Tuesday, February 14, 2006

the stand-up

Reporting Live for XYZ-TV but the Question Is, Why?

Oscar-nominated film "Good Night, and Good Luck" recalls a journalism hero from the early days of television news, Edward R. Murrow. Not only was he a giant of the craft, the movie shows us, but he also wore great suits and really knew how to hold a cigarette.

Many years have passed, though, since Murrow was riding high. Don't we need a new hero for today's tough challenges?

Were anyone to ask us — and, granted, no one has — our candidate might be a CNN reporter named Chris Huntington. On Sunday, the day of the big snow, he pretty much said on camera that some of what now passes for journalism in television can be downright silly.

In this age of Geraldo-style self-promotion, that acknowledgment qualified as nothing short of heroism. Mr. Huntington won us over when he went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and stood there as snow fell, to inform us that it was snowing. He seemed almost embarrassed to have to do it.

But such is the tyranny of the live stand-up, as essential to modern television as stage pyrotechnics are to Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is used even when the point being made is so obvious that no performance for the camera is needed. It is used even when nothing is going on."Well, Bud," the reporter tells the anchor on the 11 o'clock news, "I'm standing tonight in front of the courthouse. Nothing is going on because the place has been empty for hours. But earlier today ..."

With weather stories, it seems obligatory to make reporters stand in the rain or the wind or the snow to say little more than that it is raining or windy or snowing.

It is one thing to report on real people coping with a snowstorm like Sunday's — digging out their cars, shoveling sidewalks, waiting through long train delays or sledding in the park (a k a "a winter wonderland"). But to just stand there and say it is snowing amounts, some would say, to little more than look-at-us showboating.

Mr. Huntington, bless his soul, conceded as much as he reported live from Prospect Park during "Reliable Sources," a CNN show about the news-gathering business. The host, Howard Kurtz, asked him what he was "accomplishing journalistically" by getting snowed on. Mr. Huntington replied:"I'm so glad you've asked me that question, because every time we get assigned to do these stories, I always say to whoever will listen, 'Why in the world should anybody at home believe me or think that I'm an intelligent person if I'm going to stand out here in the bad weather and tell you at home that there's bad weather out here?' It seems to me that there's a certain sort of oxymoronic exercise that we carry out.

"For our money, he could have dropped the "oxy." But hip, hip, hooray. What he said was admirably forthright, even bold, given the widely shared ethic in certain corners of journalism that, in general, no matter what the news may be, the story should always be about us.

The devotion to needless theatrics came into sharp focus during the devastating hurricanes of last summer and fall. Perhaps the most laughable example was a stand-up in Florida that the NBC weatherman Al Roker did at the height of Hurricane Wilma in October. Until the fierce winds knocked him to his hands and knees and forced him indoors, Mr. Roker stood storm-tossed on the balcony of his hotel room, anchored by a colleague who held him tightly by the legs, out of camera range.

What was supposed to be the real story: Wilma or Al Roker?

At the time, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida pronounced that style of razzle-dazzle "a little annoying."

"To see these characters on television reporting the news and putting themselves in harm's way doesn't do much good," he said, and added: "Creates a bad example, I think, for others. They think somehow this is fun. It isn't fun. It's very dangerous."

Those words came to mind Sunday night while watching the late news on Channel 7. A reporter went to Times Square for a live stand-up about four people who had endured electric shocks hours earlier when they stepped on a metal plate covering Con Edison wires with faulty insulation. Metal plates can be hazardous, the reporter said, noting that at that moment he himself was standing on a metal plate. D'oh!

Suddenly, standing in the snow to say it was snowing seemed almost sensible.


Thursday, February 9, 2006


A year ago today, I was officially accepted into Medill.

Two years ago today, I bought John and Brett for a date at the Willard Date Auction. I'm still waiting on it.

Two years ago today, Josh and Andy bought me for my Choose Your Own Adventure Date. They're still waiting on it.

Today...I am thinking about my future.

Maybe it's not journalism, I realize, sitting in the Uptown Snack Shop. I've become painfully aware of my bourgeois college existence while sitting in this tin and wood-paneled lunchette, listening to the regulars greet one another and wax nostalgic. The Shop is closing in two weeks, and these are its last days. I'm in the prime spot in the shop--the last booth in the L-shaped layout. "It's the big guys picking on the little guys, again," Karen, my waitress, tells me. I feel like hugging her, but feel so insincere scribbling down what she has said as she walks away. I glance up at the El as its 12:50 to 95th/Dan Ryan leaves the Lawrence stop and barrels by on its way to Wilson. A 20-something like myself walks by, in one hand a coffee cup from Borders and in the other, a cell phone pressed against his cheek. Disgusted with him, I look back at the shop where Johnny, a long-bearded wild-eyed 70-something, is standing up from his booth and declaring, "There's only one thing I like about Starbucks coffee--and that's its name! I don't like one other thing about it. Not one thing!" And again I'm compelled to write. Maybe it is journalism. I still don't know.

Today...I am thinking about my future.

Last summer I was in France, and for spring break, I will be there again. John and I will share a room in Paris, and probably stretch the bounds of getting-along to their limits. I will not be in France this summer. As I type, I should probably be writing more cover letters for internships that will occupy my time this summer. I might be in New York. I might be in L.A. I might be in D.C. I don't know yet, and I won't know for quite a while. I cross my fingers for New York and imagine a hot summer.

Today...I am thinking about my future.

I didn't know I could be this doused in...contentment? So comfortable. So happy.

Doused isn't really the right word to describe it, because if I were doused, then I would be miserable. Julie can tell you all about that.