Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘police

Keepin it Real

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Peabody Award

I watched tonight’s episode of ABC’s Peabody Award winning “Black-ish”.  And I was amazed at how raw and honest it was.  In fact, I’m not sure the entire thing wasn’t an ad-lib.  And when co-star Anthony Anderson had tears in his eyes as he described the fear I had as I sat on my couch and watched out new black president and his black wife walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day 2009, I wondered if my tears were what the writers expected.

Four-hundred years ago, a great crime was perpetrated on one group of human beings by another group of human beings.  Maybe, 400 years from now, that crime will be a distant memory and both groups will have since worked together to solve no only the problems we know, but the problems to come.

But right now, at the halfway point, there’s still a lot of shit in the way.  And in the meantime, I’m working to do my part to make things better between people of color and the police.

But as far as this comedy, which is really satire, which is really – sometimes – a slap across the face, … wow, ABC.  That’s all I can say.  Wow.

Written by Interviewer

August 25, 2016 at 13:09

Edit This

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Edit

An unflattering video. Suspicious editing. People’s character under attack.

This isn’t about the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. ICYMI, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards defended herself before a congressional committee yesterday. The issue was a secretly recorded video that seemed to show planned parenthood employees talking about the organization making money from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. The video has prompted congressional Republicans to try to eliminate all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

No, this is about former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sharrod. Ms. Sharrod, a black woman, was attacked for allegedly making racist comments during a public meeting in 2010. The meeting was videotaped and edited by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and widely distributed to politicians and news outlets.

The NAACP subsequently attacked Ms. Sharrod and she was pressured to resign from her federal appointment as Georgia State Director of USDA Rural Development. It was later discovered that Ms. Sharrod had not made racist comments and had been unjustly portrayed by Mr. Breitbart as well as unjustly vilified by the NAACP and Obama administration. In a turn around, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered Ms. Sharrod a high level appointment which she turned down before quietly retiring from Federal service.

These stories share not just questionably edited video but that despite the fact that both videos were known to be heavily doctored by individuals with a strong ideological bent, policy makers considered them legitimate and thus, a basis for attack.

That people will fight to protect their own view of the world is a given. However, no math on Earth argues that 1+1=3. Likewise, an audio or video track is a tangible, electronic footpath of things actually said or actually seen. And when pieces are removed, what’s left might be called “interpretation” by some but a lie by others. That is an issue law enforcement is beginning to face as the public demands to see unedited footage of violent interactions between citizens and the police. It is also why many reporters are now posting unedited audio or video along with their finished interviews.

It is often said, “Truth is the first casualty of war”. In the war of words between battling ideologies, one has to marvel at the extent some will go to reshape reality as much as the extent to which others will go to believe it.

Because the fact is, in the world of politics, facts only matter until they don’t.

Spinal Injury or Broken Neck?

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Broken Neck

It matters what words reporters use.

Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning has been the only news person I’ve heard use the words “Broken Neck” to refer to the injuries received by Freddie Gray.  In case you don’t know, Gray was arrested by Baltimore police a few weeks ago for a misdemeanor.  But by the time witnesses saw him being moved to a police vehicle, he was being dragged.  His body was rigid and he was screaming in obvious pain.

Police said they failed to summon medical help and they failed to buckle him in with seat belts as they transported him using a technique they call, a “rough ride.”  Hearing that, I’m not sure if they were saying the unrestrained ride caused his injuries and they then failed to call for medical help, or he sustained injuries during the arrest and their failure to buckle him down before the ride aggravated those injuries for which they failed to call medical help.

Regardless, he died in a hospital shortly there after from what the media tended to describe as everything from a neck injury to a spinal injury to a partially severed spine.

It also matters why reporters use the words they use, which makes this is a good place to talk about sanitizing language and what I consider a most egregious use.  “Sever” is a French word derived from an older Latin word which means to “remove by or as if by cutting.”  Unless police tried to cut Mr. Gray’s head off with some sort of blade, his spine was not severed.  But sever sounds a lot softer than saying his neck was broken.  Police breaking necks sort of puts them in the category of Family Guy or Robot Chicken episodes, which doesn’t do a lot for public relations.

