Thursday, December 30, 2004

Why the media ... Part 2

john mcmullen
Back to the media pissing off people, like when reporters show up at the doorstep of Reggie White's widow when she asks people to respect her family's privacy. (see yesterday's post)

Why dey do dat?

This will come as no surprise to most, but may be edifying for a few.

The simple answer is fear.

What if the widow White comes out the front door and gives a great interview about her late husband? And we miss it? This will not stand, and there will be hell to pay later.

It's the same reason 2, 3, sometimes 4 TV stations "go live" ad naseum following a car chase, transmitting pictures of dancing flames, and so forth. What if we cut away and something happens? A three-car pile-up/rollover? A huge explosion? Bodies flying? Better to cut short the denouement of that gripping TV drama rather than get scooped. What's better, a real life fire or crackup compared to T.J. Hooker?

At one point, I was a night assistant city editor at a Houston newspaper that eventually went out of business. The usual shift ended around 1 or 2 a.m., depending on events.

Some time after midnight a bundle of Houston Chronicles would be delivered to the security guard downstairs and brought to the city desk, where there were standing orders to "match" whatever major scoop the Chronicle had. If there was, indeed, a "scoop" of any magnitude, which really wasn't that often, it would be virtually impossible to match at that hour of the morning, given the presses already were pumping out the city editions of the paper.

As the bundle of Chrons were brought forth, one would hope, and perhaps even say to one's self, "Please, please pretty please let it be just another fat edition full of meetings stories."

More often than not, it was, but not always.

It was a major pain in the ass if you had to try and run down a Chron story at that hour, especially if you were dry and anxious to make The Jockey Club (which no longer exists) or T.K. Bitterman's in time for some power drinking before last call.

By that time in the shift, it was me and a night police reporter on duty, along with a handful of copy editors looking at the clock.

I could pawn off the task of chasing the story on the night police reporter, who also was dry by that time of the morning, but sometimes I'd undertake trying to "match" the Chron just to be a nice guy.

It was easier anyway. I'd have to explain on the phone to the night police reporter down at 61 Riesner all the ins & outs of said Chron scoop before he or she could make the call, losing valuable minutes of press run time, and possibly valuable minutes of power drinking time. Besides, if I had to call and explain to the police reporter why he had to telephone Official X, I might hear a long sigh on the phone, which would make me feel like a heel (I was never cut out for management in the newspaper industry).

With luck, I could squeeze 5 or 6 grafs into the latter editions of The Houston Post, thus fooling some of our readers into thinking we had the same story as the competition but just felt it only worth a short, inside story. At least that was the theory, I guess.

One night, this was mid-80s or so, the venerable Chron had some story about John McMullen maybe selling the Astros, a big deal at the time. At least that's what my deteriorating memory recalls.

So I call John McMullen in New Jersey, where it's some time between 1 & 2 a.m. Of course the older geezer's in bed by that hour. Gotta run the traps, though.

More often than not, calls like this are either not answered or answered by an answering machine (voicemail not being widespread at the time) because of the late hour. This, of course, is what you hope for. No fuss, no muss, enabling me to accurately report in the "night note" to the day crew that John McMullen did not answer his phone. Duty done.

But this night, McMullen groggily answers the phone. Shit, that's not his butler's voice, it's HIM! Tucked in bed fast asleep, answering his own damn phone!!

"Uh, sorry to call so late Mr. McMullen but this is ... There's a story in the Chronicle first edition ... could you elaborate or confirm ... just anything would help ... "

"*!#/-7#%! ... Call my office in the morning!" SLAM

Can't blame the guy. In his mind, it's like a 1:30 a.m. call from a telemarketer, which apparently is about where he placed Astros fans in the pecking order of his social strata.

But when you're The Media, you gotta show up at the widow's doorstep, you gotta take pictures of the car chase or the fire, you gotta make that 1:30 a.m. call (well, at least when there were two daily papers in town) or you might get yelled at.

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