Saturday, July 19, 2008

Schmuck Alerts: A Troubling Trend

DSCF0387Ever since that goon Kenny Rogers (not The Gambler) went inexplicably mental on a cameraman, I've taken great delight in issuing Schmuck Alerts. The criteria was simple: Accost a photog and I'll drench the incident in pixels, spotlight your unwise actions and proclaim you a schmuck. Call it 'Cameraman's Revenge'. But like many guilty pleasures. my little tocsins were not without their complications. Sure there were plenty of candidates. School Officials, Rookie Cops, Business Owners, Hillbilly Women, C-List Celebrities - even a Colorado State Representative lost their minds long enough to earn a spot in my cyber hall of shame. But along the way, I began to question my judgement - for not every collision of lens and extremity deserves my polysyllabic wrath. At the same time, the sheer number of these unfortunate episodes skyrocketed; a trend that has as much to do with YouTube usage as it does newly recorded rancor. Thus, I'm recalibrating my Schmuck detector by examining three recent cases of news crew stupidity that don't quite warrant this particular pejorative - even if it seems like they should....

To call Derek Matthews a schmuck is to sully the verve of this wonderful word. Dude's a menace. What else do you call someone accused of opening fire on camera crews and firefighters alike? That's what happened in Indianapolis this week as WISH-TV photographer Kevin Hankins felt something hot crawl up his back while he framed up the flames of a vacant home. It wasn't a glowing ember, but rather the projected pellets of a small caliber weapon. In the parlance of polite society, 'That ain't cool'. Hankins escaped serious injury but a fireman and a freelance photog were also hit. Police soon arrested the 30 year old Matthews (and his gun) for the unprovoked attack. When asked why he shot at the unsuspecting scrum, the registered sex offender mumbled something about no cameras showing up when he got shot last month. Hope he's enjoying the attention now.

Dateline: Oklahoma City. It was a quiet Saturday morning at the KOCO studios when a news producer was shaken from his stupor by a voice on the loading dock phone claiming to have an injured woman outside. Oooo-kay! Most show stackers are used to having news stories brought to them on a silver platter, but this is ridiculous! TV stations are sparsely staffed on weekend mornings; executive decisions are often made my folks wearing flip-flops - but only if they paid for the pizza. This time however, a stranger and a woman with a possible bullet in her gut wanted the ten cent tour. Instead, staffers called an ambulance and then, The Law. Paramedics took the woman to the E.R., cops drove the man to the pokey. So who's the schmuck? The guy, I guess - not only for possibly shooting his partner, but for thinking his local affiliate was a suitable place to dispose of the future body. Personally, I blame all those insipid CSI shows...

And finally, a case with real potential: A news crew with uncomfortable questions. A business owner in a revved-up wheelchair. Can’t you just smell the Schmuck Alert? I could - until I saw the tape and realized that - tragically -this was schmuckery denied. Don‘t get me wrong; Raymond Hyatt had no right no drop his seated scooter into gear and make for the ankles of photog Al (Lucky or Tough) Miller. But the beleaguered bar owner had asked the news people to stop recording, offering to answer their questions if they'd just turned the camera off. The crew refused and, feeling cornered, Hyatt unwisely accelerated. That's when Action News Reporter Russ Ptacek came into play, launching into the kind of Wronged Reporter Karoake that always makes me lunge for the remote. What followed of course was Missouri’s most unneeded exclusive - a breathless telecast about a dangerous mid-shin collision, replete with bad acting and traded congratulations. As Shatner and Rollins say,'I can't get behind that'.

