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Conventional Journalism '72 : Any Idiot Cameraman Could Have Done It--and One Did


It all came back to me as I was watching a CNN report about the political conventions.

Talk about a media circus . . . 16,000 reporters and technicians . . . miles of fiber-optic network connections . . . lap-top computers everywhere . . . parking for 100 satellite news vehicles beaming broadcasts around the world. . . .

I began to drift back . . . back . . . and back . . . to 1972. Nixon vs. McGovern. Both conventions were in Miami that year, where I had a summer job as a news reporter/cameraman for WTVJ, the local CBS affiliate.

TV news was still in the dinosaur era. We shot stories on 16-millimeter film, which had to be processed and edited before it could be aired--if a story broke after 4:30 p.m., it had to wait for the 11 o'clock news. Our station didn't have an image consultant, our first mini-cam wouldn't arrive for another year and our old-fashioned news director would never dream of boosting sweeps ratings by hyping bikini contests or Elvis sightings.

But what we lacked in technology we made up for in ingenuity. We had a newsroom full of sharp young reporters, many of whom graduated to network jobs (Fred Francis, who had such stellar police sources that he would show up at drug busts before most of the cops, is now at NBC News).

The station did have a weak link--me. I crashed a news car rushing film back from a City Council meeting. I dropped a $1,500 camera into Biscayne Bay trying to shoot a power-boat race. I destroyed another diving for cover when a suspect opened fire during a drug raid. When the Shriners came to town, I interviewed a Shriner chieftain who was so drunk that he passed out in the middle of his speech.

By the time the conventions arrived, CBS was so desperate for people that they couldn't afford to be choosy. While the network bigwigs handled the important stuff, we local grunts kept an eye on events outside the halls (which that year included a ghetto riot and noisy anti-war demonstrations).

As far as the network was concerned, our most important task was smoothing the waters for affiliate reporters from such burgs as Dayton and Buffalo. Eager to bask in the sun or bet at the dog track, the visiting reporters would occasionally tear themselves away from the lounge long enough to park themselves in front of a local landmark and interview their hometown congressman about the events of the week.

My duty was to film these newsy chats and have them air-couriered back to the reporter's home town. It was a job even an idiot could do--you set up the camera on a tripod, fixed sound levels, focused on the reporter and tried to stay awake until the local ward healer had hogged his fill of air time.

Of course, I was worse than an idiot. Sharp focus was beyond me. My audio levels were better suited for a Led Zeppelin concert. Once I shot an entire afternoon of footage so directly into the setting sun that you would have assumed that there was a solar eclipse.

And that was when I was trying to do a good job. When a visiting "Bigfoot" demanded extra cut-aways or rudely insisted on re-shooting his "stand-up" dozens of times, I would retaliate by purposefully botching his footage. One Midwest CBS reporter, then eagerly looking for a network job, berated me for taking too long to load a fresh canister of film.

Revenge was swift. I killed the sound entirely, zoomed in until I had a crisp close-up of his nose hairs and after the session, politely directed him (and his congressman) to a "very trendy" Miami Beach nightspot . . . that I happened to know was a popular drag queen hang-out.

Armed with passes that gave me access to the convention floor, I met celeb reporters and political luminaries who were happy to schmooze with anyone wearing a CBS badge, even someone who normally would have been assessing the burgeoning aardvark population at the Crandon Park Zoo.

Heady stuff. Sen. Scoop Jackson asked me to bring him a tuna sandwich. Sen. John Stennis extolled the importance of pork-barrel projects. Detroit's chief of police told me to get a haircut.

One afternoon, driving out of the convention parking lot, I was giddy with delight, having tossed back about 15 beers with Hunter Thompson (the line score: Thompson 12, me 3). So giddy, in fact, that I ran a stop sign and nearly rammed a white Cadillac convertible. I stole a glance at the enraged driver in my rear-view mirror--not to worry, it was just Walter Cronkite screaming obscenities at me.

Life also was exciting outside the conventions, where there were so many tear-gas battles that I was issued a gas mask and hard hat--and awarded double my meager salary for hazardous-duty pay.

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