Sometimes, it pays to be the old guy.
There are a lot of things I could write about the cop-killer / hostage standoff / media intervention Friday night. I’ll mostly stick to the competitive aspect.
First, the thumbnail: A guy inexplicably shoots and injures an Athens / Clarke County police officer Tuesday, then shoots another one dead. He goes underground for three-plus days. Friday afternoon, he tells police he wants to turn himself in. But he’s got hostages. There’s a standoff, with no end in sight.
10:15pm, an exasperated and frustrated Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, approached a news media staging area in a Baptist church parking lot. He told the assembled: This guy won’t turn himself in unless he does it live on TV, because he’s afraid our guys will shoot him when he comes out of the house. I need a TV crew to set up in front of the house, and feed a live picture to the other stations.
Reporters representing WAGA, WGCL and WSB responded affirmatively: I can do that, but I have to call my boss first. My answer was different.
We can do it. I don’t need to call my boss. Where do you want us to go?
Keenan gave us the nod. I don’t know the GBI director well, but he’s been with the GBI since 1973. We’ve dealt with each other cordially for many years.
It also just so happened that my competitors that night were all youngsters, capable though they were. Keenan knew me better than he knew them.
My competitors protested, and began to try to one-up me, telling Keenan that their satellite truck or backpack transmitters were better suited to the task. Photog Tyson Paul and I were there with an old-school microwave truck, with a point-to-point transmitter.
Keenan asked how I would get the video to the other TV stations. At this point, I suggested a couple of ways, not completely sure how linked-in all four stations were to microwave repeaters and / or the local satellite uplink company known as UpSouth.
Once again, a discussion began about the technological capabilities of the various TV stations. I suggested that Keenan allow all four stations onto the scene, with WXIA shooting the pool video into a daisy-chain. “I’m not going to do that,” Keenan answered. He didn’t want the unruly media mob. He was nervous enough about just having one of us there.
I quickly called my desk and apprised them of the need to send a pool signal. I told my grumbling competitors the signal would be on UpSouth.
I also assured them it would be a clean feed, with no grandstanding by yours truly. I told them I’d phone them personally when we got into position and established the live shot. They grumbled a bit more.
I insisted on having WXIA do it for several reasons.
Two, I had a perverse desire give the situation adult treatment. I’ve been around too many competitive TV news situations to have much faith that my competitors — and particularly, their managers — would have treated us the way I treated them.
Three: If I hadn’t, Tyson would have never forgiven me, nor let me forget it.
In particular, I thought the notion of the clean feed was important. The other stations, I’m almost dead-certain, would have delivered a feed laced with the on-camera and audio presence of their on-scene reporter.
I felt validated when I overheard a competing TV reporter talking with her manager, who was throwing a full-on hissy fit. Not that I blame him, nor anybody else for squawking. I’d have squawked too, had Keenan selected another station.
It turned out that the scene of the siege was a house on a hilltop, making the establishment of the microwave shot effortless. The FBI equipped Tyson and me with Kevlar vests. We drove the truck to the front of the house — closer to the gunman than any of the police vehicles. It was one of several “pucker factor” moments. Keenan impressed me by physically standing between the house and the exposed part of the live truck while Tyson established the live shot.
Although the pool feed was clean and neutral, our presence still gave us a considerable competitive advantage. I was able to narrate events by phone over video from Tyson’s pool camera.
I was also able to describe the scene outside of camera range. Keenan never set any restrictions about what I could say on-air while the gunman was inside the house. Had there been more time, we might have had that discussion. But all this happened very quickly.
We could see the glow of a TV set through a window. The alleged killer was watching. I became very conscious of the fact that the gunman might have been listening to my voice.
I became very guarded during my phone report. Although I reported that there was a sizable police presence outside the house, I didn’t report that four guys in battle-rattle were crouching next to the bedroom wall, nor did I mention the snipers in the trees. My motivation to report was tempered by my motivation to help the authorities end the siege safely. I repeatedly stressed their desire to conclude it without firing any shots.
A purist could ask: Is this a proper role for the news media? I have no problem answering affirmatively. It was a little bit like being embedded with the military, with reasonable restrictions. I had a responsibility to report, but I also had a responsibility to not screw things up.
The gunman emerged with his hostages at about 11:15pm. Our camera was locked down at that point. The FBI had insisted that Tyson move away from the camera to a spot behind the live truck.
As authorities cuffed Jamie Hood, the alleged cop killer, I was able to ask him a couple of questions. He expressed regret for killing Officer Buddy Christian, whom he described as “innocent.” It sounded like a confession to me.
“You ever do anything like this before?” Keenan asked me as the FBI was fitting me with a vest. I told him I hadn’t.
“Me either,” he laughed.