The Best Worst TV in Texas
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THE AMBULANCE ATTENDANTS HAD ALREADY disappeared inside the dismal little bungalow. Ed Bragg, camera in hand, pursued them up a short flight of stairs to the front porch; at the same time a cop scurried out of the house and down the stairs. “It’s a family matter,” the cop said without breaking stride. “If they don’t want me, I don’t want them.” Evidently, an argument between brothers had ended when they went after each other with knives. It was 11 o’clock at night.
On the porch, not far from the doorway, one brother stood holding a crumpled newspaper against his slashed forearm. Ed rushed past him and through the doorway, but pulled up just inside. The second brother was already on the stretcher. He had been stabbed in the neck and the shock of the wound had driven him to frenzy. He screamed curses and flailed his arms as the attendants tried to strap him to the stretcher. Ed Bragg started filming the scene. The two arc lights attached to his camera covered everything with brilliantly white, brutal light.
Around the edges of the tiny room stood an old man in brown khaki shirt and pants, an old woman with a black scarf around her head, several small children wearing once-white underwear and looking unperturbed. In one corner sprawled a pile of dirty clothes. Toys—yellow plastic ducks on wheels, a pink doll with one arm—lay about the room. Newspapers tacked across the windows made curtains; wadded sheets and mattress ticking made beds. A ragged couch dripped stuffing on the floor.
It was the kind of situation where ten years of filming television news in San Antonio had taught Ed to be wary. There were two other newsmen covering the story by now—a film man with another TV station and a reporter from The Express-News—and that was better than being alone. But the cop was gone, and taking film inside some strangers’ house where blood has just been spilled is a risky business. The air seemed heavy, charged with violence. When he had arrived at the house, Ed had noticed small groups of neighborhood people, attracted by the commotion, standing in front of the bungalow.
Filming constantly, Ed and the other reporters backed onto the porch to let the stretcher by. The wounded man, screaming still, tried to lift himself off the stretcher when he saw his brother standing by the door. Ed’s camera followed the stretcher down the stairs and toward the ambulance. The on-lookers outside parted to let them pass. The man with the wounded arm jumped into the front seat of the ambulance as if he were entering a cab. But the man on the stretcher kept jerking his head back and forth, wailing constantly. He was still screaming as the ambulance pulled away.
Ed walked, not quickly but surely, to his car parked a few yards down the street. He started the engine. The reporter from The Expess-News was in his own car ready to go, but the other television film man was having some trouble with his camera. He had opened the car’s door and now stood in the glow from the courtesy light. The people in front of the house watched the three cars. The old man in khaki burst out of the house, moving faster than Ed would have thought possible for him, and took off in a battered pickup. Several of the lingering groups came together in a loose huddle. Arms gestured in the dark toward the house and toward the waiting newsmen.
“Dammit, hurry up,” Ed murmured. The other television reporter was inside his car now. When it finally started moving, Ed and the man from The Express-News started driving away, too. A long-legged boy split off from the huddle and threw something at the cars. It missed.
Safe now, Ed was content that the tenseness had been in the air. Sometimes the film captured those undertones and made the story stand out when it was broadcast on the news.
Ed Bragg had filmed hundreds of similar scenes. He first came to San Antonio from Birmingham, Alabama, during a stint in the Army. While stationed at Fort Sam, he started substituting for a sergeant who worked the same job on weekends for Channel 12. Ed returned to Birmingham for two weeks after his hitch was up, then came back to San Antonio and has had this job ever since. Nice-Iooking, likeable, reserved, just now past 30, he has been married but presently lives alone in a duplex, whose front room is dominated by a regulation pool table he recently bought on time. In the ten years he’s been a newsman, he’s won nine Sigma Delta Chi awards for his work.
But the special skills that won him those awards might not be in such demand outside San Antonio. Television news in San Antonio is uniquely idiosyncratic, like the city itself. Of all the cities in Texas it is the most Latin (being far more important in Mexican history than El Paso), the least Southern, the least ostentatious, and except for two large breweries, several military bases, and one small cigar factory, the city with the least visible means of support. After Latins, the most important ethnic group among early settlers were diligent Germans, which explains why a city with a street named Dolorosa also has a street named Savings.
