Door-stepping the High and Mighty

Photo by Luca Bruno.

Associated Press Television News (APTN) is the little-known television side of the famous AP wire service. The TV side basically does the same thing but with video. While the wires and photos go out to newspapers around the globe, our video edits go out to hundreds of broadcasters all around the world from NHK in Japan to BBC in Britain and ABC in the USA. The edits usually consist of three minutes of video and sound bites combined with a detailed shot list and story.

If I do a story on the Vatican, I go with the cameraman to the Vatican, interview the various individuals involved, get video shots of the elements we need (e.g. the Swiss Guards, St. Peter’s Basilica), edit the video, write the story and send it. But I do not appear in the story. All our TV clients can take the piece and voice over it in their own language with their own journalist or anchor.

This has always been frustrating to me. I develop the contacts and run around with the cameraman, always dragging a heavy tripod, but I am not visible in the report. There is very little journalistic glory in being a television news producer for an international news agency — it would be better to be a famous correspondent for a major broadcaster. In other words, I have often thought I’d rather be Christiane Amanpour, with her fame and fortune.

But, recently, I’ve had second thoughts. A producer is the one who knows the story, does the interviews, edits the story and can handle most technical emergencies. By now most broadcasters cannot afford to have bureaus all over the world so they rely on an agency like APTN to get the material. So, in Rome, for example, we cover more news than any other non-Italian television.

AP loves to remind people of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi. He said, “I suppose when I go to the Hereafter and stand at the Golden Gate, the first person I shall meet will be a correspondent from Associated Press.” Well, these days, he would probably find me, an AP television producer standing at the gate or the doorway with microphone in hand and a cameraman blocking his path. Over the years working for AP television, I have ‘door-stepped’ movers and shakers from all over the world, sometimes in the most awkward circumstances.

I remember just before the second war in Iraq began, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan came to Rome and was staying at the exclusive Hotel Hassler above Piazza di Spagna. I needed a comment from him on the discussions on Iraq going on at the UN. So off I went to door-step him outside his hotel. He came out bright and early, dressed elegantly in a grey wool coat and red scarf, and set off walking at a frightfully fast pace towards the nearby Villa Borghese. I ran along beside him, tripping all over myself with my long skirt, boots, over-stuffed bag, notebook, pen and the microphone attached by a cable to Gianfranco’s camera.

Kofi Annan just ignored all my questions. We jogged along. I desperately tried to keep up the pace, until it became perfectly clear that he wasn’t planning on saying anything. But Agency TV producers do not give up easily. After awhile, I stopped trying to ask him questions and just trotted along beside him. After about twenty minutes, he looked at me, laughing, and said, “I think you wore the wrong shoes to work today.” He was right about that.

After about half an hour, he stopped his speed walking and began heading back to the hotel. By that time, Gianfranco and I were dragging along behind, out of breath. Just before he reached the hotel, we decided to make a last desperate attempt. We sprinted around Annan and his bodyguards and got in front of his path, walking backwards as he headed for the door to the hotel.

“Please, Mr. Secretary-General, just one comment on what the UN is going to do to stop another war in Iraq,” I spluttered, shoving the microphone in his face…when it happened. I stepped backwards into something and tripped, falling back straight into the arms of one of Annan’s bodyguards. The bodyguard shoved me back onto my feet right in front of Annan, blocking his path. He laughed and proceeded to give me a brief comment.

Politicians are great at giving a non-comment, so you have to be a pretty harsh to be a good door-stepper. Sometimes I have gone a little too far. One time I stopped Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as he was heading for the Vatican in the pre-conclave days after the death of Pope John Paul II. “Your Eminence,” I shouted, “who are you going to vote for on your secret ballot?” The Cardinal stopped dead in his tracks, gave me a shocked look, swallowed, and replied, “I do not know. The Holy Spirit will guide me.”

I learned the hard way never to trust the door-stepping duties to anyone else. Once Vice President Dick Cheney came to Rome just after Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted that the Bush Administration had been wrong, and apparently there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The US Embassy gave the press a door-step opportunity in the portico at the entrance to Rome’s Borghese Gallery on Sunday morning. The Vice President and his wife were planning to visit the spectacular gallery with its dramatic Bernini statues and Caravaggio paintings, and he would stop for a question from the press before entering.

