Vulnerable. Reporters are vulnerable. The camera lens and a notepad do not stop bullets. It was the first lesson I learned, inadvertently of course, when I started to work as a newspaper reporter, two decades ago.
By now, the entire country knows what happened today in southern Virginia. In an on-air moment that reads like the script treatment for a prime-time television crime show, a disgruntled former on-air personality barged into live coverage of a minor news story (an anniversary somewhere, a chamber of commerce-type story) that was being broadcast on the local station’s morning news show and shot and killed the on-air reporter and her cameraman and injured the woman being interviewed. From his position on the ground, the fallen cameraman turned his camera to face the shooter, and the image he broadcast made the shooter’s face known; it may be that the mortally injured cameraman’s last living act was one more report from the scene. Morning show viewers saw it live.
In the studio, the broadcast news staff of WDBJ7, a CBS affiliate, watched powerlessly and yet picked up the story, which now had three victims. In shock, they carried on. I watched for about an hour at noon and everyone there was doing amazing work. There will be a news conference at 2:00 p.m.
The reporter was named Alison Parker; she was 24 years old and had recently gotten engaged to be married to another young WDBJ reporter. The cameraman, Adam Ward, was 27. He was engaged to be married as well and today was to be his last day at WDBJ; his fiancee was in the production studio doing her job when she watched her boyfriend get shot.
It is with extreme sadness that we report WDBJ7's Alison Parker and Adam Ward were killed in an attack this morning. http://t.co/oC9s4vLJXV
— WDBJ7 (@WDBJ7) August 26, 2015
WDBJ7 also tweeted this:
We love you, Alison and Adam. pic.twitter.com/hLSzQi06XE
— WDBJ7 (@WDBJ7) August 26, 2015
The alleged shooter, using the Twitter handle @bryce_williams7, later posted a video of the incident from a shooter’s vantage point. One tweet read: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.” Both Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts. The station identified Bryce Williams as the on-air name of a former reporter at WDBJ. His real name is Vester L. Flanagan. Flanagan fled and then shot himself about five hours later; he is reported to be in critical condition. WDBJ7’s station manager reported that the station had fired Flanagan in 2014 after numerous complaints about his anger had been filed; the station manager felt free to report this when Flanagan had been reported dead from his self-inflicted wound. (2:20 p.m. update: the local sheriff there just now reported that Flanagan died of his injury at 1:30 p.m. today.)
All legitimate news outlets are refusing to run (or re-run) the footage from Ward’s camera and have followed Twitter and Facebook’s lead in not reproducing Flanagan’s tweets or video clips. Non-legitimate sources have been running the videos on YouTube; there always will be rubberneckers on the highway to gawk at accidents, and they are vampires.
The shooter is alleged to have been a “disgruntled ex-employee” of WDBJ. It is reported that he faxed a “manifesto” to ABC News in New York City describing himself as a “human time-bomb” who was inspired to act by his rage about being harassed for being black and gay. All of this is actually not important; in most cases that are not examples of self-defense or desperation, when a person thinks that they feel themselves moved to murder, murder becomes the motive, the intent, the action. He did not kill because he is black. He did not kill because he is gay. He killed because he killed. And now three are dead.
The shooter knew where the reporter and cameraman could be found in the same way that any attentive viewer of the local news station might know the whereabouts of this reporter or that news team: It is reported. You’ve heard something like this: “So-and-so will be reporting live from the scene of whatever at 6:50.” In most small towns, the local television news team is as familiar on viewers’ screens as Jimmy Fallon and as familiar in the neighborhood as your neighbors because they are your neighbors.
Almost 20 years ago, I learned this first-hand. It stuck with me. Both my newspaper office and my apartment were on Main Street in a tiny hamlet in upstate New York. (It is the only time so far in which I lived on Main Street anywhere.) There was one bar in the town around the corner from where I lived and worked, and late one night, a disagreement spilled out onto the street. I was in the newspaper office, about to leave. I had turned the lights out and was at the door. The commotion stopped me and I watched aghast as I saw one fighter suddenly bend over at a sharp angle: he had been stabbed. Before I got to the phone to call the police, the police arrived. The injury was minor and the knifer was taken into custody. I stepped outside, interviewed the police, published a story.
A few nights later, I was in my apartment, two doors down Main Street from the office. Late one night, there was a commotion in the street below and I looked out my window: it was the same group I had witnessed. I heard one of them say: “Cool it. That hack lives up there,” and he pointed directly at my window. (Behind my blinds, I was not visible to them.)
I never learned how the individual learned where the reporter who had seen the stabbing incident resided. That, my address, I had not published. It was a tiny town (500 population) and I was not merely a neighbor, I was a neighbor whose name happened to be in the paper every week. At first, I was thrilled to have been called a “hack.” Being a young reporter, it felt like fame of a sort. I kept myself willfully naive. It was later that I realized that it was a quick glimpse into being slightly more vulnerable than I wanted to be. I’ve gone back to being willfully naive about such things, but today brought that memory back with surprising clarity.
Rest in power, Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
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