REAL REPORTERS: BEHIND THE CAMERA JOURNALISTS – Garry Armstrong

It’s never been a one-man show.

I’ve logged over 40-years in TV and radio news,  including 31 years at one Boston TV Station.  I’m always flattered when people say they remember me and my work. The body of work is considerable. Usually 3 or 4 daily newscasts, 5 to 6 days a week,  48 or so weeks a year times 40.  That’s a lot of news, good, bad and ugly.

A reporter,  the face in front of the camera,  gets the credit for everything. The images of life, death and the furies of Mother Nature.  Wars and Peace. Happiness and sorrow. You see the reporter, center screen with a name graphic, proof that he or she saw everything in the visuals that tell the story.

It’s a false premise.  It’s impractical. The reporter couldn’t possibly be in all the places seen in the story that has you riveted to the screen.

We’re called “talent” in business lexicon.  That should be a dead giveaway. We’re the human, face connection, to all those images on your screen.

The real reporters are the people behind the cameras.  The men and women who frequently put their lives on the line to bring you the pictures, the video seared into your sense memory.

I’m proud of all the awards I’ve received over the years. I’d be a liar if I said the hardware didn’t mean anything to me. They are reminders of the stories covered across four decades – on the local, state, national and international stages.  The awards have my name clearly etched, front and center. But I can see all the faces of those responsible for bringing the stories to life.

In the 60’s,  I was a green rookie, assigned to the national and international news,  landscapes that ranged from Vietnam, civilian dissent against the war, Civil Rights marches and violent opposition,  assassinations of national leaders,  a historic walk on the moon and a music-culture changer called Woodstock. I was a 20-something, agape at all these events I was covering for Network News.  It truly was baptism under fire.  I survived because of veterans whose careers began with the birth of radio and television news,  The great depression and World War Two.

The 20 something was handed the keys to the news kingdom.  Right place, right time. I may have often been driving the big car but those veterans always rode shotgun,  guiding me through some very difficult mazes of network news closed-door battles with the Pentagon,  the DOD and the White House.  I had a grizzled news manager who always counseled me, “Just tell the truth…make sure you’ve corroborated 2 or 3 times at least.

Don’t let the Pols or Generals faze you…make sure the stories are short, punchy…dump the adjectives”.

All that was behind me when I landed in Boston in 1970. If I thought I knew it all, I was dead wrong.  Boston was just edging its way into a golden era of TV Journalism.  The technology was rapidly changing and changing the way things were done.  TV news was still viewed with skepticism and contempt by many old-school journalists who believed the word was stronger than the picture.

Boston is a highly regarded news market. It can be tricky for a newcomer not versed in the proper pronunciation of towns and cities or the political landmines in seemingly benevolent Norman Rockwell like settings.

I was thrust into local celebrity by being a general assignment reporter covering blue-plate special stories of murders, fires, prison riots,  sexual predators, bad weather, and quirky politics.

I quickly learned to lean on the experience of the people shooting the stories.  They knew the players, the back stories,  the dos and the don’ts.

A news director (one of nearly 3 dozen I survived) told me to keep the camera crews under my thumb.  He said they were just ‘picture takers’, ‘lumpers’ and ‘complainers’.  That news director was history before I figured out how wrong he was.

Those picture takers really were reporters who saw everything around them. They knew when someone was just using his “face time” to dance around the truth and delay legal consequences. They warned me about the “frauds” and “fakers,” political and community leaders who could clean your pockets while shaking your hand.

I am especially thankful for the photojournalists who covered “the mean streets.”   They’re the ones I always saw at 3 o’clock in the morning at a devastating fire,  a triple homicide or drive-by shooting.  They always knew more than the eye-witnesses or law enforcement people just catching the case. I apologize to those whose names are omitted.  It’s impossible to do justice to all of you who were there for me and other reporters over all those years.

Boston is a unique TV news market because the competition is benevolent.  Everyone wants to be FIRST with the story, especially with the advent of electronic newsgathering.  Everything is “Now”.  It happens and,  in a few minutes,  you’re expected to be “live with breaking news”.  Truth and facts often become victims in the quest to be fast and first.

Reporters feel the pressure.  They often feel their jobs are on the line if they are not first.  The folks behind the cameras become a calming force.  They’ve observed the scene, the people, possible evidence.  Often, cameramen and women can figure out the story while fielding frantic and demanding calls from newsrooms.  Over the years,  I’ve leaned on camera and tech crews, not only from my station but also competitors.

