FIRST PERSON: ‘Recall Refugees’ Fly Right to Eagle

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

One day you’re covering an Arnold Schwarzenegger rally in L.A., the next you find yourself in Eagle, Colo., waiting for Kobe Bryant to show up. The timing of news is not always convenient. TV crews who were already dead tired from reporting on the California recall jumped on planes the day after the election to get ready for Bryant’s preliminary hearing.
It was a mass migration east for what you might call “recall refugees.” About 300 media types showed up in this small Colorado town.
At first, nobody thought there would be any news here. Various “legal experts” had predicted that Bryant’s lawyers would waive his right to a hearing. The experts were totally wrong. But nobody knew that until the judge took the bench. Reporters sat shoulder to shoulder in court and in an overflow room listening to what was going on in court.
We quickly realized we would have a story to report, with real evidence and real testimony. That meant we’d have to work, and some of us were disappointed. Covering the Bryant hearing for television was not going to be easy.
This time the judge banned cameras from the courtroom. So for TV folks that meant trying to condense hours of testimony into two minutes or less of reportage, and having to do it without pictures or sound. The only visuals we had were shots of Bryant outside court and sketches from inside.
Some of the judge’s rules made the job even more difficult. Reporters were allowed to bring only pens and notepads into the courthouse. You had to leave cellphones and pagers outside. Court officials told us that if we left our seats during the hearing, we might not get back in. And if you weren’t in the court or the overflow room, you had no way of knowing what was happening. So you couldn’t really run the risk of going outside to your live shot location, even during a break.
One of the funniest things I saw was a line of frustrated reporters waiting to use the single pay phone in the lobby. They needed to communicate with producers and editors. And they had to wait. Everybody is so reliant on cellphones these days, it’s hard to imagine not being able to use one.
For those anchors and reporters with afternoon shows, there was an even greater challenge. Some of them had to do live reports based on testimony they’d never heard. Many stations and networks kept one person inside the courthouse and one person in front of the camera. The people inside wrote notes to the people outside. The sheriff’s spokeswoman carried them out by hand. We all have the most modern equipment for gathering and disseminating news, and there we were, relying on antiquated ways to transmit the information.
There were ethical issues too. The testimony was graphic. This is, after all, a rape case. Some of the details were too lurid, even for TV news. Also, Mr. Bryant’s lawyers showed how easy it is to manipulate the coverage. They suggested in court that his accuser was promiscuous. And even though they provided no proof, we all reported it. It was too sensational to ignore.
Outside the courthouse, some of the locals were trying to make a buck off the media invasion. October is the beginning of elk hunting season in Colorado. But the townspeople were distracted by the herd of TV types. The guy who owns the parking lot across from the Eagle County Justice Center decided to charge this time. Each media organization paid $500 to park a satellite truck at this dirt lot. We had no choice. It was the only place within sight of the courthouse where the authorities allowed us to park. The lot owner said he’d donate the money to charity.
But a woman driving a green Suburban through the makeshift media village had pure profit on her mind. She came by early in the morning offering hot lattes to the TV crews. She wanted $4 apiece. That’s more than Starbucks gets! But when it’s 5:30 a.m. and you need caffeine to sound coherent on television, it’s worth it.
Another entrepreneur managed to get lots of free publicity for a new product he’s marketing. It’s a condom that’s packaged in a box along with a legal document called a “pre-sexual agreement.” You get your partner to sign on the dotted line before anything happens. That way there’s no dispute over consent.
By Friday, the carnival was leaving town. The same media crew would be back in a few days for the continuation of the hearing. Court officials here were still laughing about the call they got from an L.A. reporter the week before. He complained that Mr. Bryant’s court appearance and the California recall election were too close together. “Why can’t you delay the hearing?” he asked. And he was serious too.