Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sympathy for the Devils


First and foremost, I have to admit, part of the reason why I gave this post its title is because I wanted to listen to the song while I wrote.
What prompted this was actually a talk I had with my friend, Sondra, not long after I started writing professionally. 
 
Pictured here, helping me be a prodigy.
Sondra, like a few of my college friends, is very politically active. She’s helped run campaigns for almost as long as I’ve known her.
And Sondra, like most college kids involved in politics, is very idealistic.
 IDEALISM...and a disembodied arm.
I don’t consider myself the idealistic sort, especially when it comes to politics. As such, we used to get into it a little.
If you saw “The Ides of March,” the conversation between Marisa Tomei and Ryan Gosling could have been Sondra and I. I swear George Clooney was hiding in some bushes behind me with a tape recorder. 
 I'm sure this is what I would have seen if I'd just thought to turn around. From The Descendents
 Some of the things Tomei said to Gosling are except copies of what I’ve said to Sondra and vice versa.
Basically, one of the big things that I realized and Sondra was horrified by was my sympathy (or empathy? I just don’t have the time to figure out which) for the criminals I encounter and write about on this job.
I told her that I think I understand why some criminals do the things they do, that, though I can’t excuse their actions, I see their reasoning sometimes.
At the same time, I have zero sympathy (empathy? I DON’T KNOW) for politicians caught in the same ethical quandaries, the people she might have to  fall on a sword for someday.
She couldn’t understand what I meant and I barely even understand it either.
One of the reasons why I began to write, why I like writing, is because I’m fascinated by people.
If you’re fascinated by people, you’re fascinated by human nature: what motivates people, what moves them, what makes them happy, what scares them, what lines they will or won’t cross, why people do what they do.
I like to think that in anything I write (or at least 75-80 percent of it), I try to consider all of that.
As such, I think I’ve gained that weird understanding of criminals.
It doesn’t extend to everyone. Sexual crimes, spousal abuse, all of that, there isn’t anything to sympathize with. I’ve always been hardened to those types of incidents, like everyone.
But the criminals that are very obviously in business for themselves or, at most, their families, are understandable to me. There’s an element of survival to what they’re doing. Maybe it's the Dillinger aspect.
In every case, there are a couple of questions, and obvious answers, that could apply to the people I write about that stand charged or are found guilty.
1.Where they right to do what they did??
No.
2.Did they need to do what they did?
No.
But the biggest thing that factors into my thoughts about them is this: do they absolutely know that “no” is the answer to those questions?
That’s perhaps where I gain my slight understanding.
Another of the reporters in this office doesn’t necessarily share my feelings on this. 
A lot of her feelings tend to  mirror this guy's, actually.
Most long-time reporters don't share my feelings, I think. When you’ve dealt with the same sorts of cases for years and years, I’m sure you become pretty hardened to such considerations.
But in my short time as a reporter I’ve also discovered something else. Everyone has the ability to do the wrong thing, even terrible things. I don’t think anyone is exempt. That’s human nature, as well.
I’m there, too. There are things I’m not terribly proud of.
 Apparently, the Yakuza don't like it when you skim a little off the top as a "service fee."
For that reason, I think any one of us could give the wrong answer to questions one and two from above.
Now, as I feel those things, I feel nothing for many politicians.
It goes well beyond me why they do what they do. Manipulation, jealousy, lies, blatant ignorance, those things seem to course through a more than a few of those elected into public office.
For a time, I covered one small-time governing body where every meeting rotated from one extreme to the other almost without end: passive aggression and screaming matches.It really involved one four or five people there, but it poisoned the entire atmosphere.
Whatever set those people pretended to serve, senior citizens, homeowners, students, low-income families, the rich, they did them all a constant disservice through their pettiness.
When I think of why I can stomach criminals infinitely better than such politicians, the only thing that comes to mind is, “They should know better.”
Maybe I’m the one with the idealist tendencies, not Sondra. Generally, I think the idea is that elected officials should work to make things better for the public as a whole.
The political spectrum I have witnessed involves in-fighting over special interests, the near-constant effort to say the thing that sounds good but means nothing, and, most of all, an inflated sense of self that repeatedly impedes any progress.
There are some people out there fighting the good fight. I’ve run into those types of politicians in my travels. But “some” doesn’t cut it for me.
It’s very likely that what I understand a politician’s job to be is not the way it works or ever can work.
But it seems sad that I can relate better to the guy that got caught selling heroin than a handful of the politicians I’ve encountered.
That said, no one gets a pulled punch. I'm not in the business of giving anyone a free ride.
But these are things I definitely I think about every day.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

And the Award Doesn't Go To...