I’ve been slipped pieces of paper with key information during live shots and looked like the best damn reporter in town.  In truth,  I was saved by a competing cameraman who saw me struggling and threw the lifeline.

I’ve been praised for memorable “standups” — those on-camera appearances where we look you in the eye and deliver riveting reports. The truth is those words often came from the people behind the camera.  Their words, repeated with sincere conviction by me.

The camera folks also correct information that we, seasoned reporters,  are sure is true.  I was often interrupted with,  “Garry, I don’t want to tell you what to say.  You always know what you’re doing…”   The bulb in my brain flashes — “Listen, know-it-all breath”.

So,  this is a thank you to Richie, Andy, Nat, Jack, Premack, Warren, Eddie,  Susan, Leslie, Noot,  Messrs. Richard Chase, “Fast Al”,  Stan The Man and all the other REAL — behind the camera reporters.

These were the journalists who enabled me to have such a long and satisfying career. Thank you!

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER ROOF – SQUARE ROOFS #16 – Garry Armstrong

It’s that time of year again and squares are back! 

A church roof, somewhere in Arizona. I have no idea if it is a real antique or a more recent creation intended to look antique. For the camera, it’s just an interesting roof. Did I mention this one is Garry’s?  It is!

Old church in Arizona. I don’t know if it was “created old looking” or is really old. In Arizona, it’s hard to know for sure.

Well, the theme is ROOFS (or rooves if you prefer). Your roof can be;

A – any type, any condition, any size, and in any location.
B – it could be a shot across rooftops, of one roof like today or even a macro
C – you might prefer to spend some time under the eaves and in the attic, or enjoy the view from above as Brian has already done today.


See you tomorrow!

TO MOM ON YOUR 101st BIRTHDAY

Today is “Flag Day” throughout much of the world.  Here, it is much more. It’s my Mom’s birthday.

Happy Flag Day, America

Esther Letticia Holder Armstrong left us 11 years ago. But for me and my family, she’s very much alive in spirit and 101 years young. They were singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” when Mom was born on that June 14th in 1917.  Mom’s father,  my grandfather,  was over there. He was a sailor in the Danish Navy during World War 1.

Gramps, a Barbados native, saw plenty of action as he would tell us many times in the years to come.

Esther Holder, as Aunts and Uncles would gleefully tell me, was a feisty child and teenager.  “Smart as a whip,” friends said about Mom. She graduated near the top of her Julia Richmond High School class of 1935.  My Mother once described herself to me as a “Jazz baby,” showing off pictures of herself as a young woman who liked to dance. I’m not sure how that resonated with some of the older folks in the family but none of them lived in a glass house – if you get my drift.

I guess Mom left a trail of broken hearts when she and my dad, William Benfield Armstrong, married in 1941.  It was one of the biggest social events of the year. However, modesty aside,  the glittering affair was just the warm up to my début on the world stage in April of 1942.  A star was born —  at least that’s how I’d see it in my private fantasies which Mom frequently punctured.

Mom was a single parent during my early years because Dad was away — in the Army – seeing some of the heaviest action of World War 2 in France and Germany as a Sargeant in the still-segregated armed forces.

We looked like a Hollywood family when Dad finally came home from the war. At least that’s what I thought. Mom was beautiful and Dad was such a handsome guy.

Over the years, my Mother was “the voice” of our family. She clearly set the parameters for right and wrong, good and bad for my two younger brothers and me. I tested her many times, especially as I got older and became a “man” in my immature mind.  I always lost those confrontations.

Mom was tough! She was also tender, in her own way. She encouraged me to read and write.  She actually read my first attempts at fiction and assured me I had talent. She told me I should pursue my dreams.

We weren’t big on outward displays of affection,  something that I would have to deal with in later years. However,  Mom always found quality time for me. She knew I had a huge passion for movies.  We’d go to the movies, 3 times a week.  I was “Mom’s date.” She would explain who the people on the big screen were.

They were Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Cooper,  Grant and all the others who reigned over my fantasies through my many years of loving Hollywood.  Mom said she named me after her favorite star,  Gary Cooper.  There was a mixup in recording the birth certificate and Gary became Garry.

