Saturday, November 05, 2005

Viewfinder BLUES: One Year In

WARNING! The following passage is one of those narcissistic anniversary postings so easily disparaged by the non-blogging public. If rambling critique and half-baked introspection isn’t your idea of a good read, check back tomorrow. Otherwise, the navel gazing begins in five seconds. 5..4..3..2..1...

A False Start

Back in June of 2004, I stumbled onto Blogger, chose a template and named it Viewfinder BLUES. After dropping in a couple of short stories from my stash of drivel, I sat back and waited for the magic to happen. When it did not, I promptly forgot about it and went back to contributing to my favorite message board, emphatically underwhelmed by what I’d even yet to hear referred to as ‘the blogosphere‘. But four moths later I revisited my dusty little shelf and quite by accident, hit the ’Next Blog’ icon in the right-hand top of the screen. Great Gutenberg! With the twitch of the fingertip I reeled through a universe I never really knew existed, an endless stream of homemade web-pages screeching thought and opinion on subjects as diverse as the internet itself. The speed of it all blurred my vision and as I rubbed my eyes to regain focus, I considered the implications: free and friendly software like this had already enabled the citizenry to join the conversation, if it hit critical mass it would change the face of communication, or at least be the most significant development in The Media’s history since the invention of the printing press. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, I was reinvigorated - manifestly destined to forge a place on the web for my own particular point of view. Since that momentous day, precisely twelve months have passed.

Kindness of Strangers

Much to most people’s surprise, I am not the least bit technically adept. My brain spews over-baked prose at a frightening clip, but don’t ask it to read an instruction manual. I’d rather summon a 700 word epistle on the joys of electricity than change a light bulb, rather re-categorize my library than reprogram my cell phone. Thus, my launch into the blogosphere was with my typical lack of schematic acumen. Luckily, I ascended into a most promising patch of local cyberspace. Through the magic of Google, I staggered into my first aggregator - a site understandably entitled Greensboro is Talking. There, a mysterious figure named The Shu graciously aided me in my quest, quietly answering my quizzical e-mails and turning me onto a true gentleman with the meekest of monikers, Patrick Eakes. Patrick pointed to the bearded fellow in the paper, and soon I fell in with the revolutionaries. No one was more surprised than I when I attended the first of many meet-ups, coffee house rendezvous with poets, geeks and madmen. These monthly summits soon congealed into a scene of sorts and before I knew it, a whole bunch of new friends were reading my work and sharing theirs. Recently, these insatiable communicators attracted far-off pioneers and local attention with a landmark symposium, ConvergeSouth - an inaugural conference sure to be dissected, embellished and best of all, repeated. I can hardly wait.

With the Help of Weaver

Not only has push-button publishing introduced me to intriguing strangers, but its helped me get to know some familiar faces a whole lot better. Many of these were co-workers, people I passed in the halls who, suddenly privy to my late night thoughts, now stopped to talk. More than a few of them have reciprocated with excited dispatches of their own, proving that its far easier to start a blog than keep one going. I’ve enjoyed reading every word of it - even when they only number in the dozens. But this paragraph isn’t about output analysis, its about saying thanks. Aside from my lovely bride, who openly abides my electronic mistress, Chris Weaver deserves my unending gratitude, for this fellow shooter/blogger/auteur has saved this flimsy craft from crashing into the horizon more times than I can count. Whether he’s uncovering errors in my source code or tweaking a difficult non-linear edit, the Mighty Weave has hooked a brother up time and time again. Why exactly, I don’t know, but if you like this site do me a favor and go visit tvphotogblog himself. Just don’t ride shotgun in his news unit without strapping in snugly. The man races through the breakdown lane of life, logging each breakneck mile with the same clever, affable vibe - whether he’s hurtling toward a gory plane crash a Nascar race or a Taco Bell drive-thru. He is Southern Photog: Defined, and a true Friend of the Show.

Habits of the Obsessed

Enough of my accomplices, let’s examine the mechanics. At the outset of my experiment, I vowed to file a post EVERY DAY. This was easy in the beginning, when I was pulling pieces from my collection of b-roll rants. This material; idioms, allegories and anecdotes compiled from a year or two of message board binging set the tone for what I wanted to blog about: the Perils of Electronic Newsgathering. But when that well went dry, my stale repository turned into a live blogcast and I was forced to log quality time with my keyboard, the very reason I started this site to begin with. Since then, I’ve averaged five posts a week, mostly composing screeds in the midnight hours or early morning light, sometimes on my laptop in the den, but mostly in my upstairs lair - the one filled with nautical knickknacks, dusty hardbacks and broadcast bric-a-brac. When I write, I often enjoy Guatemalan coffee, Kentucky Bourbon, the electric Blues and the squawking, large-billed bird that sits atop the old dead tree outside my window. I’m a great speller, a vociferous reader and a lousy typist. My wife calls me ‘Peck-Peck’, a most dubious nickname based on the clickety-clack sound emanating from my late night sessions. Having learned never to ignore The Voice, I tend to work in furious spurts, usually hitting ’Publish’ without the first revision. Sometimes I delve back into the text to tweak phrasing, but mostly I leave it alone once its online. This, I hope, helps to explain the many misspellings, deluded second references and twisted metaphors that populate my prose. Hey, you get what you pay for.

A Dearth of Dead Presidents

Speaking of funding, I’ve studiously avoided spending money on my yearlong obsession. Minus the purchase of my now-battered digital camera and a monthly DSL bill, I’ve dropped no coin on Viewfinder BLUES, determined all along to do it all on the fly. Instead, a recent check of $5.24 hangs above my flat screen, profits reamed from the AltMedia101 advertising scheme I have a small part in. Like a framed dollar bill at a Chinese Buffet, said check represents the beginning of my empire and I thus have no plans of ever cashing it. Sorry, Roch. As for content analysis, I ain’t done much but most of my postings do fall into a few basic categories. Most are picture safaris, visual souvenirs fresh from the daily hunt with narratives fresh from my burbling brain-pan. These are the easiest to write, as they are impressions only hours old. Harder to conjure but equally rewarding are the recollected epics-in-waiting I’ve managed to record, virtual transcripts of half-forgotten tales I’ve recounted over crime tape or cocktails. By far though, the biggest readership spikes have come from the occasional ’think piece’ I’ve posted, partly due to the work’s timeliness but mostly due to my habit of pimping out the work I’m proudest of. Much of the rest is comprised of thoughts wrapped around a particular link, easy enough fodder for a guy who surfs 40 to 50 different sites pretty religiously. In the future, I hope to master the daily quote, occasional cartoon and Top Ten list, as these things translate well to title-based linking. Speaking of numbers...

Stats and Spikes

If you’re still reading this, you’re either really bored or still fairly intrigued. If it’s the latter, I’d advised you have that condition checked by a trained physician. For now though, merely adjust your safety goggles, as we are entering the Site Meter Zone. It’s an amazing tool, really - one that allows me to track my readership quite closely. At this sitting, there have been 43,278 visits to my site, barely a ripple in the cyber-sea, but respectable numbers considering a year ago the only people reading my mind were the hearty denizens of Currently I average 125 hits a day, though I have logged mind boggling spikes of a few thousand daily readers, once after uber-blogger Jeff Jarvis linked to my essay, ’Birth of the Personal Journalist’, on his well-traveled site ‘Buzz Machine‘. I enjoyed another dizzying 24 hour tally when a Hungarian website featured ‘my ‘Maximum Overdrive’ video one day, proving the delightful sight of cameramen scrambling for cover transcends all language barriers. Geographically speaking, most of my readers hail from the same continent, but a few clicks on the Site Meter tells me I have regular readers in Chile, Kuwait, Warsaw and inexplicably, New Zealand. For a guy can still remember floundering on a seventh grade world map quiz, this is pretty heady stuff. Of course my favorite aspect of traffic analysis is knowing what website my readers leave to get to mine. This tells me what links live and which ones die on the vine. I’m especially delighted to report an uptick in Google hits, visits resulting from someone typing in ’Lenslinger’ and hitting search. If I can increase these instances by a few million, I might finally be able to swing that speedboat.

More To Come

Until such time, I’ll keeping swinging a camera by day and babbling about it by night. It’s quite the paradox: As a blue-collar schlub who dreams of leaving the workaday woes for literary greatness, my primary muse is the job I love to hate. In other words, if I ever do escape this thankless gig, what the hell am I gonna write about…gardening? Not likely. Maybe one day I’ll conquer the world of fiction, but for now, I can't remember the last novel I read. I’m far too busy, scanning blogs, scribbling phrases and indulging my notebook fetish. I’ve thought for years now about getting published before I turned 40. At 38 and 9/12ths, I’d better get crackin’. For now, I plan to keep on plugging away, propping up a title I always thought would be the name of my memoir, not some amorphous blob cloaked in pixels and vinegar. Oh well, it beats my earlier attempts at meditating on page. For years I only half-listened to the crusty commentator in my head. Sharing my inner narrator with others in this living compendium has been one of the most rewarding acts of creativity I’ve ever managed to stick with. It may never line my pockets with silver, but it’s already paid off in more ways than I can mention. If nothing else, being a photographer known primarily for his writing is a pretty deep kick in and of itself. Thanks, as always, for reading...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Inside Ophelia

I cant really explain why I like chasing hurricanes, as it is a thoroughly miserable endeavour. But whenever one of these churning monsters takes aim at the Carolina coast, I jones to be there when it slams ashore. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I fixed copiers for a living, but after fifteen years of habitual storm coverage, I’ve developed quite the nasty hurricane habit. Like a junkie who knows he ain‘t living right, I could barely look at myself in the rearview mirror of my news unit Tuesday as I made one more mad dash into dirty weather. Bright sun in the Triad disappeared by Raleigh. By the time I reached the edge of Wilmington, a long line of evacuating traffic choked the oncoming lanes while angry raindrops turned my windshield into an abstract painting. It was then I realized just what I’d volunteered for again and I spent the last few miles to Carolina Beach squirming in my seat with adrenaline and regret.

I blew into town around the same time Ophelia’s outermost rain-bands did. Snaking through the flashing yellow traffic signals, I scanned the storefronts for makeshift plywood and spray painted defiance. I found only the former, a sunglass shop with all her windows sheathed in expertly erected wooden planks. Swooping into a parking spot off the main drag, I threw the Explorer in PAR K, leaned on the door handle and tumbled into the drink.

Outside, shimmering curtains of rain showers undulated across the deserted intersection. I kept my head down, but still took on quite a bit of water in the two seconds it too me to pop the tailgate. Crawling into the overstuffed cargo stash, I grumbled under my breath and fumbled with Velcro straps. Only when my Sony was encased in tailored blue canvas did I venture back out, knowing all the electronic bravado I brought would all be for naught if water got inside my camera. As I poked my head out of the back of the truck, two shirtless surfers pedaled by in slow-motion, their tattooed necks twisting shaven heads toward the emerging newsman.

“Hey guys,” I shouted over the roar of the storm, “Ya got a minute?”

Bill and Ted were friendly enough types but had trouble putting more than three words together at a time. As they roped to express how stroked they were to ride out the storm, I searched for a way to blow them off quickly. Chewing my lip, I stared at the quickly dimming daylight behind Bill’s (or Ted’s) head. On my hip, an ancient cell phone rang.

“You got time to call this yacht guy?”, Wes asked from the cockpit of his own news cruiser. “We‘re about a half hour out.”

