Friday, February 26, 2010

RED SHIRT REPORTAGE (OUTSIDE THE BUBBLE)

It was disappointing to learn that most of the old news hounds had been fixed in recent years, spayed and neutered by press releases and Google and Wikipedia and the freebie tweets and status updates of notables and celebrities.

The first time I stepped into the newsroom of Bakersfield’s KERN Radio, the county’s premiere news and talk station, I thought my ears would swim in ringing phones and frantically typing fingers rattling keyboards and cigar-puffing, surly old men barking “I need that story yesterday!” like it was their dying order. Instead, it was sparse and quiet. At its busiest, three people in a tiny office staring open-mouthed at computer monitors, waiting for the Associated Press to deliver another update. Mouses clicked infrequently. Slurp went the coffee. Throats cleared. Click again. And when they typed, it was steady and deliberate as they transcribed faxed memos nearly to the word. No one sprinted out of their seat to “track down a lead” or burned news van rubber on their way to a “breaking story.”

The news came to them. The staff consisted of sponges, I was sad to see. The hunters had become gatherers collecting low hanging fruit.

But every so often a story wasn’t so accommodating. And that’s where I came in. Most of the time I was stuck solitary in my tiny production booth, pushing a button to make the commercials come on. But when, for example, an armed and deranged bank robber was loose somewhere downtown, it was me they strapped a microphone to and sent to the scene, like a simple satellite pointed toward a black hole to transmit pictures then die. When thousands of angry Hispanic Americans took to the streets of Bakersfield, and the rest of the nation, to protest whitey’s proposed immigration reform, I was the extremely white kid dispatched to follow the action…from inside their ranks; overhead, I would have looked like a soft, tiny marshmallow melting in a vat of steaming hot cocoa.

“Walk with the folks, get some reaction,” Brian Wesley Sikes had said the morning of the protest. Brian was the station’s news director. He was an age-progressed picture of Quentin Tarantino in both his appearance and his animated way of pouncing on a discussion like it was the most important thing in the world. But he was also as intense and bleak as his filmmaker look-a-like would have been if he had spent years hop-scotching around small-market radio stations, not hob-knobbing with Travolta and Willis. Indeed, Brian had only been in Bakersfield a couple of months.

“And call in every half hour or so,” had been his instructions. “We can pipe in their ‘desperate cries of oppression,’” came the finger quotes “as a backdrop for our hosts while they take calls.”

“Those desperate cries will be mine, Brian,” I’d said. “Maybe
you should call me!”

Si se puede and all that. You’ll probably be fine. And it’ll make for great sound!”

Como se dice ‘that doesn’t bend that way, young man’ en espanol?

I don’t know if it was official station policy, but it was certainly station practice not to send the experienced journalists out from their insulated, hazard-free newsroom bubble. Not when button-pushing monkeys like me were sitting around, red shirt on and waiting to be beamed into danger while the rest of the crew got the glory.

One morning, around nine-thirty, Brian read the message the Bakersfield Police Department sent to the newsroom pager: there had just been a murder on a street off of Cottonwood Road. Cottonwood ran through the Bakersfield neighborhoods where, famously, Gangbanging lived down the way from the Brutal Slaying family, and Carjackings borrowed sugar from Old Lady Drive-By; Random Mugging was charged with bringing the casserole to Retaliatory Beatdown’s barbecue, and bitch better have that shit hot. To anyone who had spent much time in Bakersfield, Cottonwood was synonymous with the savage, cut-throat ghetto.

Brian Wesley Sikes had not spent much time in Bakersfield.

So, with the bullet holes still smoldering and the blood still coagulating in the streets, there was only one reporter --pendable enough (I liked to think
de, but truth was, probably closer to ex) to rush to the scene of the crime.

Half hour later, I rolled onto Cottonwood in the rickety news van with the huge KERN RADIO NEWS/TALK 1410 emblazoned on the side in red like, oh, say, a matador’s taunting flag, or a Blood’s bandana.

Now I always get lost easily, and not in the way that most people got lost in this neighborhood. Bad with directions, and terrible eyesight that make signs useless to me. But as I repeatedly crept down the streets that crossed Cottonwood, I saw no trace of a freshly killed victim. No police cars. No coroner. No crime scene tape. Not even the usual swarm of bystanders hovering and humming with hearsay after a tragedy.

