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 ,
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
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.