Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Inside Broadcast News

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So, CNN got caught with its pants down on the Syria Danny fiasco.  Lawzy lawzy!  You mean the media stage the news/?  Hooda thunk?  After all, EVERYthing you see on TeeVee is true, right?  OK, so this was an isolated incident as is not the usual way of things, right?

Poor media-slave.  You are woefully ignorant of how it all works.  Let me tell you a story...

In 1980, I was picking up extra money working as a stringer for a major US network at their Cairo office.  After being registered there for two and a half months, I was beginning to think that it wasn't going to pay much.  And I was getting tired of North Africa.  I wanted to get on with my travels.

I spent the day at the Great Pyramid and had decided to test the so-called pyramid power.  I was down to my last few bux, and while standing in the King's Chamber, I waited till the tour moved on, then I sent out a message that I needed some work.  I figured it couldn't hurt, right?

I got back to my boarding house about the time of evening prayer.  The house mother said a letter had come for me.  She rummaged through her room and produced the typewritten note.  I was to come to headquarters at 4am to start a week-long assignment.  H alleluia!  A week's pay could support me for four months on the road, if I was careful!

The next morning, I was briefed on the assignment.  The team (producer, sound and me-camera) were being flown to South Africa for a week.  Since none of the regulars wanted the assignment, we had no choice.  Our job was to shoot race riots.  The network wanted as much footage as we could amass of poor down-trodden blacks being suppressed by whites.  If we wanted to work again, we could not fail.

In Johannesburg, we got to our hotel, by which I mean the owner had hung a star over the door next to the word 'hotel' so it could be listed as such.  My room was a windowless, roach infested closet with a mattress that had springs sticking up through the sheet.
The sound guy and I checked out our equipment and got it in 'bug out' ready condition.  I was shooting the old standby Bell & Howell 16mm, a camera I knew inside and out, after spending a couple of years in high school making extra money shooting football games.

I pre-loaded five magazines and organized my pack.  I wanted to make sure that in the heat of a race riot, dodging projectiles and angry crowds, I could get anything I needed without looking.  The sound guy was doing the same thing.  The producer was on the hotel phone calling local connections to find out where the action was.  After an hour or so, she returned to our staging area looking pale and frustrated.

She couldn't find a riot.  She had called the local networks, a couple of local producers, and had even gone out to ask people on the street.  Nothing.  In fact, most folks looked at her like she was crazy.  "What riots?"

We spent four days of the six of our assignment like that, sitting in the 'lobby' of the 'hotel' waiting for the producer to dig up a riot.  We had a couple of tense moments when it seemed that tensions were rising here or there, but they turned out to be car accidents with the drivers getting into tussles.

On the morning of the fourth day, we got a call that there was going to be a major protest by white folks downtown in front of one of the government buildings.  We saddled up and got there before the protests had started.   The sound guy and I sat on a park bench arranging our gear for the 800th time since we got there.  The producer ran off to find some angry white folks.  She returned an hour later and said some people were gathering on the other side of the park.

After an hour or so, enough folks had gathered that they had started up with the chanting and sign-waving.  It was pretty lame stuff for a riot.  The producer ordered me to get as much 'angry faces' as I could, and I managed to shoot up a 10-minute reel.  I reloaded just in time for the crowd to start shifting, and then running.  The sound guy and I got in the middle of it and kept with the crowd.  Turned out it was a government minister's car entering the building and I got some great footage of people banging on the car, shaking fists and looking quite upset.  My Afrikaans was a little rusty, but eventually I gathered this whole event was about a proposed tax, which in all fairness was to fund clinics for poor blacks, but the anger was directed at payig more taxes, which I can sympathize with.

That night, I got the film developed and the sound guy and I packed up our footage and shipped it to Cairo next flight out.

Day five started out just as dull and lazy as the other four.  Around noon, the producer ran into my room breathless and yelled, "GO!"  Sound guy and I jumped and grabbed our gear and headed down to a waiting taxi.  Yes, she was a great producer...

We drove for what seemed like ages.  Out of Johannesburg and into the boonies.  We ended up in a small village, where the producer jumped out and talked to the first person she found.  He pointed and rattled on and she jumped in the taxi mid-sentence and told the driver to "GO!"

After a couple of minutes, we found it.  There were about 15 or 20 black folks on either side of the road yelling and throwing rocks and sticks at each other.  We baled out and started rolling.  I got great footage of angry faces, and a guy, like a cricket bowler, running up and hurling a rock across the street.

I climbed a tree and got a nice wide-shot.  I lay on the ground looking up at the 'rioters'.  I got close-ups, medium shots, two-shots.  I got action-reaction.  In all, I got about 18 minutes of footage...nearly two reels.  The producer was ecstatic.  The sound guy was waxing poetic about the yelling and chanting he had gotten.

The producer called a wrap and we piled back in the taxi and headed back to town.  "So what was that all about," I asked.

"The family in the white house accused the family in the grey house of stealing a chicken," she said.  "Did you get some good footage?"

"Great stuff," I replied.  "Kurosawa would be proud."

Back in town, the sound guy and I got down at the lab to develop the reels.  The producer went back to the 'hotel' to phone in to headquarters.  By the time we got back, the producer was jumping up and down.

"I got us an extra day's pay for hazardous duty!"  She was serious.  Not that we were complaining, of course.

Back in Cairo, the exec called us into the office the next day to say how pleased he was with our work.  Network had called and they said that we all had done great work.  They would let us know when the story ran.

The next morning, the sound guy knocked on the door.  "Let's go.  They just called and said our stuff is running on national tonight."  Tonight was local New York.

We sat around the feed.  The story was second lead.  They had cut the tax protest into the chicken war.  It looked as if Johannesburg was on fire, and had we stayed, we could have gotten the modern burning of Atlanta.

After the story finished, there were congrats all around and they handed out pay packets.  It was a healthy payday for an itinerant media dude.

Sound guy and I went out for a rare treat, Big Macs at the only McD's in Cairo and a couple of beers to wash it down.  We both didn't say much.  We just kind stared at eath other in disbelief.  Granted, we got some great stuff.  We it was cut together, it looked like we had been in the middle of a major race riot.  Even the anchor had given "that look" that let everyone know we had done a great job.  That was our congrats from the top.  Everyone lived and died on "that look."

That day, my eyes had opened.  I never saw the news the same way again.  I never worked directly for network news again, either, unless it was sports, which I justified because everyone knew it was bullshit anyway.  My conscience has bothered me ever since.

That CNN got caught this time is nothing.  It will blow over.  Folks will forget next week.  They will go on watching the news as if they are seeing real events and true depictions.  I can't.  I even called a friend in New York on 9/11 to verify what we saw really happened.  Of course, the lie there wasn't what we saw, but what we didn't see.

If you still  watch network news for anything other than pure entertainment value, then you need to head directly to a deprogramming center immediately.  The best option, as I always say, is turn the TeeVee off.

Better yet, watch a movie called, "Broadcast News," with Jack Nickolson and Bill Hurt.

Nice video of everything I just said...

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