When every rapper I had ever listened to picked that moment to remind me, in unison, that snitches end up in ditches, it occurred to me how similar reporting--that is, relaying all the information about a particular event for eventual personal gain--was to snitching.

Which meant there I was, lost, driving the motherfucking snitch
mobile around the ‘hood. I would have parked the sore thumb van out of sight and gone it on foot, if I wasn‘t positive that that was as life-extending a venture as traipsing through Chernobyl post-meltdown.

After several more minutes of searching and no results, I whipped out the cell and called Brian back at the newsroom. “Surprise surprise, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t see anything out here, boss.”

He repeated the street address, which I just happened to be passing by just then. It was a house on a lonely cul de sac with about six identical homes. No sign of life here, but no sign of death either.

“Well let me figure this out,” he said, baffled, and I heard his fingers peck at his keyboard. I stopped the van in the middle of the cul de sac and waited for direction.

There, my anxious eyes surveyed the passenger side mirror, then the windshield, then the driver side mirror, repeat repeat, for any unwelcome welcoming committee. After a few moments, heads popped out of doors and through window curtains all around me, like prairie dogs at their mounds, until one man, husky and black and mid-thirties and more than capable of detaching my jaw from my face, eased out to his driveway. You can understand in this neighborhood why he might be leery of a strange, creaky old van skulking in front of his house. But when he eyed the station’s banner on the side, he stopped, stood still. Then he looked up and down the street cautiously, or even submissively, to show his neighbors that he had drawn a line in the pavement, and he would have nothing to do with the schmuck from the news. He and I listened to the same music, apparently.

Brian got back to me with the news…that this wasn’t news.

“So…“ he sighed, “it looks like BPD sent the page at eight o’clock
last night, when no one was here.”

“What?!”

“I…I thought it said a.m. No wonder you don‘t see anything there. Ah well.”

Nooooo, it would have been
ah well if there wasn’t a rightfully spooked denizen of Cotton-fucking-wood mean-mugging me like I had come between mother bear and her cubs. This, Brian, was ah shit.

“Well you’re out there, go ahead and get some sound,” he said.

“Of what?”

“Like, talk to the neighbors, ask them what happened.”

With the phone still pressed against my face, I gently rolled down the window as not to provoke the man in the driveway. For Brian’s sake, I made a show of calling out: “Sir, do you know what happened here last night?”

And for his own sake, the man made a show of shaking his head.

“He says no,” I reported.

“Hm. Well…ask him if this sort of thing is common in that area. Ask him if it’s a bad neighborhood.”



I shook my own head in disgust, my attempt at signaling to the man
I’m being held by news gatherers! Play along and we’ll make it through this! Meanwhile, for Brian my voice channeled Mike Wallace at his hard-hittingest: “Sir, is this a bad neighborhood?”

The man rolled his eyes, then gave a knowing smirk. At least we were on the same page. “Yeah,” he said, “it‘s a bad neighborhood.” Then with a dismissive wave, he turned and walked back into his house, his safety and reputation in tact.

Later, back at the newsroom after I gave Brian my findings (took about three seconds, yep), he crossed his legs and, reverently, said, “We never want to be late on a story like this. No excuse for it. Just terrible.” He was contrite, pouring his soul out all over the morning paper spread on the desk in front of him, where the homicide was featured below the fold.

“Yeah,” I said, equally mournful. We needed that story yesterday.

He could only manage a groan, and stared dully through his computer monitor.

“We’ll have it for the noon update, so that’s good,” I said to get him out of his funk. It was true, even if all we had was his harvest of facts from local television news websites and the paper.

“Yeah. But I was
twelve hours behind on this situation,” he sighed. He wouldn’t let it go.

And twelve hours was being generous, I thought. But I could never burst his bubble.

3 comments:

  1. You really captured what I imagine goes on at news entities that are understaffed. Great writing. Had me glued to my monitor to see if you would suffer anything more than intense fear!

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  2. I love it! I was biting my nails hoping you came out alive.

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