“Sure” I said, not knowing who the‘ yacht guy’ was. Six minutes later I stepped aboard the vessel in question; it sunk a bit under my weight, making it more of a boat than a yacht. Inching along the narrow walkway outside the cabin, I held my camera in a death grip and thought about a storm named Gordon. I was halfway around the starboard side when a older man in a lighthouse t-shirt and white beard slid open a door panel and beckoned me inside. Once belowdecks, I pinned a microphone on my host, a retired state trooper who’d spent the last ten years cruising the Caribbean. In a corner of his potted plant-filled cabin, his gray haired girlfriend giggled at his every on-screen retort. Less than ten minutes after boarding the boat, I gathered my tools and disembarked. I couldn’t help but giggle nervously as I gripped the railing of the bobbing boat. Nary a slip around the small harbor was empty, paint-peeled fishing vessels and gleaming pleasure crafts pitched and yawed along side each other, the sounds of rope rubbing on wood echoing underneath the slapping patter of the hard-falling rain.

‘The places I find myself’ I thought as I stepped off the boat and onto a floating pier of lashed-together boards. In the distance, I saw Unit Four parked by the condo entrance, its hazard lights still flashing in the downpour. Holding my head down to avoid a face full of rain water, I ran around across the Yacht Club’s yard with my camera lens pointed behind me. I was almost to the other side when I heard them.

“Woo-Hoo! TV Dude! Wanna Beer? C’mon on man, make us famous”

I looked up and squinted through the deluge. Three stories up a small group of young locals loitered and grinned outside the condo’s covered porch. Cigarette smoke hung over their heads, mingling with the smell of a nearby grill’s sizzling contents. Low voices and raucous laughter rang out from behind the screen, punctuating the sound of the wind howling through the breezeway. Climbing the condo‘s steps, I smiled and waved, grateful to have found a bonafide hurricane party to put on the ten o clock news. When I stepped onto their landing, the inebriated foursome clapped and cheered, welcoming me to their gathering like a guest of honor. As they all began talking at once, I pinned a lapel microphone on the soberest one’s shirt and peppered him with questions. Through fumes borne of an Old Milwaukee can, he spoke of how the boats berthed below would float up over their slips should the water level rise enough. I made a mental note to check back later on the area as drops of rainwater slid off my eyebrows and straight into my upturned viewfinder, distorting the drunk man‘s image. I was wiping off the water with a rain-soaked sleeve when my cell phone rang for the fifteenth time that day.

“Stewie, we’re at the Marriott. Chad needs your disc so he can log it. Didya get anything?” I could hear tinny audio playing at fast speed in the background, along with a considerable amount of trash talk.

“Yeah...good stuff too”, I said, fumbling through my run-bag for the feel of my small digital camera. Across the screened-in porch, the guy I‘d been interviewing convulsed with tipsy giggles as his friends fought to high-five him. I ran my fingers under the soaking wet station ball-cap and pressed the old phone to my ear. “Lemme say goodbye to my new best friends and I’ll be right there -”

It took the motel alarm clock several beeps to convince me to open my eyes. When I did, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. But the rumpled co-workers shaking off sleep in the lamplight along with the freaky howl of the wind triggered some inner synapses and it dawned on me I was finally inside Ophelia. Then a colleague clocked me with a pillow and someone snapped a towel, setting the tone for the rest of the day. The four guys I’d rendezvoused with the night before - seasoned professionals who took their craft very seriously, were like myself equally capable of Grand Larceny Grab-Ass. I wouldn’t have it any other way personally, but I don’t always get a say. This time though I felt lucky, as all the jokers assembling gear and cracking wise around me were most agreeable - even at this ungodly hour in the morning. With the first of Ophelia’s Class 1 winds lashing the balcony, Wes squeezed through a gap in the sliding glass door to power up the lights he’d bungee-corded to the railing the night before. When he did, the a curtain of horizontal raindrops lit up like a theatrical backdrop - which of course it was. When Danny opened the hallway door to head for the sat truck downstairs, a slicker-clad Chad Tucker entered the room rubbing sleep out of his eyes. Meanwhile I donned my own protective suit of shorts, shirt and sandals. Joe, not due to run the truck for several more hours, lay in bed and questioned everyone’s lineage. Sensing all was well with my colleagues, I jammed a soggy ball-cap on my bed-head and hit the stairwell.

The heavy metal door on the ground level almost broke my nose when I tried to push it open. It gave way at first before a sudden gust of saltwater and warm air slammed it back in my face. I cursed as the driving rain soaked one side of my face, pointed my chin to my chest and jogged across the dark, wind-scoured parking lot. As I did, Danny poked his hooded head out of the sat truck’s rear door, half eaten Pop Tart in one hand, the other wrapped around a cell phone. He shouted something, a smart remark probably, lost in the din of the approaching hurricane. I answered with a one-fingered salute as I ran past, before stopping in front of trusty unit four to fumble with the car keys. By the time I climbed behind the wheel, I was soaked from head to toe. Jamming the key into the ignition, I thought of how I used to dress for hurricanes: heavy boots, two piece raingear, hood pulled tight. Since then, I learned that trying to stay dry during sideways rain was as annoying as it was futile. So I embraced a certain minimalism, choosing a wardrobe much like that of any other beachgoer. It was all gonna cling to me like a second skin anyway I reasoned as I dropped the Ford Explorer into REVERSE and backed out of the spot. Besides, I thought as I pulled out onto the deserted, rain-choked streets.

Zipping up and down the streets of a deserted beach town while a Class 1 hurricane whips sheet metal and shingles across the hood of your two-door SUV is nothing less than intoxicating, affording one the type of buzz familiar to hardcore video-gamers. But since there were more than pixels flying through the air, I leaned into the steering wheel and tried to stay focused. Back on the third floor of the hotel, Chad manned his windblown balcony perch and talked into Wesley’s lens. As he went live (!) for our station back home and countless affiliates across the country, I squinted through a bleary windshield and looked for icons.

It didn’t take long to find them. Stop-lights wobbling in the wind, fountain-worthy water formations arcing off the corners of shuttered buildings, flashing traffic signals swaying on their wires like laundry snapping on the line: everywhere I looked I saw the images I needed, so I parked my news unit’s nose into the wind and with a just a tinge if hesitation, leaned into the door. Outside, stinging darts of rain peppered my face and legs as the screaming wind tried to rip the raincoat off my body. Under the tailgate, I found solace, as well as quite a bit of camera equipment. I grabbed my tripod, plopped it down in the fives inches of stormwater swirling around my feet and placed the Sony on top of it. With a flip of a switch, light erupted from the viewfinder, bathing the camera’s eyecup in a soft blue haze. Leaning in, I squinted through the lens, trying to decide which water droplets were on the front of the lens, which were pooling up in the eyecup, and which were streaming down my fogged-up glasses. I twisted the focal tube and dabbed the lens with a balled-up t-shirt. As I did, a loud metal screech rang out behind me, snapping my head in that direction.

Twenty feet ahead , a twelve foot section of gutter piping skittered across the pavement, driven by the winds toward my truck. Yelping out a curse, I hopped up into the back of the cargo bay as the razor-sharp piece of sheet metal passed a few yards by me. As it clattered out of sight, I sat there in the dark, knees to my chin, laughing nervously. I was wet, sleepy hungry - yet pumped - the exact conditions I’d dreaded as I crossed the bridge the evening before. Climbing back down to my camera, I popped off a few bleary shots of windblown streetlights and flash-flooded streets As the wind drove raindrops up my nose, I couldn’t help but think the same thing I did the first day of boot camp:

‘I volunteered for this?’

As the slow-motion hurricane scoured every crevice of Carolina Beach, we TV geeks got our broadcast on. Riding point was Chad Tucker, pushed out on a rain-lashed balcony bathed in electric light. As streaks of water strobed behind him, the young reporter held a finger over his earpiece as Wolf Blitzer asked him a question. Just inside the third story room, Wesley Barrett reached from behind the camera and wiped the lens. In his ear, Blitzer moved on to CNN’s meteorologist for yet another look at the radar. ’Not bad, Chad...’ Danny said, breaking into the line from the satellite truck parked downstairs, “Next up is Fox News -”. A series of telephone beeps and boops followed as Chad wept water from his brow. Inside, I was drying off too, back from another excursion through quickly flooding streets for images to accompany Chad‘s narration of the storm. Taking off my windbreaker, I flicked water on Joe McCloskey, who - still wrapped in bedcovers - manned the motel’s remote control. When Fox News Channel popped up on the TV, I grabbed my digital and waited for the right moment to click the shutter. Seconds later it arrived, with Chad’s image filling up the motel’s 19 inch set. The resulting image captured the satellite delay and satisfied me greatly. Unfolding my laptop, I plugged in the camera and uploaded the picture. A minute later it was on my blog. “Is that cool or what?” I asked the others, excited about what I may post on-line throughout the day. I did then realize we were about to lose power for the next twenty hours.

But humid hotel rooms, long hours and lousy food are hallmarks of hurricane coverage and Ophelia did not fail to hold up these long-held traditions. While only a Class One, the swirling Cyclops of wind, rain and debris inched through town at a wino’s pace, tipping over gas station canopies, downing power lines and sending heavy manhole covers floating down the streets. Through it all, I plowed through the flash-floods in trusty Unit Four, parking strategically into the wind and using the Explorer’s tailgate lid and overstuffed cargo bay for cover. As dim morning light shone through the thick layer of clouds, I was able to find humans to interview. All around the island, stalwart locals hunkered down. A hunched over old hippie behind the only open counter in town scoffed at Ophelia as he counted back my change. At his suggestion, I drove to the marina to interview his fishing buddies, but the gruff men standing in a circle under a fish shack’s roof and sharing a lumpy cigarette didn’t seem to want to talk. Three blocks away, a woman in a pick-up proved far more gabby and I soon had her in the crosshairs of my lens. A few minutes after I left her idling in a rain-swollen parking lot, her answers to my questions ricocheted through outer space.

As did Chad’s drenched image. Throughout the morning, the King, North Carolina native’s face appeared on TV sets across the nation. From L.A. to Orlando, viewers stopped to watch as the young man told in dulcet tones of the worsening conditions along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. But by noon the producers and suits back at the shop had tired of Chad’s third story high wire act. From a fleet of soggy pagers came the terse order: ‘Get him off the balcony. Get him on the beach.’ With a good deal of eye-rolling and a wee bit of bitchery, we did just that - breaking down our camera, lights, tripod and three floors of cable all so we could set it up a half mile down the coast. Our new broadcast home wasn’t as palatial as the electricity-free Marriott. Instead, we holed up by a dilapidated oceanfront apartment complex, parking our sat truck close against the salt-encrusted building for protection from the wind and pushing Chad out onto the boardwalk as far as our broadcasting common sense would allow. In the process of all that moving, Wesley’s news unit sprung a flat tire, courtesy of a screw-laden piece of gutter pipe that attacked the underside of the Explorer. As a result, I ferried my co-workers from hotel to sat truck; light duty indeed - except for having to traverse a flooded intersection that rose a few inches with every passing. While one colleague would recommend I cross the swollen intersection at a snail’s pace, my next passenger would insist I merely ’punch it’ to get across. I found both methods worked fine - as long as I kept my but-tocks clenched in the driver’s seat.

By six o clock, we were firmly ensconced in our new locale. The wind and rain still roared but not quite as ferociously as before. It could still send sheet metal flying through the air, but it probably wouldn’t drive a pine needle through your skull like they used to talk about on those grade school filmstrips. We even got chance to break a little bread, in the form of frozen ham sandwiches and Pringle’s purloined from the hippie’s convenient store freezer down the road. Having been up and wet since 4 a.m., we were all delighted to hear our bosses’ plans of letting us sleep in the next morning, while our crews in Atlantic Beach covered their portion of Ophelia’s path. This news lifted everyone’s spirits, as while we all prided ourselves as swarthy news warriors, a little downtime in a pitch black hotel room that smelled of sweat socks was more than welcome. With only the ten o clock show to execute before we could all go get some sweaty shut-eye. I was hunched down by the sat truck ladder, catching rainwater while polishing off a Ham-sicle sandwich and a few soggy potato chips, when those glorious plans changed.