If making people feel better is the point for media, why don’t we call school shootings “secondary educational institution incursions” or call plane crashes “compromised airfoil equipment incidents?”

Do some media not want to inflame passions in the streets?  Do they not want to the call out those “bad apples” who admittedly don’t follow procedure, until a final report is issued?  Do they not want to cause more pain and suffering to friends and family of victims?

Or are some truths just too truthful?

It would be nice if our designated media wordsmiths actually used the right ones.  Thank you Mr. Rose.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2015 at 00:38

The Thin Black Line

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Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Police Talk

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police lights

Watching an interview with NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on CBS This Morning, I was reminded of how important it is for authorities to frame a discussion.

Mr. Bratton’s main and consistent response to the questions by Gail, Nora and Charlie about demonstrations in Ferguson was that unrest was caused by “professional agitators”.  The assumption he seems to be making is that legitimate demonstrations would never originate with local, grass roots frustration over perceived police injustice.  Apparently, according to the police chief, law abiding residents of a community don’t confront their own law enforcement for any legitimate reason and unrest in the streets is always the fault of outsiders.  Disturbance (as he told an NPR interviewer) of any kind doesn’t seem to be tolerable.  But isn’t even peaceful civil unrest a disturbance?  This basic disconnection between how police see the world and how people who feel victimized by the police seems to be one of the obvious and intractable problems between police and those who disagree with police policy.

By professional, I wonder if Mr. Bratton means people who are paid, or people who are considered experts such as, perhaps, Human Rights Watch?  And by agitators, does he mean people who are advising others on techniques for protest, not unlike (as he told the same NPR interviewer) the police NY sent to Missouri to advise and seek advice on how to deal with protestors?  Of course outsiders have axes to grind, leaders to taint and riots to incite.  Community leaders must scrupulously police their own ranks to insure protests are legitimate and effective.  But infiltrating protests is not just a technique for illegitimate demonstrator use.  Law enforcement agencies also have a history of using “professional agitators” for their own purposes.

BTW, Mr. Bratton never used the words “protestors” or “demonstrators” to describe anyone in any community who might be legitimately standing up against what they feel as unfair treatment by the police.  It is evidence that police departments, especially in high profile cities, are feeling under siege and their use of language is one of the tools they use to manage their own siege mentality.  It is the responsibility of media to compel them to precisely define their intentions and make clear their strategic use of tactical language.

TMI?

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TMI2

This is a quickie.

Anna Werner of CBS This Morning did an excellent report on cloned vehicles that drug traffickers use to move drugs across the Mexican border into the U.S.  Apparently, they are copying FedEx trucks, ambulances, police vehicles and WALMART semi-tractor trailers.  It was a great, need to know story.  It reminded me of another great story and a caveat.

In 1993, the Society of Professional Journalism published a guidebook called “Doing Ethics in Journalism”.  Under the chapter “Making Ethical Decisions”,  the authors talk about a Pulitzer Prize winning story called “AIDS in the Heartland” by Pioneer Press reporter Jacqui Banaszynski.  They talk about guiding principles Ms. Banaszynski used when writing her story.  Those were:

Seek Truth and Report it as Fully as Possible
Act Independently
Minimize Harm

About that last one, it is assumed to make sense that minimizing harm, as in not letting the revealing of something actually cause damage or help more of it to happen, should be a goal.  Journalism though, might argue that it isn’t.  And there’s the rub.  In Ms. Werner’s story, it was certainly important for the public to know that drug traffickers were moving drugs in legitimately looking vehicles.  But is it minimizing harm to the public by alerting drug dealers that mispellings on the fake logos of those fake vehicles help police spot them better? The argument could be made that a mispelled logo could also alert the public who could, in turn, alert the police.  But you could make the counter argument that making that piece of information public just helped drug traffickers make better logos.

