Tuesday, August 3rd, 1999
Just as with the Cotton Mill fire, I happened to be surfing through the channels when the earliest cut-ins hit the airwaves. Shooting in Buckhead. Maybe multiple injuries. Maybe a fatal.
Soon the parade of familiar images began. Same-yet-different helicopter shots of the Piedmont Road office buildings, festooned with ‘Breaking News" logos. Unsteady voices babbling early speculation. We think there’s a gunman still in the building. We’re not sure which building. The building has been evacuated. It hasn’t been evacuated. Disgruntled employee, we hear.
The ground units arrive, charged, it seems, with unearthing any shred of information and spewing it out live, verification be damned. Competition is cutthroat. WSB’s Vince Girasole is caught live on air screaming "Come to me now! You gotta come to me now, right now!"
We no longer watch "the news". We watch the birth and death cycle of a news event. We watch the raw information gathering. We get the misinformation along with the information. And because of this, we’re missing an essential step-several essential steps-in the journalistic process. We don’t get the part where the most experienced voices in the newsroom say "let’s verify that." Let’s get some background. Let’s make sure it’s really happening the way the spokespeople say it is. We miss out on context. But, like never before, we sure get to ride along on the search for what-the-heck-happened.
The Buckhead shootings were as prototypical an example of Breaking News, late nineties style, as you can get.
The cops deploy. They shove the ground reporters back, back, just a little further back. Their spokesman turns out to be our mayor (what are the odds?) who apparently can smell a high-visibility role for himself all the way from downtown. His arrival and every utterance is itself covered, overcovered, run into the ground. We see shots of the top of Campbell’s head via Chopper 2. It’s an angle you’ll only see on two!
The afternoon wears on. WSB presents bullet points of information down at the bottom of the screen where they usually show the traffic problems and the lottery numbers. Wes Speculation and Brenda Wisdom balance each other’s extremes on 11Alive. Bruce Erion and his chopper competitors show us great pictures of, well, the top of some office buildings, in between refuelings. And almost in spite of these efforts, the story develops. The gruesomeness of the crime becomes apparent. Numbing shock sets in as evening arrives, the news machine grinds on.
I can’t deny that watching this live unfolding is compelling-especially when revelations about the "shooter", "suspect", "gunman" come tumbling out on the airwaves-first from Washington, of all places: NBC’s Pete Williams talking about Barton’s Alabama past to Wes and Brenda. And Mark Winne’s interview with Barton’s civil suit lawyer out on Ponce laid out all kinds of juicy tidbits. But is this better than a story a week later that has perspective and a more confident accounting of the facts?
The sun set, and mumbled rumors became hard reports-they found Barton’s van up in Cobb County somewhere. The choppers raced north, and the final act played out. Someone labeled it a murderous "rampage," opening the door for several days of "rampage" coverage you can count on.
The dead were buried, not in private. Apparently we’re all supposed to mourn these people together. It gives us all "closure," or that’s what they tell us. It’s how news is done these days. And count on this: the next Breaking News event is just around the corner.