Friday, May 7, 2010
Alexis Montgomery, the local assignment reporter, didn’t hear her Channel 7 production assistant re-enter the editing room. She was listening to old voice tracks from the Harvest Baptist church fire story she broke nearly a week previous on Easter Sunday and a subsequent report recorded earlier. Martie Hamilton plopped down beside her and began unpacking his dinner.
“It’s dying, Martie,” Alexis said, dropping her face to the desktop. “My piece is dying right before my eyes.”
“What happened? You were so adamant at this morning’s production meeting that this was a story with legs-good enough for the Inside 7 Segment. Everyone was saying, the new girl has got spunk. She’s already figured out how to work the system and get resume-worthy air time. I thought you were going out to do another remote after that Speed camera’s piece you covered this afternoon. Sunset is catching up with you, kiddo.”
“No one has any free time. I can’t pay a crew to go out, and what’s the use? It’s the same charred and crumbled mess. I must have been high off of Frappacino this morning. I’ve been so concerned finding the right story to get me more air time and beat those jerks on assignment at the other station to the anchor chair, that I’m stuck. I thought I’d get clearance to walk inside by now, detail the damage--you know, or to at least get a fire official to shoot some footage for us. That’s it. The buildings taped off and I’m waiting for the magic word.”
“So much for passing out Starbucks gift cards to the Bureau secretaries and other informants around town,” he said with a smirk. “You’re playing anchor on assignment. There is a long road to the anchor chair, darling. Very few find that golden story, become the golden guy or gal of the station, and have their profiles framed out every night on nightly news, especially in this area. It’s too much going on. Sorry to put it to you this way, but you’ve got the community beat--not Politics, not Sports nor High-Crime. You’re the low man on the totem pole. By the way, Stan told me to give you the heads up. The Marc train derailment that happened mid day will have two remotes tomorrow, Greenbelt and New Carrolton. You’ll be splitting yourself in half tomorrow. But if anyone can do it, it’s you, Milky.”
Alexis winced at the nickname she has tried hard to shake. She garnered that nickname back home in the small town of Kannapolis, North Carolina where she started out, also on assignment. She was known to do anything for a story, kiss babies, handle animals and demonstrate stunts. While reporting on the county fair she stepped in to demonstrate how to milk a cow. The oversized cow doused her with more than a fair share of milk. Because she was reporting live, she continued her interview with the Dairy farmer unknowingly giving the tri-state area an eye full of her ample bosom through her white blouse. The film made it to a national blooper show when the pig of a camera man who couldn’t manage to shoot the frame from eye level sent a copy of it in. It ran repeatedly.
Needless to say, she got a lot of unwanted attention. It was like the beauty queen turned weather girl. Alexis was offered the most bizarre assignments. Any opportunity to get sweaty or dirty for the good of the story was given directly to her. She was quite popular, but for all the wrong reasons. She was a journalist. She wanted to be taken seriously. So she left the station rather than being pigeon-holed into the role of media eye candy.
Alexis watched Martie open a bag of chips and shook a few on his reuben stacker before pressing the rye bread with the flat of his hand until the chips snapped liked twigs and the thousand island dressing seeped out the sides like sap. She didn’t want him to see her sulk, so she took possession of his half-empty bag of chips as she thought about her story. She certainly didn’t spend time setting this story up just to start another assignment. That would give another available reporter, or worse, an anchor the chance to revive the story when the truth was uncovered. She didn’t know why, but she had faith in this story as an investigative piece. She should have gone out to do more leg work in her spare time- spoke to some more people in the community.
“The big boys agreed to run the follow up. It can’t be that bad.” Martie noticed her pained expression and offered her the other half of his sandwich with a nod of his head.
“It’s like day old carryout,” Alexis whined.
“It’s not like we’ve never warmed up leftovers on network news before. Let’s hear it.”
Alexis pushed the play on the machine that timed her new voice recording-over to the week-old footage of the burnt and hydrant soaked church building.
