Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Journalists

I was so Disappointed

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Fanning a Fire

As I listened to the Friday News Roundtable, which is hosted every week by OPB, one of the panelists said how “disappointed” they were that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not pick a more explosive and contentious vice-presidential running mate.

I thought to myself, “So, to be clear, you are disappointed that a potentially destructive candidate did not pick a more equally destructive running mate because that will make for a more boring story for you to report.”

This is another one of the long list of problems I believe permeate the news biz.

I loved the mid 2000’s TV show “Scrubs” because of its biting commentary on medicine, hospitals, doctors and culture.  One episode I remember was an argument between long time staff nurse Laverne and Chief of Interns, Perry Cox.  Laverne was asking about the tendency of surgeons to always choose exploratory surgery over other options and Cox said, “When was the last time you ever met a cutter who didn’t want to cut? Laverne! You have been here 40 years now, have you ever heard such a thing?”

Likewise, news people apparently don’t prefer a news story that is interesting but without the poisonous consequences over one filled with prurient and insane interest that also results in horrible consequences.  Part of the reason, I think, is because the more messy, complex, bigoted, disgusting story is guaranteed to have plenty of news babies; each of which can then be teased out ad nauseum and in gruesome detail.

They might say they don’t choose the stories they must report, and I expect that’s right.  One problem with the media is it is a competition.  Whoever can claim to be the fastest to report is seen as the best, the “news authority”.  That brings ad dollars.  And the worse, the better.  But there are a list of other “reasons” that I’m sure would be a counterpoint to each of the four points in the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists.

But here’s the bigger problem.  Societies run by demagogues or plagued by fanned fires don’t suffer free media for long.   And I harken back to a Saturday Night Live bit for some support.  When Sarah Palin had appeared on the October 22, 2008 airing of SNL, with her Tina Fey doppelganger, there was a segment with Ms. Palin seated comfortably in an easy chair facing and talking to the camera directly.   And she essentially said that once she and John McCain become president, there would be some changes in how a TV show like Saturday Night Live could parody cultural figures.

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.  After all, SNL is a program of humorous satire.  But there was no hint of humor, and her veiled threat of censorship sounded less like satire and more like a warning.  If Trump becomes president and if he had, instead of choosing Mike Pense, chosen Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie or even Sarah Palin, I wonder how long the sometimes, nose-high Fourth estate would continue feel invulnerable.  He has already threatened the media and the constitutional basis of a free press. A story that delights for its messiness, but raised to a sufficient temperature, can cook up some really nasty policy consequences.

So when I hear news people lament over how they wish a political story was more spectacularly shit-filled, or how they futz that a personal collapse is less compelling because the sufferer isn’t doing more to blow themselves up in front of cameras or microphones, I wonder if the American people (whoever that really is) might have a point when surveys show large swaths on both sides of the political spectrum say they don’t entirely trust the media.

I don’t mean the hard working journalists who report the facts and refuse to prognosticate or editorialize.  I mean what’s left.

Ad Perpetuam Memoriam

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Microphone and Ribbon

Two journalists from WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, were killed by a former station employee while they conducted a live TV interview.  According to NPR’s Sandy Housman, the image of Vester Lee Flanigan, who worked as a reporter under the name of Bryce Williams, was captured by videographer Adam Ward’s camera.  Flanigan apparently also videotaped himself carrying out the shooting and later, posted it on social media.  The BBC reported that as someone who understood the power of TV and video, Mr. Flanigan stalked and ambushed both journalists.  Virginia police reported Flanagan suffered a self-inflicted, life threatening gunshot wound and has been transported to a local hospital.  He has since died from those wounds.

I cried when I heard of the shootings.  I’ve worked in a TV newsroom.  I’ve worked the early morning shift with people who shuffle in at two and three in the morning and scrounge for stories to have ready by a 6 or 7 a.m. newscast.  I’ve joked with cameramen as they grabbed their gear and warmed up a truck.  I’ve watched reporters scoop up notebooks and tape recorders as they hurry out the door into the dark to get ready for some live shot who-knows-where.

An American journalist hasn’t been murdered in America since 2007.  According to Wikipedia, Chauncy Bailey of the Oakland Post was the most recent reporter killed by the target of an investigative report he was working on.  The Committee to Protect Journalists says 1141 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992.  But many American journalists have been killed on American soil.  Wikipedia lists 48 journalists killed in the United States since 1837.

I have never been in a reporting situation where I thought my life was in danger.  But, this simple and routine interview these two professionals went to cover; one of a thousand they’ve done before, almost certainly seemed ordinary and harmless to them as well.

Allison Parker – WDBJ-TV Reporter
Adam Ward – WDBJ-TV Cameraman

Written by Interviewer

August 26, 2015 at 23:13