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Freelance Videographers Chase News for TV

August 03, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

The voices on his police scanner lull him to sleep and jolt him awake at night. He sees cash signs in thunderheads. He'll wait hours to witness the coroner putting a body in the back of a van. Fatal traffic accidents are his bread and butter.

Ed Frommer, who claims the Antelope Valley as his prime territory, is a member of Southern California's aggressive corps of freelance videographers, whose pursuit of the perfect overnight video shot has long played an important role in television news gathering operations.

"Unfortunately, 90% of the time I have to make money off people's sadness and misfortunes," Frommer said Saturday from his car phone while cruising the Antelope Valley, police scanners gurgling in the background.

The arson arrest Friday of another Antelope Valley freelance videographer, Joshua Harville of Palmdale, has some in the business concerned that their reputations -- already "low on the totem pole," as Frommer said -- will be further eroded.

"If he is convicted, it will be a shame for all the freelancers," Frommer said. "We will be more closely watched and scrutinized" by law enforcement agencies.

Harville was arrested on suspicion of setting a 5,000-acre brush fire last summer in Leona Valley that destroyed four houses. He sold footage of the blaze to television news stations.

Authorities said Harville was linked to the crime through inconsistent comments during TV interviews as well as the tape he sold. He could not be reached for comment Saturday.

For freelance videographers and their often maverick tactics, the thought of restrictions stronger than a yellow police tape has them worried.

Although it is their exclusive video that brings in the cash, it is their established relationships with local law enforcement officers and television news assignment editors that help make the sale.

"So many times you show up and things are happening very, very fast," said Rich Cowgill, 41, of Cerritos, who specializes in fires and animal rescues.

If police or fire officials "see you with a camera and have a bad taste in their mouth because of what has happened or have a negative image of a photographer on their minds, they are going to make you stay blocks away," he said. "That can be tough."

Their livelihoods are tied to the cost-effective demand for "film at 11," or these days, film at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m., given the 24-hour appetite for breaking news from at least nine television stations serving the Los Angeles market.

Most thrive on the overnight stories -- the fires, police pursuits, traffic accidents and homicides -- that happen when costly TV station news crews have gone home.

"They supplement our operation, but are important because a lot of things happen when we are all asleep," said Jeff Wald, news director for KTLA-TV Channel 5, owned by Tribune Co., which also owns The Times. "They provide a very real service and have for many years."

Traffic congestion also has contributed to the proliferation of about 15 to 20 freelance companies, some which are one-person operations. If a story is breaking in San Bernardino or the Antelope Valley, freelancers based in those areas get there first.

"If we dispatch from Hollywood, it's going to take a heck of a long time to get there, and many times they will get better footage before we can even get there," Wald said.

So the race is on for videographers such as Glenn Vachman, 42, owner of Focal Point Video News Service.

With four pagers clipped to his belt, he is plugged into multiple media alert systems that monitor police scanners. His unofficial turf is Orange and Los Angeles counties east of the 605 Freeway.

A freelance veteran of 17 years, Vachman calls himself "the ethical stringer. A few of us have some ethics, you know."

Aiming for the first and the best footage has turned his job into a high-stress, "very cutthroat thing," he said.

It's not unusual for three freelancers to race to the same accident scene, and sometimes they use questionable tactics to get the first shots, he said.

Vachman said a competing videographer recently shone a spotlight in his lens to ruin his picture. He has seen freelancers dress in clothing similar to that of firefighters to gain close-ups. Some drive cars that look like unmarked police vehicles to attract little notice when they arrive at crime scenes.

The freelancers, also known as stringers, operate on their own and do not have to adhere to the news standards that most network-affiliated television news departments follow.

"I wouldn't try and impersonate someone to gain access to a scene. I wouldn't try and look like an undercover police officer," Vachman said.

Officer Don Cox, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said stringers are issued LAPD press credentials like other members of the media who fill out an application and are fingerprinted for background checks.

And they must adhere to the same rules of the crime scene: Stay behind the yellow tape until given permission to cross.

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