Monday, August 17, 2009

Telling the Real Story

I met some old college friends for breakfast in Soho on Friday, at Once Upon A Tart, my all-time favorite bakery. The currant buttermilk scone could change your life if you let it. The first time I ate one, sitting on the steps of the little French cafe on Sullivan Street, I ran right in afterward and bought a second one. Warning: two in one sitting is just asking for trouble.

My one friend was in from San Francisco, a few days off from her family, a high-powered exec not working for the first time since business school at UCBerkeley. The the other woman was taking a few minutes off from her elite reporter position with a major New York City news station. She was supposed to have been in Harlem, covering the story of new fruit carts going in to the much-rejuventated but still depressed neighborhood.

I laughed. "Oh, that will work," I said, jaded I know from having covered food marketing too long, from writing too many stories of failed efforts to sell more expensive, more nutritious foods to people who can't afford them and aren't in the habit of eating them. To succeed, businesses have to provide what people want to buy, not what they should buy, not what politicians or policy-makers hope they will be convinced to buy to save on healthcare costs.

"Well," she said, nodding "there was a shooting the other day, and the vendor got scared, so he didn't show up today."

"Wow. Well, that's a better story anyway," I said, "that's what's really going on."

"But now there is nothing to shoot," she said. "There's no story. He won't talk to us. It's TV, and there is nothing to show."

I shook my head. "That's the problem. It's why I have this lame photo-less blog I don't get paid for instead of being a reporter. I don't want to be beholden to the photo-op, to the sexy headline, to advertisers. I want to be able to tell the interesting story, the one I want to tell, the way I want to tell it."

She shrugged. "I'm used to it," she said. She has been a TV reporter since college, just as she set out to do, wending her way through small towns to get back to her native New York City, to the big time. Whether she is addressing a group on the latest breast cancer research or talking about sunglasses, she is always cognizant of her role and its positives and negatives, its potential and its parameters. This is her job. People want the information she holds, they want it fast and easy and uncomplicated, whatever it is about. They want a point of view, they want a perspective. She gives it to them. She is great at what she does. I gave her a gold star.

I remember the times when I was working on a story at work, just like when I was writing a paper in college, when the person I found to interview or the information I uncovered, didn't seem to support the thesis I had come up with out of the clear blue, the "Truth According to Stephanie" as my San Francisco friend called it, what I instinctively believe. Sometimes I think there is no such thing as a fact, but we look to support such "truths" all the time. We try to act like we know how many planets there are, but that seems to be changing all the time. I am a skeptic. It is why I am out of work. Journalists are jaded, to be sure, but most of their annoyance comes out in cursing out their very subjective subjects after they've hung up the phone or turned off the video camera. When we sit down to write or edit, we have to shrug and say it's the best we can do, the closest we can come and still stay employed.

After our reporter friend left to take on another story, one she could focus a video camera on, we meandered in my muddle-headed way to the newly developed Highline, ambling along in the bright sun amongst the new modern structures of Chelsea. It is almost suburban with its pristine landscaping, brand-new benches. There was not a homeless person to be seen, just working people on break, camp kids, tourists.

We hit a few galleries, marveling that things like a crudely-painted penis can command such high prices, and then separated to head uptown, to different sides. As I closed the door to her cab and watched it speed away, right toward where I was headed before it turned East, I kicked myself. Here I was, on 10th Ave., nowhere near a subway, and I was late getting to Times Square. The sun made me so stupid. I must have been voicing my vexation out loud, as a boy on a bicycle, a cute gold-cross wearing 20-something yelled out to me as he sat at the stoplight.

"I could give you a ride on my handlebars?!" he offered.

I looked down at my short denim dress and four-inch Barbarella platforms and imagined it, considered it. Maybe, had I been wearing pants, I'd like to think I'd have taken him up on it. I should have anyway, it would have been a great story, definitely TV-worthy. "Park Slope Mom Caught on Strange Man's Handlebars Riding Through Midtown."

But I would have flashed much of Manhattan and, anyway, I felt bad. He couldn't have been serious and I didn't want to call him out. I laughed, though, hard, and gave him a gold star for his boldness, for being so quick and funny. It made my day. My husband, hearing the story later, was disappointed I hadn't hopped on. He likes to tell stories of how crazy his wife is at the office, to have tangible examples to point to that explain what he's up against. I could have just said I'd done it, but it wouldn't be true. Next time, honey, I swear.

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