There would be frequent mixups later when I became a news guy on television. Actually, there are still frequent mixups. Some things never change.

I’m not sure my Mother was excited about my career choice.  She always said I should become a doctor, lawyer, or minister.  She agreed I talked well.  What she really said was,  “Garry,  you have a big mouth!”  I’d smirk when she said that.  The smirk usually quickly disappeared she gave me “the look.” Mom also thought I was too good for the women I dated. I think she left that impression with many of those women in my life. I got lots of feedback about it.

I remember Mom and Dad celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.  I saw a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen too often.  The look of love.

Dementia took hold of Mom in her last few years. Dad had passed away.  Mom was alone with my middle brother Billy in the old family home on Long Island. Anton,  my youngest Brother, was busy with his blooming career as director of the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota. I was the married, busy TV news guy up in Boston.  Family get-togethers were difficult.

In what would be her last coherent afternoon with me,  My Mom floored me when she admonished me to be a good husband, to find quality time with Marilyn, to show affection and not stonewall Marilyn with internalized emotions. Mom held my face close with her hands like I was that stupid teenager. She smiled with patience and compassion, counseling me to “… be good to your Wife … you are lucky to have her. Show her you appreciate her, that you love her.”

I’m still trying Mom.  I’m not there yet.

In the meantime,  Happy, Happy Birthday.  Mom.  You’re the best!

JUNE IS SQUARE – ROOF 13 – Garry Armstrong

It’s that time of year again and squares are back! 

An old red barn (circa 1750) and a roof

It’s also the museum in River Bend park by the Blackstone Canal.


Well, the theme is ROOFS (or rooves if you prefer). Your roof can be;

A – any type, any condition, any size, and in any location.
B – it could be a shot across rooftops, of one roof like today or even a macro
C – you might prefer to spend some time under the eaves and in the attic, or enjoy the view from above as Brian has already done today.


See you tomorrow!

TRAGICALLY LOST YET MAGICALLY FOUND – Garry Armstrong

Photos: Garry Armstrong


Back in the day (I hate that cliché), I used to do features like this for slow TV news days. It’s been a week of family soap opera, spawned by disciples of “Ozzie and Harriet”, “Father Knows Best” and “Modern Family.” Oh, the angst!

Today figured to be a reprieve. Lunch with an old pal from my working days. I looked forward to sharing stories about baseball, favorite TV shows, and guy gossip. Perfect weather. Tee shirt weather. Ready to roll. But, as Columbo would say, “… just one more thing, Sir.”

I couldn’t find my shoulder bag. My shoulder bag which contains my driver’s license, Social Security card, medical, and credit cards. Marilyn joined me in the household search, from casual to frantic. Car searches turned up nothing.

I stared accusingly at the dogs. Visions of a conspiracy grew. Why me?

Marilyn tried to calm me down as my grumbling grew louder, laced with profanity and anger. Why me?

She tried to call my friend to cancel lunch but his contact numbers were out-of-date. I had failed to update the contact information. Why me?

I dashed off an email to my pal, explaining the situation and apologizing for the last minute lunch cancellation. My anger was growing. Except, I was the perp.

Finally, I decided to retrace my movements of the past 24 to 36 hours. Local deli to the supermarket. I kept thinking of what potentially lay ahead if my ID and credit cards were really lost … or even worse, had been stolen.

Dammit!

The supermarket folks were kind. They knew me. One of the perks of living in a small town is that everyone knows your name. One of the managers smiled and indicated they had it — even before I could get the question out.

I gulped and stepped back, taking a deep breath. They searched high and low, assuring me my bag was safe, under lock and key.

The long wait. Finally, with deep apologies, they said my bag was at the police station. Why were they apologizing?? I was the one who’d lost the bag. I gave myself a Gibbs’ head slap.

The police station is only a couple of minutes away, but season-long road work has the middle of town in a virtual freeze frame. Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the police station parking lot. I counted to ten and got out of the car. I took a few steps, then got back into the car … to turn the engine off. Another count from one-to-ten. Then I advanced into the police station.

They greeted me with smiles. Yes, they had my bag!! They recognized my police badge. Actually, it’s an auxiliary police badge given to me back in my working days. Yes, I still like to flip the holder cover open, casually revealing the badge. I’m admittedly an aging ham.

