Walking The Story Back

The only part of this Fort Hood business I feel remotely qualified to begin to talk about is the coverage, of which it is impossible to judge the accuracy right now. But on TV people are calling up anyone they can think of, to say anything that pops into their heads, without vetting, without background checking, without any of the vaunted gatekeeping traditional media like to deride bloggers for lacking.

My first daily paper job out of college was in a small city getting ripped apart by gang violence. I’d never covered cops before, and the police reporter was this terrifying news god who knew everything and had sources that made Deep Throat look like Ari Fleischer. I was scared to death I’d get called out to some scene where nobody would talk to me, and I’d end up screwing something up.

So one night I’m confessing this to the copy editor working my meeting story into something recognizable as English, and he tells me something I’ve never forgotten in 12 years. “If you can’t get anyone to talk to just look around and write down everything you see. Everything that’s happening, write it down. That’s the story too.” I’ve gotten a very few great journalism lessons in my life and that was one of them, that this is the job: Write down what you see.

It’s not a lot. It’s not anything I’d ever put above anyone who can swing a hammer. I don’t have a lot of useful skills but I felt for a long time and still feel that we know each other because we are told about each other and that if all you can do is bear witness then you do that. Write down what you see. And tell as many people, as many many people, as you possibly can. It’s a simple job. It’s an impossibly simple job.

But you have to shut the fuck up and get out of your own way to do it, and that’s where most of us slip up at least once. We make it all about us, or about who we know, or what we really think, and not about the experiences of the people involved. We get lost in our own shit and start thinking we need to feel everybody’s pain and be fellow humans and all that self-help crapola that gets heaped on us by the morning shows about how to talk to our kids about whatever’s going on.

Cable news all afternoon and even now is analyzing, commenting, doing everything but the job. They have Titanic budgets and staffs I would kill for and they have bajillions of dollars of technology at their disposal, and yet every time something like this happens we wind up relying on some jackass with a cell phone video, an expert in something we’re not even sure is germane yet, and members of Congress shooting off their mouths. And by a week from now, we will be on to something else, and this will be a theme song.

I keep reading the latest from the AP and thinking about Columbine, about how everything that was reported the first couple of days turned out to be completely wrong. About the Trench Coat Mafia and the kids who were shot for believing in God. About bullying and alienation and goth music. And I wonder how much of what’s going on now will be walked back years later, when nobody’s paying attention.

The first day, the first hours: Cut out all the analysis, all the nonsense, and just tell us what you see. What you can prove. What you know is real. That’s what we need. That’s the best thing that can be done in this scenario. That’s the only useful thing. That’s what people need the most.

That’s the job:

Karrie Fath of Harker Heights, whose husband is stationed at Fort
Hood, did not know that anything had happened until he called her at
the hairdresser today.

“I’m fine, can’t talk about it, turn on CNN,” Lt. Col. Matt Fath told his wife.

There was no television at the hair salon, so Karrie Fath called a
friend who was babysitting the Faths’ infant son. The babysitter
relayed everything that was being reported on television, which Fath
relayed to the other women at the salon, and they quickly reached loved
ones on post by phone.

“One of the girls at the hair salon lives on post and she can’t get back home because post is on lockdown,” Fath said.

Fath said she had talked informally to a number of other Army
spouses. While the Army has elaborate plans for communicating with
families when a soldier is wounded or killed during a deployment, “you
wouldn’t even think that you’d need something here,” Fath said.

She added, “It’s just sad. They get shot at in Iraq and then they have to come back— it’s crazy.”


17 thoughts on “Walking The Story Back

  1. One of the greats would agree with you:
    There are three kinds of writers of news in our generation. In inverse order of worldly consideration, they are:
    1. The reporter, who writes what he sees.
    2. The interpretive reporter, who writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning.
    3. The expert, who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.
    All is manifest to him, since his powers are not limited by his powers of observation. Logistics, to borrow a word from the military species of the genus, favor him, since it is possible to not see many things at the same time. For example, a correspondent cannot cover a front and the Pentagon simultaneously. An expert can, and from an office in New York, at that.
    — A. J. Liebling.

  2. In case it’s not immediately clear from the quotation, Liebling had no respect for “the expert” reserving it all for the generally unappreciated reporter.

