Friday, November 05, 2010

Shooting the Messenger

Over the years I've taken great pleasure in issuing Schmuck Alerts, those cheeky warnings in which I poke fun at pampered athletes, parolees and other pariahs who lash out at local lenses. Most often, the incidents are a tad trifle; harmless if if not regrettable episodes featuring otherwise lucid souls who, for whatever reason, suffer a momentary lapse of reason. THIS, is not one of those times.

It happened in Florida, Orange County to be exact. Hundreds of relatives of a 15 year old boy killed in a hit and run incident were wrapping up a memorial service when anguish morphed into rage. Exactly what caused that tipping point is unclear, but it's believed the father of the deceased took exception with the way a Spanish language news crew interviewed his surviving son. From there, logic quickly crumbled. Witnesses say the father confronted the news crew, a move which led other family members to target additional journalists on scene. A photographer from WFTV-TV paid the price. The opening frames of his video resemble a late night zombie flick, as angry strangers lunge for him and his lens. You don't have to be in the habit of carrying a Sony on your shoulder to be frightened by that scenario. What followed was a flurry of curses, kicks and punches as what can only be described as a violent mob descend on the unarmed photog.

'Big deal', you might think, 'some nosy newser got his ass kicked after invading a poor family's piece of mind.' You'd be wrong. From all accounts, the WFTV crew was merely the closest target available. Video from other sources shows the photog in question putting up no resistance as the emotional crowd overtakes him. When he can, he scrambles to his feet and hurries toward his waiting live truck, only to be further attacked by two men who apparently felt wronged by the red light of the retreating camera. That last assault is especially ugly, the photog is pushed down and punched before he manages to once again get away. At no time did he challenge his aggressors. No matter - his mere presence enraged the by now felonious mourners.

Are there extenuating circumstances that led to this seemingly unjust beat-down? Couldn't tell ya. But there is one I'm fairly certain of. The WFTV photog didn't want to be there. Shooters never do. No, that kind of urge to witness misery up close and personal usually comes from within the newsroom. We lenslingers are merely the tip of the spear. Very often we're also the most rational members of the media, less inclined to shit on people we know we're going to encounter down the road. It's easy to be cocky when you never leave the newsroom. Smell a few bodies burning, watch a few widows weep and that bravado fades. The news shooters I know can gather in a pack at the edge of atrocity and still find ways to show respect. We're not a particularly noble breed, but we do know how to gather data without drawing blood. If you don't believe me, you really should get out of that news cube more often.

Even if you do, you'd be hard-pressed to vilify a family coping with unspeakable loss. That seems to be who these mourners were and while my heart bleeds for their sorrows, it dries up pretty quickly when you come for my jugular. Do we news photogs have an unsavory occupation? At times. Do we take pleasure in hounding victims in their worst hours? Hardly. In fact, most TV stevedores would rather shoot a hundred ribbon cuttings than loiter outside a single house of pain. Still, it's our job and until Flip phones and Twitter accounts fully replace us, you can expect we'll gather at the rim of unfortunate incidents and try to stay out of the way.

But mercy is shown where mercy is given. You don't have to like me. Feel free to flip me off. You won't be the first. And while I may grimace at the digits, I won't return the sentiment. After all, it's just another lousy assignment to me. To you, it's very often the worst day ever. I get that and will give you far more that the benefit of the doubt. But lay hands on me and the empathy dissolves. I may not succeed in planting my boot in your crotch as you take me down, but I reserve the right to try. Whatever happens, keep smiling, as your every action will grace the next several newscasts I have anything to do with. Until then, you have my deepest sympathies...

Thursday, November 04, 2010

To the Makers of Megamind...

You're holding the camera wrong.

Dear DreamWorks,

Congratulations. With your latest animated release, you've captured the imagination of moviegoers everywhere - for at least a weekend, anyway. We here at the Lenslinger Institute couldn't be happier for you and may even use our children as an excuse to attend this 3-D feast of computer-generated mayhem. We're especially stoked about the character of 'Hal', frantic TV cameraman by morning, misguided superhero by mid-afternoon. He's a riot, and a fairly believable one, too. Dumpy, vested, hapless: You guys nailed it! Not since Chris Elliot totally skeeved out Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day has a television news photographer been portrayed so realistically. There's really only one problem...