Nothing there is new; everything is old or used or forgotten or yellowed, as if all has conspired not to make the Alamo look outdated. Illogic abounds. Among the streets circling the central business district very few run parallel to one another and very few are perpendicular. Drivers on a one way street are occasionally confronted across a stoplight with drivers on that same street coming one way in the opposite direction. Then all are forced to turn down streets running at odd angles to the directions they wanted to continue. Along these streets are the Pulse Ambulance Service, the Liberal Loan Company, the Nix Alignment Service, the Hardy Nursing Home, and the Golden Star Cafe, whose menu is so varied and whose hours are so formless that huevos rancheros and sweet and sour pork can be had there at any time of the night or day. Although there are orange cabs, there is no Orange Cab Company. In San Antonio, Yellow Cabs are orange. It is one of the very best places in the world.
Best, however, does not imply perfect. San Antonio, though passionate, Romantic, and energetic, is also very poor. And passionate Romantic energy mixed with poverty breeds—CRIME. Crime is an obsession in San Antonio, an obsession the local media revel in. It dominates the newspapers and the television news. If there is no crime to report right that moment, then ordinary accidents, wrecks, and electrocutions will do. Local newspaper editors and television news directors will protest that they don’t really emphasize crime and violence as much as everyone thinks they do. What they are forgetting is that for someone from the outside, used to the responsible pablum of his home town paper, a large photograph on the front page of two dead bodies with huge bellies and bloody bullet holes tends to stand out in his mind. And that same outsider sitting back to watch the news in the evening, holding a drink with one hand and loosening his tie with the other, is going to be raised right back out of his seat by film coverage of last night’s two car pile up on I.H. 35 complete with shots of blood hardening on twisted steering wheels while the helpless victims are lifted into ambulances.
In the last few months local television, whose stories have the advantage over the newspapers of film and color, has broadcast these sights: the dead body of a black-haired burglar in a silver-studded black leather jacket; the capture of an armed robber after a long chase during which the robber was driving a stolen police car pursued by the bereft policeman in a private car he had commandeered; the body of a baby who drowned in his bathtub being carried from a suburban home; a raid on a pornographic movie house which turned out to have a seat wired so the projectionist could shock its occupant; countless automobile accidents and their countless victims, both mechanical and human; numberless barroom stabbings and shootings, mostly in bleak little places with torn screen doors and light fixtures with long hanging strings (in one such case a man’s murder was inspired by an argument over whose selection of ballads would play first on the jukebox); the awkwardly sprawled body of a man who had jumped or fallen 17 floors to the sidewalk.
It’s awesome. It’s hypnotizing. In fact this solemn parade of death and destruction across the television screen is so hypnotizing that it’s a surprise to learn that it seldom lasts more than five minutes of a newscast, sometimes even less than that. The images are so strong. The intimate hates, plots, jealousies, lusts of unknown citizens become suddenly public, become “news,” when blood is spilled. Say what you will about what television news should be, say what you will condemning perverse fascinations with violence, the first time you turn on a TV and see the blue-green glow of a hallway in the police station under camera lights and see coming through that glow a thick-skinned, thick-necked, tattooed prisoner wearing a worn-gray T-shirt stretched tightly over fat sweating arms and see that he’s been wounded and bandaged near the shoulder and see his raging eyes glare into the camera while two cops, one on each arm, semi-shove him past the cameras down the blue-green hall—well, seeing that is just a lot more powerful experience than listening to a pale, polysyllabic drone from Eric Sevareid.
The people love it. Local newscasts which shun blood n’ guts news are punished with an immediate drop in ratings. The rest of the newscasts are appalling, filling out the time with boring little stories about ground breaking ceremonies, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and church socials. No imagination, no fun, no nothing. Violence is the only subject the television stations in San Antonio really know how to cover.
And San Antonio’s lust for street news, the trade name for violent story has engendered a small, unselfconscious group of filmmakers who are both dedicated and reckless in pursuit of their subjects, who spend long hours waiting for something to pursue, who earn for their trouble very little money and less attention, and whose work—those awesome, powerful, hypnotizing films—is as difficult to discuss in the language of conventional film criticism as describing the impact on a downtown street of two saucy prostitutes and their pomaded, peacocking pimp in the conventional language of the dance.
The tools of the trade are few: a 16 mm hand-held movie camera, a battery pack, a set of two arc lights that attach to the camera, and, probably most important of all, a fast car outfitted with police radios. These radios are mounted over the drive shaft hump between the dashboard and the front seat. They monitor all three San Antonio police channels, Don’s Ambulance, the city fire department, the Department of Public Safety, the Highway Patrol, Bexar County Sheriff, Bexar County Fire, and Channel X, the frequency used by special squad of undercover investigators. The skills involved are shooting film, staying calm, and driving very, very fast.
