Jeff Simon: Yeah, but who SHOT the incredible hurricane footage? - The Buffalo News
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Jeff Simon: Yeah, but who SHOT the incredible hurricane footage?

Blame Dan Rather. It's always easy to do and not always wrong.

In his case, Dan Rather in 1961, was a news director/reporter at Houston's KHOU when Hurricane Carla hit. It was about to join the list of 10 most powerful storms in American history.

Rather not only understood how big hurricane stories are, he understood that they were "great television"; if you're looking at 100 mph winds and slashing rains ripping limbs off trees and bouncing traffic signals up and down like yo-yos, you don't need any help understanding how much trouble a community is in. Nor do you need any help finding dramatic coverage. If you've got a reporter in rubber rain slicker standing as close to the strongest gusts as possible, you've automatically got dramatic and riveting television.

That's the local coverage that helped propel Rather to CBS. The rest, as cliches like to say, is history.

The lesson was easy to learn all over television. What started with Rather and his annexation of Hurricane Carla has continued ever since.

During the harrowing stories of Irma making landfall over the weekend, I was glued to the TV set much of the time. Florida is the state that so many northerners migrate to. When a storm is as huge and horrifying as Irma, it concerns all of us. I have an important professional relationship with a book reviewer who lives in Naples, Fla. which was slated to be ground zero for one of Irma's first American landfalls after Key West.

Winds there gusted to 140 mph.

So I watched a lot of the coverage. It was watching wind-whipped, water-soaked Chris Cuomo prove his manhood by anchoring CNN coverage in a rubber slicker without a hood where I fully agreed with one of the oldest criticisms media have had in the modern era: that all that post-Rather reportorial masochism during hurricanes that puts the viewer "in the picture" is more than a little ridiculous.

We don't need to see constant winds lashing Cuomo's face. Cuomo himself even pointed out that "there's a strong argument to be made that standing in a storm is not a smart thing to do." Especially if you're relaying the admonitions of authorities to stay indoors.

One thing you can say for the entire Cuomo clan -- including his governor father and brother -- is that they're nothing if not articulate. They're renowned for their eloquence. Speaking dramatically isn't a problem for them. Conveying the potential terror  was very much within Cuomo's verbal gifts without resorting to water slashing his face while he was doing it.

As I watched Cuomo and every other reporter manifest conspicuous bravery to cover one of the biggest news stories of the year with maximum impact, I had another thought, which hasn't been one of the staples of American media criticism for 40 years.

That is the total inequity of TV News' system of presenting stories to us in the first place. While we're watching Cuomo and company expose themselves to the elements at their cruelest, the obvious thing to say is that their machismo is being matched by the person photographing them.

They're called "shooters" in the TV news trade. Reporters, in the cost-cutting era, are expected to double as shooters, not to mention producers. We almost always know the names and faces of gale-battered reporters. Rather's paradigm made sure of that.

We never know the names of the shooters. Machismo is part of the standard dramatic repertoire of those in front of the camera. We never learn the names of the shooters until they are blown up or kidnapped or shot in a war zone.

And yet in the native heroism of daily journalism those who do the photography are prime exemplars.

I'm a firm believer in everyone getting the credit he or she is due. It seems to me an essential of democracy.

Television has NEVER made it routine to tell us where all the astounding visual coverage comes from. Forget the wind-whipped standups; hurricane coverage was replete with amazing visual coverage that was utterly anonymous during Irma. Professionals know the everyday heroism involved in getting such pictures. Viewers don't.

I've been a resident of newsrooms since I was 19 years old. One of the first things that made me fall in love with the profession was watching the off-hand derring do of the photographers I met. It didn't matter whether they were dignified old guys who smoked pipes or young hot shots constantly searching for perilous vantage points for the most dramatic pictures possible; they seemed to me another breed entirely from everyone I had previously met in my life.

They might hope that credit would somehow catch up to their work but that wasn't really the point. They were there to present news pictures with the most dramatic and immediate impact. Heroism, of an entirely different offhand sort that was always ignorable, was a requisite for the job.

The first time I ever went out on a fire with a photographer I always thought was unambitious, I was flabbergasted watching him put himself in danger to get the best camera angles.

That kind of derring-do is routine--and anonymous--for the shooters of all those people in front of the camera, not to mention all the incredible footage their voicing is commenting on.

In this era of horrifically stupid accusations of "fake news," these hurricanes are laying bare some of the true basics of journalism as profession: Every time a shooter, in total anonymity, shows you the true horrors of what storms bring, it's a kind of heroism.

Or when, as in Harvey, a reporter and a shooter in a helicopter reported that a stranded truck driver trapped in the cab of his truck was in danger of being drowned in a storm surge, he was removed mere minutes before he would have perished.

We know there's something more than a little fake and Ratherish about those in front of the camera engineering maximum visual drama for their standup shots. We also know that there's genuine bravery in all those reporters and shooters bringing us the immediate terrors of natural disasters, in all their "up close and personal" horror.

Next time someone seriously uses the term "fake news" within earshot, try not to picture them drowning in a storm surge -- or whisked off to oblivion by a tree branch hitting their head at 120 mph. It just wouldn't be nice.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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