of the media (especially TV, local just as much as the big guys) tends to hide behind the mantra of first amendment rights in order to ignore the fact that they're being completely insensitive pricks.
However you might envision the above scene, it wasn't our finest hour. But among the victimized were members of the media itself. For many local news crews, the long-gone crush of jet-setting competitors has left a lasting impression on those who remain.
You national/international folks really messed up my community. A place where I've done more than a hundred stories is no longer welcoming. The people stare and harass us, something never done before. I know it will never change, but a lot of y'all need to check into the school of respect. I'm glad you're gone as is my community. I hate it that we have to pick up your mess. Thanks to all the unethical bastards that invaded my space. Those that posed as students, hospital staff and who knows what else. Thanks to god that there's a new disaster to take you away so our community can start to recover from our disaster. Adios. -- Newsman
It must be noted that Newsman has been pretty much eviscerated by his fellow photogs, most of whom credit the assassin Cho for Blacksburg's remaining woes. I don't totally buy that, for asinine behavior on the part of strangers cannot totally be blamed on a homicidal college kid lying dead in a classroom. In my short time on the drill field a full week after the attack, I saw enough boorish camera behavior to make me wonder why I ever wanted to sling a news lens at all. That's not to say I think we should revert to two cans and a string . Wonderful new tools are at our disposal; hell, the web alone makes the idea of a 500 channel universe seem hopelessly quaint. But is it too much to ask that we retain some air of civility amid all this mass communicatin'? Apparently so. It's something this reformed southerner will never get used to - even when I myself am caught up in the ugliest of scrums. It sure doesn't make defending my profession any easier - not when its glaringly obvious that despite your favorite newscast being late-breaking, localized and live(!), basic human decorum is all but dead.

No news-flash there, I guess...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Schmuck Alert: Hercules Fence

Via Photog's Lounge, video of another merchant roughing up a news crew. Okay, so that's even considered a crime in some states, but there are other reasons to avoid spending money at Hercules Fence at 4660 S.E. Maricamp Road just outside Ocala, Florida. Let's start with why the camera crew showed up in the first place - to inquire about a peculiar sign blazing out front. We've all seen them: magnetic letter boards bearing cutesy messages or bible verses for passing motorists to enjoy. ignore or ponder. Figuring any publicity was good publicity, the fine folk at Hercules Fence put their heads together and came up with a joke that is at once unfunny and patently offensive: What has 4 wheels and flies? A dead cripple in a wheelchair. Man, if THAT won't sell fencing, I don't know what will. Strangely enough though, the riddle in question didn't spark a rush on cedar planking. Instead, it caused a minor uproar in Ocala - obviously a rather uptight community with zero appreciation for middle school playground humor. Come to think of it, I'M offended - a considerable feat for anyone who's done serious time on warships and in newsrooms. Why it's enough to make a little news crew pushee-pushee pale in comparison ... Still, such actions are unilaterally uncool and I'd simply be remiss in my duties as self-appointed blowhard of the photog nation if I didn't sum up the situation with the following heartfelt assessment:


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Split Indecision

Who IS this woman? How come's she's just standing there? Why does she look like Sandra Bullock? Three questions that run through my mind as I stare at this photo taken by Rich Abrahamson of The Coloradoan. Seconds after the frame was captured, Colorado State receiver George Hill reluctantly plowed into four year old Caden Thomas. The resulting gash would require thirty stitches, launch a whirlwind media tour and place all involved in the viral video hall of fame. Just this morning the gang appeared on the Today Show - the kid, the football player and the parents kibbitzing with Matt and Meredith while the slow-motion hit played and over and over again. It was all enough to tear me away from my punishing regiment of morning Pop-tarts, uh, I mean push-ups - long enough to wonder what kind of dillweed of a parent lets his kid roam the sidelines during padded gladiator combat. After that I pretty much forgot about it...

And then I saw this picture. It's a beguiling enough shot, fraught with implications that are probably unjust. After all, who knows how you'd react if you found yourself cradling a video-camera in the end zone as a human rocket homed in on a passing toddler. I'd like to think I'd somehow save the kid, but I know guys who'd zoom in and roll on their own demise - let alone some kid's undue clock-cleaning. Still, I'm struck by the lady's choice to do neither. Wielding a lens but not really using it, she seems to be watching for the collision that is surely about to ensue. Hmmmmm. I don't wanna play armchair quarterback here - I'm just some goob with a web address and a writing compulsion. But as someone's who's had his own melon thumped by an incoming quarterback, I can tell you - that shit hurts. George Hill should be commended for doing what he could to lessen the impact. Little Caden should get a free scholarship. His parents should be more embarrassed than giddy. And that lady with the camera ... well, she should probably look into another line of work.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mopping Up In Blacksburg