I got there with my cameraman to find the Vice President’s travelling press corps already in place. I shoved myself into position—tripod, stepladder, boom microphone at the ready—and we all waited. The travelling press corps began to discuss who would ask the question. They explained to me that they usually decide on one person so they are not all yelling at once. How very polite, I thought — they obviously do not work in Italy. They were all a bit superior—travelling with the Vice-President of the United States must make one feel pretty important—and when they settled on a thick-necked CNN correspondent to ask the question, I went along with the crowd. Big mistake.

Dick and Lynne Cheney arrived, all smiles, and Mr. Thick Neck asked, “Mr. Vice President, how are you enjoying Rome?” Mr. Vice President liked that one! “Oh, the weather is gorgeous — we just walked over here from the Ambassador’s residence, Villa Taverna. It is so beautiful,” or some such nonsense. And then he turned to head in the door and Mr. Thick Neck yelled at his back, “How about those weapons of mass destruction???” And the Vice President swung his head back around and said, “Enjoy the beautiful day.” We were then promptly escorted away.

I was furious. Door-stepping is not for chatting about the weather.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney at the entrance to Galleria Borghese in Rome January 24, 2004. Freeze frame of APTN Video.

I think my all-time-favorite door-step was during the G-8 Summit in L’Aquila. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi had moved the Summit to the area that had been devastated by an earthquake, leaving some 300 people dead. The Summit was boring for journalists. We were locked into a media zone where we were plied with fantastic Italian food (a Berlusconi technique — feed the journalists great food and wine, and keep them at a distance).

But then AP got a tip-off that George Clooney would be making a visit to the area shortly, helicoptering into a tent camp near a destroyed village. APTN cameraman Srdjan Nedeljkovic and I took off along with AP photographer Luca Bruno. We got to the top of a steep hill where a little town had been reduced to rubble. At the bottom of the hill was a tent camp where the residents were living. There, in the middle of the camp, was a tight group of people — and in the middle of that tight group was George Clooney.

We flew down the hill dragging our equipment and I shoved myself through the crowd until I was standing right in front of him. I asked a question and he stopped dead still, leaned towards me and started slowly answering. He even put his hand on my upper arm as he spoke to me. What talent! It was July and steaming hot. I was dripping with sweat and there was George, cool as a cucumber, holding my sweaty upper arm as he calmly answered my questions. He seemed as though he had all the time in the world to take my questions, to talk to the people in the camp, to visit the destroyed village, and to ask questions of the fire fighters and local officials. Luca Bruno took a very cool picture of me interviewing George and I emailed it to half the world.

Over the years I have door-stepped, interviewed or covered press conferences with Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Hugo Chavez, Hosni Mubarak, Robert Mugabe, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Yitzhak Rabin, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Nicolas Sarkozy on their visits to Rome. Chavez was a flirt who never stopped talking; Arafat was sloppy; Castro was tall, elegant and articulate; Mugabe was arrogant and mean; Sarkozy was short, bursting with energy and had an enormous nose; and Ahmedinejad was bizarre.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was one of my favorites. He came to Rome with his women bodyguards and set up his tent in the Villa Doria Pamphili Park. He had plenty of important meetings and a press conference with Berlusconi, but the highlight for me was his surreal meeting with hundreds of prominent Italian women, including politicians, businesswomen, and showgirls. I stood at the side of Rome’s auditorium, smirking, as Gaddafi entered, surrounded by his women bodyguards — dressed in military fatigues and bright red berets– known as ‘Amazons’. He was wearing an elaborate outfit with gold and dark blue embroidery, and an elegant round hat. The Italian women stood and cheered as he entered. BBC’s senior Rome correspondent David Willey turned to me, laughing, and said, “I have never felt such unbridled sexual energy since I was at a nunnery in Poland with hundreds of nuns waiting for the arrival of Pope John Paul II.”

