Monday, August 9, 2010

Here is the News

Man, sometimes working in the media is hard.

Like how a few weeks ago, a couple of tiny and seemingly insignificant screws slowly worked their way out of our video camera.¹ Problem is, those were load-bearing screws (or something like that) and without them, the camera fell off of the tripod and...let's just say that "viewfinder" is a terrible name, because I still haven't been able to view or find all of that camera's viewfinder ever since. And more importantly, it still won't attach to a tripod.

So on the afternoon of July 22nd, I had sealed it up for shipping it to the closest place I could find that would repair a video camera mailed to them (Burbank, CA) when I learned that it needed more packing materials. I sliced its box back open and added some.

And then I heard about the shooting. A police officer had been shot in front of the High Court in downtown Fagatogo, just about a mile from the office.

On an island that doesn't allow handguns, not even for cops, this is a totally shocking thing. It's been years since the last shooting in the territory. This was apparently a revenge shooting; it later turned out that the victim had arrested the mother of the shooter on an outstanding warrant when she returned to the island to attend the trial that the officer in question (Lt.
Brown) was protecting at the time of the shooting.

Monica, our news director, breaks into our regulatory scheduled radio programs with a report about the shooting. There's a clip of La, her assistant, breaking into tears as she describes the shooting that she just witnessed firsthand while she was interviewing one of the lawyers for the case.

But oddly enough, since I'm not really in news production, I go back to what I was doing and tape the box for the camera closed for a second time. Then a few minutes later I realize that maybe I should go down to the scene of the shooting and take some footage. I clear it with the boss, get Kolio to drive me down there (my car still isn't fixed), cut open the camera box for the second time, find a stick mic, and ride down to the scene of the crime.

We arrive, and it's has mostly emptied out, but the entire parking lot in front of the courthouse is still roped off with police tape "CAUTION! OPEN DITCH" tape. There's still a few police vehicles and a firetruck (?) on the scene. I grab some halfway-decent tripodless shots of police and eyewitnesses mulling around from the front porch of the Sadie Thompson Inn across the street. I meet some people who are able to point me to an eyewitness. She's still shaken; afraid to say her name or let us show her face for fear of retribution from the shooter's family. I let her just speak into the microphone and I point the camera at the ground. Monica and La would still be able to use the audio for their radio news program. The eyewitness has seen some pretty terrifying things. The shooter is a very big guy, and it took several cops to finally wrestle him to the ground and take the gun away from him. A second officer was shot in the hand before it was all over.

After the interview, Kolio finds something else. There's a big bloodstain on the ground from where the shooting was. Jeez. I film what I need of it, and also a forensics guy taking pictures of it.

Then we rush back to the station and Joey leads me in slicing the 10 minutes or so of footage that I have into an approximately 30-second clip that we will upload to the FTP server of a guy in Hawaii who will send it on to any major media outlets that may want it. As far as I know, none of them ever used it. But the story was carried on a number of major news outlets, including NPR Australian ABC, and the Associated Press.

I went back to the station and sat down at my computer. In front of me was an open audio file of some sort. It turned out that La had been recording an interview at the time of the shooting, and actually captured the audio of the entire incident. It was the most disturbing thing I've ever heard. Were the full version of it to have really gotten out, I think it might have gotten up there with the Budd Dwyer suicide or the tape of Timothy Treadwell's death. A heavily edited version of La's clip was aired during the afternoon newscast, which can be found as part of the story on the station's news website here. I wouldn't recommend listening to it if you don't have that much of a connection to the island, but I will say that it's not half as scarring as the unedited version.

The following day, the Samoa News carried about a dozen photos of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, including the shooter kicking Detective Brown's body and the arrest. I know that I'm in the minority on this here, but they were right to carry these photos. There is a human tendency to ignore information that we don't like, and the fact that something this horrible can happen here is one of those bits of information. This shooting was very much drug-related, and there have been many reports of a serious drug problem here on the island, including serious things like crystal meth, but what do we do when we hear them? Seriously demand more action from our elected leaders? Volunteer for or donate to anti-drug programs? Nope, most people will say "Oh, how terrible" then immediately stick their heads in the sand and mentally pretend that it never happened. It's the natural, easy thing to do. We all want to believe that we live anywhere in a perfectly safe, secure island paradise and that problems like drugs and revenge killings are limited to other parts of the world, but not here.

When my aunt died a terrible death of lung cancer a few years ago, we all wished that more people could have seen her in that state. That image of her lying their in terrible pain, wasting away in a time where she should have had at least 20 good years left, was the strongest deterrent to smoking that will ever encounter. Just like how most people here want to pretend that the island is a drug-free paradise, most smokers are in denial that they're setting themselves up for a slow, painful death.

Similarly, running those photos and airing that audio punches you in the face with cold, hard reality and tells you "THIS IS WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING!" At the same time, if I were the one who decides what would be in the paper, I would have put one of the less graphic but still important photos on the front page and put the others on the inside somewhere. You only need to punch faces so hard to keep people from being in denial about the world around them. I feel like it would make more sense to put the majority of the more graphic photos on the inside, so that at least kids wouldn't have to see them. I also now understand why the Charlotte Observer ran those photos of the American contractors whose charred bodies had been hung over the bridge in Fallujah, Iraq. It feels like in some way, you're reading/hearing a totally different story if all of the graphic elements are censored.

A lot of people have also said that the images shouldn't be published out of respect for Detective Brown's family, but is that family actually going to go out and buy the paper knowing what's going to be in it? I doubt that. We really just don't want anyone to "rock the boat" of our pleasant-enough view of the world. Also, I've only heard one person complain about the airing of our audio clip, which is pretty good, considering the dozens that complained about the paper's photos.

La was very shaken by what she witnessed for the next day or so, but she seems fine now.

There was at least one other interesting impact that the release of La's recording made. The AP version of the story was posted to a news website that I frequent with a somewhat inflamatory gun-control headline. Due to some very good timing, I was able to be one of the first commentators and post a link to the recording along with a reminder that this tragedy was a REAL horror with REAL pain for real people and NOT a political football for people to "prove" that their preexisting beliefs on the gun issue. Surprisingly, this was actually effective, and the responses were a lot more respectful and muted than what that site is known for.

What's up next for this story? The first pretrial hearings for the alleged shooter have begun, and apparently there is the possibility for the island to have its first execution since 1939. The article says that that execution was by hanging, and that there was an attempt to officially switch the method of execution to lethal injections in 2003, which failed. Does this mean that there could be a 21st-century hanging on the island? Heck if I know, but my instincts say they'll try to avoid that somehow.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Lt. Brown's family.

Also, I'll put this here just because.

¹Yes, we really only have one, except some older ones that are permanently part of the set of The 411.
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