In case you don’t know, the Pulitzer Prizes for the top pieces of journalism were recently announced.

In case you didn’t know (I hope you’re sitting down), I didn’t win one.

I know, little orangutan, I know.

To win a Pulitzer Prize, you have to submit one or a string of pieces. I obviously didn’t this year. It came real close, though, deciding between submitting the “Delco’s Cutest Pets” series and my riveting piece (culled from a police report) about a man that punched his dad after his parents found out he stole Easter candy.

I mulled the decision between the two so long that I missed the submission deadline.

The journalism world suffers for it and I'm not entirely sure my snub isn't the first sign of the journalism apocalypse.

The last sign: Geraldo "The Pale Horse" Rivera.

In all seriousness, looking through the list of award recipients, I was in awe of how good they were and how good I am not.

Going in, I thought, “Hey, I’m young, less than a year out of college. How could I expect to even win an award even among my newspaper’s own staff?”

Then I read the biography of Sara Ganim. (www.sarahganim.com)

She graduated three years ahead of me, she's a year younger than me and was already a police reporter at a real, full-fledged daily a year before she left school.

A year before I left school, I got drunk at one party and decided I wanted to re-learn how to do a handstand.

This is what being a prodigy looks like.

Ganim basically led the national coverage in every facet of the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal.

I led national coverage in discovering where a human skull in a Radnor attic came from.

(SPOILER: It was actually a Halloween decoration, so I guess it came from Party City. I don’t actually know.)

It’s amazing how good these Pulitzer pieces are. Their sources are diverse and far-reaching and they get answers to questions that come after the questions I’d never even think of.

Some of the categories even intimidate me.

I took one look at “Explanatory Journalism” and said, “Hell no.”

During the summer, I did a piece on a new LED baby blanket that will, hopefully, one day cut down on deadly jaundice cases in Africa.

It took me a full week to even figure out what jaundice exactly was, much less any of the other complex and less-than-complex biological and technological pieces in that story.


"So, doc, you're saying this guy is not, in fact, medically, a werewolf?"

One Friday, in a bar earlier this year, I sat with my two buddies, John and Scott, the creators of the comic, “ReadySoup.”

We were discussing the tops in each of our fields and I asked them if there was a prize given out to the best comic artists and writers. They told me there was, in fact: the Eisner Awards.

I began laughing, leaning on the table.

“Alright, right now, here, let’s make a bet, a pact,” I said. “If you guys win an Eisner, you have to get it tattooed on your back.”

They laughed.

“And if I win the Pulitzer, I’ll get ‘Pulitzer Prize’ tattooed on my back,” I said, then added, laughing harder, “And then you also have to add the year you won it under a line, like you’re going to add more years for all the times you win it.”

We all smiled and shook on it, solemnly and merrily promising.

Whenever I get stuck with an assignment I don’t want to do or that I think is a little fluffy, I always joke, with some variation, “Here comes my Pulitzer. I’m feeling it on this one.”

Honestly, though, I’m proud of what I do. There are some stories that I’ve really felt good about. They may not be great, but I’ve gotten some satisfaction out of them, and working at the Delco and the Mercury have given me the opportunity to cover a lot of varied assignments, which have really facilitated my growth as a writer.

In this first year as a paid reporter, I've realized the part of my job that makes me most satisfied is when I feel like I may have helped someone or brightened their day a little.

Obviously, there are some days when we have to call the public’s attention to some of the worst moments of people’s lives, but that’s necessary, too. Everything has its place.

A perfect example of pride in what I do was covering the French Creek fires. Some people apparently looked to me for information and I was able to provide at least a little of that for them.

But an award or two is never unwelcome.

I don’t have any tattoos. Not anywhere. I have a million scars but nothing intentionally etched into my skin.

That said, I’m going to have to step up my game. I might look alright with some ink.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hindenburg Moment

When the report of the brush fire in the area of French Creek came in, I basically ignored it.

Brush fires happen almost every single day, I’ve learned. Throughout our coverage area, I’d say we get reports of at least two a day. And, 99 percent of the time, they turn into nothing.

But Monday was an anomaly. There were brushfires everywhere. There were probably at least ten in Montgomery County when we caught one reported in the area of Hopewell Furnace.

For whatever reason, our photographer Kevin Hoffman went out to see what was up. And when he got there, things were obviously worth a story.

That’s the set-up. If you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing, you know the story.

But the beauty of this medium is that I can tell you some of the things that made this such a unique moment in my life as a young reporter.