It was for gathering street news that Ronnie James’ father had unwittingly trained his son. Mr. James was a photographer who had equipped his car with police and ambulance radios and set out to make a living on the streets. When he heard accident calls on the radios he ramrodded down the freeways or up small alleys to reach the scene. There he photographed the wrecked cars, the victims (if he got there before the ambulance had taken them away), and any property in the area that had been damaged. Then he sold the photographs to insurance companies. When he was 16, Ronnie started riding with his father. He loved street life as much as his father did.
Several years ago, when Mr. James died, Ronnie took over the business. By that time he could go to sleep with a police radio near his bed and wake up if anything came across that interested him. Ronnie kept the business going for awhile but then became convinced that it was only a matter of time before someone passed a no-fault auto insurance law which would eliminate the need for his photographs. Going to work for a television news show was a natural step.
“I love this job,” Ronnie once said to a visiting journalist who had come to ride with him. “Most people don’t understand what this job really is. It’s not so much your ability to take film as your ability to get to the scene with your equipment in good working order. There’re lots of people who can take film who can’t get there fast enough. I’ve lived in this city all my life and I can get you pretty much any place you want to go. Pretty fast, too.” In his late 20’s, Ronnie is a short, stocky, young-looking man with dark hair, dark mustache, dark eyes, and a tight, abrupt energy. He works now for KENS, Channel 5.
As he and the rider talked, Ronnie would suddenly stop speaking in the middle of a sentence, lean close to the radio for a moment, then, if the report hadn’t been important after all, lean back and continue. To the rider the static, buzz, hiss, and gravel voices from the radios were no more intelligible than museum recordings of obscure jungle dialects. Earlier Ronnie had complained that the station’s regular “mobile unit” was in the shop. The car he was driving now, a Ford Galaxie, had fewer radios. “We’re probably going to miss a lot of what’s happening,” he’d said.
It was Saturday night and raining just enough to keep the streets black and shiny. It wasn’t even really a rain, more like a constantly regenerated dampness as if the air were sweating. Drivers found themselves switching their windshield wipers on, then off again. Suits wilted, mascara ran, straight hair curled, curly hair straightened. High-school football games were plagued with fumbles.
Ronnie was driving toward the Dunkin’ Donuts on San Pedro just north of Cypress where he expected to find street news reporters from other television stations. He wanted to get the benefit of their extra radios. “It’s important to get to the scene fast as you can,” he said to the rider. “Then, once you’re there, you try to look for something that’ll make your story better than everybody else’s. Like the other day there was a motorcycle wreck and the police and everyone were up by the cycle, but about 20 feet away the guy’s helmet was lying in the road. There was some blood by it so I got down low and shot the helmet up close but in the background you could see the police and the wreck. From there I moved in close for details of the scene. It was a real good way to do the story. At the scene you’ve got to decide what you’re going to shoot right away. You don’t have time to hunt around for the very best shot.” As they rode, the radios the Ford did have crackled and buzzed and sputtered. The air was heavy from the rain and the car was musty with the lingering smell of stale tobacco.
Sure enough the cars from Channel 4 and Channel 12 were parked in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts. Next door in a vacant lot an ambulance and a wrecker and their separate crews were also waiting. The Dunkin’ Donuts has become a natural gathering place for people who have to spend hours in or very close to their cars. It has plenty of parking as well as coffee, a public telephone, bathrooms, central location, and, yes, doughnuts.
The reporters driving for Channels 4 and 12 were both part time replacements. One, from Channel 12, was a slight red-haired man somewhere in his 40’s who wore chino pants and bobby sox and stared through his horn rims at the world with thin-haired, wide-eyed, constant surprise. He was not the fastest driver in the world and when he first started the job he had missed some good shots by taking light meter readings before shooting anything, earning him the nickname of Larry Lightmeter. He’d been getting better lately but still …
The kid from 4 was more of a threat. He was young—a thin, rangy student who went to Trinity during the week—and knew how to drive fast. But he was just learning how to take film and he still hadn’t learned San Antonio’s baffling layout. He had been studying a street guide when Ronnie pulled into the slot next to him. Every now and then while they waited for something interesting to come over the radios, the kid would pick the guide off the dash-board and read, slowly turning a page or two before throwing it back on the dash and propping his high-heeled, platform-soled boot beside it.