Hmm? Oh yeah...Schmucks!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Photogs of Gotham

Photogs of GothamNot since Micheal Keaton first sported rubber nipples has the world been so turned on by a Batman movie. That includes me of course, but having been born in the 60's, I still consider Adam West to be the quintessentially cowled crimefighter. These days of course it's all about Christian Bale, or rather, the late Heath Ledger as Gotham's resident jester. The previews do look compelling and as soon as the lines die down at the local magoogaplex, I'll pony up for popcorn and take a seat. For now however, I'm sending a henchman to decipher just what was brilliant and what was hype. Meet The Senator - a Louisiana lenslinger with a few superpowers of his own. While he's there, he'll probably turn a story or two - so don't be surprised if a beefy shadow falls over you as you leave the theater. Don't be afraid; just answer his dopey questions and hope he gets your good side. When he leaves call your Mom, 'cause chances are you're starring in your own four second soundbite tonight. If that's not enough, you may also wind up on his blog - a dank, subterranean place where Commissioner Gordon can regularly be seen eating Cheetos and hogging the X-box. As for me, I'll be out back on the treadmill. Hey, these tights don't kick ass by themselves...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shooters on the Loose

Those of us who squint for a living do so with great conviction. Don't believe me? Jostle a pro's shot and standby for some - ahem - passion. That's what happened today, mere seconds before the above clutch of law enforcers burst through the door and waved their weapons this way and that. Sure, it's just a drill. But tell that to a campus cop hopped up on cold coffee and young man's ambition. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

"You didn't get my message?"

Indeed I hadn't, but when an assignment manager asks you that first thing in the morning, they may as well just say, "You're late!" Suddenly, I was. Thirty miles down the interstate, Elon University police officers swarmed the same dormitory over and over again - chasing the ghost of Virginia Tech from room to room. They'd been doing so for ninety minutes when I saddled up; in less than an hour they would promptly stop. Did I mention I was late? I was, and while I didn't break any new land-speed records, I'd be lying if I said I lollygagged. When I did arrive on campus, a trusty PR buddy handed me the dorkiest of eye protection and whisked me through doors of the aforementioned dorm. Inside, steely eyed professionals scanned my every feature while scratching the itch on their trigger fingers. And that was just the camera crews!

"You need to get behind the line, Tee-Vee!"

An oak tree in an SBI golf shirt pointed to a wall of photogs at the far end of the wall. They looked pretty miserable packed together like logo'd sardines, but as the last fish to arrive I had no choice but to join them. First though, I had to squeeze past a scruff of young deputies waiting their turn to terrorize Elon's first responders. With their backward ballcaps, high dollar shades and practiced thousand yard stares, they looked like deckhands from 'The Deadliest Catch'. I however resembled Jimmy Buffet's roadie and silently wished my tropical print was instead a manly shade of camouflage. It wasn't, so I dragged my happy ass past them with my chest ouffed up and joined the mass of elbows and zoom lenses behind the line. As I did the camera pack formed around me, until my Sony and I hugged enough sheetrock to steady my shot. At the other end of the hall, the SBI trainers loitered and joked as the campus cops took their position outside. Scanning the waistline of every participant, I performed a hard target search for any sign of flash-bangs and mercifully came up empty. I hate flash-bangs...

"Please, DO NOT do this now!"

I peered over my camera and spotted the owner of that request. A cable channel one man band who will remain nameless stood nose to nose with a print photographer from the nearest paper, their mutual displeasure showing in the scrunch of their shoulder blades. There they stared and mumbled for what felt like forever. I tried to look around to see if the cops had yet to notice this budding scuffle, but the crush of others all around me prevented any new perspective. So I looked back over at the bowed-up duo and muffled a chuckle. It ain't the first time I've seen two photogs threaten to throw down on scene, but it was the first time I've seen it happen in the presence of twitchy-fingered SWAT teams. Suddenly I heard a voice ring out and realized it was my own...

"Fellas, fellas..."

That seemed to settle the offensive. With a few mumbled curses, the two photojouralists turned their attention down the hall - just in time for last drill of the day to commence. I crawled into my viewfinder and steadied up my shot. When the campus cops began yelling commands from the other side of the door, I realized I wasn't rolling and jabbed at the RECORD button. As they poured in through the door and hoisted their handguns, I wished I'd captured the cameraman stand-off. Now THAT would have been a great Web Extra...

Pete on the Street

Pete O'NealThere comes a time in every news shooter's life when they begin to question their cynicism. For me, it was the birth of my children. For Pete O'Neal, it was the murder of his mother. Before then, WMAR's longtime overnight photographer cruised the mean streets of his native Baltimore looking for victims of crime to put on the air. He found them - covering an estimated 18 hundred homicides in that troubled city. Along the way he gained a reputation as a gifted first responder, winning multiple local Emmy's for his nocturnal work. Often he'd arrive before the police did, shoulder his rig and wade into the madness of fresh tragedy.

