More than a few years ago a tornado tore a mile-wide path through the town where I was the newspaper’s editor, killing 11 people and destroying hundreds of homes as well as churches and schools.
In the wake of that storm, reporters and photographers, broadcast as well as print, headquartered in my newsroom. Among those was David Breslauer, an Associated Press photographer.
The anniversary of that storm, which struck on a Friday afternoon, was about 10 days ago.
On the Sunday after the storm, my reporters scattered to cover the services of the churches that had been destroyed. I assigned myself to cover the services of the community’s First Christian Church.
At those services, which were held in the auditorium of the community college, I watched a photographer for a big city newspaper literally lean across a father’s shoulder to photograph his infant as the child was christened at the beginning of the service.
And later I watched a teleision camera crew crash through the auditorium’s swinging doors to bulldoze their way to the front of the auditorium as the church’s pastor concluded his sermon. With everyone else in the auditorium, I jerked with surprise as the young woman shouldering the television camera knocked over a heavy stool which had served as the choir director’s podium. And I shared the disgust of the rest of those present when she just shrugged off the discord she had caused.
I understood then and I understand now where those people were coming from. I wanted then and I want now the best photographs and the most moving stories in my newspaper. And I was willing then and I am willing now to stay up long hours, drive long distances or cross downed and possibly still “hot” power lines to get them.
But the ends to which some members of my profession will go are beyond the bounds of decorum — indeed, at times are beyond belief.
In the weeks after that disaster, I saw local officials “set up” by the metro media as reporters tried to create controversy where there was none. The officials in what was then my town reacted quickly and well to deal with a disaster the magnitude of which none of them could have possibly imagined until they were dealing with it.
But the people in the big city 100 miles away didn’t know that. That wasn’t the picture they were given.
That left me ashamed of my profession — or at least of that element of my profession.
But in that profession’s defense there was another element of it at work in my town. That second element was personified by the AP staffers who operated out of my newsroom in the wake of that long ago storm.
The AP put nothing on the wire until it was sure of its facts.
The AP staffers I watched work were, without exception, polite and unassuming.
They worked hard and they worked fast and they were very, very good at what they did. But they also exhibited a sort of sense of what was — and is — right, perhaps of how they’d want to be treated were they the disaster victims themselves.
Let me focus on Breslauer — who went on to become AP’s chief photographer at the White House — as one thing that he did symbolizes for me all I am trying to say.
In the church services that day, Breslauer probably was not noticed. He is a little fellow who at the time wore a well kept beard. He was well and conservatively dressed. He kept to the shadows or to the sides of the auditorium — or he shot from the auditorium’s loft. Instead of climbing all over the service’s participants, he used long lenses.
Breslauer carried not one but several of what was then the state of the art camera in the journalism field, the Nikon F3. All of them had motor drives. Those drives functioned flawlessly, but they made a lot of noise.
Breslauer did not use his motor drives once in that makeshift sanctuary that Sunday. Rather, he moved his finger past the motor drive’s trigger to the camera’s manual shutter release and he advanced his film manually. He made his photos silently.
David Breslauer came into that town on that Friday afternoon and he left the following Monday. I doubt he ever went back. He did not shoot manually because he was afraid of repercussions.
He did it because he cared.
Yes, there were reasons during that disaster to be ashamed of my profession.
But there were reasons to be proud of it, too.
David Sullens is editor of the Courier Express and executive editor of the East Coast Group of Community Media Group.