The Virginia shooting, Part II: Canadian content

I started in television news after 30 years as a reporter and editor for wire services and newspapers.

When I interviewed for the job at CBC Newsworld in early 1998, the executive producer, Jay Mowat said: “I’m looking for seasoned writers for our weekend operation. We have a lot of young kids, and I think they could learn from an old pro like you.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “I know nothing about writing for television.”

“I’m not worried about that,” he said.

It took me a full year to get the hang of TV writing, learning to let the pictures carry the story.

Once I conquered the concept, it was in many ways easier than writing for print. I’d always had trouble describing a scene. Now, I could simply roll the pictures, rely on the equation of one equaling 1,000.

Which brings me to the previous piece I wrote for this space, concerning the misguided decision by U.S. TV networks to sanitize the Virginia shooting.

The pictures were the story, both the live broadcast captured by Roanoke station WDBJ-TV and those shot by the killer.

(I haven’t seen the second video beyond the moment he raises his gun, but there has to be a place to cut before we see a slug strike one of the victims.)

Without those two pieces of evidence, so rarely in the hands of the news media, it’s a much different story, a smaller story.

As journalists, we should leave the damnation of the also-known-as scumbag to his god, if he had one.

***

In my first year at CBC, I was given the assignment of crafting a voiceover for some pictures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (That’s the big Congo, with Kinshasa as its capital.)

The country was going through one of its periodic rebellions/bloodbaths, which we had been reporting on regularly.

I was handed an AP tape with pictures of government soldiers throwing a suspected rebel off a bridge, into a shallow river, and shooting him as he tried to crawl ashore.

That was the story. It showed the savagery common in the conflict.

I told the tape editor to let the entire sequence run and keep the sound up through the final burst of rifle fire.

I wrote a brief intro and handed the cut tape to the lineup editor.

“It’s pretty brutal,” I told him, describing the action.

“Should we ditch it?” he asked.

I shrugged. “It’s the only way to tell the story.”

It played on the next hourly newscast and created a dusting of fallout from the producer’s desk.

The consensus was we should have warned viewers of possibly disturbing pictures.

***

After writing about the U.S. networks’ management of the Virginia shooting, I went online to see how Canadian TV handled it.

It was the lead story on all three national newscasts, each anchored by summer subs for the top dogs.

On CBC’s The National, Ian Hanomansing preceded the item with: “Warning, disturbing images and audio.”

The CBC ran the five or so seconds of the shooting recorded by WDBJ – the gunfire and screams from reporter Alison Parker – but announced it would not air the killer’s video.

“We have chosen not to show you all” of the videos, Kevin Newman said on the CTV National News. “But you should be prepared because what you are about to see is very graphic.”

It was the same five seconds from WDBJ, plus a freeze-frame from the gunman’s video with his pistol pointed at Parker.

On Global National, anchor Tom Clark said, “A warning: Some of the images in this story are disturbing.”

Global ended the WDBJ video after one gunshot and said the shooter’s “images are too graphic to show.”

***

For me, there are no more unnerving pictures than the planes smashing into the World Trade Center – except for the towers collapsing.

Was I disturbed by the images? Every time I see them, to this day.

I’m a New Yorker. I watched those buildings go up. I attended a birthday party for my favorite aunt in Windows on the World at the top of the North Tower a few years before 2001.

But, as a journalist, I view those pictures as the most essential element of the biggest story of my life.

Yet, soon after 9/11, an edict came down from the executive suite at CBC News that we would no longer show the planes hitting the towers.

Why? No explanations accompanied such pronouncements.

But I have a hunch. And it’s nothing nefarious.

In my time at CBC, I noticed how quickly TV careerists get bored, how they crave something new, the next thing, whatever it is.

It would drive me nuts when a producer pulled the plug on a news conference right after some politician or cop read a prepared statement – before reporters’ questions that might elicit real news.

“Why did you do that?” I asked a live-event producer one day.

“I’d seen enough,” she said.

Having been in the control room with this producer, I knew she rarely paid attention to what was being broadcast.

A few days after the no-more-planes edict, CBC bought the rights to new video that had surfaced – taken by a French camera crew shooting in downtown Manhattan that day.

They captured a low angle of one of the planes, with deafening audio of the jet’s engines, moments before impact.

CBC ran those pictures at least once an hour for a day or two.

***

Literary agents and publishers, please note: Much of this story can be found in a memoir of my years in journalism.

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