“Hey Stew,” my assistant news director said through the antiquated cell phone in my ear, “CNN won’t play ball with our guys in Morehead. Can YOU do live shots in the morning?”

“...Stewart Pittman is standing by live in Carolina Beach and joins us now, Stewart?”

I opened my mouth and began talking, but didn’t really listen to what I had to say. I’ve found that, for me, there’s no quicker way to mangle a live shot than to over-prepare or concentrate too hard. Back when I first began going live in the early nineties, I’d make the rookie’s mistake of writing out a script, only to fumble on a word, lose my place and somewhere in the process forget to breathe. This rarely made for a good performance and as a result, I have nothing but painful memories of my earliest attempts at live reporting. But time heals all wounds they say - even botched TV remotes. By the time the proverbial red light came on last Thursday morning, I tackled the assignment with nary a nerve on display. As I scrunched my toes in the sand and talked to Wes Barrett’s camera some two hundred feet away, my only real regret was that I’d rushed out of the hotel room without visiting the Little Photog’s Room. As a result, it was all I could do to stand and deliver the news without dashing offscreen to go desecrate the nearest sand dune.

Instead, I stayed on my mark and filed live updates for my own station, as well as Fox affiliates in Orlando and D.C. There really wasn’t too much to tell: Ophelia had taken her sweet time moseying through town the day before, toppling signs, ripping up shingles and flooding streets. But as anyone with functional vision could tell, that had all changed. With the sun poking through the clouds, a light breeze rippling off the ocean and seagulls swooping down on crustaceans, the day after Ophelia had all the markings of a beautiful day at the beach following a bad storm - which is exactly what it was. I’m not sure if it’s solely a matter of comparison, but the immediate daylight hours following a hurricane are some of the most tranquil displays of dazzling nature you’ll find on this heartless orb. Too bad you’re usually ready to pass out from sleep deprivation by the time it arrives. This time though, I was pretty well rested. Having made a beeline for the hotel as soon as I got my orders the evening before, I endured an ice cold shower in a pitch black bathroom before crawling on top of the covers for a fitful night of feigned rest in a humid room. By hurricane coverage standards, I was livin’ large!

Which is why I tried not to complain as I loitered on the boardwalk between live shots. Further up the coast, Eric White and Brad Ingram manned a similar post at Atlantic Beach, not far from where Ophelia had made a fine mess of my childhood vacation spot of Salter Path. I didn’t envy them, for while this latest hurricane was less than cataclysmic, covering the aftermath of even a Class 1 was work indeed. I’d much rather work the front end of a storm; as setting up electronic camp and screaming ’Here it comes’ is far less drudgery than churning out round-the-clock coverage of a community’s broken dreams. Been there, thank you very much - got the t-shirt, only to realize it smelled like feet thanks to being balled up in the corner of a sweatbox hotel room for three days.

No, I fared pretty well in the storm this time, I realized as I watched the sun‘s ray appear for the first time in days. Waiting for the voices in my head to prod me, I watched stalwart locals poke their heads outside, pick up shingles and carve one more defiant notch on their hurricane belts. That goes for me too, though I’m not quite as brazen as those crusty fishermen smoking discount menthols at the local store. I’m just a TV geek, one who loves nothing more than to suddenly race Eastward only to complain once I got there. I did plenty of that this time, though there in retrospect, there wasn’t THAT much to bitch about this time. Chances are, I’d once again toss my packed bags on the bosses’ desk the next time a marquee wind came our way. Until then, I’d man the sand at Carolina beach, tell the good people of the Piedmont what little I knew of Ophelia’s visit, before repeating the same message for Orlando, Atlanta and whatever other Fox affiliate that was jonesing for a satellite hit. I just hoped the Broadcast Gods would soon cut me a bathroom break, before I lost all control of my innards and made ‘The Daily Show’.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Recent Reviews of Viewfinder BLUES...

"Through the lens of his TV camera, Lenslinger bears witness to the funny, the tragic, the inane, the incomprehensible. On a good day, it must be like being a rock star. On bad days, it must be like being the tax collector. On days like this, I am glad that he's there. Not because he's acquiring the footage, but because he reminds me that there is still such a thing as journalistic ethics, and for that, I'm really grateful." -- Chewie World Order

"Stewart Pittman at Viewfinder Blues is an oddity: a lensman who can write. And his latest report from the frontlines of journalism is a gem. It’s another great piece, written by a guy who (despite a certain surface cynicism) clearly loves what he’s doing." -- Mark on Media

"He writes like no one else I've ever read." -- Natural Born Stringer of

"There are hundreds of bloggers in Greensboro, but this guy’s site is in a class by itself. Lenslinger’s been a camera jockey for television news since 1989 and currently shoots for FOX 8, but he’s a writer at heart and he uses this blog to feed that particular jones. He posts media critiques, reflections on entering middle age (with pictures) and inside tales from his very specialized gig." -- Brian Clarey of Yes! Weekly

"Stewart is a contemporary news photographer who understands what's taking place in the media world. Go read him." -- Terry Heaton of Pomoblog

"I see his work on the nightly news all the time, but reading the stories behind the stories is far more interesting than the six o'clock news will ever be. If this man isn't signing me a copy of a newly published book in less than a year (I know for a fact he's writing one.) then the entire publishing industry is no more than a lost cause destined to rot until the stench is more than we can bear." -- Billy the Blogging Poet

"The way this guy writes, I'm surprised that he hasn't already made a jump to a more fulfilling career." -- Jamey Tucker of Blogsquat

"Stew, the way you just described this man's story in your own words was more intresting and meaningful than any twenty second vosot could be. My friend you are much more than just a lenslinger, you are a journalist. Edward R. would be proud." -- Ken Corn

"Come to B-roll, tender a request, and you shall learn from one that has traversed the cosmos from beginning to end. From a cosmic being of such unimaginable complexity, that both his corporeal form and his consciousness sit astride twelve dimensions at once! From Lenslinger...who has bathed in the spectral ethers which swirl beyond time. Ask and learn, young tog." -- Low Lt. of

"There are few bloggers out there who capture some of the day-to-day challenges of journalism (and the effect it has on your soul), whether he’s writing about the humour of covering news...If you want to know about journalism, as it is practiced, read Stewart. Daily." -- Mark on Media

"Viewfinder BLUES is a blog by a cameraman who can write like a ******f****r . My blog is by a writer and editor who can't photograph his way out of a paper bag. I am not worthy." -- Colin Brayton

"You have a multi-layered, sophisticated ambivalence toward your profession that cries out to be the subject of its own story, and you can be onscreen." -- Melinama at Pratie Place

"...the King of the Photog Blog." -- Smitty

More love for Lenslinger at Lost Remote,, Bob Stepno, Buzz Machine, Corante

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Things Isabel Taught Me

(From Several Years Back...) Unless you spent all of last week in some kid of weird cryogenic chamber, you no doubt saw a number of rain-slickered news reporters flailing in the winds of Hurricane Isabel. As much as I'd like to deny any involvement in this time honored cliché, I cannot. I spent all of last week in the shore-side hamlet of Pine Knoll Shores, where I and five other colleagues parked our garishly-painted satellite truck at the foot of the Iron Steamer Pier. All week long we up-linked customized live shots to Fox stations all over the country, as well as a handful of ABC affiliates in the Southeast. We even did a live shot for that bastion of frivolity, "Good Day Live!" If you were by some chance forced to watch this nationally-syndicated tripe-fest on Thursday and saw a cute and perky reporter named Shannon Smith go LIVE(!) from the North Carolina shore, might I suggest you immediately go have your eyes rinsed out with cold tap water.

Now, Hurricane Isabel wasn't THE BIG ONE, nor was it the first time I've ventured out in Mother Nature's wrath in the name of higher ratings. Those of you who know me well may remember my Kitty Hawk adventures in 1993, when a Hurricane by the name of Gordon bitched-slapped me and high-dollar camera into temporary sea-soaked oblivion. While nothing that dramatic happened with Isabel, the week was replete with all the hallmarks of 21st century storm coverage: from the stoked surfers chasing the perfect wave (or at least pretending to long enough to get on camera), to the stoic locals pledging to ride it out (all while boarding up anything that didn't move), to the giddy media sticking cameras and microphones in everyone's grill (until there was no one else to interview but each other, a sure sign of the coming apocalypse). Now, I don't want to sound like an innocent bystander -it's my chosen profession to document the tragic and the trite and Isabel afforded me the chance to snap out of my usual feel-good coma, and dig on a real story for a change.Having said that, here are the...Top Ten Things I learned covering Hurricane Isabel.

1) Fishing Pier Employees are NOT Preoccupied with Dental Hygiene.
I met some good people at the Iron Steamer Pier but none of them will ever threaten the livelihoods of any toothpaste model. In fact, to a person, they all sported smiles reminiscent of the rough-edged planks that made up their beloved pier. Must be part of their benefits package. If you're ever at The Iron Steamer Pier, check out the wall of Polaroid’s behind the counter. My group will be the one with the brightly logo'ed rain wear and all our own teeth.

2) Expensive Electronics and Driving Rain Don't Mix.
No mystery there, but I cannot tell you how difficult it is to keep your
average TV camera up and operational when it's raining up your nose. For all the customized camera rain-covers out there, nothing beats trash bags and duct tape. Perhaps my station should invest in one of those Plexiglas Pope Mobiles, or buy up all those useless telephone booths that so litter our nation. The pay phones in them certainly don't work.

3) The Bigger the Market, the Cheesier the Anchor.
Like I said, we did satellite live shots for stations across the country, from L.A. to Tampa to Philly to Vegas and all points in between. Without fail, the bigger the city, the more over-affected and cartoon-like the anchor's voice on the other line. I heard enough booming voices and over-enunciation to last a lifetime - or at least until I do another self-serving piece on the local Top 40 radio station. Or a profile on the visiting tent evangelist. Like Sting says, they all sound like game show hosts to me.

4) Eat Enough Granola Bars and You'll Soon Welcome Starvation.
With all reasonable-minded folks headed inland, all seaside restaurants and stores sit vacant behind a sheath of hastily erected plywood. This leaves your friendly media crew sifting through its own meager rations, and what seemed like a good idea on aisle five quickly proves otherwise. At one point some National Guardsmen offered me an M-R-E, citing the plugging qualities of said dried foodstuffs. Thanks, but I'm not quite ready to eat a meal based solely on the bowel movement it produces. Not yet, anyway.

5) When Facing Danger & Discomfort, Pick your Playmates Wisely.
Imagine teaming up with five of your least favorite co-workers for an
extended trip into the Great Unknown. That's what covering a hurricane with the office asshole can be like, and in times past, personal conflicts have caused much more trouble than hundred miles an hour winds. I was lucky this time. Everyone on board was a veteran of prior storms and a good buddy to boot. Who needs an expensive Outward Bound excursion to build employee morale? At the end of our trip we had enough group hugs to fill up a Hallmark commercial.

6) The Media's Appetite for Over-Hyped Clichés Knows No Bounds.
Again, no real news flash there - but I was a bit flummoxed by all the
verbal hackwork pouring from my soaking-wet earpiece. "Residents are
battening down the hatches as Mother Nature's Fury takes aim at the Crystal Coast" And how about all those second references? I heard Hurricane Isabel called "Dizzy Izzy", and "The Angry Lady". But my favorite was some yak on The Weather Channel, who kept referring to the approaching weather system as "The Malevolent Cyclops" What is that? A Pink Floyd bootleg? A Dean Koontz Novel?