Honestly, no TV News Photog worth his weight in Double-A batteries would be caught dead gripping his rig like that - in ANY dimension! Ergonomically, it makes no sense, not to mention the fact that it elevates said cameraman's armpit to a bedeviling level! Have you smelled a TV News cameraman's armpit? It ain't the kind of thing that fills theater seats! Now, I know what you're thinking: We small-screen schlubs are overreacting. Not true. For as long as lenslingers have been featured in cinema, you Hollywood types have simply mismanaged the handling of this everyday object. What gives? Would you notice if the Priest from 'The Exorcist' held his crucifix upside down? Would you insist that crusty backwoods sheriff character twist his pistol sideways all ghetto-like? Would you let a Jedi Knight pick up his light saber by the wrong end? We. Think. Not.

Now, we don't expect you to correct this oversight. Animation is expensive, after all and we TV Newsers know just how irritating it is to make a last-minute re-cut. But this is 2010 and if your otherwise delightful movie makes even a modicum of bank, a sequel is all but inevitable. You probably already have it story-boarded. PLEASE - consider the positioning of Hal's right hand in any future productions. Sure, it's a small thing, but this tiny adjustment would mean the world to we TV Type and in turn create an army of dumpy, vested, hapless DreamWorks believers.

Come on... how ELSE ya gonna kick Pixar's ass?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Body of Work

Bodies Revealed 1Though not nearly as iron-stomached as my paramedic brethren, I'm not particularly squeamish. That said, I abhor movie gore, finding it banal at best, misogynistic at worst. In fact, I've not watched a horror flick since Freddy Krueger was hip, never seen that clip of the Taliban sawing some dude's head off and generally go about my day NOT wondering what eyeballs look like when they explode. Today, none of that mattered. No, when you score an assignment so fraught with possibility as the one I did today, you set aside all personal quirks long enough to bag your limit. That's exactly what I did this morning as I schlepped gear into the Natural Science Center's newest exhibit, "Bodies Revealed". Perhaps you've heard of it. I had, sort of. But whatever cheesy TV piece I half remember watching didn't compare to the feeling I got when I rolled into the traveling exhibit, looking to construct my own cheesy TV piece. It was, to use an SAT word, creepy.

Bodies Revealed 3Still, as a fully licensed cameramanthropologist, I'm duty bound to point my lens at many things that sicken me (like school board meetings!). Thus, I manned up and waded into the vast exhibition space, slowly taking in the cadre of cadavers that awaited me. Most were missing their skin, many struck dramatic poses and then there was the lady made of nothing but capillaries. I nodded at her solemnly. She didn't respond. I passed by without a word, knowing we'd probably chat later in my dreams. After a minute or two, I regained my equilibrium and went about the business of framing up bodies in such a way that viewers wouldn't fully realize what they were looking at. Hey, I'm good, but it wasn't easy - especially when the person you're trying to make palatable is sliced apart like a stack of Pringle potato chips. Nonetheless, I plowed through it and soon had the exhibit's director in my cross-hairs for an extended on-camera chat. That's when something weird happened...

Bodies Revealed 2Two minutes into the interview, my audio went to shit. Static filled my earpiece and the the voluem began to wane. I stopped the good Dr. long enough to switch out batteries - only to find the Double AA's in my microphone were still full-strength. 'Strange', I thought, but changed them anyway. New batteries, however, didn't fix the problem, so I trudged outside and got another mic. Minutes later, the mellifluous tones of my guest flowed crisp and clean as I did my best to ignore the eviscerated citizen hanging over my left shoulder. Then it got really weird. My camera ... died. It just shut down as if it lost all power. I swallowed a curse and examined the camera battery - only to find it fully charged. Hmmm. Eventually, I found another battery the camera liked and limped through the interview - but I had to wonder: Was there some bad juju floating about this collection of stiffs that kept zapping my power sources? Some misplaced karma determined to thwart my pseudo-journalistic efforts?

Bodies Revealed 4Naaaah. Unexplained gremlins plague gizmos all the time. I've been equally frustrated with my collection of gadgets at bake sales, though I gotta say: I have never seen that particular malady happen - ever. Charged batteries tend to work - for a while anyway. In fact, the very batteries that refused to provide power in the company of cadavers worked fine an hour later in the comparatively saner environs of El Ocho's newsroom. Spooky, yes - but I'll chalk it up to the vagaries of the chase. Perhaps the same technical difficulties will occur the next time I'm trapped at some shopping mall's center square, where I have only some wino dressed as Santa to blame for any paranormal activity. In the meantime, I'll pretend none of this ever happened while taking away another important lesson. After wrapping up a shoot at a cadaver exhibit, skipping lunch may be in order...

My grilled chicken sandwich tasted like some old dude's pancreas.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Farewell, Greg Pell...