Such is the life of an overnight photog. But when his own 74 year old mother was found bludgeoned to death in her home, Pete O'Neal felt more than a loving son's heartbreak. He felt the accumulated pain of all those thousands who'd passed through his lens over the years. Losing his mom didn't change how Pete made a living, but it did alter the way he looked at victims. No more grief stricken faces at point blank range; O'Neal now keeps a respectable distance between himself and the inconsolable.

This epiphany is just one of the reasons I admire O'Neal - a shooter I would have never even heard of had it not been for the excellent work of the Baltimore Sun. Matt Simon's article - along with a dashboard confessional video - does more to illuminate the motives of a veteran photog than most of the drivel I post here. Aside from the tragedy of losing his mother, Pete tells how he came to be interested in cameras in the first place - an anecdote that closely mirrors my own. It's enough to make any shooter question why they do this silly job, and reconsider how they 'll do it in the future. Go read the whole thing, watch the video and think of Pete O'Neal the next time you watch midnight crime footage from the inner city. I will.


A compelling addendum at, courtesy of Alex Lucas...
If you really haven't worked at nights for over a year, it's hard to explain how truly insane it is. You just know somebody's going to die that night, and you have to see grieving people. I thought I had a real good grip on what life was about until I did it for some time. Overnights are like a funhouse mirror set to reality after you really get to know it, it's very warping. All that time, all those murders, and I still can't explain what causes murder. No clue why a person kills. None. And it never stops. Never. There's a couple of days, and then it catches right back up to where it was in a night. And I work in Nashville. Little Nashville.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Squatting with the Competition

The Longest WaitWith four news stations bent on continuous team smotherage, there ain't alot of time to sit down in this town. But the other day I copped a squat on a county-owned bench with a couple of other deadline veterans and as, is my wont, I popped off a few snapshots. Eric and Doug barely looked up; they're used to me taking pictures by now. So while I fiddled with my digital, they acted like my kids and ignored me. Together we must have been quite a sight: three grizzled lensers sitting amid their gear, making small talk while eyeing a courthouse doorway. With the clock about to strike four bells, we ALL had other places to be. But the subject of our coverage was deep inside the marble edifice and until he or his handlers appeared, we weren't about to budge...

Court Bench PhilosophersSo we sat and chatted - about what exactly I don't remember. One thing we didn't talk about was Sydney Lowe ll, twenty-three year old son of N.C. State basketball coach and, if police evidence is to be believed, straight up thug. Lowe was the reason we convened after all. While we watched the smokers congregate outside the courthouse door, young Sydney pled his case deep within. Or his lawyers did, anyway. After all, when you're facing mutliple charges involving robbery, kidnapping and brandished weapons, notarized mouthpieces are a must. Who better to explain how a life of privilege led to such destruction, how 'social phobias' and too much Ecstasy were the real villians here - not this nice young man in the sharply tailored suit...

Cell Phone Time KillBack outside, there were few social phobias on display and ectasy of any kind was nil. Instead, there was idle banter about the insufferable heat - platitudes peppered with the boops and beeps of three separate cell phones. Looking around, I wondered for not the first time how we gathered news when the only available phones were stored in randomly placed transparent closets. I was about to ask my cohorts - whose data-gathering habits date back as far as mine - when a few locally famous faces appeared at the door. Reporters, discs in hands and details on their minds, raced for nearby live trucks and motioned for us to follow. We did - without even finishing our thoughts. There'll be plenty of time for that the next time we gather - which by my calculations - should be somewhere between now and a half-past inconvenience.

Now, you were saying?