7) The Southern Side of a Category 2 Hurricane is Nothing to Sneeze At.
Much was made of Isabel's previous Category 5 status, and some of my ilk were pooh-poohing the downgraded punch it packed onshore. But even the comparatively safer side of the hurricane that passed by us made it rain sideways for about 18 hours and anything that wasn't nailed down became an instant projectile. It's my belief that the only person allowed to trash-talk a hurricane better has an "S" on his chest. As for me, my suits at the cleaners

8) Local Law Enforcement CAN Be Bought Off With enough Logo Wear.
I won't name any names, but let's just say the Pine Knolls Shore Police Department has a brand new collection of assorted FOX NEWS ball caps. Move any higher up the law enforcement tree and you have to dig a little deeper. That being said, don’t pull that crap with any State Troopers. They'll take your swag and re-pay you with a new pair of shiny, oversized matching bracelets if they see fit. Try asking what part of our fine state they hail from. Always seems to throw them off.

9) Viewers DO Want To See News People Pelted by Mother Nature.
I know, I know - it's stupidity in action, but research and ratings show, for the most part, people LOVE to see reporters and anchor types bracing themselves against the storm -- despite what they may claim. Whether it's our duty to put a human face on the story, or just an excuse for some good ole high-tech showboating, the viewing public tunes in in staggering numbers. At least that's what I told my reporter when I took away her umbrella.

10) Sleep Deprivation Is a Stronger Force of Nature than Hurricanes.
By the time Isabel came ashore, I was existing on four days of
four-hours-a-night sleep. Factor in long workdays and lousy food, and I was tapped out by the time the wind really picked up. Around midday on Thursday, I took advantage of a break in the broadcast and crawled in my by-then filthy Ford Explorer to try and catch some Z's. This I did with no problem, despite the fact that wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour were rocking my news unit. About a half hour later I woke up, only because driving rain was seeping in through a tiny gap in the window and soaking my left temple. Mildly annoyed, I gave up on any slumber, hopped out of my company vehicle and trudged across the windswept parking lot to the battered satellite truck I called home.

Does that make me strange? Maybe where you work. But where I sit, a lackadaisical attitude, false sense of immortality and a good dose of gallows humor are exactly what you need to survive. I'm not defending the often stupid behavior exhibited by news people during times of crisis; in fact, I'm usually befuddled by it the most. I'm just saying that, for better or worse, I'm well-suited for this increasingly silly business. Here's hoping you enjoy your job as much as I do mine.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Hurricane STEW!

Don’t turn your back on an angry ocean. It is one of the many lessons I took away from my 1994 encounter at Kitty Hawk. Hurricane Gordon had just blown through and I was one of many surly journalists milling about the beach amid the wreckage of a collapsed vacation cottage. Actually, I was a 27-year-old news punk running around in a station windbreaker and feeling a bit outgunned. All around me, three-person network crews in matching rain slickers roved about with their pistol-grip betacams and looming microphone poles. I however was a one-man-band, on the coastal edge of my rural TV news market and more than a little unprepared. It wasn’t my first time chasing storms, but it WAS my first time at a network-level Hurricane Circus. Maybe that’s why I stuck to the edge of the pack, ignoring the crashing surf behind me as I watched the big boys strut their stuff. In my stupor, I made myself an easy target.

Why else would Mother Nature kick me in the ass?

A sharp yell kicked off the waylay. I don’t remember the exact words, but the tone of the distant voice snapped me out of my trance and I looked up over my shoulder. In an instant, I understood why strangers were shouting at me. An avalanche of whitewater quickly filled my view. As it did, I couldn’t fathom was how the Atlantic Ocean had raced up the beach so fast. But in the nanosecond I took the waist-high wall of tumbling seawater to reach me, I realized I was about to get my bell rung. I just didn’t know how hard it would strike, or how long it would echo. I tried to move. I twisted around to block the station-owned camera from the wave’s impact and wondered just how wet I was about to become. That’s when everything around me turned to foam and the rogue wave picked me up off my feet. Holding the camera in a death grip, I struggled to gain control, as the wall of water tossed me around like just another twig it intended to snap. Sand and saltwater filled my nasal passages as I cart wheeled in the Atlantic’s frenzied spin-cycle. I tried desperately to come up for air but the pounding surf planted my face into the sandy bottom and tried to rip the dying camera from my grip. My Nantucket Sleigh Ride had begun.

I’d like to say I tapped my inner Aqua-Man and rode that battered Panasonic into shore like an electronic boogie-board. But what I really did was suck seawater as the forces of nature gave me the Mother of all sand-wedgies. All I could do was hold on to the camera, determined not to lose what was most certainly a mortally wounded piece of recording equipment. But I wasn’t alone in the ocean’s crush. All those broken boards, metal shards and bricks I had been standing by were now part of that rushing river of sea foam. For a second I broke the surface and got a quick, scary look at the jagged lumber swirling around me. A piling the size of a telephone pole bobbed past and I prayed I wouldn‘t come to rest with a stick through my gut. Then the wave pushed me downward and I was break dancing underwater once again.
In times of great peril, time has a funny way of skipping a beat, slowing down to make seconds feel like several lifetimes. Thus, I had lots of time to contemplate my fate as I slow motion tumbled through the barreling surf. I wondered how I would explain this to my bosses, my wife, and my buddies. Mostly though, I thought about how I came to be swimming alongside an expensive TV camera in the first place.

“No sweat - drive up early in the morning, shoot a couple hours worth and boogie back for the early shows.”

I nodded in agreement, as my bureau mate packed up his briefcase. We had just finished a conference call with the news director, who wanted one of us to head to the Outer Banks in the morning to cover Hurricane Gordon. My colleague had a few years on me and seemed more than a little eager to pawn off the long workday on yours truly. I didn’t really mind, though. This televised storm tracking was a blast! Recently, I’d chased a few spats of bad weather up the Carolina shore, including the weird trifecta of systems later immortalized in ‘The Perfect Storm’. I had even covered some hurricane aftermath, but never the powerful storms themselves. That evening I left the office and went straight home, eager to prepare for the next day’s adventure. Little did I know just how much adventure I‘d get.

The next morning I rose early, kissed my sleeping wife and climbed into my mobile office - a thoroughly dogged-out Ford Taurus wagon with bright peacock logos and a fading white paint job. They called it Unit 11, and as I pulled out of my neighborhood, I hoped it would get me to my destination. It did. Three hours, two Mountain Dews and half a pack of Marlboros later, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and crossed over the Albermarle Sound. Entering Nag’s Head, I lingered long enough do a live report, thanks to the station’s latest addition to my newsgathering arsenal. In fact, I couldn’t stop fiddling with the shoebox-sized ‘bag phone’ sitting in the floorboard the whole trip. Yes, I was living on the technological edge as I idled in a convenience store parking lot and repeated what I had just heard on the radio into the phone’s receiver. Back at the station, the director punched up a frozen picture of me from the previous day’s story and daydreamed while I yammered on about sea swells and wind gusts. After some phony cross talk with the morning anchors, I signed off, dropped the news wagon into drive and pulled onto the deserted street. Enough talk - time to back up my words with pictures.

Trouble was, there wasn’t a lot to shoot. Since it sprang to life in the western Caribbean several days earlier, Hurricane Gordon had veered drunkenly all over the Atlantic - killing more than a thousand people in Haiti before ending eight more lives in Florida. But by the time it swerved onto the Outer Banks that morning, Gordon has lost most of his lethal punch. The most damage the highly erratic storm could muster was the toppling of five dilapidated beach houses; abandoned cottages condemned a year earlier after Hurricane Emily’s visit. At the end of a drunken spree of violence and death, the intoxicated weather system took a few last swipes before stumbling back out to sea.

In its wake, an island full of bored locals and soggy journalists slowly came back to life. As I drove through row after row of empty beach house, I wondered how I‘d fill my allotted newscast time that night without some human participants. Finally, I found a pair of shirtless stoners prying nails out of hastily boarded-up windows and pulled over. Fishing my gear out of the hatchback, I wondered for the first time that day why I’d dress so casually. Baggy khaki pants, a denim shirt and freebie windbreaker were all that protected me from the weather, which despite Gordon’s hasty exit, remained quite foul. Soon, stinging rain peppered the back of my neck as I looked down into the upturned viewfinder of my precious S-VHS camera. Above me, the two locals wrestled a warped ply-board off a window frame.

“So much for Gordo, eh dude?” - one chortled through a mouthful of chewing tobacco. I smiled and nodded silently, grateful to capture some usable nat sound and hoping he wouldn‘t hurl wad of tobacco spit my way. I glanced at the red tally light in my viewfinder. Recording. It had already been a long, rain-filled morning behind the wheel and I was glad to finally pull the trigger. As I closed in on a tighter shot, the erstwhile carpenter spoke again.
“Radio says there’s a dozen houses knocked down in Kitty Hawk.”

If he was trying to get rid of me, it worked. Before he could twist one more nail from its plywood home, I was back in Unit 11, unfolding a map and sputtering up the coastline. Five miles later, I entered the town where two bicycle makers changed the world nearly a century earlier. However, as I passed the turn-off for the Wright Brothers Memorial, I didn’t give it much thought. I was late for my own inaugural flight.

Like Kill Devil Hills behind it, Kitty Hawk was dark, shuttered and seemingly empty. Only a passing TV truck gave the drowsy corner stoplight reason to do its job. With my other-guy radar pinging loudly in my head, I pulled in behind the brightly marked sat truck. ‘Virginia‘s News Leader‘ -- the logo boasted. Do it, I thought. It did, down the street and a sharp right into a crowded cul-de-sac, where I gulped at the biggest gathering of TV news vehicles I’d ever seen. Satellite trucks, microwave vans, news cruisers and unmarked Suburbans sat parked at crazy angles. Beyond the pack of news chariots, a group of local sheriff deputies stood in front of a string of flapping yellow tape. I found a space and got out of the car in time to see a heavy man in a billowing orange poncho lift a bullhorn to his lips.

“If all ya’ll people will wait about thirty minutes, we’ll get ya down there! Them houses ain’t goin’ nowhere! We’ll take ya, but the road’s washed out and ya cain’t go by ya-self. We got some big army trucks on the way so just sit tight!”

A rumble of indignation traveled through the crowd. Grizzled truck techs cursed under the breath and a square-jawed reporter tried to negotiate a better deal from the man in the poncho. It was no use. Mr. Poncho - whom I later learned to be the County Sheriff, would not budge, no matter what the stranger with the pretty teeth said. After a few minutes, the pack of media jackals thinned, as individual crews retreated to the drier confines of their spacious sat trucks. I had no such luxury though , and as I leaned on the hood of my faded white Taurus Wagon, I realized I had to something if I was gonna keep up with these high-tech Newsonauts. Watching the crashing surf beyond the row of beachfront homes, I thought about my heroes.

‘What WOULD Andy do?’ I thought. Andy Cordan, a brash reporter-photographer who had recently left my station was the ballsiest news-hunter I knew - a sawed-off tree trunk of a man who approached newsgathering like a SWAT team cop on truck stop speed. He’d been the top story every night I could remember, repelling down walls with firemen buddies, goading handcuffed strangers into on-camera confessions or ad-libbing a high speed chase while riding shotgun with cops who wouldn‘t even return my calls. Andy would never let something as flimsy as yellow crime-scene tape and a distorted bullhorn keep him from a story. Puffed up with young newsman bravado, I opened the hatchback and streamlined my gear. Closing the lid as quietly as possible, I held my camera down low and slowly faded into the background.