The 2100 block of St. Peters Road is the face of this fire for me. Around 9:30 p.m. Monday having watched the fire move steadily, monstrously eastward all day, I told my editor, Nancy March, who’d been evacuated earlier in the day from a different area, something that actually made her gasp.

“Those houses won’t be standing when I wake up tomorrow.”

Thankfully, I was wrong.

I’d driven through 2100 several times that day and, in the 9 months of covering fires I’ve got under my belt, I haven’t seen smoke that thick. It was like walls of slate between the trees, impenetrably thick. I thought about turning on my headlights a few different times.

The otherwise blue skies were darkened by the overhead smoke to the point that the few areas the sun’s rays got through, they looked a malevolent orange.

As I drove through, I saw families standing in their front yards, obviously discussing what their next move was. As I passed they’d briefly stare out at me with anguished faces.

I saw one woman stop her minivan on the street in front of her house then go tearing to the front door. Maybe she was getting a pet, maybe something else, but she was sprinting for whatever it was. Her van may not have even been in park.

It was all very unsettling and reminded me very much of Silent Hill.

Throughout the day, but especially in that area, I constantly checked my gas gauge. It was below a quarter of a tank and I wanted to keep monitoring it, not wanting to get stranded and have myself turn out like the people in this video.

Phone reception was terrible. Later in the day, as I was trying to give a report of what I had, I didn’t even get ten seconds into a call before my call dropped.

Joking to myself in the car, I said, “And that’s the last they ever heard from Frank.”

In that vein, though, I made sure not to let my mom know where I was. I knew she’d be less than happy about it.

Basically, she'd picture this, without the suit, and with more fire.

Later in the night, I was going out to a press conference in Union. After watching and breathing smoke all day, along the way on Route 724, I finally saw flames.

Up on the shadowy ridge, a ball of orange smoke hung over flickering flames. It was eery and beautiful. And perfect for video.

After the press conference, I pulled my car off the road and into a field somewhere in North Coventry. Climbing onto the trunk of my car, I stood and held up my Flipcam. It was too dark to get any usable footage, but it was such a raw moment in the night, balancing precariously in stark silence on the trunk, staring at the flickering, red lights that were obviously a roaring, raging inferno that I’m glad I did it.

I spent the rest of the night writing up the online version of the story and closed down the office around 1 a.m. I thought for a moment about sleeping in the office but realized I was so tired after 15 hours of work that I’d be useless the next day if I didn’t sleep in a bed.

On top of that, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

The following two days have been almost a blur. The fire is almost the only thing I’ve covered.

I more than doubled my Twitter following.

Monday, I started tweeting from the firefighters’ staging area because I couldn’t get anyone to confirm anything. So I just tweeted what I saw and what info I had. After a while, though, I stopped.

“F*** it,” I grumbled. “No one follows me anyway.”

When I returned to the office that night, my email was full of “…is now following” messages. Immediately, I tweeted about 7 new messages.

On top of that, I’m used to getting less than glowing feedback on the things I write. The internet can be a terrible place where people wish each other terrible things.

Most of that terrible lives here.

But today, I finally was able to slow down enough to check some things unrelated to the fire. And that included who mentioned me on Twitter.

One of the people that followed me simply said, “Be safe.”

It was from Monday when the fires were at their worst and when I was constantly checking my gas gauge.

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever used the internet to tell me on this job.

A representation of how tired I was by the time I checked that .

Sometimes, as a reporter, you’ll cover something that will for some reason make you think of something strange. The tenuous link between the thought and the event will make the thought somehow poignant.

While talking to Fire Information Officer Glenn Bell in French Creek’s office, I suddenly realized something.

“I’ve never been to French Creek before,” I said to him in the middle of the interview.

He smiled and I did too. Over his shoulder, smoke rose from the eastern edge of the park burning down.

Photo by Kevin Hoffman/The Mercury

I think every reporter dreams about what I call their “Hindenburg Moment.”

When the Hindenburg blew up over Lakehurst, N.J., Herbert Morrison caught it on the radio.

“Oh, the humanity,” is his line and it came while he watched the burning zeppelin crash to the ground. That event is synonymous with him and his emotion-filled voice. He described it in an honest human way and completely owned it.

For that, he’s immortal.

I’m not saying the wildfire still burning in the area of French Creek State Park is my Hindenburg Moment. I’m not saying I own it. I’m willing to bet TV is beating me out on it.

But I’ve never worked so hard and been so invested in an event like I have been with this brush fire over the past few days. And because of that, this is the closest to a Hindenburg Moment I’ve come to yet.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Welcome to the Pastel Jungle

One of the reasons I even have this blog is because of my editor, Nancy March.