The problem with the story, as I saw it, was it gave a tiny piece of information that may make finding these fakes harder and makes me question those times when and if news reporting goes too far.  For the public, that detail may have been incidental, but for law enforcement, it might be huge.  Some of that responsibility does lie with the police.  If they didn’t want it shared, they probably shouldn’t have shared it.  Of course, if they did consider it minor and purposely released this tidbit, then all this is moot.  But if it slipped into the reporter’s notebook, then so too did some of the responsibility.

When Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, I asked this same question.  Although this is about drugs, not crazed religious extremists, the principle is the same.  At what point in a story should reporters just stop talking?  We now know that drug dealers mispell logos and maybe, we laugh at them for their ignorance.

But I’m guessing the police aren’t laughing.

Written by Interviewer

June 12, 2014 at 01:00

For All of the Unsung People

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Image

Unsung means, people for whom a song is not sung.  With all of the tributes made and libations poured to all of the people in the center of the light, there are people who are never seen, never known but without whom, nothing would happen.  I don’t know why this makes me emotional, but fortunately, it doesn’t affect my typing.  Here is a short list of all of the people who, especially at this time of year, need to be remembered.

Pilots who fly through some of the worst weather of the year to take millions of people to their destinations.  When the seat belt light comes on, the pilot is about to engage in a very personal conversation with nature.  Yes, they get paid to do their jobs, but their job is to carry lives, legacies, babies, pets, pictures, fruitcakes, messages and futures.  And don’t forget about the ground crews, the baggage handlers, the mechanics, the flight attendants, the customer service people.

Ambulance drivers who carry people about to enter life and people about to leave it.  And the EMT’s who hold the hand of people scared of dying and people scared of living. And don’t forget the Emergency Room Technicians, nurses, front desk people, medical technicians, doctors, nurses who see the worst on what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year.

Police who will be patrolling the streets when most of us are asleep, away from their own families.  Or maybe they’re walking up unfamiliar stairs, rounding dark corners or entering hostile bars to arrest someone or contain someone or pursue someone.  And don’t forget their families; wives, kids, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who hope their own father or son or mother or daughter will come home in time for some turkey or to unwrap a present or bounce a baby on their knee.  Also, don’t forget deputies, sheriffs, dispatchers and 911 operators.

Firefighters who, no matter how cold or miserable the weather, will gear up and run to a raging fire to protect property or save lives.  They will enter burning buildings with oxygen tanks and carrying extraction equipment and they will search for lost, afraid and dying people and pull them out.  Or they will open wrecked cars like sardine cans overturned in ditches to try to save people who made a simple, life changing mistake so they can have another chance.  To all of the firefighters and their families.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guard.  I think of Coast Guard especially since a friend of mine has just moved to an island in the Aleutian Islands and the Coast Guard regularly sends helicopters and ships into raging seas to rescue people.  Soldiers walking point, sailors on an aircraft carrier, airmen working a flight line, marines advancing on a position – all far from home.  And don’t forget the veterans, as well as the active duty and reserve cooks, the admin people, the military police, the military doctors and nurses, the supply and warehouse people, the truck drivers and mechanics and their families.

Highway maintenance people who will be out plowing, salting or sanding roads in some of the most remote, God-awful places at all times of the day and night in the worst winter weather you can imagine. And if they’re not trying to keep it clear, they are trying to open up a section of highway that has just been damaged by an overturned semi-tractor trailer and it’s dropped load of railroad ties or beehives or salad dressing. And if they’re not trying to clear a road of debris, they’re trying to finish construction on a piece of road so the traffic can move faster. They hold slow down signs that people can’t read because they’re flying past them too fast. They wear colored vests but they still have to jump out of the way sometimes because some people are in a hurry. Fortunately, there is usually a fast police interceptor not too far away. And don’t forget the line and tree workers restringing downed power lines and knocking ice off trees.

Pastors, Bishops, Rabbis, Imans, Reverends, Ministers … men and women of God who leave their doors open when most others are closed this time of year.  These people are  dedicated to trying to help the lost navigate through a not always easy life by listening, holding, and helping as much as they can, as much as they are allowed.  And don’t forget about the soup kitchens, the secret givers, the missions, the volunteers, the drivers, the sorters and the warehouse workers.