Both the kid and Larry Lightmeter, who had parked just far enough off to suggest he wanted to be left alone, had backed into their spaces, ready to rip straight ahead onto San Pedro when the time came. Ronnie, in the slot next to the kid, had conspicuously parked front-in even though that would slow him down getting out of the lot. Little games like that tend to brighten up the job.
The wait was boring. Larry Lightmeter stood by his car eyeing the ambulance drivers for any sudden moves. The kid from 4 meticulously clipped his nails. Ronnie shrugged at the rider. “Saturday night, too,” he said. “Sometimes three or four tanks of gas is nothing on a Saturday. I don’t understand this.” He went inside to buy a cup of coffee. The rain started again. Larry Lightmeter got inside his car. Traffic on San Pedro whirred past. The Dunkin’ Donuts fluorescent lights glowed into the darkness. The rider listened to the buzz, the wheeze, and the abrupt, scratchy voices from the radios.
“Anything happening?” A man about 40, his skin stretched tightly across the bones in his face, had pulled his hopped up two-door, its immense engine idling ominously, into the slot on the rider’s side. The man’s own police radio crackled over the rumble of the engine.
“Nothing so far,” the rider said. “Are you a…newsman?”
“No, hell no. I run the Texaco station down the street. I just closed up and come on down here. I like to run with ’em, too.” He ran a gnarled, grease-black hand through his hair and settled back to concentrate on the radio. “It’s just too damn early to go to bed.”
Ronnie, back in the Ford, had smoked two Pall Malls and drunk about half his coffee when it happened. All at once the ambulance peeled onto San Pedro with the wrecker right behind. Larry Lightmeter popped into his car, and the kid from Trinity tossed his nail clippers into the seat beside him.
“What is it?” Ronnie shouted. His radios hadn’t been adequate.
“Major accident!” the kid shouted back. His car was already rolling. “7700 South W. W. White!”
Ronnie clipped together his seatbelt and backed out of the lot. On San Pedro he slowed for one red light, then went on through. At the next one, passing cars forced him to wait before pulling on through and down a couple of blocks and into an entrance for I.H. 35. “Sometimes you get tickets,” he said, “and sometimes you don’t.”
“They ought to give you guys sirens and a light,” the rider said.
“I’m glad they don’t.” Ronnie swerved onto the freeway. “It’s too easy to start thinking people see you coming when they don’t.”
The ambulance, its red light barely visible around a long curve, was far in the lead but Ronnie passed the lumbering wrecker right away. Larry Lightmeter had disappeared. The kid from Channel 4 was about 30 yards ahead.
Ronnie flipped on his windshield wipers. He drove leaning back in the seat, arms extended, hands at the top of the wheel, his right foot pressed hard against the floor. The rider watched the speedometer needle—80, 95, 100—then he stopped looking. A white semi sprayed torrents of water against the windshield. They roared past it keeping pace with the kid from 4. The kid swerved right to pass a Cadillac. Ronnie passed it on the left. The rider saw a square, jowled face framed in the Cadillac’s side window shouting unheard threats in their wake. Waves of heat from the engine washed across the rider’s legs. As the painted dashes on the road blurred into long white streaks, his fingers dug into the seat for hand holds. Ronnie sipped the last bit of his coffee.
An interchange with a huge green sign reading “W. W. White” loomed up on the right. The kid from 4, still about 30 yards ahead, took the exit. “That’s a mistake,” Ronnie said. “He’s going to have to circle way around then come back in. We should beat him by at least half a minute.”
Half a minute! From the Dunkin’ Donuts to W. W. White is about ten miles, a trip from the center of the city to its eastern edge which, going by freeway at normal speeds, should take at least 15 minutes. This trip would last only seven or eight, and even that might be too long. On this scale, half a minute is an eon.
Past most of the traffic, no ambulance or other newsmen to gauge his progress, Ronnie pushed the Ford even harder. The rider thought he saw the needle at 120. Turning away as from a horrible vision, he told himself no, they were surely going much slower than that; it must be the angle he was looking from. They might actually be breezing along as slowly as 95. He looked toward the needle again. It had—disappeared! It was buried in the dashboard! And then they slowed suddenly and Ronnie raced along a curving exit ramp. The rider wrote one faint word in his notes: Gone.
