In the 2004 motion picture “The Clearing,” Robert Redford stars as a business tycoon who has been kidnapped for ransom. His understandably distraught family members decide to “go public” with a direct appeal through the media and schedule a press conference.
I happened to get a little face time in the movie as an extra — playing, of course, a reporter (just as I once did in real life).
In the scene, Helen Mirren, as Redford’s wife, emerges with her grown children to face the legion of media representatives waiting outside their mansion.
We didn’t have actual lines, but I remember the film’s director’s instructions. “As soon as you see them open the door, just start shouting questions all at once, like you usually do.”
I raised my hand.
“Well, we really wouldn’t do that,” I said.
He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
“We wouldn’t just start yelling.”
“Well, first, this is a press conference, so we’d wait for them to get down here and start talking to us,” I explained. “And, more importantly, they’re victims who have done nothing wrong, so we’d really go out of our way to respect what they are going through.”
I don’t recall the director’s exact response, but it basically came down to, “Do you want to be in this movie or not?”
So, as soon at the door opened and Helen Mirren stepped out, I started screaming at her like a ravening jackal — thus directly contributing to a pervasive Hollywood stereotype that, until recently, I have always felt was unfair and undeserved.
I’m not a good enough actor, or even a good enough extra, to think up any questions appropriate for the situation. I couldn’t picture myself ever doing this kind of thing to people with a loved one who was probably dead at that very moment. So, I made things up.
“Where did you buy those shoes?” I yelled, knowing the words would never actually be audible on screen. “The people have a right to know!”
That was make believe. Not real life.
In more than one darkened theater, I’ve leaned over to whoever was with me and said, “I don’t know any real reporters who would do that.”
Oh, sure. I have witnessed, and even participated in, my share of media circuses. But, as far as I can recall, they were always centered around a deserving target — like, say, an indicted congressman or someone suspected of hiring a hit man to kill his wife.
The journalists I knew throughout my career were professional and had enough self respect not to stumble over themselves and each other just to torture people arbitrarily.
But what a difference a few years make. Times have changed since I left local television three-and-a-half years ago.
If you want to see TV reporters at their worst — (And, really, who among the readers of this blog doesn’t?) — look no further than this video clip.
I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but she had me at, “No comment.”
By that, I mean to say that, unlike all these guys with the cameras and microphones, I understand English.
This woman is not one of Michael Jackson’s doctors. She’s not Casey Anthony or some other party-happy mother of a missing and presumably dead tot. She’s not the governor of South Carolina stepping out of a plane from Argentina after being missing for a week.
This is the mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin.
She is not accused of any crime — unlike at least one of her predecessors and unlike some of her contemporaries around the country. She is a public official with lots of responsibilities and a busy schedule that may or may not happen to coincide with or accommodate some arbitrary deadline for the 5 o’clock news.
I make very few statements with absolute certainty. However, one thing I know for sure is that I would make a very bad mayor. And each of the so-called newspeople chasing Franklin down the street would be just as abysmal as me. Potholes would go unfilled, garbage wouldn’t be picked up, taxes would skyrocket, public corruption would run amok and crime really would turn the streets into an urban jungle — something that as yet has not happened.
Franklin has done a good job, for a very long time, of running the city. And that includes not just the last eight years, but many more in which she basically did the job without the title.
Even if you’re not the fan I am, why treat someone of her caliber like a perp? Why live down to the public’s already low opinion that journalists are all bottom feeders? Why not simply go back to your newsrooms and report that the mayor had no comment today, but has scheduled a press conference for tomorrow morning?
I mentioned that phrase the other day.
It refers not to television that will help to inform viewers, but, rather, to video that people will want to watch.
Someone being tasered, for instance, is always “Good TV.
The folks at WGCL-TV — or CBS Atlanta, as the station prefers to call itself — were so unembarrassed by the scene depicted in this ugly video that they posted unedited “raw” video of the entire confrontation on their official website.
“Raw: Mayor Declines to Comment About Crime,” the heading reads. And a caption underneath that says, “Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin refuses to answer CBS Atlanta’s Tony McNary’s questions about crime in the city.”
That statement — while technically true — is pretty hilarious since Tony McNary is just one of a gazillion reporters descending en masse upon Mayor Franklin as she attempts to negotiate her way down a public street. I think you can see the mic flags of just about every station in town at one point or another (and I am very sorry to say I recognized an old friend in there). So, for WGCL to imply that the mayor refused to answer McNary’s questions in particular is perhaps the strangest example of self promotion I’ve come across lately.
All this over-the-top behavior and coverage is because of a perceived crime wave in Atlanta.
It’s an issue that has inflamed passions throughout the city (at least in part because of the media) but the facts are subject to a great deal of debate. I don’t claim to know the truth, but I’ve talked to various people — from neighborhood advocates to public officials — who have very different views on the matter and very different interpretations of the available statistics. The fact that it’s an election year, with three leading candidates for mayor loudly pushing anti-crime agendas, may also figure into the overal equation.
Who is right? Not sure.
Either way, Mayor Franklin’s decision to wait and discuss crime at a scheduled press conference the following morning did not result in a single homicide or burglary that wouldn’t have happened even if she’d been willing to stop what she was doing and deal with this journalistic lynch mob.
“I will not have any comments at this point, with you chasing me down the street, today,” Franklin says in the video. “I have not run from the press, I have not run from issues, I have a reputation for being open and willing to talk to you. I will not do it now.”
At which point, a reporter — quite possibly WGCL’s Tony McNary — lectures the mayor, in a tone dripping with righteousness and condescension, “There’s a crisis right now with crime in the city!”
The reporter makes that statement as if it is absolute fact, as if he really knows more about it than she does.
“And I have a crisis every day as mayor,” the mayor answers tersely. “Thank you.”
At that point, I almost expected one of the reporters to shout, “Where did you buy those shoes?”
It is hard to believe that the local media has degenerated into a poor man’s TMZ, dogging a respected public official as if she was Britney Spears and presumably hoping to drive her crazy enough to shave her head and attack them with an umbrella. And it is equally hard to believe that this is stuff that WGCL or any of the other news stations actually want the public to ever see.
Mayor Franklin is the only person in this “raw” video clip who was elected by the citizens of this community. I strongly suspect she is the only person in the clip who would have a job at all if the public got to vote on reporters and photographers, as well.
— CB Hackworth