Reporters, anchors, weather forecasters.  These people tell us about closed roads and bad skies and deep water.  They are running around a near empty building at wee hours of the morning all over the world so we can wake up knowing what’s been going on.  And don’t forget the camera operators, master control, technical directors, audio directors, news directors, city desk editors, photographers.

Veterinarians and people who run shelters of all kinds. For animals that have been abused or lost or hurt, who are alone and frightened; these people search for them, find them, take them in and care for them and try to heal them or reunite them with their families. This kind of selflessness without a doubt belongs on this list.

Disaster relief workers overseas including Doctors without Borders and the International Red Cross among so many others. For people in the South Sudan, in Syria, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Uganda. People for whom hope is at the whim of a despot who tortures or disappears beloved family members, these organizations and their volunteers risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives to bring food, medicine and hope to people in the spirit of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”.

Prisoners, inmates and their jailers. Being incarcerated is antithetical to what it means to be a human being. Sadly, many people have made choices that have put them under the control of the State. But the state is not guiltless and in many cases, it’s own mistakes have led to the unjust incarceration of hundreds, maybe thousands. Still, to be institutionalized is to be invisible and forgotten. So for the people who wish for a second chance but will never get it and the people on the verge of getting that second chance as well as the guards that must watch, control and discipline those inmates whether they want to or not, you are not forgotten.

Entertainers of all kinds, because these people are notoriously nomads and without steady income. Whether in community theater, on Broadway or at a cattle call, musicians, actors, artists work through the holidays since their Black Friday always seems to be about six months ahead of them. They are always running to the next gig, the next audition, the next tryout looking for a reason to believe the hard work they’ve put in on their music, their technique, their moves will land them something steady and something they and the they people they love can be proud of. There will be a lot of them on stages around the world during the holidays, hoping.

Prostitutes because many many women around the world are forced into prostitution and not only outside of the United States. They have children. They have bills. And they have dangers most of us can’t conceive. Yes, there are social service programs for them and their families. But for all of the “respectable people” who can’t leave their situation, no matter what it is for whatever reason, it is no easier for prostitutes to leave theirs. Also don’t forget enslaved domestic workers, the sex-trafficked, the addicted and the homeless.

Store clerks, stock boys, bus and taxi drivers, park rangers, highway patrol officers, 24-hour IT support people, tow truck drivers, credit and debit card customer support, the mail carrier, the package delivery driver, plumbers on call, roofers on call, HVAC on call, electricians on call, hotel workers, restaurant workers,… yes, we pay for these people either directly or indirectly.  But when we need them, they come and not always because they have to and not always just for the money.  What would it be like to to be someone who helped save someone’s Christmas or a family memory?

There are SOOOOO many people we forget who do what they have to do while the rest of us hope for another memorable holiday.  They must not be forgotten.  We must not forget them.

Maybe you’re one of these people.  If you are, thank you for providing. Thank you for protecting. Thank you for enduring.

If you can add to this list, please do.

Simple Questions

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M16

I worked for Armed Forces Television, and one of my jobs as a member of the News Department was to host an interview program. I worked on a small post and everybody watched American TV because it was familiar and reminded military and their family of home. And because it was in English. So we kind of had a captive audience.

Whenever anything happened on post, we were almost always behind the curve because the grapevine had already spread it all over before station politics had the testicles to speak of it too. As an aside, although it called itself a “News” department, it wasn’t really news. It was more like storytelling, which BTW, isn’t always immediate or proactive.  But, considering that the military can be an insular culture, even to itself and trusting of no one, it’s no small leap of faith to give a pocket of soldiers TV cameras and microphones and satellite dishes, even if they aren’t doing investigative journalism. You can still have scandal, and they can be caused by the smallest things.

Anyway, regarding this one particular incident, a military police officer had discharged a weapon in the military police arms room. For those who don’t know, an arms room is where soldiers go to be issued weapons and ammunition for duty requiring them to be armed, and turn in weapons and ammunition when the duty is completed.