W. W. White is one of those edge-of-town roads, lined with buildings of neon, glass, stainless steel, and formica. At the edge of the road is a strip of gravel, a ditch, and then parking lots. A grim setting in which to lie injured, waiting.
Ramming down the road at 50, Ronnie and the rider could see in the extreme distance, a quarter to a half mile away, the ambulance’s flashing light coming in the opposite direction. It wasn’t far from where the wreck must be. When ambulances stop, the victim can be gone in less than a minute. There’s no story unless you beat them there.
Ronnie had slowed to 30, not by choice but because two cars driving side by side had filled both lanes. The ambulance turned into a parking lot about eight blocks away. Ronnie pulled left to pass the two slow cars but had to duck back in again. “This right here is the kind of stuff that costs you stories.” Thirty is 90 miles per hour less than 120 and seems very, very slow.
Then he was around the two cars, back up to 50 and finally pulling up short at the scene—a Stop n’ Go parking lot.
If the remains were any indication, the wreck had been bizarre. An Oldsmobile, its front crumpled to half its former length, languished in one corner of the lot near a minor intersection. Ten yards away, in the center of the lot, a Ford Galaxie, the twin of Ronnie’s car except for color, had landed with all four doors askew, one whole side pushed in, and its front crumpled very much like the Olds’. The Ford, after colliding with the Oldsmobile, had rammed the back end of an innocently parked Dodge pickup. The truck’s bed had been crushed and its cab shoved almost into the store.
In a single motion, Ronnie grabbed his camera, popped out of his car, and started running toward the center of the lot where two ambulance drivers were kneeling by the body of a fallen man, evidently the driver of the Ford. Five or six policemen stalked about the scene questioning witnesses and making gestures to keep small groups of the curious at bay. As Ronnie ran, he flipped on the arc lights attached to his camera. A few feet from the injured man he stopped and trained his camera, shooting with the man’s feet in the foreground, his head at the top of the frame, and the two ambulance attendants flanking him on either side. The man, already pale from shock, looked translucent under the arcs. He had a full head of white hair, a big chest, and thin arms with white peppercorn hair. One worn black shoe was still on, the other somehow pulled off exposing a thin blue sock. The rain, now only a fine mist, sparkled along his body catching the light like specks of glass. The ambulance attendants had wiped his bloody forehead clean.
With Ronnie’s white lights making everything look staged, the attendants lifted the man to a stretcher and wheeled him toward the waiting ambulance. They were just pulling him into the back when the kid from 4 arrived, having come the opposite way up W. W. White. He was out of his car and next to Ronnie shooting in the back of the ambulance before the doors closed. Immediately Ronnie went around to the side of the ambulance, the kid following, and both of them shot through its thin, tightly stretched curtains. The ambulance pulled away. Ronnie switched to shooting the crumpled Ford which was dangerously leaking gasoline across the parking lot. The kid started shooting the Ford, too; then he thought better of it and moved off to shoot something different. At that moment Larry Lightmeter arrived. He was probably only 50 seconds off the pace, but the victim was gone, the ambulance was gone, he’d missed everything. He turned around. There was no use even getting out of the car.
What madness! In San Antonio something like this has been going on since 1949, when a radio show titled “So You Want To Be A Cop” invaded the airways one Sunday night at nine. Similar in format to Walter Winchell’s “Nightbeat” show in New York, “So You Want To Be A Cop” was an immediate smash. Each Saturday night an off-duty San Antonio policeman, an announcer, and some radio technicians pulled into a specially outfitted station wagon and, monitoring police radios in much the same way television newsmen do today, they cruised the streets looking for action. They would rush to the scene of a crime or accident and record interviews with witnesses, victims, police, or anyone else who might be interesting.
Recording equipment was still unwieldy in 1949. The back of the station wagon carried a Brush recorder four feet by two by three which was powered by hand winding. Attached to it was 300 feet of microphone cable on a reel. The engineer sat in the back of the wagon while the interviewer, ranging as far as his cable would permit, ran after the story. One interviewer, Miles Hirsch, had a potent, though simple, technique. The witness would be telling his story of blood and carnage and come to what was apparently the end. Miles would pause dramatically, then breathlessly inquire,” And then what happened?”
