Frequently, the toughest part about producing TV stories is getting the principals to agree to allow a TV crew anywhere near them. There’s an easy explanation for this. Folks are distrustful of the news media.
- They’ve seen TV news hack good stories to death with poor storytelling.
- They’re afraid of having their words and meaning distorted under malevolent editing, as the TV station pursues some hidden agenda.
- They’ve seen scary promotion that shows the TV station in nonstop confrontation mode (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt compelled to assure newsmakers I’m not with that “tough questions” station. If nothing else, it’s usually good for a laugh).
When people decline to talk with me on camera, I frequently find myself empathizing with them. It’s an unhelpful attitude from a guy who makes a living interviewing people on TV, and shaping their stories into 90 second chunklets.
Yet of late, I’ve had an inexplicable run of good luck. Most of them were on feature stories. All were with people who had every reason to not talk to me, yet did so anyway.
The goat lady. She was an adorable mother of two, living in a somewhat ramshackle house in Oakhurst. She had pygmy goats in her yard. The city of Decatur had ruled that the goats were pets and not livestock.
Upon arriving unannounced at her doorstep one evening, she adamantly declined to talk on TV. She was shy. She was exhausted from some grief she’d gotten from an angry neighbor. She wanted nothing to do with Tyson Paul’s TV camera, which remained stashed in the truck. Yet we chatted on her doorstep for about 15 minutes. She said she needed to feed the goats. I asked if we could merely document the feeding on video. “And nothing else?” she asked. “Well, no. That’s my foot in the door,” I admitted. Within minutes, she was reluctantly but agreeably answering questions on TV.
The widow. I was producing an advancer on Tunes from the Tombs, a music festival at Oakland Cemetery. I wanted to talk with a descendant of somebody entombed there. I spent two days trying to reach Valerie Jackson, widow of two-time Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.
Mrs. Jackson, a WABE-FM talk show host, is one of those folks who doesn’t need publicity. She recognizes that submitting to an interview with a local TV guy means killing ten or fifteen minutes from her day to get five or ten seconds of actual air time. Plus, she’d just arrived home from a vacation. Her hair wasn’t TV-ready. So she declined, initially.
“Why don’t you wear a hat?” I suggested. “I’ll get back to you,” she said. Amazingly, she left me a voice mail several hours later, agreeing to chat on her front lawn that evening. Her eight-to-ten seconds (along with comments from Buffi Aguero with Tiger! Tiger!) made the piece.
The judge. I wanted to talk with Gwinnett Superior Court judge Michael Clark about an audit showing some billing irregularities involving another judge. Judges are notoriously reluctant to submit to on-camera interviews. Clark agreed to an off-camera, on-the-record chat in his chambers. “Need anything else?” he asked at the end of our chat. “Yes, I need all this on-camera, please.” He demurred amiably. I gently pushed, and he finally agreed.
The Gospel quartet. I was producing a story on Judgment Day, scheduled for May 21. Because the rapture rhetoric was mostly rooted in a California religious group, I was having trouble getting any local folk to discuss it from a spiritual perspective. Plus, I was working a night shift, and it wasn’t a Wednesday. Church folk mostly weren’t in church. Academicians had gone home.
Jon Samuels and I drove to a tiny clapboard church I’d noticed for years on Monroe Drive near Ponce de Leon Ave. We ventured onto the property. There was no sign of life. The church was locked. It had been kind of absurd to think anybody would have been there. We were about to leave, and I was facing the grim task of trolling among additional empty churches.
Then a pickup truck pulled onto the property. An older gent sat inside. We looked at each other. I asked if he was affiliated with the church.
“Well, my gospel group is supposed to rehearse here in about 45 minutes.”
My eyebrows shot up, I’m sure. Suddenly, the rapture was looking pretty good.
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