Hero of the Day

You meet some of the nicest people in this business - often on days they prayed would never come. Such was the case today when, an hour after sauntering into the newsroom, I waded through a church parking lot full of grieving friends and family. Clutching photos, holding hands and wiping away tears, the youth group at Glen Hope Baptist Church told no less than four circling camera crews about a man we’d never meet. Pruitt Rainey, a local boy turned Army Corporal, died in Afghanistan Sunday. Taliban militants attacked his base, sparking one of the most ferocious battles since the invasion of that country in 2001. He was twenty two and in fourteen days, he would have been back home. Many of those looking forward to his return were even younger, for Pruitt had made a strong impression on the kids in this Burlington church. That was obvious from the look in their eyes when they talked about him. A great big ‘teddy bear of a fellow’, they called him - describing a kid who’d overcome hardscrabble roots to infect others with his stocky brand of optimism. When he first joined the Army to finance his education, those around him offered congratulations - then quietly prayed for his safety. But that was some time ago. With only two weeks left in Afghanistan, Pruitt’s friends figured he was all but done with hazardous duty. They didn’t know enough infantry lore to understand the young Corporal’s own misgivings. ‘Last missions’ are the most dangerous, they say. Stories of short-timers being killed on their final patrol have been handed down since men first began killing each other in large numbers. How many such tales Pruitt Rainey heard is unclear, but on his most recent MySpace page update, he described his mood as ‘Anxious’. As it turned out, he had reason to be.

So, why am I telling you all this? In hopes you’ll remember his name the next time you’re reaching for a hero.

Monday, July 14, 2008

News Crew Insouciance

News Crew Face Off
I don’t know that Bill O’Neil and Doug Miller were having any kind of argument at all, but were I one of those cable news body language experts I’d make up some gibberish about the ‘confrontational cant’ of the photog’s posture; head defiantly cocked, his calloused hand on well-worn hip. From there, I’d segue into some spiel about the reporter’s icy stare, explain the disdain of his clenched hands and the animosity of his upper lip. But in reality they could have been discussing dinner plans, for all I know. It was around six in the evening, and the sound of my own live truck’s generator drowned out their verbal exchange. Still, you gotta give it up to O’Neil for that contemptible grimace. Dude could stare holes through battleship armor... Did I mention I like to work alone?

Who Cut the Cheese?

Who cut the cheese?Hey, ever wonder what it's like backstage at a pimento cheese factory? Me neither - but when your bosses order profiles of locally made products, you quietly thank God you don't live in the colostomy bag capital. Then you get busy. That's what Chad Tucker and I did a few weeks back when we gladly donned hairnets for a peek into the world of processed sandwich spreads. Sure, it's dizzying. But like grizzled crime scene detectives stepping over a stiffening corpse, we looked past the surface for the story within. We found it - with the help of a little family history that really helped garnish all those curds and whey. The resulting cheese-heavy epic won't change any lives, but I for one will never pass through my local dairy aisle without extending a knowing nod to all those little yellow canisters. I'll start worrying when they nod back.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Suitable for Framing

Nobody - NOBODY - captures the act of electronic newsgathering like the great beFrank. For proof, look no further than the above frame, in which a reporter puts on her face while the photog whittles away at the evening piece. I ... could pen an entire screenplay based on this photo: a live truck teleplay brimming with dated technology and timeless stereotypes. Since I don't know of these real life characters, I'll hold off - but I do hereby request to write The Intro for the coffee table book beFrank's belong in. Until then, I'll continue to peruse his Flickr photostream and look forward to the next time we break bread together. That doesn't make me a stalker, does it?

Triumph He Didn’t

Just when I was searching for something to post, an iPhone fan kicks a reporter to the proverbial curb. It happened in Burbank when KTLA’s Eric Spillman was trolling for soundbites amid a sea of Apple enthusiasts. All was going well until Spillman asked one of the techno-sycophants had he ever seen a woman naked. The answer is a cringe-inducing lesson in the perils of live TV that I’ve watched, oh, about two dozen times now. Not to come down too hard on our correspondent; I’m sure Spillman is more than qualified to chew up newscast airtime every morning. But in a world where too many local news reporters take their cue from The Daily Show, it’s hard not to giggle when they fail so spectacularly. So, what have we learned? If you’re going to ape the shtick of a certain caustic hand puppet, you’d better have the comic chops to back it up. Spillman didn’t and he got spanked. Then again, the resulting clip is far more beneficial to mankind than anything you’d normally see on the morning news. And for that we should ALL be grateful...