Better to be at story instead of being in it

BY BOB WACHS, Columnist
Posted 11/8/19

In prehistoric times when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in my third year as a college freshman, I took some of the introductory courses in the UNC School of Journalism. It was during those …

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Better to be at story instead of being in it

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Posted

In prehistoric times when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in my third year as a college freshman, I took some of the introductory courses in the UNC School of Journalism. It was during those days that I was convinced I would either write the Great American Novel, whatever that is, or be the world’s foremost sports writer.

As it turned out, neither of those happened, although the late Jack Shaner, Northwood High’s football coach of the 1970’s, was fond of calling me Grantland Rice, after the noted sports journalist. I got back at him by naming him Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s legendary pigskin leader. And, in reality, neither of us ever achieved the status of our namesakes but we did have fun along the way.

Anyway, as I remember, Professor Ken Byerly of Journalism 53 — dubbed News Writing — told us, in so many words, we needed to get close to the story without getting too close, namely getting in it. That way, he reasoned, we would be aware of what was going on without us as the messenger getting in the way.

I will pause in this line of thought for just a second to point out that I’m pretty sure none — and I mean none — of today’s TV talking heads ever sat in Professor Byerly’s class. He strictly forbid us to become part of the story. “You’re the messenger,” he told us, “the reporter.” That’s a novel concept, isn’t it? You’re supposed to be the reporter of what’s going on, not the analyzer or the wanna-be or the person to fill in the blanks if the story doesn’t go like you want it to go.

Think I’m kidding? Then tonight just pick a network TV newscast and listen to the “news” — I use the term lightly — and see how much editorializing goes on. It never ceases to amaze me how, depending on the network, three “reporters” can view the same event and come up with four different stories.

Anyway, in an effort to be true to my mentor, who later gave up teaching to move to Montana and run a bunch of weekly newspapers, I did my best to follow his logic. As a result of that desire, I, in time, would find myself in some places, though not necessarily especially dangerous, maybe at least places and events I would not repeat today.

For instance, I rode with highway patrol officers back when you could do that and couldn’t get out of the car on some occasions when I thought we were going too fast and I wanted to get out. I sat with deputies in the woods as they waited for moonshine still operators to return to work and went with them when they raided someone’s place of business, often their house.

I’ve climbed really tall towers, rode high in fire truck buckets, climbed too-tall ladders. Once I flew with a crop-duster in his plane, maybe two feet off the ground at, I thought, near the speed of sound and way too close to an approaching patch of woods. When he finally pulled back on the throttle and we went straight up, my heart and stomach took up residence in my shoes. He said it was just business as usual for him.

Now I know this pales in comparison to the many folks who go off to war and live with the troops. Bullets have a way of just going where they go and numbers of correspondents have lost their lives through the years. But I tip my hat to them. At least they’re staying close to the concept of being a reporter. But other efforts leave me wondering.

The arrival of hurricanes several weeks ago and their effect and aftermath is a case in point. Pray tell why does every correspondent, and in many cases the “anchor,” feel the necessity to stand out in the driving rain or knee deep in nasty water to talk about the weather? They’re getting pelted in the kisser with hard rain and their little monogrammed caps and slickers are blowing around. The wind often interrupts the signal so what you get is a report like “The hur uh k ehh nop will likely cu to flib glibbetz” and the picture freezes with all the little pixels and cells gaudy green colors.

Still, that’s what they do, all about the public’s right to know and such. But I wonder, especially when what’s on is reports urging folks to get out of town for safety’s sake, who’s watching in their homes if there’s no power and folks have left town?

In addition to all that, however, is another very practical reason not to get too close to the story, especially if it’s standing outside to report on a hurricane. The day after the brunt of a storm of recent history struck a certain community, the local TV celebrity was standing in a street or on a wall or somewhere dutifully giving his report when a large wave of water came along.

The next sight on the screen was his microphone going one way and him another as he disappeared from sight, courtesy of the power of Mother Nature taking his feet and legs from under him.

Professor Byerly was right.

Don’t get in or too close to the story. If you want to editorialize, write a column or an editorial.

Otherwise, just tell the news.

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