So, the rumor was that a weapon had been fired. And since I was hosting a weekly, call in interview program with the Post Commander, I asked if this was true. It was a simple question. But there was a lot of weather behind it.

For one, the station commander and the administrative staff didn’t particularly like this commander’s style. He was belittling and a bit bullyish. Plus, some of them really wanted to broadcast news, not pabalum from the public affairs office. Also, I had developed some credibility as a reporter, so they must’ve thought I’d be good as a conduit between the community and the commander. Finally, the station knew me and this commander didn’t get along. So, I also believe they used me as a stick to poke him. I knew that was true because others who heard of the incident asked me to ask him on the program. I asked my supervisor first if it was OK to bring it up and she said yes. Other people said putting the commander on the spot would be disrespectful. But, I was a journalist and I was conferring with a supervisory journalist at a network broadcast station. Regardless of it being a military facility, it was one of those times when you follow the other professional track, and I was OK with that. Years later, I discovered a letter from him, written to my commander, saying how he thought I was terrible at my job and how he wanted me replaced. Funny thing is, I interviewed him for several more months after that until the program was mysteriously ended.  

So, anyway, I asked the question, “Sir, what happened in the arms room?” And as I remember, what followed was a long drawn out nothing of an answer, followed by a short but obvious castigation of me, on live TV.

I never did find out why the weapon was discharged. Was it accidental? Was it intentional. Were there injuries? What changes would be made to arms room protocols? But besides learning the brutal power of simple questions, I also learned that even when you’re inside an organization, you can’t always find out the truth.

You may know people are using you. Or you may have no love for the person you’re talking to. But the question still needs to be asked. And the simpler, with the least number of syllables and the flattest inflection and the most direct eye contact, the better.

It is one of my proudest moments.

Written by Interviewer

June 1, 2013 at 03:40

Words: Use versus Meaning

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George Carlin

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about language.

I love George Carlin, and I speak of him in the present tense because what he contributed to our culture is timeless.  What he did was get people thinking about the use of language and the meanings behind the words, the syntax, the grammar, the intonations, the pacing, the inflection.  In the taxonomy of human and interaction, he was a jester.  And on my list of societal influencers, he was the celebrity.  A celebrity jester.  In fact, he was a jester’s jester.

For those of you that don’t know, I love the concept of the jester, because the jester is the only one with the stones to speak truth to power.  The revolutionary wears the opposite mask; the dramatic/tragic one.  And most often, the revolutionary gets killed or crushed.  But the jester, (perfect set up for American Pie, but I’ll let it go …), the jester speaks truth to power through humor, and he/she manages to be so funny, like pee your pants funny, while so piercing, like uranium artillery shell piercing, that power can’t decide whether to send them to the gallows or buy them a drink.

I was reading an article where someone used the word “neutralized” to describe how the police would deal with shooters in public shootings and I started thinking about it.  Such a sanitary word for blowing somebody’s brains out.  Reminds me of that Star Trek episode where these two societies have been fighting a war w/computers for centuries.  Instead of a messy battlefield, random people are selected to report to death chambers like people would go to a subway platform and wait for a train.  This way, the war stays neat and clean and sanitized and so, there isn’t much motivation to end it.  But Kirk destroys the computers and now, both sides are terrified that the other side might launch real missiles and bring real Armageddon.  Now, they have an excuse to end the fake war to avoid starting a real one.

Neutralized.  I can imagine George Carlin asking, “How come the police have never ‘positivized’ anyone?  We might all agree that at one point or another, we’ve felt ‘negativized’ by them, but you never hear that either.  But neutralized made the phrase book.  Are we talking about psychological affects, or charges of subatomic particles, or what?”  I mean, as long as our society keeps using neat and clean words to describe horrible, sloppy, murderous acts of savagery and disembowelment against our principles and our humanity and each other, we’ll continue to putter along thinking everything is fine.

The jester knew different.

Written by Interviewer

April 9, 2013 at 00:05