Heavy on schmaltz, alert for the tearful, the crew of “So You Want To Be A Cop” nevertheless reported some stunning stories in their nine years. Once a policeman stopped a speeding car on South Flores. An old woman was driving; her fortyish son had just had a heart attack. The cop called an ambulance. Waiting, the woman pulled her son’s slumped body to her chest. Listeners can still hear her voice: “My son! My son!” It was as if the Pietá had come alive.
The program stayed on the air for nine years and might still be on had not Jim Logan, the new news director for Channel 12, conceived a local news show built around first hand reporting of street news. Faced with competition from TV, “So You Want To Be A Cop” withered within a year.
Logan is still news director at Channel 12. A round-faced man with blond hair combed straight back, a short stubby body, and stubby arms, he is an energetic story-teller whose theory of television news is simplicity itself: “This is television. Everything’s supposed to move.”
To Logan motion in a news show meant film, film of everything: “We wanted to show people in San Antonio what was happening in their own city .” If what was happening in San Antonio included murders, car wrecks, robberies, vice raids, and stabbings, then so be it. That’s life in the big city.
When television coverage began, life on the street was considerably more hectic than it is now. In those days the first ambulance—and the first wrecker, too, for that matter—scored the victim. Drivers got paid by the victim and there were as many as ten ambulance companies, and as many wreckers, operating at the same time. Theoretically the police were supposed to call the various companies on a rotating basis. That didn’t stop the other ambulances, though. Once at the scene they could always claim they had been called there by a witness. All the ambulances and all the wreckers monitored the police radio and took off at once when anything was broadcast that smelled of blood. It was a wild scene—cop cars with sirens whining, ambulances with sirens whining racing hood to hood, wreckers racing with their skeletal rigs clanging over chuck holes, cars from the three TV stations, cars filled with newspaper reporters and photographers and a careening gaggle of hangers on: crazy teenagers in hot-rods, shyster lawyers, insurance photographers like Ronnie’s father—10, 15, maybe 20 cars zinging through red lights, going double and even triple the speed limit, ducking in front of one another only to be passed by someone else, all racing to some disaster they hoped wouldn’t be their own.
And at the scene, mayhem. A gunshot victim lying in the street. An ambulance arrives. Out with the stretcher, run toward the victim. Just moments behind, a second ambulance stops right behind the first, blocking the rear doors. The attendants, on the way to the victim with their own stretcher, smash the headlights of the first ambulance.
By this time the newsmen are there, arc lights on, cameras sniffing for blood and agonized faces. The first ambulance crew, uniforms a blinding white under the camera’s lights, are ready to lift the victim to their stretcher. He is helpless, but now more hopeful. Help has arrived. The painful wait is over. But…surprise! A member of the second ambulance crew is screaming into the victim’s face: “Man, don’t let them take you. They got rats in their ambulances. They got no headlights and they’re drunk.”
Meanwhile, if vehicles were in any way involved, the wreckers are scrapping among themselves and with the owners—whether those owners were injured or not—over who gets to haul which cars. Scavengers that they are, they not only pull away the cars but also rifle through the seats, trunk, and glove compartment and attach a small hose to transmit gas from the car’s tank into the wrecker’s. A wrecker, seeing that a car wasn’t damaged enough to need his services, might urinate surreptitiously just under the front bumper; then he helpfully points out to the owner that his car should be towed rather than driven since his radiator is leaking.
Such anarchy couldn’t last forever. Now a single ambulance service is on contract with the city and the wreckers…well, now the wreckers are only as crazy as wreckers need be. Things have toned down on the television screen, too. “We try not to show the faces of dead people any more,” Logan says; and the famous early Sixties color close up of a man’s chest blown away by a shotgun blast would never be shown today, praises be.
Most people in San Antonio still think Channel 12 shows the most violent news; but that misapprehension—now all three stations show about the same amount of violence—is an unconscious tribute to the strength of Jim Logan’s conception of incorporating filmed violence in a local newscast. All through the Sixties and up until last year, Channel 12’s 10 o’clock news dominated the ratings. Logan’s formula was so successful it seemed at times that San Antonians didn’t realize any other news existed.
But tastes change, even in a city encrusted with the past. Channel 12’s news has dropped to third. Channel 4, which seems always to be in second place, is still in second place. Channel 5, less than a year after adopting a gabby “happy talk” format, took over first place in the middle of 1972. (The personalities of the newscasters are as important to the success of the happy talk format as a good quarterback is to the success of a football team. 5’s anchor man, Gene Tuck, has recently taken a job on a San Francisco station so by now these ratings may have changed.)