Big mistake. Those two words simmered in my brainpan as I sunk up to my crotch in cold wet sand. Having left the sat truck scrum two blocks back, I was determined to get to the collapsed houses first, before the scene teemed with competing camera crews. But the only way to do that was hoof it on foot behind a row of boarded-up beachfront condos. Trouble was, the beach itself was pretty slim as swollen waves crashed into the bleach-white seawall. Sticking to the boardwalk, I made my way as far as possible before having to abandon it. However, the surface I stepped on was only pea soup thick and I immediately found myself stuck up to my watch-pocket in soggy wet sand dune. As I struggled to keep the camera above the surface, I wrestled my leg out of the sandy quagmire. My mountain boots bulged in wet goopy beach and my thin khakis clung to my leg like cold, gritty Saran Wrap. I didn’t feel much like the mighty Cordan as I peeled myself out of that muck. Still, if I was to make it to the collapsed houses at the far end of the beach, there was no turning back. Slowly I righted myself and began goose-stepping across the unstable surface, as a National Guard army truck rumbled past a block over, back toward the way I came.

After twenty minutes or so of this slow motion tiptoe, I finally spotted the target. Up ahead, a crumpled heap of salt-treated wood, chipped cinderblock and splintered decking lay in the distance, flanked by three other vacation homes apparently untouched by Gordon‘s wrath. For a moment, I felt like some brave explorer, traipsing over virgin territory unseen by other humans. That’s when I spotted the unmarked satellite truck parked under one of the surviving vacation homes. Following the truck’s cable up to the cottage‘s top deck, I watched as three hooded figures leaned on the railing and fiddled with their network camera set-up. As I closed the distance on foot, I could hear their idle chatter. They sounded like old fraternity pals shooting the breeze at a college football game. So much for being a pioneer.

With more than a little sheepishness, I skirted the perimeter of the fallen beach house, hoping to avoid the attention of the cocky network crew perched above me. At least I can pop off a few ground-level shots of the rubble. Small victories, I thought, small victories. But just as I white-balanced my camera and began to roll tape, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a heavy diesel truck approaching in the distance. ‘You gotta be kidding me ‘, I thought as the National Guard troop truck rounded the corner and came to a screeching halt within three yards of my pathetic form. Seconds later, an army of matching rain suits poured out of the back, gingerly handing down their expensive cameras to one another and joking to Sheriff Poncho about the great curb service. Feeling defeated, I slunk away from the growing crowd and down the beach, lest anyone ask why my right pant leg was dripping wet.

Back in the tumbling surf, the powerful wave was trying to undress me. As the watery avalanche pushed my shirt up the back of my neck, I managed to surface for a second but still couldn’t make any real purchase on the sandy bottom. Spitting out a mouthful of saltwater, I saw a blue and red blur to my right - signs of another camera crew being swept off their feet and sucked into the watery vortex. Thank you God, thank you for not making me the only one to suffer this injustice. He answered by gratitude by pushing my head back underwater, but not before allowing me a glance of a thin slatted beach fence rushing toward me. ‘That’s gonna hurt’, I thought as I tightened my grip on the camera tumbling in the surf. It didn’t. I hardly felt a thing as I crashed through the brittle boards. Mercifully though, the fence’s impact slowed down my momentum and I realized this unwanted underwater ride was about to be over. Sure enough, the rogue wave receded a few yards past the beach fence, unceremoniously depositing me in a swirling tidal pool before quickly retreating to the sea.

‘I’m alive’, I thought as I lay there in two feet of roiling surf. Then I realized I no longer had the camera in my grip and for a moment, I regretted my newfound survivor status. Like a punch-drunk boxer recovering from a skull-rattling knockout, I scrambled to my feet and began fumbling blindly in the knee-high water. Mercifully, my fingers raked across the electronic corpse. Grabbing a hold of the handle, I lifted it out of the water and placed it backwards on my shoulder. As I did, dirty ocean water poured out of the camera’s insides- an unthinkable sight for one so used to cradling the machine with care. It was then the second wave hit me, an avalanche of implications washing through my mind and scattering all other thought. So I did what came natural. I cursed. Long and meaningful profanities poured forth as I noticed for the first time a soaking wet soundman fumbling with his boom microphone right beside me.

As I dropped every blue word the Navy taught me, I glanced upward and realized my misery was being preserved for the ages. For directly above me, from the safety of their top deck perch, the hooded silhouettes of the network crew hunched around their cameras and zoomed in on yours truly. For a split second, I made eye contact with the camera’s lens before turning away in search of higher ground. All around me, electronic journalists reached out to help me, but all I could see was the back of the National Guard truck idling in the distance. As I traipsed out of the surf, my brain clicked through several stages - from initial surprise to sad acceptance to unfathomable embarrassment. Vaguely aware of the other ruined camera crew behind me, I briefly considered leading them back into the crashing surf, drowning our shame in the Atlantic Ocean and giving the snickering camera crew above something to really feast on.

Instead, I pushed on toward the waiting truck, ignoring everyone around me and barely holding on to the electronic doorstop in my hand. Plopping one soggy shoe in front of the other, I slogged up the beach and felt the camera’s steely gaze on my back. Finally, I made it to the truck where none other than Sheriff Poncho waited, smirking as he chewed the stub of a half-smoked cigar.

“Ya’ll boys ‘bout had enough?”, he asked before chuckling at his own cleverness.
I wanted to tell him where he could shove his Boss Hogg cigar, but I figured a jail cell would be a lousy place to dry out. Mumbling under my breath, I hoisted my multi-thousand dollar boat anchor up in the covered truck bed and climbed in after it - wet, unhurt but totally humiliated. Behind me, the sound guy in blue did likewise, followed by a red-suited older photog with his own waterlogged betacam. As we all plopped down in agonized defeat, the truck driver fired up the truck’s diesel engine and pulled away from the seaside media circus. The drive took only a few minutes, but as we all sat there in stony silence, it felt like forever.

But it wasn’t. Ten minutes later, I arrived at my trusty news unit, still reeling in disbelief. I placed the sopping wet camera in back, fished a dry smoke from the passenger seat and eyed my bag-phone in the floorboard.

‘How am I ever gonna explain this?’ I asked myself as I lit the cigarette and dug sand out of my ear. Still not knowing, I grabbed the receiver and punched in the ten longest digits of my life. Seconds later, my news director answered the line.

“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “

“You don’t have to, Pittman,” he barked back. “We just saw it on the bird! How‘s my camera?”

That evening, the footage of my impromptu waterslide dominated the opening moments of the ABC, CBS and NBC Nightly News. CNN aired it every half hour all day, even playing the shot of me pulling my dead camera out of the water in slow motion. However, it would take hours before I ever saw it. Once my superiors finished their cell-phone guilt trip, they told me to stay put and wait for another camera and photographer to arrive. In the three hours that took, I slopped into a nearby K-Mart, grabbed some dry clothes off the rack and ignored the strange look all the retail clerks gave me. Then I checked into a rundown hotel, burst through the door like a madman, stripped down to my skivvies and filled the bathtub up with water. Standing over the tub, I paused for a moment before plunging the camera-corpse into the water. Even though the engineers told me to do so, it felt as wrong as drowning your baby. While salt and sand floated to the tub water’s surface, I sat in the adjoining room and chain-smoked in silence.

Back at my station reactions differed. Co-workers feigned concern but chuckled to themselves as they opened every newscast that day with my soaking wet joyride. Many were still in the newsroom when I arrived there that evening. The Promotions Manager, a friend of mine, slapped me on the back and thanked me for wearing the heavily logo’d windbreaker he had fought so hard to purchase. The General Manager and News Director grumbled about the loss of their S-VHS piece of crap and acted as if I had done it on purpose. They didn’t fire me, but my relationship with them was never the same. My fellow news shooters treated me like a fallen hero of sorts and the engineers begrudgingly admitted I’d found a new, rather high-profile way to kill a camera.

When I finally sat down at my desk, a producer handed me a long list of phone numbers. Seems stations from around the country had called all day, hoping for a phone interview to go along with the incredible footage of my watery break dance. I called the first number on the list, but after the cheesy-sounding Phoenix anchor kept interrupting to ramble about his own storm-chasing days, I crumbled the list up and threw it in the trashcan. I didn’t quite yet know how to feel about the last twelve hours, but I wasn’t about to help some unseen blowhard showboat. Leaving the station, I drove my pick-up home where I had some ‘splainin’ to do to the wife. She didn’t ask twice about the camera, but seemed confused as anyone why I decided to suddenly go swimming.

It took me years to live down the notoriety of that day. But eventually, colleagues stopped calling me ‘Splash’, neighbors ceased their requests for details and viewers stopped asking where my surfboard was. Since then, I’ve moved on - covering enough floods, murders and Easter egg hunts to render my brush with Gordon just another faded memory. But the video lives on. In fact, it has become a treasured heirloom of sorts. Whenever hurricane season rolls around and some rookie starts talking big about their weather-chasing adventure, I whip out my tape and render them speechless. I even ran the video through an old video ‘toaster’ once, capturing the frozen image of me with a soaking wet camera on my shoulder and looking sourly into the network lens. That shot now hangs framed in my home office, a constant reminder that in this silly business, the worst thing you can do is focus on your competitors and lose sight of the story at hand. That, and expensive TV cameras make lousy swim buddies.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Moon Rock Madness

It was a painfully slow news week when a perfectly good story fell from the sky. Soon after it rolled to a stop, the first of many phone calls came into the newsroom. When it did, the nighttime assignment editor barely looked up from his crossword puzzle.


Scanners crackled in the background as the goateed desk jockey’s eyebrows twitched.

“You got a WHAT in your living room?”

Sitting up, the night guy let his newspaper fall to the floor as he scanned the edges of the cavernous room. To a left, a well-coiffed reporter lounged in her cubicle with a phone to her ear. A few desks over, a photographer sat hunched over a keyboard, trying his best to melt into the screen. Behind his goatee, the assignment editor smiled. Minutes later he was back at his crossword.

In the car, the newly dispatched news crew bemoaned their new luck. ‘There’s NO WAY this is gonna turn’ they told each other as the city streets streamed by. Yet another wild goose chase. But much to their surprise the object in question lived up to its advertising, for the Klumpf family of 2240 Huff Lane did indeed have a hole in their roof, a dent in their floor and a mysterious hunk of smoldering metal to show for it.

Soon the guys from the local station house showed up at the two-bedroom ranch and started pawing over the metallic object, all while the grateful news crew rolled tape. To a man, the firefighters pawed over the cylindrical rock before passing it along. Halfway through the game of hot potato, someone mentioned those scary flying guys from the second Superman movie. That’s when a junior firefighter was sent to the truck for the Geiger counter. It read negative, everyone felt better and they all went back to sniffing at the burnished can-shape glob . What could it be? A meteorite? A hunk of space junk? The cam shaft off a late-model UFO? What ever it was, it descended on the fifteen year old home with considerable force, piercing shingle, puncturing plywood and drilling through dry board before shattering the glass top to one hideous coffee table. The mystery had begun.

Later, at the end of the ten o clock newscast, our trusted anchor team traded in their death masks for complimentary looks of wry bemusement. Between them a flat screen monitor screamed the words ‘What IS it?”. Halfway onto the second anchor’s sentence, the words on that screen turned into the nightside reporter, looking radiant in a burgundy power-suit. A lower--third graphic - ‘LIVE North High Point’ lay claim to the patch of darkness behind the her shapely form. I was at home, staring at my computer screen and only watching the ten o clock show with only one eye when the reporter’s voice caught my attention. As she hit every nuance of a well-crafted intro, I noticed the backlight feathering her shoulders.