  3. I just finished Dave Cullen’s “Columbine”, about the shootings, and it confirmed in a huge way how wrong all of us were – the media for its conclusions and the public for buying them all. It also made me, as a parent, very very afraid, because we still don’t have the tools to effectively deal with a psychopath, no matter what age the psychopath happens to be. Eric Harris was a textbook case, but his parents tried to broker things with an eye to Harris’ future that, in the end, probably did not help him at all, law enforcement kept warning signs under their hats for over a year and, even though Harris had been in a treatment program, he put on an act that the therapists fell for.
    They’re already reporting that, contrary to what was said in the news earlier, the Fort Hood shooter is not dead. I just hope most of this country reserves some more judgment than in the major traumas before this one…but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. You know who we can’t stop from speculating? Right wing media. Because that is ALL they are. Question: Is there any consequences for outrageous speculation? Should there be? Today Brian Sussman was mocking the journalism convention of “alleged shooter”. It makes sense if they aren’t journalist why should they have to say alleged. They are just gossips and they can call out the person’s name and say, “This guy is the shooter and we should put a bullet in his head” as one woman did. And Sussman also made it clear that although he doesn’t KNOW that the guy was doing this because of his religion, isn’t it interesting how many people who ARE Muslim kill people because of their “Religion of Peace.”

  5. “If you can’t get anyone to talk to just look around and write down everything you see.”
    Do you know what I see and want you to see but is not that visible because it trembles below the surface and can’t be spoken? Muslim Americans scared out of their wits. Sikh Americans fearful for their lives because some redneck just itching to pull the trigger is going to mistake him for a Muslim. And me, walking around all paranoid because I’m brown.
    I hope that shooter dies and burns in hell for all the terror and misery he has induced in the families of the people he killed and us folks who are neither white nor black out here in America.

  6. Two things:
    1) I remember having that “write everything you see down” moment when covering a shooting. It was a late night in the middle of February or some other cold-ass month and I had to get something for the city-edition, which was going to press in three hours. Since the paper had been laid out for the earlier edition, I knew what the hole needed to be. They cut me something like 10 inches and I had enough for three. I wrote down everything, from the hue of the street light to the weird sign on the guy’s porch. I can still see that sign in my mind’s eye and how he spelled a word wrong. I eventually got the story together and made the 10 inches, but looking around was a lot of the story.
    2) I was watching something last night in which the cousin of the guy who is accused of shooting everyone was talking to FOX News about how this guy hated a bunch of stuff. All I could think was, “Which one of my annoying, disturbed and damaged cousins would I LEAST like to see on FOX News talking about me if I were to land in the news in some horrible way?” The narcissist won out over the racist and the jock in a tough battle.

  7. I studied and worked in journalism for several years, and the “just write down what you see” thing is not simple at all because everyone sees something different based on their own bias. What is obviously important to one person is totally discarded as pointless by another. What makes one a *professional* is the ability to be as objective as possible – by identifying your own bias, and working around it.

  8. Thank you. Within a several hours it was three shooters, down to one. Then the shooter was dead then he was not. It was endless coverage all evening and all other news disappears. MSNBC Ed. Chris, Keith, Rachel all keep repeating very similar things.
    That is why we come to the internet to get the news.

  9. I turned off the TV when, instead of telling me what had happened, the news programs offered up a Harvard psych expert to tell me what was wrong with the shooter and another guy who said, “At a time like this, politics goes away and we’re all Americans,” in a sappy tone that made him sound like some sort of creepy child molester.

  10. Well, just last night I watched Red Dragon. And the investigator was able, instantly, to figure out the criminal was right handed, a body builer with extensive tatoos and a hare lip, grew up in a domestic abuse household, and had trouble with urination (including his mother threatening to “cut it off” if he wasn’t able to control himself). 😉
    Seriously though, I concur with the other blog item that it is best to report what you see and wait to see how the facts evolve.
    Not to mention from the fear mongering, speculations allow the fear mongering to waste time in useless “duck and cover” / “duct tape and plastic” exercises.
    For example, my institution is now paranoid about ID badges to make sure some shooter doesn’t come on campus. Only problem is that if you look at the major shootings (Columbine, Va Tech, Ft Hood) they were all “insider” jobs. Everyone would have been wearing an ID