Although Channel 5’s rise to the top was due in part to their skilled coverage of street news, it had more to do with successfully selling their anchor man, weather man, and sports caster as “personalities” rather than “newsmen.” They joke on the air and talk to one another between stories like friends standing around barbecuing steaks. It is an approach that captured the audience of the Seventies as surely as Jim Logan’s approach did in the late Fifties. The real heyday of street news is past, gone the way of the freelance ambulance driver. There will still be street news, just as there are still ambulances, but it will grow more “tasteful” and more infested with personality. And just as the greatest geniuses of cultural movements seem to appear at the very moment the movement itself begins to decline—Aristotle, Shakespeare, Wagner—street news produced a brilliant, erratic comet who flashed across the sky just as sunset was approaching.
Ironically, David Robinson worked, and still works, for Channel 5. They’ve put him on the day shift now, shooting Chamber of Commerce meetings and ground breaking ceremonies. Every now and then he drives the reporter with him crazy by trying new angles, new exposures, new lenses. But basically it is a change he has acceded to. Management’s decision is firm: Robinson took too many chances, a verdict other film reporters agree with and they’re men used to taking chances themselves. In one night David got six tickets; in less than a year he wrecked three of the station’s cars. “I got burned out,” he explains. “I was working at the station from three in the afternoon to ten at night, then going out till about seven in the morning running the police calls. After two years I was just burned out.” Around the Dunkin’ Donuts they called him Adam 12 because he would race after even the least likely stories. The frantic pace shows in his demeanor. Not far past his teens, he is thin and taut as a fencing foil and, like a foil, slightly bent, his shoulders and neck jutting forward in a posture more comfortable behind the wheel of a car than walking and even less comfortable when standing still.
Robinson grew up in San Antonio and went to work right out of high school as a delivery boy for the advertising department of The Express-News. At that time The News and Channel 5 were owned by the same interests, and pretty soon Robinson was performing a similar task for Channel 5. But in a manner that recalls the hardboiled mystique of Thirties newspaper novels, Robinson just couldn’t stay out of the newsroom. “They kept telling me never to go in there again, but I liked it too much. I’d see the reporters jump in their cars. I admired them. I made friends with some of them and started riding with them when I could. I liked being on the streets. Even though I was working for 5 I used to go over to 12 late at night and bug them to show me things about taking film. I learned a lot, too, until the boss found out.”
Eventually Robinson shelled out $120 for his own police radio, had it installed in his old VW, and started running after robberies, shoot-outs, collisions, and stabbings on his own, just for the hell of it. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d hear over the radio that there was shooting going on. I’d race over and there it was, really happening. I got fascinated that something I’d hear on the radio…was real. After that, I spent every waking moment listening to the police radio.”
The station gave him a camera to use and staked him to some film. David, using his own car and buying his own gas, began his career running freelance for $10 per story used on the air. After a while he was a regular staff member. And on the night of February 28 last year, he shot one of the best street films ever.
That night two young bandits robbed a Chinese-American grocery in San Antonio and took off up I.H. 35 toward New Braunfels. David was already up by Loop 410 at an accident. He heard the report of the robbery and didn’t think much of it until he heard the fugitives were coming his way. He shot over to 35, pulled onto the median strip, and waited. He could hear the progress of the chase on the police radio. He hooked a miniature Craig recorder to his belt and started recording the calls. Then he put his camera in the seat next to him and made sure it was ready.
In a few moments the fugitives shot past, trailed by a growing number of police cars. David pulled in right behind them. When another police car would come up from behind, Robinson would pull over, let him by, then pull in behind again.
The chase lasted about 25 minutes and ended when waiting officers ambushed the car near New Braunfels. Speeds ranged from 120 down to 70, but even at slower speeds the cops stayed back because the fugitives were shooting. Robinson, meanwhile, tailing right behind, bullets flying by him, had propped his camera up on his shoulder (“You don’t have to look through one of those things to make it work, ya know”) and started filming through his windshield. So here he was driving sometimes at 120, steering with one hand, filming with the other, and tape recording the whole thing from his belt. Absolute genius. And he made it to the final scene before the last shots were fired.