When she finished her intro, the director back at the station punched up her pre-recorded piece and a close-up of the mysterious gray rock filled screen. The report moved quickly, with lots of angles of hands pawing over the rock in bewilderment. The mother of the family worried out loud about her damaged property, the firefighters scratched their helmets, looking out of place as they stood around the modest living room in full turn-out gear. Next a stranger in a FAA jacket said whatever it was, the lump of mysterious metal was NOT part of any known aircraft. The piece ended with the reporter leading the viewers through the projectile’s angles of impact. In a four part on-camera stand-up the attractive nightside reporter traced every angle of the rock’s trajectory, breaking down its path like Jim Garrison dissecting the Zapruder film.

Before the reporter could wrap up her live shot with a few words of wisdom, the phones in the newsroom erupted one by one. They would stay that way for quite some time.

The next afternoon I walked by an assignment meeting and into a raging debate. Loosely huddled around a long conference table, my co-workers ignored the bank of TV monitors behind them. Instead they all stared at the starfish-shaped speakerphone in the middle of the table and argued their point.

“No one cares about some school that’s not even built yet. The moon rock’s our talker”, a shaggy young producer said. “You see last night’s numbers?”

“Sure, but unless you got men in white suits crawling all over the place I’m not putting a reporter on it”. The assistant news director poured over his Wall Street Journal with a sniper’s eye. When he found what he wanted he looked up from his fifth morning paper of the day and looked for a certain sculpted hairstyle,

“Erik, go do the school story. Stewart, go see the moon rock family. And someone get those phones!”

With my camera hung low on the shoulder strap, I rang the doorbell and counted the cars in the driveway. Five, about three too many. But at least none boasted bright TV station logos. That was my job.

The door opened and a weary looking woman in a beautician’s pant suit stared back at me, her face lit from above by a yellow lightbulb.

“Mrs. Klumpf, hi - I’m Stewart from the TV station - we just wanted to follow up on the rock….”

“Yes, well we already have…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, a confused look in her tired eyes. I followed her gaze and saw why, two middle-aged men were wrestling with a step-ladder in her living room, upsetting knickknacks and arguing astrophysics.

Aw Geez, I thought, Not Frick and Frack from the Astronomy Club. The same two very two excitable old telescope geeks had chewed up hours of my time six months ago. Should have known they’d be here, taking measurements and complicating matters. At least they’d be good for a few sound bites, I thought as I pushed past the Moon Rock Mom.

“Not another damn ghostbuster!”, the man sitting at the kitchen table in his ball-cap sliced his pork chop and gave me the once over. Beside him, a boy of twelve or so stared over his glass of iced tea at the camera hanging off my shoulder. I hoisted my toy and powered up, recorded a shot of the he-man dinner club. A few seconds later I panned over to the the living room, where one skinny silhouette helped the fat one up the ladder. I smiled inside the viewfinder, knowing I’d just bagged my Opening Shot.

Moving on the living room, I hovered around Frick and Frack as they shined flashlights up the hole in the ceiling. To my delight, the barely acknowledged me, instead they babbled back and forth to each other in a stream of consciousness astronomer code.

"From the steep trajectory, we know it came from above!", Frick the Thin spat. "Yer darn tootin', snapped the fatter Frack, I'm a go get my scopes, W'ere puttin' this rock under the glass!"

With that Frack almost ripped the hinges off the door, caught up in a scientific frenzy I recognized from before. When the door slammed shut, I was surprised to see a tall young fellow amid the curtains. I’d never seen him before, but something about his wily afro and workman-like dress clothes screamed newspaper reporter, even before I spotted the tell-tale skinny notebook in his hand.

‘This place is getting crowded‘, I thought as my cell phone started ringing.

“Yeah, Stew…” I could hear phones ringing in the background as the shaggy producer scanned his rundown, “the Network’s going nuts for your Moon Rock story. They want it on the bird by 9:30.”

“They want fries with that?” I barked. Just what I needed, people in New York shaving off precious turn-around time.

“I know dude, but when you’re hot you’re hot. Do ya know what it is yet? We got all kinda crazies callin’”

Out of the corner my eye, I watched Frick sniff at the oblong metal mass, squinting intently behind a pair of bus-window eyeglass frames. In the kitchen, Frack had squeezed his considerable bulk behind the table, pulled several weird rocks out of a dusty leather case and was laying a serious science lesson on the trapped family of three.

“They ain’t ALL on the phone. Gotta go.”

I put the cell phone back on my hip and shouldered my camera. Walking up to the skinny man in the Members Only jacket, I stuck my lens in his upturned hands and focused on the object in question. Under his flashlight’s beam, the edges of the rock glistened, casting off weird flickers of green and silver. I could smell the cafeteria coffee on the old man’s breath as the wooly-haired print reporter joined us from the curtain’s edge.

“All right Professor - what’s your best guess?”

I can’t say he didn’t tell me, though I understood darn little of what came out of his mouth. Well-meaning and well versed, the stargazing scholar unfurled a looping thesis of everything the mysterious rock might NOT be. I tried not to think about my aching back as I panned the camera from the rock to his face, all while he went over the finer points of purloined moos dust. The newspaper reporter, who I came to think of Sideshow Bob, scribbled intently in his skinny notebook and said nothing. I backed off for a two shot of the unlikely pair hunched underneath the ceiling fan before moving onto the kitchen.

Bad move. The family sat with glazed looks on their face as Frack pulled musty photographs and cinched bags out of his cracked leather case.

“Now, this here is a piece of an asteroid from 1974, note the scarring on the edges, a distinct sign of burning entry…”

As I hovered over the kitchen table with my lens, the man of the house looked over at me. With his name on his shirt and his dirty fingernails, he didn’t seem too enticed with the science fair unfolding over his pork chops. The look in his eyes reminded me of a couple of hostage stand-offs I had attended. Poor guy, I thought, zooming out to better capture the catatonic clan, probably just wants to watch SportsCenter, not listen to a bunch of rock-obsessed lunatics expound on their favorite constellations. I almost felt real pity as I zoomed in for a tight shot of his hypnotized eyes.

After shooting a few sequences around the table, I returned to the living room where Frick was working himself into a theoretic lather. Sideshow Bob leaned in on every word, still bleeding chicken scratch into his tablet. Not wanting to appear too ignorant, I nodded behind the viewfinder and pretended to understand the litany of scientific terms. But I found myself drifting…maybe this was an honest-to-God Moon Rock, a one in a million piece of Green Cheese that would catapult the family and I into a whole new orbit. For all the astro-babble that Frick and Frack were peddling, they seemed growingly convinced the hunk of metal was not of THIS world. Maybe after all these many years of chasing tripe and trivia, I somehow stumbled across a story that would go down in the History books.

That’s when my cell phone rang.

It was Shaggy, chuckling under his breath.

“Check it out, dude. Some yahoo just called and swore he knew what the moon rock is. He says, ’what chu got thar is a broke tooth off a tub-grinder’ - you know, one of those big wood-chippers? I wouldn’t have called but the guy sounded CERTAIN.”

“Wood chipper? “ I said, incredulous. Then I noticed the look on Frick’s face. As my own eyebrows scrunched, I heard a thirteen year old voice ring out from the kitchen.

“WE gotta Wood Chipper out back!”

The seven words ricocheted off the brown-wood paneling of the small home, rendering adult life forms motionless and spraying implications everywhere. Only the kid seemed unaffected. He darted underneath the kitchen table and ditched Frack’s rambling science lesson for an impromptu field trip. Frick followed and before I knew it, my easy little feature was running out the door.

I followed, but none too gracefully. Dropping the cell phone, I dashed across the room and ripped open the screen door. Upon exit, the top of my camera’s light post caught the top of the doorframe, jerking me backwards as I slid on my ass down the porch steps. Frick and the boy barely gave my awkward ejection a second glance though as they rounded the corner out of sight. I fell in behind them, switching filters, guessing light temperatures and flipping camera presets all the way. Behind me, I could hear Sideshow Bob join in the chase. If a jogger had passed by and seen the frizzy haired stranger chasing the cameraman chasing the old coot chasing the boy…well, I’m curious how‘d he interpret the scenario. Chances are it wouldn’t be astronomy.

Behind the back yard, a dense line of trees towered over the swing sets and doghouses. With the last of the daylight evaporating into shadows, I could barely make out the hole in the underbrush the boy disappeared through but ole Frick followed with ease so I did likewise. As I entered the forest at full speed, my camera shouldered and rolling I blinked in a vain attempt to squeeze more light of the air. It was hard to see where I was stepping, especially with a one-inch screen bobbing one inch in front of my right eye. That’s when I heard the boy’s voice call from up ahead.

“Careful - they’re used to be some holes back here”

‘USED to be?’ I thought as I planted another foot on the forest floor and sunk to my shin. With my foot suddenly tangled in a crevice of underground tree roots, the rest of me kept moving forward until I smacked into the ground with a painful thud. Before I could absorb the hit, the weight of the camera met with the side of my head, leaving a bright red spot on my dirt-smeared forehead. Behind me, Sideshow Bob approached meekly.

“Are you okay?’ he asked - his first and last words of the evening.

“Son of a --”, I never finished the thought; instead I yanked my foot out of the hole and took the young newspaperman’s hand. I didn’t say much as he helped me up - I was too busy checking my camera and picking up my cool points. I had to leave a few on the ground when I herd rustling up ahead.

“Over here!” the boy’s voice echoed.

Sideshow jogged behind me as I half-limped, half-trotted toward the voice. In the dying light, I saw the boy and Frick peering through a tall chain-link fence, their silhouettes backlit over the fence’s gridiron. The sight reminded of my camera and I squared up the shot, leaning on a tree to compensate for my heavy breathing. After a few seconds, I moved up to the fence itself and zoomed all the way in. Through the blue haze of the viewfinder, I filled the screen with the industrial size wood-chipper that dominated the middle of the city-owned compost yard.

“There’s your space ship,” Frick said, with more than a little disappointment in his voice.

A half hour later I crawled in my news unit, cranked up the engine and checked the dashboard clock. 8:04 -- two hours until the Ten o Clock news music filled living rooms around the Piedmont. After our woodsy excursion, I came back to the house and interviewed the moon rock family one last time. The parents seemed confused as ever; only the boy seemed to appreciate the irony of the metal blob’s apparent earthbound origin. Even Frick admitted on camera, that the formerly mysterious object was most likely indeed a broken tooth from the massive wood-chipper out back, even noting how the trajectory of the grinder’s chute lined up with the hole in the house‘s roof. After Frack put the metal mass underneath a powerful telescope and found little tiny flecks of grass and wood chips, the luster had officially worn off my magical little moon rock.

But not for the viewing public, apparently. The phones back at the newsroom were still ringing off the hook with assorted theories, suggestions and overall hysteria. So much so that the Ten o Clock producer had promoted the moon rock follow-up to his lead. I was picking dried up dirt flakes off my forehead when he called to tell me the news.

“The lead? It’s a freakin’ tooth from a wood chipper!” I yelled into the cell phone.

“Maybe so,” the voice said, but for the next two hours, its a moon rock, and we’re milkin’ this baby! Get back here!”

I did as told. The next city officials examined their giant wood chipper, found a broken metal tooth stub and reluctantly agreed to look into the matter further. Two days later, I was sitting at my desk and struggling with a script when the shapely night-side reporter hung up her phone.

“Check it out” she said to the passing assistant news director. “The city’s gonna pay for the Moon Rock family’s roof! We’re doing a follow-up!”