Pell on Scene
When I grow up, I wanna be just like Greg Pell. After all, dude's a legend; a pipe-smoking wise-ass who's been lighting up North Carolina news scenes since the mid 70's. I, of course, didn't meet him until 2007, when he came out of retirement to school a younger generation of journalists on the Art of the Grab. He should know. See, back when I was mastering the alphabet, Pell the Elder was ushering in the age of video at Charlotte affiliate WBTV. Since then, he's shot every kind of news story there was - and a few there weren't! When asked, he'll tell you his favorite era came in the 80's, when he and BTV reporter lived in Raleigh and covered what they damn well pleased, untouched by the drama of their distant newsroom. From the Legislature to farm news to any old excuse to head to the coast, Greg and the fellas enjoyed the kind of autonomy most modern day news crews couldn't fathom.

But Greg doesn't just live in the past. Far from it. When I met him in 2007, he was fresh off a thwarted retirement, slinging yet another lens and chortling all the way. That in itself is a towering achievement. Most of us beneath the glass inevitably let it drag us down. Be it the lousy hours, punishing pace or close proximity to liars of every stripe, we news shooters aren't exactly known for our decorum and grace. Which is why I was thunderstruck the first time this silver-haired photog with only one arm be-bopped by my live truck, humming under his breath as a cloud of sweet-smelling pipe smoke trailed in his happy wake. It was not the last time he made me feel foolish for cursing the News Gods. And it's why I brightened each and every time I ran across him at drive-by shootings, charity bake sales and the occasional Presidential pit stop. I'd like to think his serendipity even rubbed off on me, but I know myself better than that...

Still, if I haven't yet followed his example and learned to age gracefully, it may very well be too late -- for Greg Pell is retiring. And this time, he ain't comin' back. For years now, Greg's enjoyed dual citizenship in two very different slices of Carolina. On weekdays, there was no telling where he'd pop up along the suburban swath that is the Piedmont-Triad. But come the weekend, you'd find him wandering among the hardwoods of his beloved Ash County. Now that he's hung up his press pass, it's unlikely he'll venture down from the Highlands all that often. He definitely won't be spotted loitering outside some inner-city imbroglio as a distant producer counts backwards in his earpiece. No, that would be ME. And while I don't promise to be as placid as Pell, I'll do my best to emulate the man, should a junior 'slinger ever seek my counsel.

So enjoy your down time, Greg. You certainly deserve it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Election Day Hex

Leaning Tower of OvertimeAhhh, Election Day! There's no other twelve hour shift I'd rather spend making widgets than the day we put Democracy to the test. No matter where my news camera and I end up, it's usually an exercise in slow-motion. With that in mind, here are a few things members of the media can count on, no matter whose charlatan ascends to power. It's a lock!

A Change in Attitude

Sure, they've been sucking up every commercial break and robo-calling your dog when you're not home, but even your least favorite candidate is about to go all stoic. You'll first notice it at the poling place, where suddenly the guy in all those scathing campaign spots DOESN'T want to talk on camera. Instead, he just wants to look Presidential as he emerges from behind the curtain, hoping no cameras caught him fumbling with the 'Vote For Me' thingy seconds earlier. Give him space, he could burst into tears any moment.

Insightful Analysis

Somewhere around the first noon live shot, the electronic media's political acumen begins looking a little threadbare. First, there's the reporter stationed just outside the polling place who brazenly judges local turn-out by the number of people she spotted in her three minutes of being on-scene. Minus the ninety seconds she spent checking her look in the camera's lens reflection. Or the two minutes she spent coming up with a clever Facebook status update. Take that, Zogby!

Sustenance For All

Let's face it, election day is a long haul. From those useless live shots at 5 AM to the very last dose on speculation near midnight, the only thing not in short supply is all that overtime you didn't really want. Fear not, management is on your side. In fact, they just ordered two truckloads of pizza for your co-workers back at the station. Maybe if you're lucky, the weather guy will hold up a slice during his update. No licking the live truck monitors.

Danger at Every Turn

If you're unlucky enough to be camped out with a local candidate, you don't even have to check the tally to see how your guy is doing. If all is well the assembled throng will meet you with warmth and revelry, but if your candidate's falling behind, expect accusatory stares and the occasional rude hand gesture as those who welcomed you in earlier with a hardy back-slap will now be eyeing you with murderous rage Watch out - that lady in the tiara's clockin' your every move...

Danger at EVERY Turn!

She may look like your Grandma, but wander too close to a voting booth and that sweet old lady with the clipboard will carve a road map in your skull. Not sure why, exactly - but every polling place I've ever invaded has been run by some martinet in a crocheted vest. They mean well, but to a blue hair they're convinced you and your lens alone have the power to end Democracy as we know it. Don't laugh; I once saw a septuagenarian fend off a seasoned consumer reporter with nothing more than a number two pencil and a wicked back-swing.