Newtown and News Media: A Mix of Tension and Gratitude
Networks mostly clear out of Connecticut, but station reporters stick with awful story
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/18/2012 5:17:36 PM
A bell tolls constantly in the chilly, damp air.
Across from the church is a tiny Citgo station, and the muddy lot behind that holds dozens of television trucks -- NBC4, PIX 11, WABC, NBC Philadelphia, CBS 2 New York.
Most of the national media had moved out as of noon on Tuesday, but the local station crews, from both New York and Hartford-New Haven -- as well as Boston, Providence and Philadelphia -- are sticking with the story.
Several police cars are parked in front of the church, near the hearse. They bear the names of neighboring towns -- Meriden, Trumbull, Norwalk -- as there are presumably not enough police cars in Newtown to cover the dreadful tragedy that occurred a few miles east of here, and its aftermath.
Though the media crush has thinned considerably, there remains an uneasy relationship between the reporters and the residents. A woman keeps driving by, say the station staffers, telling everyone to "get the hell out."
"They do not want us here," said one Connecticut photographer.
A reporter from a New York O&O mentions the station hiring a private security professional for the day, after a motorist threatened one of their staffers with his car. With a service for Jessica Rekos, who was 6, going on inside, a man of about 20 -- wearing scruffy facial hair and a scowl -- walked by the media, growling, "It's a funeral, people -- not a TV station!"
The remaining reporters are pleased to see the overseas crews have largely left. The sense of decorum was different with the foreigners, they say; they share reports of sneaking into private services, crossing police tape and chasing hearses from the non-U.S. reporting staffs.
"No ethics," grumbles an O&O photographer.
Most residents appear to appreciate the stations' efforts. "The coverage has been wonderful -- they are respecting people's privacy," says Anne Maloy, who stopped by the church from Trumbull. "They've stayed on the outskirts when they needed do. I think they've done a beautiful job."
Maloy has no children, but says of the murdered Sandy Hook Elementary School students, "I feel like these are my kids."
She mentions a report on Jessica Rekos and her love of horses -- how the girl wanted cowboy boots and a cowboy hat for Christmas. One local TV report stuck out in her mind, though she could not recall the station. "The thing that hit me most was when a reporter said, 'They're so young they haven't even lost their baby teeth,'" says Maloy. "That really hit home."
Newtown's little downtown is spread out, with green space between the shops, and no one is in the mood to shop. So foot traffic -- and potential sources for interviews -- is light. Any fresh face not carrying a camera, microphone or notepad is approached for comment. A man in a giant, tricked-out pickup truck, license plate "LoDown" and his son's college basketball statistics adhered to the window, parks in the church driveway and pulls out a sign that reads "God Bless America. The O'Quinn Family of Hermanville, MS." He's swarmed by the media, until a police officer in a handlebar moustache tells him to get out of the driveway.
The man, wearing a biker jacket with 'Harley Davidson' across the back, parks 30 feet down the street. He pulls a bag of balloons out of his truck and sends them skyward. The media -- NECN, ABC6 out of Providence -- envelopes him again.
After he leaves, the reporters see a woman holding a bouquet of flowers, and descend on her too.
A few doors down, the local Starbucks has become a newsroom for working press filing stories on deadline. The woman ringing up coffees says she's taking one day at a time. "It's good to be working," she says. "The last few days I was home, with nothing to do. That wasn't good."
At the Newtown Convenience & Deli, a woman struggles to drive a homemade sign, reading "In Loving Memory of the Sandy Hook Victims," into the muddy ground out front.
At Bagel Delight, there's a framed and signed headshot of WFSB Hartford anchor Scot Haney on the counter that speaks to happier times between the media and the public. "Most of them have been respectful and have not been harassing my customers," says the proprietor.
The church bell continues to ring. Michael George of Meriden isn't sure why he came out on Tuesday. He lost his daughter Laurie, who was 10, in a school bus accident in 1972. That might have something to do with it. He says next week will be particularly hard on the parents of the slain children, when extended family departs and people return to regular routines.
He's been watching NBC-owned WVIT, and credits the stations for taking pains to get the story right when others were reporting a litany of falsities related to the mass murder, including the perpetrator's name and his mother's connection to the school. (As one New York reporter on site puts it, "In a Twitter world, it's anything goes.")
"Unlike the national reporting, they were slower to report some stuff that in the end turned out to be inaccurate," says George. "They were more careful."
The funeral service lets out at 1:45, and the reporters get ready. There's a crew from WBZ Boston, one from WPVI Philadelphia, News 12 Connecticut, WFSB. People file out of the church, check their phones, light a cigarette, hug a loved one. A WVIT reporter politely approaches a young woman for a comment.
"I understand you have a job to do, but show some respect," says the woman.
No one is talking, at least until WVIT gets an older man to speak.
"She made the sun come out," he says of little Jessica.
Corny as it sounds, the sun does indeed poke through the gray -- its first appearance in days. The attendees of the service get in their cars. The media assemblage gradually thins.
The police rev up their motorcycles and head east on Church Hill Road, and that long line of traffic, with many, many more church services to work.
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