Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Your Right To Know

The money wasn't good, the hours were horrible, but all that aside, there were other reasons I chose not to go forward in my journalistic career.

I remember it was November 1st and I parked my car and walked a block to get to where the television cameras were. A man stood outside his house, tears running down his face, washing the soot from his cheeks. Four or five reporters were present along with three camera crews.

"What are you going to do now?" asked one reporter, nodding toward the burned out husk behind the man.

"I don't know, " he said. "Everything I owned was in that house. I don't what I'm going to do. I just don't know."

"You didn't have insurance?"

"I had some, but not enough. Not enough."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know."

"Is there family that can help you out?"

"Do you have any idea who would have set the fire?"

"What did the police say?"

The man sat down on the sidewalk, wrapping his arms around his knees to rock back and forth in his misery. The questions kept coming, the cameras moved closer. I started to walk away, but stopped, turning to one of the reporters who was struggling to make out the address on the burned out building.

"Got to get the address right," he said. When someone is victim of a crime, the newspaper usually prints the address and the person's name. The person who commits the crime usually hides behind a wall of anonymity to protect his civil rights. The reporter finished scribbling the information and shut his notebook.

"Got it," he said.

"I'm sure that's information no one can live without," I said.


Charles Gramlich said...

I think maybe you did the right thing. It's not something I'd feel comfortable doing. I like my own privacy too much to invade anyone elses.

avery said...

Good for you. It's no real secret I loathe journalists, simply because of that predatory nature. Someone is at their lowest point and these people want to show it to everyone else just for ratings. It honestly turns my stomach. The local station here offers up money to anyone who catches a fire or car accident on their cell phone and sends the pictures in. I honestly don't know what I'd do if one of my loved ones was bleeding and scared and some jackoff with a camera took a snapshot of it. It would probably involve a trip to jail for me, though.

SQT said...

I pretty much only worked in entertainment journalism which can be its own Hell. Most people I knew in that field didn't mind the exploitation since they felt the celebrities brought it on themselves; which is probably true most of the time.

The show I worked for was one where people sent us their own tapes to be on television and we interviewed them on the show. Those tapes were mostly fine. But the one's we got from the TV news stations could be horrifying. I saw some really disturbing images on tape. You'd be amazed at how many people tape themselves doing really stupid, horrific things. We had too many tapes to count of people committing suicide. Ugh! I hated that stuff.

Jon said...

If journalism is to be the eyes and ears of the citizenry (and I think it is)then the journalists ought to persue stories the same way regular folks would if they were on the scene. I, for one, wouldn't mine a crime scene for the sake of gore, nor would I corner a victim and dredge their wounds for some meaningless comment... e.g. "So, the killer crucified your wife and children in your front yard. How did you feel when you first saw their bodies hanging there?" I don't want to see that kind of "news."

But some, many, do want it. They would dig through a fire scene looking for partially burned photographs and half melted dolls. I guess there are more of them than us, and they buy the soap and the beer and the Mercury Milans of the advertisers. Thank God for the remote.

Lana said...

You're a good man to decide NOT to contribute to the misery of others. Keep up the good work.

Lucas Pederson said...

SOme reporters are just pricks, even though they really don't mean to be. You did good by walking away, my friend. The poor man had enough to deal with it at the moment,and probably th erest of his life, all those lost memories.

Kate S said...

I'm not always sure why some things are considered "news." Why do they try to interview the grieving parents when a child has been murdered? How is that helpful?

A good friend of mine and her son were killed when their car was hit by a train (trees covered the tracks, there were no signals, no gates and no train horn) and the media kept showing pictures of the demolished car. Completely unnecessary.

SQT said...

Kate, you hit the nail on the head. It usually isn't the news they report but what will get your attention. I remember taking a broadcasting class (I only took one, the rest were newspaper related) and a producer from the local news taught the class. She used to direct us in what words to use to get the biggest impact. For example, you say "murdered" not "killed," whenever applicable.

Donnetta Lee said...

I, like Jon, think the "how did you feel" about that question is crazy. I've believed for some time now that journalist are right up there with attorneys.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Me too, Charles. I wasn't cut out for that job.

Avery, I don't loathe journalists. I think they serve an important function in our society. However, they seem to have lost their way in what is important and what is really news. It frightens me when a sizable number of Americans identify FOX as their number one or only news source.

SQT, entertainment journalism...I did that, too. I actually loved it. Film interviews, parties, etc. I wish I had moved to California and fallen deeply into that whole scene. I also wish I had wings.

Jon, to continue the theme began by Avery...I think journalists are crucial. What has happened to news is that it became the news industry. Journalism was swallowed up by the corporatists who was the news people as a way to further a corporate agenda and spread propaganda. And it also contributed to the Bread and Circuses mentality.

Lana, isn't it too bad that being good doesn't also translate into profit?

Lucas, I'll have to write about covering a shooting one time, and showing up at the funeral along with the members of the biker gangs involved.

Kate, the question of the day: What is news? I remember watching my local news show, who after endless teases finally showed a video of a robbery at a party store. What astonished me was that the robbery occurred on the other side of the country and had no relevance to anything local. It was just exploitation of gruesome footage.

SQT said...


It actually was fun. I got to do lots of unusual stuff (like go up in a Goodyear Blimp and film a refueling mission on an Air Force tanker plane) but Hollywood politics never change and that's the hard part.

Anonymous said...

I know that detachment comes with a price. No doubt you had the talent, but not the sensibility (or lack of sensibility) to be a journalist. The career journalists I know are as burned out as that husk of house you described early on in your post.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, I have found that politics are politics, no matter the industry. God, I wish I had run for political office, or started the process at an earlier stage in my life. You know, I would love to be a senator. I never thought I could get elected while I lived in Detroit, mostly because of my skin color and religious background.