“What did I tell you?” the well-tailored manager said, “We’re making a real difference in people’s lives out there...”

Yeah, I thought, but we‘re peddling our share of hype too. I then returned to my computer and hashed out a script about a dog in a funny hat. I love local TV news.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Viewfinder BLUES

Herein lies the Longer work of Lenslinger. Most of these tales have appeared in some form or fashion on, a website I am most indebted to. For my far more frequently updated site, please visit Viewfinder BLUES, where I skewer the mighty and trip on the downtrodden - all in the name of television news. Beats my old job at the windshield wiper factory.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Operation Idol

Check it out dude, You're in 'US Weekly'."

Operation:IDOLLooking down at the glossy magazine thrust in front of me, I took in the two page spread. 'Is Clay About To Crack?' asked the headline. Underneath, Clay Aiken lounged seductively in a blue pantsuit. Scanning the page, I spotted the picture in question - a tiny inset photo of the American Idol runner-up being swarmed by cameramen. There I was smack dab in the middle - my future bald spot already shining in the spotlights glare. Chuckling to myself, I thought about how much work it took to snag that particular spot.

My Monday started early one morning last spring when the cell phone inside my company car began pitching it's usual fit.. Distant klaxons blared warnings inside my head as I opened the door, grabbed the offensive gadget and looked at my watch.

"8:00" -- it blinked in bright-blue digits. This can't be good.

"Unit 4."

"Stewart, do you have gear?", a familiar female voice sputtered.

Hmm. Morning assignment editor, sounding panicky. Trouble indeed.

"Yeah, I'm leavin' the house."

"Great. We're gonna need to send you to Raleigh ASAP. But you need to come here and pick up Cindy. Clay Aiken is visiting with the Governor."

"Who the hell's Clay Aiken?"

"CLAY AIKEN! American Idol! He's one of three contestants left on the show! He's from Raleigh and we just found out he's visiting the Governor at ten!"

"Ten o'clock! Geez, that's gonna be TIGHT!"

"Yeah I know, but Lance is on call and I can't find him. We gotta get moving". The exasperation in her voice rang all too familiar. It was in fact, a well-worn groove inside my battered cell phone.

"All right". Pulling out of my neighborhood, I leaned on the gas and did the math.

Greensboro to Raleigh, hour and a half - but I gotta pick up Cindy - fifteen minutes away in the other direction. This bites.

As I wove my marked news unit through cross-town traffic, I tilted the rear view mirror to check the equipment stashed behind my seat. Camera, batteries, tapes and tripod. That and a mountain of other gadgets in sight told me I was ready to go. Sure as I was of it's status, I'd glance reassuringly at the gear to my rear a dozen more times during the trip. Call it professional paranoia, or some weird occupational tic. But rolling up on a raging warehouse fire out of town only to find an empty camera case in back will do strange things to a fellow. Even if it was thirteen years ago.

But today my luck was better. A song or two from a favorite Chilli Peppers CD and a few cross-city short cuts got to me to the TV station I worked for in record time. As I swerved into the parking lot and gunned it for the loading ramp, I felt a little better about my chances of making it.

"Can you believe this?", Cindy Farmer asked as she climbed into the Explorer with her purse, briefcase and breakfast. "You're gonna really have to shag a ---"

SLAM!!! I punched the accelerator the moment she slammed the door. The perky soccer mom fell back in the seat but juggled her biscuit and oversized fountain drink like the news veteran I knew she was. I steered my mobile office out of the parking lot and quickly ducked onto the interstate ramp. To our left, ten eighteen-wheelers jockeyed for position at 80 miles an hour. I zipped in between two semi's, got in front of one of them and stood on the gas. As I left the convoy of big-rigs on my mad dash eastward, I chewed a toothpick and punched the clock in my head. Yet another sudden jaunt into The Great Unknown - all for a few fleeting moments of pixilated gossip. Not exactly what I had in mind when I used to watch "Lou Grant' on my parents' television.

But life's not a Mary Tyler Moore spin-off, and I ain't 'Animal'. The job at hand was Clay What's-His-Name, and if his mug on tape was what it took to get me home this evening, then pity the fool who gets in my way. With new resolve I leaned into the steering wheel and eyed the cluster of vehicles in the distance. Beside me, our station's sweetheart polished off her breakfast with the veracity of a cross-country trucker. Picking crumbs off her canary-yellow business suit, she placed them in the biscuit's wrapper and filled me on the American Idol Dynamo.

Something I had assiduously avoided until then. By it's second season the show was one of the few treasured franchises in the Fox line-up. Unlike much of the network's current programming, American Idol posted stellar numbers in a key time slots, creating huge lead-in audiences for the local Fox newscasts that followed at ten p.m.

That included the station I worked for - in fact, we boasted one of the highest local ratings of American Idol in the country. Thanks, unbeknownst to me, to some jug-eared warbler from Raleigh. Though I'd yet to witness the reason for all the Clay-mania, his legion of fans were quickly extrapolating all over the state, and sending my news managers into a frenzy.

Recognizing the local angle to a national phenomenon, my bosses had recently shifted their considerable focus away from the crime-and-grime of the day just long enough to exploit all things Idol. Well-dressed junior executives could be seen huddling together in conference rooms - pouring over network press kits secure in the knowledge that it held the key to their future. I'd floated on it's far edges as long as I could, but now I was hurtling toward the very vortex of the Clay Aiken Experience.

"I've been talkin' to his mom," said Cindy, sipping her lipstick-stained straw. " Real sweet lady. Called me this morning to say he's in town. They're on a break before the final two shows, and the Governors giving him the royal treatment. So much for my promo shoot."

Our station's popular morning anchor had done her homework. As soon as the awkward crooner belted out his first show tune for Simon, Randy and Paula, she begun a prolonged telephone-courtship of the singer's family. It paid off a few days ago, when Cindy and another photog had traveled to suburban Raleigh for a on-camera interview with the Aiken matriarch. Now, a chance to score a one-on-one with the human muppet himself was at hand, but only if we bent time and space to get there.

Which is what we pretty much did along the crowded corridor of I-40. Not that I went faster than five or six miles over the speed limit. News stories, especially ones this silly, weren't worth the trouble of tickets and such. If we made it on-time (and it looked like we would), we'd do so without breaking the law or endangering lives. Anything else, however, is fair game. After all, no one likes to be late in my business, especially at a press conference. When you're dragging camera, tripod and lights with you - there is no sneaking in quietly. Especially in a small room with too many people in it; the very definition of a 'press-conference' in the first place.

Lucky for me, mid-morning traffic was light and we dodged getting hemmed in by any of those spontaneous parking lots along the interstate. By the time nine-fifty rolled around we were hurtling along Raleigh's inner belt line and closing in quickly.

"Take South Saunders. The Administrative Building is on Wilson Street." After eight minutes (and one U-turn) we were mere blocks away from our destination.

"I think we're gonna make it after all. You GO, Stew!" chirped the mother-of-two beside me as she applied fresh make-up to her face.

"We ain't there yet, you wanna stick mike or lav?"

"Lav's fine. Holy ---"

BWWWAAAAAAAA! From the left a live truck from Durham station veered in front of us, his horn trailing back over the stowed-mast atop the oversized broadcast van. When the driver took a sharp right ahead, I followed. The administrative building loomed before us, but every available parking space was taken - with brightly-stickered SUVs, wagons and step vans from other TV stations. I'd expected one or two crews to be there, but I quickly counted thirteen different logos, all promising to be first, fair and accurate and provide team coverage that's working for me.

"That's a lot kids in the sandbox ", Cindy mumbled. Through the windshield, I saw a photographer break from his parked car and sprint for the door. The clock in Unit Four's dashboard read 9:58. Time for action.

"Hold on."

With a grunt, I squeezed in a half-sized space behind a Toyota 4Runner From a Charlotte station, hoping my own logos and commercial plate would convince any meter maids to ignore the fact that the back two tires were on the sidewalk. Slamming it in park, we jumped out and ran to the back of Unit 4. I popped the tailgate and fished a bulging red fanny pack out. Clicking it around my waist, I grabbed my camera and sticks - then tossed Cindy the wireless microphone transmitter, a metal box about the size of a cigarette pack with a corded lapel microphone on it's side.

"Use all your womanly charms to get this around his neck," I said -slamming the tailgate shut and triggering the automatic lock tab in my pocket.

"I don't think you understand..." Cindy giggled as we both made a mad dash up the state office building steps.


Inside, a small hallway gave way to a large two-story domed atrium. Mid-morning daylight filtered in through high windows on the statues and busts of lawmakers past that stood guard in the round high-ceilinged rotunda. At the entrance to the grand space, a uniformed security guard rode a podium, and chatted with a woman in a powder-blue pant suit. Gripping a palm pilot in quiet indignation, she approached us as we entered.

"Everyone's already set up in the Gov'nuh's office," she said, motioning to a side door. "There's not much room."

Peeking inside, I saw she wasn't kidding. Photographers, reporters, PR flacks, and assorted government officials packed almost every square inch of the small ceremonial office. Through the crush I could see a forest of cameras on tripods set up in a semi-circle around an oversized mahogany desk. Wrapped around each of those cameras was a surly photojournalist, each flipping switches, squinting through viewfinders and trying to expand their personal space. A local shooter with a frayed ball cap spotted my late arrival and nudged his buddy from across the street.

"Man, they're comin' out of the woodwork. This one's all the way from Greens-berry"

With that, the crowd of weary lenslingers chuckled as a whole. A few glanced up, smirking as they surveyed the shiny logos on my less than shiny gear. I returned their expressions with a sour smile and quickly raised my tripod to it's highest position. As I methodically untwisted the telescopic legs at lightning speed I stared defiantly at the electronic pack - hoping they'd somehow sense this wasn't my first trip to Capitol City.

It was a half-cocky move I felt pretty good about, until I tripped an extension cord with the sweep of a tripod leg - unplugging the hastily-erected spotlights and plunging the whole room into dim-blue overcast daylight.

"Yo! Check it! --- lights OUT!" --hmph! - LO-SER!!"

Their jaunts and sneers fell around me as I plugged the cord back into the low wall outlet. As the lights popped back on, I stood to face the crowd of news gatherers - all craning backwards to get a better look at me. Rumpled camera lifers in utility vests stood upright, abandoning the blue glow of their viewfinders to watch the bumbling latecomer upsetting the scene. Well-lacquered anchor bunnies even looked up from their nails and giggled. Print photographers leaned on their monopods and silently sized me up. Even the gaggle of government pages stopped cackling long enough to take in the long awkward looks being exchanged around the room. From the corner of my eye, I could see Cindy slowly creeping away from me and trying to melt into the wall, not an easy feat in her canary-yellow business suit. All around the room, weary eyeballs danced and darted in my direction, and somewhere overhead God pressed the slow-mo button.

Tough Crowd... I HATE Mondays...

The unsettling silence continued as I slowly hoisted my camera into it's home atop the towering tripod. As I powered-up, a rustling sound from the front of the room signaled the start of competition. Like birds on a high wire reacting to an unseen force, the flock of news hawks wheeled in unison and bent back over their cameras. A dozen recording decks engaged as two figures entered the room from a door I hadn't even noticed yet.

Craning my neck upward into my high tripod perch I shot over the crowd of station ball caps and zoomed in on Governor Mike Easley. Grinning goofily, the top lawmaker escorted a foppish young gentleman around the assembled pack of media hounds to the prearranged spot in front of the huge State Seal .The clutch of office onlookers erupted in excited whispers - one raised her well-manicured hand to her mouth in frenzied glee. I glanced over at Cindy alongside the far wall and the dizzy twinkle in her own eyes told me the guest of honor had indeed arrived.