This is Alexis Montgomery for Channel 7 news. You might remember on Easter Sunday we brought you our first report of a fire at a local church. What was unusual was the praise vigil that brought previous members back to this edifice in memorial to their former church home. As we’ve been reporting the Harvest Baptist Church located in the 8900 block of Lincoln Avenue in Capitol Heights, Maryland remains taped off from everyone but authorities as an ongoing investigation of the Easter morning inferno continues. Sources tell us officials from both the PG County Fire Department and the local sheriffs’ department have ruled out electrical failure but are guarded as to the actual cause of the blaze. What we do know is that early estimates of $400,000 dollars in damages have been increased to a little over a half a million. The question remains-was this fire a random act or intentionally set. This last but important detail has to be determined before plans of rebuilding can begin.
“It ran at five and six. Didn’t even make the recap at seven before the World Report. I can kiss the Inside segment goodbye.” Alexis spoke of the local weekly News Magazine like 60 Minutes which was the closest a newbie like her got to anchoring if the story was right. She had seen some assignment reporters have the great fortune of covering a windfall of a story that garners those recurring weeks with the host, Lizzy London, at the anchor’s desk.
“Might run at eleven, but won’t have a chance without a fresh remote and a fresh angle. Six a.m., New Carrolton Metro station-interview commuters inconvenienced by the Marc train situation,” Martie said.
She would be there. She had to if she wanted to keep her job, but she wasn’t interested in any derailment story. The Harvest Baptist Church story fascinated her. The building reminded her of her church home and of her grandfather who was the pastor there. She didn’t see too many of these small congregations thriving in the midst of the mega ministries in the DC Metropolitan area. Even some of the most historic ministries have upgraded or had a face-lift or two. The people she saw that Easter Sunday decked out in their Easter apparel were rooted in faith and the traditions of the church.
Alexis missed her old church that was the center of her rural community. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t been able to find a church home that suited her after moving to the metropolitan area and breaking into broadcast journalism. Her grandfather had been concerned that she’d lose her soul chasing her dreams to the big city. In addition to leaving the sexist station, she was trying her best to outrun the ghost of shame she had tried to leave behind in Kannapolis.
“There’s something’s there. There is more. I’m going out on my free time tomorrow to find it.” New determination was in her eyes.
“What is it about this story? I don’t get it. This is not like that string of church fires in Alabama. This is one isolated case-an act of God. Isn’t the mark of a good journalist is to know when to move on? I’m afraid you’re going to lose your objectivity going after your perception of truth.
“For one thing, this church has got a cast of characters a mile long. I’ve kept a list from my initial report,” she said, consulting a notebook full of notes. There is the former pastor who conveniently moved on after a nasty split from his members a few months before the suspicious fire, a deacon who sparked the whole rift, a new pastor who stands to get a new building depending on the insurance figures, and a homeless guy who is like a renegade that found Christ and now is hungry for a pulpit and a willing ear.”
“There’s your stories right there. Pitch them to the Inside 7 producers. ” Martie put his hands up in a revelatory gesture.
“I’m tracking down a few, but I don’t want to work a tabloid piece, Martie. I’m a serious journalist. Besides, if this thing swings the way I think it will, the aforementioned better have good lawyers lined up. Mark my words that church didn’t burn down by itself.” She indicated to him that he had a glob of Thousand Island dressing left in the corner of his mouth, which he promptly took a napkin to.
“ Many reporters on assignment have built a successful career on tabloid-ish, or what I like to call human interest stories. The really great ones know how to mix both. Go after your stories. I’ll back you at the next production meeting.”
Just then her blackberry vibrated. A text from her source at the fire department she met after the first story was telling her to check her email. She remembered extending him a generous fifty dollar coffee tab for allegiance. Alexis strained her eyes to make out the miniature scanned report that was on its way to the office of the Prince Georges County Fire Marshall and Maryland State Fire Department marked with the magic word–arson. She didn’t need Martie’s backing. All of a sudden her story had sprouted legs and was walking.
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