Gem, I never had the detachment as a reporter, but boy did I learn to detach myself when working in social services.

Someone asked why there ewere three cameras there, doubtful..incredulous. The reason is simple...I made a mistake on the date...this occured on October 31, not Nov. 1. If you lived in Detroit, the date makes you nod. The night of Oct 30 is Devil's Night. This happened in 1984, at the height of the insanity. This house, this block, was in Southwest Detroit and proved to be one of the more dramatic examples. A lot of the houses burned down were abandoned. Some of the structures burned were garages.

DesLily said...

When I was young..(no comments please) the news shows were ONE HALF HOUR LONG. And amazingly, they told all the NEWS in that amount of time. Now they are 1 1/2 hrs long and talk of things that everyone could live without and then REPEAT it as often as possible! grrrrrrrr

avery said...

The relating of news might once have been an honorable profession in general (and still is in specific cases), but, you're right, Stewart -- now it's just an industry. And, like any industry, it has to make money to survive. People (this goes back to your excellent post on reality TV) enjoy watching other people in varying stages of distress, and that's what they've learned to capitalize on.

Claudia said...

I wonder at what point the humanity got lost?

etain_lavena said...

sooooo nice Stewart...
.I wated to be a reporter so bad, but I changed my course because I was nostalgic about a professore, and I changed my course to what he studied....stupid beyond belief....but we all do what we must I guess:(....
enjoy the weekend:)

Sidney said...

I stuck it out in reporting for 11 years. The part I liked best was the entertainment coverage I did about people's artistic effort - authors and actors alike.
Fortunately I wasn't in a position to cover the gossip side of things, which wasn't then what it is now anyway.

The moments like you describe were the worst, and many times those moments are pushed for by editors at desks.

I once had an editor send me out to the home of a cancer patient who'd comitted suicide by jumping into a frigid swimming pool.

I called back in on the car radio once I'd figured out what was going on.

"They're asking that we not take pictures," I said.

"Can you get on the street and take a picture of them moving the body away?"

"No," I said. Not because I couldn't get it an angle from public land, but because, like you noted, it wasn't going to do anybody any good.

SQT said...


I had a moment like that. We had a guy my producer wanted to interview. He was literally sitting by his mother's deathbed and my producer was angry at me because I wouldn't push the guy to do the interview. I mean, she was piSSed and called him herself and tried to talk him into letting us send a crew to him mom's house. The guy got so mad he refused to do any interviews and we ended up shelving the story.

What was so stupid about the whole thing was that the story could wait. It wasn't time sensitive and we could wait until the guy was ready. But my producer just had to have it right now. She was totally condescending to me because I didn't think it was right to push the guy.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Deslily, you will always be young.

Avery, teaching is becoming more and more like that, with people trying to turn education into a profit making enterprise.

Sidney, that's a horrific story. I hate when I turn on the news, something I don't do much these days, and the camera is negotiating to get a shot of the gurney coming out of the house.
Are we that sick or is the industry that ill advised from their marketing department. SQT.

Lee said...

It takes a special kind of insensitive to shove a microphone into a persons face who just suffered a horrible tragedy. I'm glad you went with, "No thanks".

Cappy said...

I heartily endorse your decision. I have come to detest journalists in general. Some are OK, but there is a lot of herd-think in that profession. Locally, as well as in in Detroit there's a lot of sympathy for scumbags.

SQT said...

Are we that sick or is the industry that ill advised from their marketing department. SQT.

I tend to think people will consume whatever is put out there, that's why Jerry Springer is still around. So the industry goes to lowest common denominator. For every person that detests tabloid journalism there are 2 more who subscribe to the Enquirer. At least, that's the justification nowadays. They always say we wouldn't put it out there if people didn't buy it.

spyscribbler said...

I never did watch the news. For the longest time, my tv lived in a closet. When it came out, I could never get the news I wanted.

There's a whole world out there, so many countries, and finding information on them is so difficult. I want to know what's going on in the world, not a bunch of backyard sensationalism.

You are SO right. And teaching and making money don't mix. Teachers are often faced with a conflict of interest when the parents are paying the bill. That's the number one thing I hate about my job, and that's when I started detaching. So often, I can't help the kid as much as I'd like to, because I can't tell the parent what they need to hear, as opposed to what they are paying to hear.

At some point, I have to make a choice between my survival and theirs. In the end, not rocking the boat means I can help the child for longer. (Sorry for the rant, Stewart!)

Lori Witzel said...

The post, and all the thoughtful and deeply-felt comments, point to something -- what has happened here?

Was it always like this (think about The Yellow Kid/Hearst's "yellow" journalism, for example) and now it's simply a superheated mess due to the ever-shortened gap between the event and the demand for fresh media content?

I'd hate to think of attempting a free society without a free press. But so much of what had been journalism seems now like infotainment, it's gotten awfully depressing to me.

Jon said...

Deslily...don't worry...when I was a kid, the news was The Camel News Caravan, with John Cameron Swayze and it was fifteen minutes long. He smoked as he read the news of the peace talks in Korea. Hmmm...that was fifty-five years ago and there is still no treaty. I wonder if we'll still have troops in Iraq in 2062?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Spy, I expect that education will look very different in the next ten years. I suspect they will privatize much of it, with the majority of government schools churning out a working class, focusing on the service industry. But then, what do I know..being the old lefty I am.

Lori, there's always been a yellow press. And there's always been a struggle between the people and the government over how the press works. I think things are cyclical. We'll just have to stay strong and wait for the pendulum to swing. Or Fox to go belly up.