Nancy came up with the idea of giving me a blog shortly after my experience of jumping into the Schuylkill River on New Year’s, something that can be viewed here.

The Elephant Man and I had such a time. - Photo by J. Strickler

Basically, after the silliness (and, quite honestly, the unadulterated fun) of that day, while discussing my coverage of the event, Nancy came up with the idea of having me blog about the various events I’m assigned that, outside of my job, I’d never go to.

Of course, the day she gave me her idea for my blog was also the day she floated the idea of having me cover the local cheese festival or something along those lines.

Luckily, that particular event did not come to pass.

Instead, one of the more recent events I covered that I’d normally not be caught dead at was the Mercury-sponsored bridal show at the Sunnybrook Ballroom.

I don’t think I’ve dreaded or been as nervous in anticipation of something I’ve covered. That includes the night I came flying into Pottstown on reports of some guy spraying .40 bullets around his block.

I was less keen on walking into a room full of flowers than possibly catching a bullet with my face.

PICTURED: Less stressful than looking at wedding dresses.

It was a bright Sunday when I pulled into Sunnybrook’s parking lot. What I quickly noticed was that in the flock of people in the parking lot, there was just one guy other than me.

That guy was the parking attendant. He was staying outside.

A lot of friends said I should be glad to be amongst so many women.

But my real problem was coming from the fact that I was in a place that no man ever would go of his own volition. This is not a pick-up bar. This is a place where frills and pastel colors live.

On top of that, I am naturally pretty shy. Approaching strangers to talk about themselves isn’t easy for me, which is obviously not a benefit in this line of work.

Inside, the bridal show itself was great. By all accounts, it went very well and those coming did what they needed to do: the vendors sold their products or services and the brides-to-be got what products and services they needed. All the while, everyone was standing in a sharp-looking, historic venue.

It was great for all involved. I just had some extenuating circumstances.

I made sure to have my press pass displayed at my hip and my notebook in hand. My main concern was to not look creepy. As Evan Brandt told me once, part of reporting is “looking like you belong.” So I made sure that everyone that happened to even take a passing glance knew that I was there as a REPORTER.

As such, I was constantly writing in my reporter’s pad. I wrote down everything I saw, heard, smelled, everything. I took some of the most detailed notes of my life. Even when I’d exhausted the things that could possibly be even tenuously pertinent to the story, I continued writing such nonsense as, “My back itches,” “That Lionel Ritchie can sing,” and “Will Katy Perry ever love me as much as I do her?”

A question that concerns me to this day. Photo from www.people.com

Any second that I was just standing there, I felt eyes on me.

“What is that scruffy guy doing standing alone next to the scented candles and mini-cupcakes?”

That reminds me: I also forgot to shave, the one thing I promised myself I’d do the night before to at least help me look less like Gary Heidnik-esque.

But I forgot, so I stood there with my 8 o’clock shadow, sweating it.

It's okay, ladies. I'm a legit professional.

The most awkward moment was trying to find a prospective bride to interview for the story and, more importantly and more creepily, for video for the website.

There is an awkwardness that, in this era of .xxx websites, goes with a man asking a woman if he can take video of her for a website. It’s unavoidable and more than once I’ve been forced to explain, “It’s not for that kind of site.”

Facing that adversity, I set out to find the right person.

I’d already taken lots of video, too much video, of the various vendors there. That was easy. First, they were stuck at their tables alone, captive. Second, they wanted to talk. It was good advertising for them.

But talking to the table-less was a different prospect and required a different strategy.

Quickly, I found myself in the mindset of a lion (or lioness? Who goes out to hunt?) on the Serengeti. I scanned the room looking for a young woman taking in the scene that wasn’t with a large group, a bride separated from the herd like an unfortunate wildebeest.

THERE’S ONE!

Now, that mindset can be construed as creepy. But, of course, I was looking to interview, not eat.

By talking to someone with just one companion or alone, it was easier to approach them, rather than fight through six or seven people vying for one soon-to-be-bride’s attention. Additionally, the person might be more inclined to talk if they don’t feel as if they’re holding up an entire group.

After finding two women that were nice enough to talk that also gave some good quotes, I took one last look around, was satisfied that I had everything I needed, and got out.

For as nerve-wracking as covering the show was, the article I wrote turned out well. I had an abundance of information, pretty good video and enough angles to actually keep myself entertained writing the article on a slow Sunday night. It actually became a fun article to piece together.

And that’s why I go out to these things (outside of being explicitly told to by my bosses). In general, the stories that I’m most nervous to go out and get turn into some of the best.

So I looked like a creeper for an hour or two. I got a decent clip out of it.

It was worth the sweat.