Microphone-wielding reporters, big guys lugging TV cameras and others toting sound equipment swarmed frenetically like bees—and District Attorney Paul Pfingst was the honey-laden hive. Pfingst exited the courthouse last Wednesday an hour or so after it was announced that a jury found David Westerfield guilty of kidnapping and murdering little Danielle van Dam.
It was a pretty funny-looking scene if you weren't Pfingst or a member of the media horde that descended upon him-there was the D.A. walking very slowly up the sidewalk, commenting carefully on the trial for the microphones and cameras shoved in his face, and as he did, the journalists and techies were shuffling along with him, elbowing each other for position, trying to avoid tripping on cords. It was almost artistic-the clump moving methodically along, never losing its shape.
Humorous and artistic, that is, if it weren't so damned annoying for people like the two women who couldn't avoid it as the noontime bell rang.
“Just trying to get to lunch,” one of them said as she wiggled her way between the clump and the row of media tents along the sidewalk. Her pal was in no mood for questions regarding her negativity about the overbearing media presence.
“I'm sick of it,” she said, declining rather emphatically to talk about it further.
Sick of it or not—that's what you get when the media glom onto a story like the Westerfield trial. Or like O.J. Simpson. Or like the Columbine school shootings. It was a day when, if you happened to be walking in that part of town, there was a good chance you were going to be asked to tell the camera what you thought of the verdict.
Roger Hedgecock, the former mayor and current KOGO radio host, was there; he had a table set up—presumably for guest interviews. Has the media gone overboard on this one? Like any good politician, Hedgecock straddles the fence.
“The sudden disappearance and death out of a suburban area that most people would think of safe,” he said, “was a shattering moment. For San Diego, this is a very important trial, and the outcome has become a very important cathartic moment.”
But, he added, “on my show I've been desperately trying to continue to cover all the other stuff I think is important in the county and in the state and nation, including the budget impasse in Sacramento and other political issues, which, of course, get dwarfed by coverage of this trial. This seems to have consumed the media, and not just here in San Diego—they're here from all over the world, standing in front of us as we talk.”
Hedgecock took a swing at the local daily. “The idea that two of the hijackers who lived here in San Diego—we didn't get it on the front page of the Union-Tribune that they were actually scoping out Navy ships as targets until two days after the Associated Press reported it. It's outrageous.”
About 30 feet away, Channel 10 reporter Mark Matthews was wrapping up a short taped segment on the verdict. “We all come up with story ideas, and we pitch 'em, but the decision about how much coverage one story gets versus another story-that's a decision that the reporters on the ground don't make,” he said, deftly handling a loaded question.
Matthews, who hadn't been covering the Westerfield trial before the big day, didn't say he'd rather be reporting on something else, but it's safe to assume he prefers investigative rather than reactive work. “I like to tell people things that they need to know, that they have to know in order to make important decisions about their lives,” he said.
“There's a huge water deal being negotiated to bring 65 million gallons of water every year from Imperial County to San Diego County-that's a story people in this town should know more about. Last night, we did a three-minute piece on the Imperial Valley Water District transfer. So that story's getting covered as well.”
Sitting on the court building steps was Brook Wade, who works in human resources for a Del Mar brokerage firm. Her reason for sitting there: jury duty. She contemplated the Westerfield trial out loud.
“At the beginning, I think, it was really interesting,” Wade said. “Recently, I think there's been too much of it-going over every little detail. I wanted to hear what the verdict was, but I've been sick of it, sick of hearing it on TV.”
Her preference in news coverage angled more toward, as Matthews had commented, what was important in the context of her own life. Warnings of a rapist loose in San Diego matter because she's a single woman living alone; unrest in the Middle East matters because she's part of a military family.
“I think just going through the channels, you're going to get everything that's important to you, you'll get it covered one way or another,” she said.
Media spectacles like this one sometime draw opportunists-even opportunists who want to provide commentary on media spectacles.
Walking slowly up and down the sidewalk was Robert Marshall, who had a sort of younger Al Pacino look going for him. Marshall held a hand-written sign that read, “Director/Screenwriter seeks sponsors for independent film to be filmed in San Diego.” Arrows pointed from the words “Director/Screenwriter” upward to Marshall's face.
The subject matter of his film seemed familiar. “It's a documentary about a big, big, big event-well, it's just a docu-drama of something that happened here in San Diego,” he said. “It was a very, very heinous crime. It was so bad there was just a lot of media sensationalism surrounding the whole event and trial. It was another big O.J. Simpson, TV-drama spectacle.”
Did it involve swinging couples, marijuana smoking and dirty dancing and whatnot? “All kinds of soap-opera issues,” he said.
Marshall didn't like the decision to allow cameras in the Westerfield courtroom. He said the judge had to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with media issues, ultimately wasting taxpayer money. But “it makes for good television,” he said. “Now come the days leading to when he goes into the gas chamber, I guess, right? Which is the way it all ends.”
Marshall steered his comments in a broader direction. “The economy here in the United States goes down because of all the depression and all the anxiety that the media is constantly putting out. Misery loves company,” he said. “I really disapprove of the way the media brings out public school shootings and too much violent stuff that should be left out. It brings it on like a snowballing effect on the public. It brings on paranoia.”
In his attempts to lure investors to his film project, Marshall wasn't having much luck. Neither was another would-be opportunist about a half a block away.
Paul Powers watched the verdict from his nearby home at the YMCA and then headed down to the court building in hopes of soliciting enough money from passers-by and hangers-around to buy a sandwich and a pack of smokes.
“There's a lot of people coming by here,” Powers said, “so I feel like I can make a few bucks.” For Powers, one hour had produced 70 cents.
Powers is an alcoholic who hasn't been able to lay off the booze. His health problems-kidney disorders, tuberculosis-have made it difficult to hold down a job.
“A lot of people put me down; they're derogatory towards me,” he said. “I mean I'm just doing what I gotta do. I don't really like it. I feel bad, but... you just do what you gotta do to survive.”