The most amazing thing about the resulting film is that it exists at all. The second most amazing thing is how good it is. The third most amazing thing is that he got it back in time for the 10 o’clock news.
It begins with a frontal shot of the Chinese-American grocery where the robbery took place. It is night. Not all the neon in the sign is working. The building fills the screen, a placid art deco structure, neither sinister nor inviting, neither consequential nor insignificant—nothing but blues and blacks surrounding bits of white and red neon. It is a completely flat statement.
A sudden cut. The screen at first appears totally black. But then there are the white strips of dividing lines, the red lights and tail lights of an army of police cars. Judging by the rapidly moving dividing lines, everyone is going very fast; but the lights all stay in about the same place on the screen. It’s as if the army of blazing police cars were absolutely still while the rest of the world whirred past, like the films in one of those arcade machines where the object is to steer a stationary car down an animated country road.
Then another cut—to the final scene. Guns everywhere. Cops everywhere. The car of the hunted, a brown Mustang, already punctured with bullets and bullets, is in the middle distance. In the foreground muscles are locked, eyes are set, guns are hot. There’s a white glow everywhere from headlights, from camera lights, from spotlights.
Angles shift, scenes shift. Police, crouched, careful, stiff, approach the car, shotguns and rifles ready, pistols pointed straight ahead. One cop fires into the car with a rifle. Another appears in front of the windshield and fires through it.
Another cut. They are dragging the bodies from the car. The front door, swung open, fills the screen. Scores of deep oval bullet holes looking cold grey around the edges. The camera is still, then moves suddenly closer. The holes are larger, more threatening, awesome. Strange that the inanimate, in the midst of all the motion, should provide the most intensity.
Cut to the interior of the car. Chunks of green-edged glass everywhere, a crumpled paper sack stuffed with money wadded in the corner of the back seat. Stacks of bills have spilled across the seat. A hand at the end of a blue sleeve stuffs the bills back into the sack.
Finally, the ridiculous. The fugitives, one dead, one unconscious and mortally wounded, are handcuffed. Robinson’s film ends in the manner traditional to street news: The victims are loaded into a waiting ambulance.
Robinson’s film is exceptional because the event it records is so exceptional; but all the films of San Antonio street news tend to look much alike. It’s what makes the conventional vocabulary of film so useless in talking about them. Although there are some obvious gradations within the form—David Robinson is a better filmmaker than Larry Lightmeter—there is hardly any sense of individual style. The camera is the important thing, not the man behind it. You don’t have to look through one of those things to make it work, ya know.
For the man must be worried about getting to the scene, about finding the gross facts that form the fabric of the story, about finishing quickly enough to be ready for the next thing that happens. And those facts with which he is concerned—who was hurt, how did it happen—are transient and boring compared to what the camera records: the interiors of homes, hovels, apartments, bars, grocerettes, filling stations, pawn shops; the shoes, shirts, hair-styles, jewelry of thieves and their victims, of unlucky drivers, of contemporary police, and of the crowds they attract; the postures, gaits, mannerisms, squints, and scars of all ages and all social classes.
The work of these filmmakers forms a documentary record of the seething and unseemly in an American city, and in the future that will be a valuable record. At the same time, the camera—it sometimes seems to be the same camera passed ceremoniously from man to man just as the same guns guard Buckingham palace though the guards change who carry them—that unblinking camera, was recording something even more valuable: the countless, obvious ephemeral details of style and manner and custom. The blood on the television screen, as politely unmentionable as money, is the price of admission.
The filmmakers themselves pay a slightly different price, a price that’s sometimes paid with desperate hours: It is during those final moments of darkness around five o’clock when it seems the light of day will never come. No cars—the late hour revelers, seekers, pacers, and drinkers have curled somewhere amid the quiet; the early risers are still asleep. Everything is damp. The police radio is silent 20 minutes at a time.
Ed Bragg is sitting alone in the Dunkin’ Donuts lot. He could have gone home hours ago, but he stays here waiting for a night of work to wear off his nerves. And waiting he thinks about various things, about friends now gone, about women, about Birmingham where he grew up, about other men with other jobs, about life on the street at night, about all he has seen, about fires, wrecks, shootings, robberies, stabbings, child-rapes, asphyxiations, manglings, deaths. They pass through his mind like a shudder. And then he thinks about his new pool table and the way the balls shine against the green felt and he starts his car and figures he’ll go home and practice bank shots an hour or so before trying for some sleep.