Blacksburg Sat CityBy the time I got to Virginia Tech, Sat Truck City had shriveled to a village. But with a parked armada of media trucks still sprawled across the west end of campus, the electronic circus hadn’t completely left Blacksburg. Katie, Shep and Geraldo were gone - having winged their way back to Manhattan after the initial blitzkrieg of live remotes and breathless updates. In their wake, an army of lesser known faces roamed the grounds, regionally known wretches still forced to use both their names when signing off. As always they were flanked by countless photographers, sound crews and truck operators - casually dressed technicians who bore the true brunt of transmitting calamity 24/7. Everywhere you looked, they straightened cable, tweaked lights and attended to the many thankless tasks that makes all this continuous team smother age possible in the first place. Many were from local affiliates splayed across the country, some were network of course and a few didn’t seem to speak a word of English. It was through this wretched hive of trucks and tripods that I steered Unit 4 yesterday morning - just in time for the first day of class since madness and side-arms ended thirty three lives last week. I knew I’d end up here.

Bob at RestI wasn’t alone, however. Reporter Bob Buckley rode shotgun, offering conjecture and analysis, when he wasn’t scanning the dial for something more palatable. To my great relief, we arrived in Blacksburg before El-Rushbo took to the airwaves, sparing me a round of unbridled dittos and color commentary. No bother. We had a job to do. Seven days after an angry young man turned a serene campus into a killing field, the surviving student body was returning en masse to their beloved Virginia tech. Tasked with filing three separate reports on their arrival, we switched into work mode the moments our boots his the ground. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Before we began our hike to the now famous drill field, Bob and I made a wide arc around the satellite encampment, chatting up distant colleagues and admiring the rented tents and refreshment stashes of the well-heeled network crews. We even bartered for tape from the Fox folks, eliciting promises of shared footage at the end of the day. Not even the local guys batted an eye at the latest newcomers - with a few exceptions. Thrice, strangers with press passes of their own approached me to inquire if I was ’Lenslinger’. While not a wholly unpleasant sensation, being asked that always rattles my cage a tad.

More CrewsStill, whatever self-satisfaction I’d scored at camp dissipated on the way to the drill field. Trudging along with camera and tripod in tow, we grew silently as students in maroon and orange shuffled by. Most ignored us, but a few others bore holes into our skulls with angry glares, while others simply stared at the sidewalk as we passed. All thoughts of cyber-fame vanished a few minutes later when Bob and I turned a corner to find a landscape alive - the bucolic green drill field in the distance, dotted with mournful specks of maroon and orange. ‘Gimme my sticks’, I said and Bob gladly obliged. I powered up the camera and lined up shot after shot, struggling at times to catch up with the moving portrait before me. Gone were the Frisbees and grab-ass of normal college outdoor life. Instead, students sat on blankets and stared or stood in groups and whispered. Others milled about under white tents, stopping to scribble messages of remembrance on blank placards left by the college. It was a somber enough scene, and one I had no intention of invading up close. Using every bit of my glass, I gathered all the long shots I could before moving in closer to the makeshift memorial. All around, other camera crews did the same - moving in determined slow motion toward the heartfelt photo-op at the front end of the field.

Two Live CrewIt’s my belief that Virginia Tech handled the after-massacre media onslaught rather well. My many colleagues who spent last week here may disagree, but yesterday at least, we pretty much had open reign. Though I felt the eyeballs of many an official, no one from Virginia Tech’s vast faculty ever approached me. The same could not be said for the students. Still shell-shocked from their loss, they are understandably tired of the electronic press - the roving band of lenses and boom mic‘s that won‘t leave their campus. ’Media Go Home!, read a sign I saw - a sentiment shared in the grumblings of a few lads who brushed by me on the sidewalk. I understood their ire and offered nothing in return. One young fellow though insisted on engaging me . When I pointed out how unobtrusive I was being here on the crowd’s edge, he softened a bit. Eventually Bob and I interviewed him on camera, where railed against the papparazi invading his school. Afterwards, we couldn’t shake the guy, but that‘s cool. His rancor (and attraction) is quite justified by the actions of many in the Fourth Estate. I couldn’t help but realize this as I watched a muttonchopped dude with a tricked-out consumer-cam, working the pack of mourning kids like he was shooting a concert. Too cool for sticks, he cradled his lens awkwardly in his upturned palms, jamming the damn thing repeatedly in the faces of sobbing freshmen.