As flashbulbs popped and the Governor made small talk, I took a closer look at the gangly young chap standing beside him. With his untucked long sleeve shirt and carefully-arranged bed head, Clay Aiken looked more like he should be folding clearance-items at the nearest Old Navy, instead of stealing the spotlight of the World's Most Overly-Hyped Talent Show.

This is the guy I raced through five counties for? For him I gotta fight off a pack of pissed-off news-hunters? All for a shot of Opie with a bad hair-cut?

Still, I'd covered contrivances far more mind-numbing than this. So with a heavy sigh I was getting all too used to, I zeroed in on today's target of choice and tried to put all thoughts of why aside. Watching the one-inch black and white screen with the distracted intent of a veteran cabbie, I zoomed, racked and focused - collecting every conceivable vista from the limited perch of my too-tall tripod. As the throng of competitors leaned into their own cameras, Governor Easley presented the blushing young crooner with a picture of the 'James Taylor Bridge' - a recently dedicated passage named for another famous tarheel tune smith. Focusing in on the picture, I tilted up for a tight-shot of the current hometown hero. Looking overwhelmed at all the fuss around him, the skinny twenty-something giggled nervously, eyes darting at the pack of gadget-bearing strangers tracking his every move.

But for me, it was just another day behind the lens - what exactly I pointed it at these days sometimes ceased to matter. Today I'm stalking a fledgling pop star, tomorrow I'll be camped out at a train wreck. I get the Good, the Bad and the Stupid, and rarely in that order. As a result, I'm a little burnt-out from being so close to the media blowtorch all these many years. Sometimes I wonder if I can be surprised anymore.

Back in the Governors Office Clay Aiken laughed it up with the Governor as the print guys clamored for close-ups. Perched high in the back, I worked my own lens. As I eyed the red glow of the 'RECORD' light, I chewed my lip, and stopped wondering what Alfred E. Newman's gay younger brother might look like.

From there my mind could have wandered even farther of-center, had something the Governor said not pulled me out of my stupor.

" ..and in just a moment we wanna regroup in the rotunda but for now let me say how proud I am..."

The Governors voice continued, and I monitored it's pitch and fall by watching the audio needle dance on the side of my camera. Glancing the other way, I spotted Cindy still inching along the side wall. She was only a few feet from the door the Governor and Clay had entered through, which was now blocked by a burly government thug in a blue blazer. I watched her flash him her perfectly toothy telegenic smile, channeling all her southern-fried trophy-wife charm on the big lug, as if he were the floating floor cam she flirted with four hours a day every morning. Of all the on-air talent I've worked with over the years, a select few give you the feeling you could wake them from a deep slumber and they'd immediately be ON. Perky, aware, informative. Bubbling over with natural verve and wit --spouting all the appropriate non-sequitors and broadcast cliches right on cue. Cindy Farmer is one of those people. So it was no surprise when I saw her pass by the now-beaming blue-blazered hulk to just a few feet away from the gushing songbird and the giddy Governor..

Slipping my camera's coiled ear piece into my right ear, I quietly pulled the lever on the tripod plate, picked up the camera and shouldered it. Feeling it's familiar heft, I slowly side stepped toward the door I'd entered from. Up in front, the Governor continued his rant praising Raleigh's new favored son, and wishing him luck on the upcoming final two episodes of American Idol. As he held the pack of electron hunters in rapt attention, I gave my tripod one last, reluctant tug across the floor. Leaving it there, I backpedaled out noiselessly - hoping my over-extended tripod parked in the doorway there wouldn't be TOO MUCH of an obstacle for my fellow journalists.


The first thing to hit me was the noise. The mixed chirp and chatter of a preadolescent army filled the high-domed interior as what looked like fifteen fourth grade field trips ambled about the marbled floors. What had been a quiet lobby leading to a calm stately space was now overrun with hundreds of bored, insolent teens. Up above, little faces peered back down from the circular railway lining the second and third stories that formed the Rotunda. Hugging a wall next to what I thought might be the correct door, I checked the camera's time code and watched the kids pass by. Before I could think, a bored nine year old noticed my camera and it's Fox logo. The gig was up.


A thousand bike-ramp haircuts and ponytails swiveled in my direction - Tired of hearing their surly teachers drone on about the Old North State's many founders, the pack of preadolescent angst'ers descended on me with a fervor not unlike early Beatlemania. As the pitch of their young vocal cords heightened to a deafening shriek, I shooed the kids away and tried to look mean. It was no use - their honest excitement at having discovered a true-life news cameraman during their forced march through state history was undulating through the preteen crowd, whipping them into an eerie frenzy.

Looking up past the throng of faces I tried to concentrate on the tiny dust motes floating in the invading daylight at the top of the painted dome roof. As it backlit the circular throng of screaming kids at the balconies, I once again wondered about my career choice.

Coulda been a paramedic, a salesman, maybe a park ranger...

I stood half-frozen there, musing on what all this bedlam was doing to my plan, when my ear piece sprung to life and almost shattered my eardrum.


Cindy's syrupy sweet voice filled my head at an unbearably high volume. Cranking down my monitor switch I listened as Cindy chatted up her prey with practiced skill. As she pinned the lavalier microphone to something scratchy, I heard static and fabric rustling -- followed by the giggle of what sounded like Michael Jackson with a southern drawl.

"YES! So YOU'RE the 'triad connection', Mama's mentioned YOU!"

Stepping out from my shelter of the wall, I looked back in time to see the door to the Governors office swing open. An invading flank of photogs, reporters, sound guys and radio hacks poured forth through the narrow doorway, wading into the sea of fourth graders towards me. The local news division was now decamped and it was every man (and woman) for himself. No holds barred - no quarter given.

Spinning back around to the suspected (but still closed) door - I peered through my viewfinder, steadied a shot and braced myself for the lightning round of Elbow Fiesta that was about to ensue. I'd barely remembered to roll tape myself when the door swung open and out strode The Governor, The Star, and one brightly-clad bubbly morning anchor. Camera-mounted lights popped on and closed in behind me, triggering a renewed series of screams from the astonished ten year olds. As the throng of lenslingers congealed around the Governor and his guests, I found myself being squeezed into it's epicenter. Suddenly I was face to face with the Guv and the Showstopper as camera jocks of every description trampled the shrieking field trippers around me. Soon I was shoulder to shoulder with photogs on both sides, bracing myself against the push of the pack as the American Idol wannabe stood just inches away from me. A large boom microphone dangled overhead and the crush became even tighter. Wedged up against the Governor, Clay and a tightening throng of photog body parts and lenses, I could smell what many of them had for breakfast. They call these little get-togethers 'gang bags' for a reason.

Sensing the crowd was at maximum density, the State's top Bureaucrat piped up with a sense of delight not even exhibited the night he gained that lofty office. I should know - I was there.

"Now Clay, if you could favor us with a few bars of a song from your upcoming album. Now I don't wanna plug your album..."

"OH! I'LL plug it !" the alleged singer gushed and chortled - in much the same manner Charles Nelson Reilly did back on Match Game 76.

Looking up at the oval of young faces staring down at him, Clay Aiken cleared his throat and for a moment gained the composure of someone totally enlightened and free.


With a force of nature unexpected from such a birdlike chest, Clay's voice rang out rich and true. Preteens and media jackals alike fell silent as his majestic voice filled ever crevice of the historical structure.


The VU meter on my camera pegged at precisely the right point, as my wireless microphone on Clay's collar captured every nuance of his incredibly powerful pipes.


Through my viewfinder I zoomed in on the rapturous expression that floated over the psuedo-celebritiy's visage. As he attacked the refrain with a voice that would send Jeffery Osbourne back to his singing coach, I followed his voice with my camera, panning up to the frozen throng of onlookers - their mouths forming tiny O's at the undeniable glory of this unlikely heartthrob's golden throat.



As the apparently seasoned showtune-belter wrung the last syllable for all it was worth, a collective gasp of serendipity floated over the frozen onlookers. Even the ivory-white busts of long-dead lawmakers seemed to smile and sigh. When the expertly bent final note finally echoed to a close, a burst of enthusiastic applause took over the room. I would have clapped myself had my hands not been full of badly-aging television equipment. Trying to regain my well-earned armor of nonchalance, I no longer wondered what made this jug-eared kid special in the eyes and ears of viewers. Simply put, the dude could WAIL - wherever the current craze took him, he would definitely earn his living with his golden pipes. And no doubt it would be a very good living indeed. For a moment I felt a bit foolish for having so heavily disparaged the American Idol juggernaut. But that feeling quickly turned to panic as the Governor dismissed quickly himself to a cadre of awaiting handlers. As the pack of media hounds surged toward Clay for the traditional torrent of questions and answers I couldn't help but notice my 'weak battery' light flashing furiously inside my viewfinder.

There was no time to switch out batteries however as well-dressed arms jammed logo'd-microphones under the singer's chin and the talking hair-do's took over. Through the pack I noticed a patch of canary yellow growing bigger as Cindy stretched by and reached over a fellow anchor-lady , finally clearing enough room to slither through. Her normally expertly-groomed appearance paid dearly in the process but the plucky veteran of a thousand newsroom wars wasn't going to let a few out-of-place hairs deny her 'The Get' she'd worked so long and hard for.

"So, Clay" - she continued as if the two were gossiping idly at the corner deli, "Tell us all about that mean nasty Simon..."

As Clay began defending the Brit's barrage of pithy insults, microphones, zoom- lenses and tape recorders leaned in even further and swallowed my peripheral version. Every few minutes another blown-dry reporter would try to wiggle in on Cindy's turf but she fended them off with the ease of Michael Vick slipping off would-be tacklers on the gridiron. Cindy was, after all, a Virginia Tech grad, and her allegiance to her school's conquering quarterback was legendary. From the look of her moves she had studied the game films.

Fighting my own leaning battle against the crush of lens jockeys to either side of me, I reached down and plucked my wide-angle attachment from my belt pouch. Trying not to upset anyone's shot too much, I fixed it to the front of my lens, recording the rest of the prolonged interview on a wide two shot. Figuring the promotion guys would appreciate footage of Clay and Cindy in the same shot, I stared at the blinking red battery light piercing the blue calm of my viewfinder. Through sheer willpower I drained every bit of life force the old battery had to offer at an achingly slow rate. All while Cindy gabbed with the Golden Voiced Skinny One like they both belonged to the same sorority. By the time my battery finally sputtered, choked and died, Cindy had wrung the Idol-in-the-making of every detail she could possibly think of. It was just as well, as the other news teams clamoring for questions were growing increasingly exasperated at Cindy and Clay's extended girl talk. The two spotlight hogs half-hugged each other as Cindy pulled the lav mike off his shirt.

As we broke away, the jostling scrum of dry-cleaned talent and wrinkled photogs closed in the gap -- the hired mouthpieces all shouting questions in a confusing blend of well-trained voices. While the pack desperately played catch-up under the ticking Rolex of a power-suited Fox rep, Cindy and I sauntered off more than a little triumphantly. Her canary-yellow suit looked like she'd taken out a few of the dirtier fourth-graders by force and my ugly Hawaiian shirt sported a whole new network of stains and wrinkles. Looking at my watch, I was astonished to see it was only Ten-thirty. A scant half-hour had passed since we'd first stormed the premises. Grabbing my tripod from the empty office door, I collapsed the legs and hoisted it over my shoulder. As Cindy held the door, I high-fived her with my only free hand.

"That, " I said through deep breaths, "was a surgical strike to be proud of..."

"Yeah," she answered, straightening her skirt as we trudged back to the badly-parked news car, "too bad no one will remember it a week from now..."