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From the Field
''Warm Welcome??"
By Phil Shuman

"Get the hell off my property!"
" I'm not talking to anyone on the record or off the record on camera or off camera ".
"Leave now before I call the police! "…… Warm fuzzy welcomes for my camera crew and me as we braved the firestorm and hit the streets of Modesto California looking for an angle, a lead, an interview, even a sound bite about Gary Condit. And these are just the printable comments. Not pleasant.

This of course is to be expected to some degree, since this scandal is now more than a few weeks old and most people are talked out. But in a district where 70 percent of the people (depending on the latest survey) still think he 's doing a great job as a Congressman, you'd expect someone to at least be willing to talk on the record about him, to defend him, to counter the increasingly negative image .. .. especially members of his own family !!!

We tried Condit's brother Burl's house.. where his wife, through the open screen door, had CNN blaring with the latest on the search for Chandra. Ironic….yet when I politely asked her if she or her brother ( who as we all know by now is a Modesto cop ) had anything to say about the Congressman she threw us off the porch. We left.

We tried Condit's adult son Chad, who works for Governor Davis but lives in Modesto. He repeatedly refused to even answer his door. Of course, he also was reported to the local cops for trying to run down a photographer or two in his new white Ford Expedition, so that pretty much sums up his attitude.

In Sacramento.. when we drove up to the door of Condit's adult daughter Cadee's house, she was having a nice morning planting flowers in her front yard. As soon as she saw the van, she literally ran into the house and locked the door, never to re-emerge. Never got to say a word to her.

Also in Sacramento a former Condit intern named Jennifer Baker, who's also a friend of Chandra, was so overcome by emotion when she saw us she literally broke down in tears at our mere presence. We quickly backed off.

In fact, the only folks who were cordial and civil about the whole thing were those who you would think would be most embarrassed… Gary Condit's parents. They still live in Modesto, his father Adrian is a well respected man of the cloth, his Mom Jean was home when we came by, and was very nice in her refusal to speak with us, but took down our names and phone numbers and promised to get in touch if anything changed. I'm not holding my breath. Again, though, if your own parents won't stick up for you , who will?

Should we read something sinister into this or is it just a strategic decision or respecting Gary's wishes? It could be any or all of those things, but without answers, we're left to speculate, then we get blamed for speculating. A vicious and unfortunate Catch 22.

Now I know what you're thinking…., at least those of you who aren't in the news business. You're trespassing on private property…. Who are you to just show up unannounced at someone's house and expect to be invited in for a soul-baring interview? Who are you to bypass the public relations and legal handlers orchestrating Condit's behavior in this scandal from Washington D.C. and just strike out on our own in Modesto? Who are you to assume that people would or even should talk with us just because we want them to. Why do you assume there's some obligation to speak , and if that obligation isn't met that something is being hidden.

Those are all legitimate questions , but like it or not such tactics are often the reality of the TV news business. It's what we often do on breaking as well as ongoing news stories, it's called enterprising.

In TV of course, we need something on camera, we need pictures. It's not enough to write it down. That's why the camera is there. And the camera is with you at the door because experience shows if people want to talk, they'll do it right away, if you give them time to think about it while you go drag the gear out of the truck, they might have second thoughts and change their mind and there goes the interview.

Now at the same time I can definitively state that this is not particularly fun or rewarding, you might even get shot at, but it's part of the process. And it doesn't mean you can't do it with class and dignity.

Aside from a couple of semi-obnoxious radio types looking for publicity who stormed Condit's office one afternoon, everyone I've observed with a mike or a pencil or a camera has been particularly polite, respectful, and well-behaved in pursuing this story in Modesto, in contrast to the vulture like image of the press typically represented in the movies or on TV shows. Sheer numbers does not automatically translate to sheer madness. We're pretty good at policing ourselves. In fact after that radio stunt the rest of the press went out of their way to make sure those who were offended in Condit's office were okay. You know that expression.. ''one bad apple'''… well, we do want to preserve what little is left of our reputations. As you might imagine, on the other side of town, the Levy family and friends couldn't' have been nicer. In fact, a camera crew is permanently camped out in front of their house, and it became sort of a daily ritual that one or both of the Levy parents would come out and make a brief statement, which would then be pooled, or shared by all the news outlets there.

For a while a deputy was stationed in front of the house, but that wasn't really necessary and he was re-assigned. Obviously it's in their interests to talk, to keep the story alive so to speak, to be visible, all the things that Gary Condit doesn't want for himself…..

Again, the news crews were respectful and polite at all times, dare I say even sensitive to their pain. Sorry to disappoint our critics.

Is there a better way to generate TV news stories? Sure. If your name is Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters or Stone Phillips or Larry King ( not Dan Rather) you simply call these people up, or have your producer do it, invoke the name of the BIG STAR and invite them to come to New York for an all expense paid trip, limo service included, or invite them to a lavish local hotel suite ( even in Modesto) for a comfortable interview and a little hand holding and pampering with room service and flowers thrown in, perhaps you even fly to them if it's big enough .

But even though EXTRA is a well respected highly rated nationally syndicated news program with our own bona fide BIG STAR Leeza Gibbons hosting, it 's tough to compete with the traditional network news shows when you want the newsmakers to talk.

So if we want to break some news.. we do it at more of the grass roots level. It's called 'news gathering' for a reason, you go out, you find it, you gather it in, you write it , you edit it, you report it. Until you come up with a realistic alternative, see you at the door.

About the Author

PHIL SHUMAN is a reporter for EXTRA. (Seen in Los Angeles at 7pm Mon thru Sat on Channel 4. ) Phil joined EXTRA in 1996. Before that he spent 13 years reporting for Channel 4 news covering everything from earthquakes and fires to Rodney King and OJ. Phil also hosts his own radio talk show on KABC AM 790 Sundays from 4 to 6pm, where he'd welcome your calls.