Along with working as a staff photographer for the Independent Weekly, I also work as a freelancer for other publications, including The New York Times. Last week, a photo editor from the Times called me and asked if I was available to shoot an assignment for him that day.
“Nothing too hard,” he said. “Just the front of a house.”
He had no idea how easy. I asked if it was the Duke lacrosse house.
“Yeah, do you know where that is?”
Sure, I was looking right at it. I live next door. The editor was entertained when I told him, then he paused and asked me if everything was all right. I thought about the freelance rate and said yes.
I walked out of my house, turned right and snapped a few frames of the now-notorious house next door. There would be no mileage reimbursement for this assignment. When the story appeared on the front page the following day, scores of travel arrangements were made by media outlets across the country, all headed for RDU, then 610 N. Buchanan Blvd.
The noise around the house would only grow from that point on. I listened to reporters delivering the 11 o’clock news from my front yard as generators chugged out voltage for the blinding lights cutting through the dark of Trinity Park. Cars honked in protest as they passed by, but the inside of the house was abandoned shortly after the big noise went down. The house was silent. Signs were pasted onto the front created by people attempting to speak for it–neighbors, students, women, men, black and white. Before long, tempered hands removed them all. One morning, a woman stood in front of the house holding a sign that read “We believe her.” She left after the cameras disappeared. There were double takes and second passes, old women pointing and adjusting their glasses. Parts of a funeral procession came to a stop so mourners could catch a peek of the house that had flashed across their television screens. Whatever happened, it happened there, inside the house next door.
All of them were looking for answers, but the story provided few. The natural starting point was the house where the alleged assault took place. The next natural stop was mine.
They came with smiling faces, offering cards with names, logos and countless reasons to give just a little bit of your time. Stepping outside to grab the mail meant picking up one or two reporters along the way. All have been remarkable at their craft. For some, it was the pursuit of truth–solid, thoughtful journalism. For others, it was the collection and reinterpretation of mainstream infotainment and sensationalism for an endless, hungry news cycle. And for others still, it was the shameless art of filtering through facts to fit their own view of the story. It was a revealing look into the workings of this giant, ever-expanding mass of newsgathering entities–and has had a profound effect on the way I will approach stories as a member of this organism.
When reporters knocked on the front door, they were always after my roommate, Jason Bissey. He was the only witness talking. As shocking as the alleged assault seems, it was the unforgivable comment he overheard that captured the attention of the national media focus: “Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt.”
Jason heard the racially charged remark while sitting on the front porch of our house. But, thankfully, I was not out on the porch with Jason that night. I was in the back sunroom, clacking out a letter to a friend on an old typewriter. It was just another Sunday night, after all.
The only noise I remember hearing from next door was the metal clanks and resounding cheers from a monumental game of washers earlier in the day. Washers is a backyard sport that I’ve had to reluctantly explain in every interview. With so little developing news in this story, reporters perked up at the mention of washers, as if it may be the key to the shocking events that followed. I often snickered while trying to describe the game, a routine that has become the running joke between me and Jason. We both agreed the best short description is “a mix between horseshoes and Skee Ball.” Some reporters were satisfied with this, but others wanted to know more about the scoring and merits of the game, which are basically getting drunk and not having to do much else. One woman even transcribed the example grunt I gave as something that might be overheard during official game play, if you can call it that.
Aside from describing the clean-up efforts the following day, this is the only piece of semi-valuable, slightly related information I had to offer reporters. The rest of the questions usually revolved around the habits of the lacrosse guys who lived next door and my opinion of Durham’s relationship with Duke. I have only lived in this house for three months, so I know very little about my former neighbors. I didn’t know their names until I read them in the newspaper. As for giving my opinion on Durham and Duke, I have tried to toe the line between journalist and citizen carefully.
Sometimes I feel like the poor fool at a trailer park minutes after a tornado has ripped through, TV crews photographing the remains of my doublewide. Except this story is far more complicated than recording the wrath of nature. This story comes fully loaded, encompassing race relations, privilege, poverty, the sexual assault of women, the complications of advanced forensic evidence and the long history of a city and a state that I have lived in for just under one year. The big noise has already gone down, only one witness is talking, the list of suspects is huge, and it seems like everyone has something to lose. This is a very difficult story to cover and comment on. But the monster must be fed, so I tried to give my thoughts out carefully.
Then came the television cameras.
Television interviews are the worst exchanges for monitoring your thoughts. I have a renewed sympathy for politicians and public figures. Under the lights and on the other side of the camera, I have trouble keeping it together, maintaining some sense of objectivity while providing thoughtful remarks. I really didn’t want to be interviewed on camera. I didn’t hear anything that night. What did I have to add to the story?
They continued to press, and eventually I caved, giving in to what must have been some deeply embedded childhood desire to be on television. I told myself the local news broadcast would be it. When a crew from Nightline showed up, I gave in again. I only watched myself on the local broadcast, though, and my discomfort was apparent enough. I wanted to forget about it and hoped viewership was down that night, that the signal was lost, shooting out into space. As a print journalist who watches very little television, this was a relatively easy thing for me to do. Then my mom called from Illinois.
She said that all her friends had seen me on television and wondered why I hadn’t bothered to tell her that I would be on national TV. I was glad when my cell phone signal faded before I had to recount the entire week for her.
My only comfort during this episode was the realization that I could be in Jason’s position, hounded non-stop and weighed down with all of the responsibilities that come with being a witness. I tried to keep the fanatical media elements away from him, blocking reporters from Inside Edition and Fox News. I fetched Jason coffee during intense interviews by multiple reporters at once, a phenomenon ironically referred to as a “gang bang” in the industry. Jason agreed to a “walk and talk” with a slick producer from MSNBC, who found out where he works as a chef, flew down from New York, ordered the striped bass, and starting working his “get.” It would be the last on-camera interview for Jason. Later that night we sat back on the porch, drank a few beers and shared stories of our time in the media circus.
We laughed at the thought of Jason’s old high school friends back in the cornfields of Illinois watching him deliver a nervous account of the night. He couldn’t believe he had used the phrase “expletive deleted” in place of “bitch” during the dreaded walk and talk.
We debated the possibilities and wondered what would happen next. We looked over to the house next door. It was quiet. And that was fine by us.