In the front row sat Michela Brambilla, Berlusconi’s Under-Secretary for Tourism, wearing a tight turquoise silk suit. Other women held copies of Gaddafi’s Green Book, a book he wrote in the 70s outlining his political views. Mara Carfagna, the former showgirl whom Berlusconi made Minister of Equal Opportunity, introduced Gaddafi. Speaking with complete sincerity, she graciously thanked the Libyan leader for finding the time in his busy day full of important appointments to meet with women and address the issue of women’s rights. She obviously had not seen an advance copy of Gaddafi’s speech. For over an hour, he sat on a chair and lectured the Italian women on women’s rights, making ridiculous comments about the necessary emancipation of women in Europe and the rights that women enjoy in Libya. He was unbearably pompous and, after awhile, his adoring audience began to boo him.

When it was finally over, I rushed down to get a comment from the Libyan leader as he left the hall. I found myself pushed in a claustrophobic crunch between Gaddafi, his Amazon bodyguards, a circle of journalists and photographers, and women asking for his autograph. I was shoved up right in front of Gaddafi, face-to-face with his fantastic outfit. My cameraman had disappeared, so there was no point in questioning Gaddafi, so I turned to get out. But I was stuck. To my right was Carla Fendi, one of the famous Fendi sisters of the Fendi Fashion House. She looked equally trapped and especially uncomfortable as Gaddafi reached over our heads to grab copies of his picture and sign autographs. I looked again at Carla and asked her, “Well, what do you think of his outfit?” She responded angrily, “Do you think this is a time to ask a question like that?” Gaddafi reached up and gave the victory sign to the crowd. My colleague, AP photographer Andrew Mendichini, snapped a photo of Gaddafi at that moment. He sent it to me later, and I was standing in front of Gaddafi looking at Carla Fendi and laughing — she had a desperate look in her eyes.

From showgirls, I have also had a chance to meet with to pop and movie stars. Once I had a brief interview with Madonna when she came to Rome to promote her film “Evita”. They gave me ten minutes with her in a room at the Hotel Hassler. I grew up listening to Madonna’s music and was expecting someone larger-than-life physically, and verbally commanding and aggressive. Instead, I was amazed at how small, sweet and friendly she was. She had brought her newborn baby Lourdes with her to Rome and, as the camera crew set up, we ended up talking about the challenges of breastfeeding on the job. It felt almost as though I was chatting on the park bench with another mamma, rather than preparing for an interview with one of the most influential female singers of my generation.

Freeze Frame of Interview with Madonna

Another time I door-stepped actress Meryl Streep and asked her a question that was more for myself than for any news story. Streep, in person, is gorgeous, charming, and articulate. “How do you do it?” I asked “So many movies, such dedication, but you are also a mother of four.” She laughed and smiled and noted that she had plenty of bad days, but she just tries to do her best. Funny about that — one never sees Meryl Streep looking funky and frazzled.”

5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    AdriBarr
    2011/10/13

    What a wonderful post, and your Gadaffi story is a classic. One always awaits his next Halloween costume.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Laura
    2011/10/13

    Trisha,
    thanks for sharing your thrilling stories about meetings with the big shots! As a policy student, I totally agree that it’s much more interesting to write the speeches or the bills, than it is to deliver them to the public. And if you get to talk to the ones that “matter,” you get the best of both worlds: great meetings without the burden of make-up for the show biz! :-) fortunately, there’s also people out there that care for visibility: without them, the backstage work would never come out.
    Your blog is super, keep it up!!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/10/15

      Thank you Laura! I am suddenly realizing that keeping up a blog is hard work for a working mother of three. Your frequent comments and support make a big difference, I really appreciate it.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Alan
    2011/10/13

    . . fascinating stuff. Once had a moment of dubious fame in the dim and distant past when we Brits were disengaging from Aden Protectorate – one of your fellow journalists (now bereft of life) was rushing around trying to get anything with pips on their shoulders to say a few words – none would. Eventually he grabbed hold of me (a lowly lance corporal) and I gave him the business perspective. Was later quoted in the Daily Express as ‘ a British military Spokesman was quoted as saying . .’ Ahh! Glory days!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/10/14

      Alan — You certainly have an interesting past! I am eager to hear more about it!

      Reply

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