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a journalist's trip down memory lane

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 30, 2010

 A friend called my attention to this interesting item from the Boston Herald, appearing in the column written by the gossip columnists who are accustomed to dealing with “ordinary” celebrities. When you’re covering the President of the United States—even when he’s just on vacation, going out to dinner with friends—you’re introduced to an entirely different level of journalistic intensity. It is, I imagine, something like that fateful day when an outstanding college football player, having been signed by a professional team, experiences his first day of practice with NFL veterans. He’s a good player; otherwise he wouldn’t’ even be on the field. But he isn’t quite ready for the veterans. They’re bigger; they’re faster; they’re stronger; they’re meaner than anything he has experienced.

I speak from personal experience. Not in the NFL, but in journalism. Which in some ways is similar.

In 1984, I won a position as an election observer in El Salvador: a country that was, at the time, in the midst of a civil war. I worked hard during my few days there. I managed quick personal meetings with the two leading contenders: José Napoleon Duarte, the eventual winner; and Roberto D’Aubuisson, the sinister figure who almost certainly ordered the murder of Archbishop Romero. I interviewed election officials, but I also made a point of talking with ordinary folks. I traveled around the countryside a bit, through territory that was regarded as dangerous, and saw the voting in little villages and in small towns. Relying on what I had seen and heard and on my own political instincts (honed since childhood in the trying grounds of Boston) I concluded that Duarte would win. Arriving back in San Salvador in the evening, I wangled my way into the Duarte campaign headquarters. I was there soon after the polls closed. I sized up the situation, calculated Duarte’s likely route from the entry to the stage, and set myself up, camera in hand, at the best possible vantage point along that route. I had done my homework; I felt confident of a great photo op.

An hour or more passed, and finally Duarte arrived. He came with his clique, naturally, and there was a wave of celebrating humanity as he crossed the courtyard toward the platform where he would speak. I held my position. I had set my camera in advance, to focus on a spot that the president-elect would pass. I was ready. He was coming right for that spot. Everything was perfectly set for an ideal picture.

Then just a split second before Duarte passed, the network TV cameras arrived. The network cameramen hadn’t come early to scout the best locations. They hadn’t talked with local residents and figured out the likely winner in the election. They hadn’t sweet-talked their way into campaign headquarters. They didn’t need to do all that homework. They had the money, they had the cameras, they had the clout. They just followed Duarte, and pushed through the crowds.

If I had known that this was a contact sport, I might have been ready to “box out,” as I had learned to do in basketball games. But it hadn’t occurred to me, neophyte that I was, that the network crews would not respect the rights of a fellow journalist who was standing in position, ready to take that “money” shot. So it was that as the president-elect walked by—bare inches away from the site that I had selected—I was sent sprawling across the courtyard.

I did manage to get a close-up shot of Duarte’s left elbow. I might still have a copy, if you’re really interested. As I sat on the ground nursing a few minor bruises and scrapes, I was tempted to inflict similar damages on the cameraman who had run me over. And believe me, I  was tempted. But even if I had done my worst (or my best, depending on your perspective) it wouldn’t have changed the facts. He had the picture; I didn’t.

 Why do I bother recounting this old story? Because it reminds me—and I hereby remind you—that journalism is hardball. Read today’s CWN headlines, or any day’s headlines, and you should realize that the stakes are high. There are plenty of people ready to fight for a chance to influence your perception of the news. I might not be as tough physically as I was back in 1984, but I’ve acquired a lot more savvy in the intervening years. And I’m still in there, fighting, every day. I’m happy and grateful that you’ve given me that chance. 

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  • Posted by: mjarman7759049 - Aug. 31, 2010 12:06 PM ET USA

    "And I’m still in there, fighting, every day." And we're glad you are, Phil!

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