My bag was returned to me. I signed a release form with a BIG “Thank You”. The station personnel kept smiling. I wanted to slowly back out, feeling very stupid. They wouldn’t let me leave. Why me??

It seems they wanted to take pictures with me. To show off to their family and friends. Who used to watch me on television. Very weird.

I kept thinking … they shoot horses, don’t they?

TRUTH VS LIES – Garry Armstrong

“The media always lies,” she said and I cringed.

Then, I got angry. Why do people believe a president who has never told the truth about anything while failing to believe fact-based truth.

I’m not talking about “ultimate” truth or the meaning of life or faith. I’m talking about things that can be proved with evidence, science. Stuff caught on tape. Printed, heard, overheard, and to which testimony has been given.

I really hate it when I hear that cliché – “The media doesn’t tell the truth. They always lie.” It demeans all the passion and belief I put into more than 40-years as a working reporter. Moreover, it demeans the careers of so many others who give their lives in pursuit of the truth. Many, literally died in pursuit of the truth.

Photo: USA Today

I am not romanticizing my career. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve gotten it wrong. It happens when you’re covering multiple stories a day, 5 to 7 days a week. With deadlines breathing down your neck.

I always tried to clarify mistakes by accepting my culpability up front and being clear with viewers. There were many days when I hated what I had to do. Usually, it was in pursuit of a truth which would be ugly, demanding, tedious — and require a good deal of soul-searching. The truth isn’t simple, or black and white. Despite what you usually see on television or in movies about reporters, there aren’t many clear “wins.”

180-Graphic-Photographs-2-MOB-Party-04212018_036
The old days

Often, we’re lambasted for telling the truth by the same folks who call us liars. Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” line should be crayoned on the skulls of those who insist the media always lies. Those critics are the same pilgrims who gobble up the pablum offered by the current White House Tenant who doesn’t know what the truth is. It’s like a foreign language to him.

I fervently wish that Those People who belittle the media and law enforcement officials  spend some time, real time — like 24/7 on the streets. The real streets, not just their cozy neighborhood. They might see life closeup without any of the public relations filters. I suspect those critics would change that tune and maybe sing a different song. They might think before they speak and see our world in three-dimensions instead of whatever propaganda they accept in their biased, insulated worlds.

Finally, I’m proud of what I did for a living. For 40 plus years, I fought to tell the truth. It was a privilege!

SEND IN THE CLOWNS? DON’T BOTHER, THEY’RE HERE – Garry Armstrong

“Send In The Clowns”, on its own merit, is a beautiful song from the show, “A Little Night Music.” Judy Collins’ cover has made it a popular favorite for decades. A Frank Sinatra version is especially poignant.

Jimmy Stewart (clown) and Charlton Heston in “The Greatest Show On Earth”

In the early 70’s, a seemingly more innocent period, I used “Send In The Clowns” as a musical wrap around a political TV piece. I was covering local Boston politics. A primary campaign. Those were the days of political and community icons like “Dapper,” “Fast Freddie,” Trixie, “Kevin From Heaven,” “Wacko,” and “Raybo.”

Those were influential folks, beloved by their constituents and bearers of much political clout. I was on “friendly”terms with most of these folks. There was less Sturm und drang between the media and politicians in those days. There was respect.

My piece was shot with silent black and white film.  We were still in the pre-video tape and digital days. I chose silent film over sound because I wanted the music to have more presence, less competition from people talking.

We used a montage of candidates faces, posters and campaign slogans. The lyrics of “Send In The Clowns” soared as the video zoomed in on campaign slogans and candidates kissing babies and pressing the flesh.

I anticipated a flurry of angry calls from campaign directors.  Nothing. Nada. One candidate, over happy hour drinks, praised the cleverness of my piece but said he would’ve preferred the Sinatra version of “Clowns”.

So much for being glib in those days.

Imagine using “Send In The Clowns” today.  For the coming mid-terms.  The  ’20 Presidential race. How would the “Clowns” lyrics fare over the screaming POTUS?  The ranting Rudy? The shouting Sean Hannity?

Should we intercut snippets of circus clowns with “breaking news” video and clips of all the President’s minions?  Don’t forget those shots of the President’s supporters, the “People,” with their “Jail Her” signs and the racist banners flying over political bonfires.

Send in the clowns?  Don’t bother. They’re already here.