  11. You quoted:
    “If you can’t get anyone to talk to just look around and write down everything you see. Everything that’s happening, write it down. That’s the story too.”
    Recently I gave my class of almost 90 students an assignment that required something like this. The assignment was to go to some public event– the event types that I suggested were a football game, a baseball game, or a church worship service. They were to write from the perspective of knowing absolutely nothing about this type of event. They could interview people (i.e., ask questions), and report what they were told, as long as they were clear about their sources.
    What I found was that observational skills vary considerably. Some are wonderful observers, and write lucidly about what they saw. For example, some students “saw” only the players on the field. Others “saw” not just players, but also referees, coaches, line judges, and cheerleaders, writing about the role of each. Some did not pay any attention to the ritual coin toss at the beginning of the game, others wrote about it. Some paid no attention to the fans around them, but one wrote in amazing detail about the people in her immediate vicinity, sorting out who was with who, who lived in the same dorm, and even how they were related to each other, and to football players on the field.
    Amazingly, many talked to no one, and did not ask any questions about what they were seeing.
    The advice you got sounds simple, but it isn’t. Observational skills can be taught, but some people seem to develop those skills more naturally than others.
    Some of the documents discussed on Emptywheel’s blog, where I hang out most of the time, have many subtleties and nuances. Some of us would not notice many of the things that Marcy Wheeler’s trained eyes see, because her graduate training was built on such subtle skills– and perhaps she has a natural gift for such things. But by laying such things out for us to see, she helps us see better.
    I wrote this comment over on her blog first, and she encouraged me to share it. I have not been one of your regular readers, but based on this piece of yours, I’ll stop by more often. Thanks for your commentary.
    Bob in AZ

  12. There was a WWII columnist who was noted for writing what he saw. I don’t think it was Murrow. The classic example, “Today, the little policeman is not on his corner.” That’s what he saw. The town had been overrun by the Germans.

  13. Write down what you see. Write down what you hear (sirens? rushing water? gunfire? car wrecks? squealing tires? horns?)
    Don’t try to sort it out ’til you can get back and go over it with the news/copy desk.
    Put in what it smells like (I got sent to cover an explosion and a couple weeks later the weather-related collapse of a “workover” or ‘cleanout’ rig at an oil well, and they both smelled way different than the cogeneration plant, or the construction project at Christmas in April, or …)
    Make it as real for the reader as you can, without inventing things you can’t prove.
    Be the tape in the recorder, the film in the camera. If you do it right, most of the time, the idjits will out themselves.

  14. Columbine and Malik Nadal Hasan Fort Hood shooting
    As I reflected on Columbine and Malik Nadal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shooting, one word stuck in my mind.
    Texas, to me, says the South and therefore the culture of honor.(Encyclopedia Britannica online lists Texas as the South although I understand some might say Texas is just Texas). Colorado, where Columbine occurred, is the West. But the West, as I point out in my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, also retains a culture of honor.
    Simply put, that concept allows people to believe that if they have been slighted – if their honor has been violated – that it is OK to retaliate with violence. It is similar to the idea of taking the law into your own hands – being a sheriff in your own hearth, as one saying goes – and extracting your own revenge. I should add that news reports say Hasan grew up in Virgina and graduated from Virginia Tech, firmly in the South and the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history with 33 dead, including the gunman.
    The news reports are early and ever-changing (with the recent surprise that Hasan is alive). But a couple items may point to Hasan’s wanting to take revenge. He was allegedly harassed by fellow soldiers for being of Muslim descent, and had considered trying to leave the U.S. Army early but an attorney he retained said he could not. He may have also been “mortified” about having to be deployed to the Middle East after hearing horror stories.
    Aside from the culture of honor as an issue in the shootings, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in gun control pro and con circles. One argument has been that more armed teachers, for example, will stop such shooters in schools. Now, I don’t know if the soldiers were armed in the area where the shooting occurred, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine a place with more armed people than a military base. People taking up that line of debate will probably need more details.
    Jeff Kass

  15. The Other Sarah wrote:
    “Write down what you see. Write down what you hear …
    …Put in what it smells like…”
    IOW, observational reporting involves all of the senses.
    In other words, *pay attention!*
    Good advice.
    Bob in AZ

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