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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

....and try to get the body in the picture

By Dick Hirsch

Sometimes we are unable to realize the significance of events unfolding before our eyes. Later, history makes the judgment. It seems fair to predict that future political commentators will observe that this was the year when every murder became a photo op.

That is the singular triumph of Mayor Byron Brown as he seeks reelection, first facing a Democratic primary that follows in the tradition of recent such events. The operative word in that sentence should not be “events.” It should be “contests,” or even “races,” but none of the recent Democratic mayoral primaries qualify for the use of either of those terms. Then, as now, they were ho-hum charades.

Yet Mayor Brown, who is taking a foolish primary somewhat seriously, has recognized an approach that will enable him to get more than the usual campaign exposure on the local news channels. He has seized the opportunity to show his face at every murder scene in order to offer on camera consolation to the heartbroken families of the victims while at the same time warning the perpetrators that they will be identified, arrested, convicted and jailed. He also takes pains to reassure viewers that the city won’t stand for this kind of behavior.

With the number of fatal street shootings continuing at a horrific pace, the scenario has become commonplace material on the newscasts. Usually it is at night. It’s an awful setting, a setting that once seen is not forgotten by television news producers. The body remains in the street covered with a blanket, bloodstains are on the pavement, yellow crime scene tape is affixed around the perimeter and police are writing observations or conferring. And there is Mayor Brown, on the campaign trail with his well-rehearsed routine, deploring the violence which grips the streets of the city, and pledging vengeance.

It’s a shabby and self-serving role. What positive contribution can the mayor possibly furnish? Has his presence ever assisted in the apprehension of a suspect? Is having the mayor at the scene a distraction for the investigators? Those are rhetorical questions. Here are three others: Would the city be better served if the mayor was either at his City Hall office or else home in bed? Could he be concerned that voters might blame him for the increased murder rate since it happened while he was in office? And, finally, since the mayor is an African-American, as are most of the victims and the perpetrators, shouldn’t he be trying desperately to devise a new program, a creative strategy, some different scheme aimed at reducing the violence?

Of course, then there would be fewer photo ops.

But there might also be fewer funerals.

“Op” is short for opportunity, and photo ops is a term that resonates most clearly in TV news rooms. Newspapers have always been eager to publish relevant photos and illustrations, but TV is clearly a visual medium. The term supposedly can be traced to the Nixon years when a functionary in the presidential press office started notifying the networks whenever there was a “photo opportunity” at the White House. The term became common in political and journalistic parlance. Over the years it has developed something of a negative aura, often being defined as a happening that was staged, an event that really wasn’t news.

Mayor Brown, in his first term, has tried to portray himself as a communicator, appearing to be in perpetual motion on the newscasts. While many find it difficult to enumerate any substantive accomplishments of his administration, no one can allege that he has been isolated in his office, out of camera range.

We can criticize the mayor for taking advantage of the deadly events leading to the creation of these photo ops, but there are others who must share the blame. They are the news editors and producers of the local TV stations. They obviously believe they must broadcast visuals of each and every murder. They also have convinced themselves that it is actually news to air video of Mayor Brown, with his redundant rhetoric. It isn’t news and neither does it solve anything nor does it give any comfort to the grieving relatives of the dead or to the city at large. The Buffalo News, which still sets the standard for news judgment in Buffalo, covers each killing but doesn’t seem to regard photos as essential.

Will the photo ops help him get re-elected? The textbooks claim any exposure is a positive. They also claim voters generally get the kind of elective officials they deserve.



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