Media Business

2001 Came In as a Kitten and Went Out Like a Lion.

The Klamath Reclamation Project’s water shut-off quickly became known as the “Klamath Basin Crisis”. Media, always on the hunt for for simplified slogan-headlines, adopted the term from Ron DeShon’s website that was started in reaction to events that were unfolding on a daily basis. Ron was living in Medford, Oregon at the time and was the son of a Tulelake horseradish grower. The term Klamath Basin Crisis, in my estimation, was a poor term because it implied a geographical region that really didn’t exist. If one looked at the Klamath Basin as being the Klamath River Watershed then there was some merit to the term. But this wasn’t the case. The media’s focus was on the farmland and refuge between Klamath Falls, Oregon and Tulelake, California. This land, straddling the border, is the Klamath Reclamation Project not the Klamath Basin. The problems that forced the water shutoff were not those of the Klamath Reclamation Project, they were those of the Klamath River Watershed.

The first newspaper responders to the 2001 water shut-off was the Klamath Falls’ Herald and News staff including writers John Bragg, Anita Burke, Kehn Gibson, Todd Kepple, Lee Juillerat and staff photographers Ron Winn and Gary Thain. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal were the first national press coverage. Portland Oregonian’swriter Michael Milstein and photographer Bruce Ely began making numerous visits to Klamath Falls and surroundings. Jeff Barnard, an Associated press writer out of Medford, OR., had also taken an interest. On the national TV front CNN’s Lou Dobbs and U.S. Farm Report Orion Samuelson were the first to cover the story. At the Bucket Brigade Fox correspondent William La Jeunesse was the only national coverage on site. Regional TV coverage was abundant along with national photographers including the LA Times. Soon reporters from regional, national and international outlets would be visiting Upper Klamath Basin’s Klamath Falls and Tulelake.

The press, interviewees, public-relations-people and resource managers were becoming an extended family. All the same folks were showing up at meetings and appearing on TV, radio and in the print media. I decided that I would not interact with other media members. I saw them as being part of the story as they framed the issues with sellable sound-bites and headlines. Media is a for-profit-business that can cast aside substance for the public’s attention.

International radio correspondents arrived early on. I was struck by the nature of their questions. They expressed an interest in the human condition, They were less concerned about the controversy. Many of their questions were as if they were laying a sympathetic hands on the interviewee’s shoulder. The BBC correspondent told me in a car-ride to an interview that this story would resonate with farmers in Scotland dealing with similar issues. She was one of many news outlets that contacted Chris Moudry for information and help to set up interviews. He would ask them if it would be ok for me to tag along. This gave me an opportunity to document the working media and to film the subject that was being interviewed. The German Public Radio correspondent asked the most sensitive questions. Since his format was radio he could allow the interviewee to talk longer. There was no expensive crew lurking about or the need to produce the 13 second sound-bite and seek out gross simplifications. He could let the interviewee find their place and relate their experiences at their own pace and their own words. Traveling with the radio correspondents gave me some of my best video interviews. Besides the heart-felt questions that their longer formats allowed I was not the focus of the interviews but a bystander so my cameras did not get in the way. Many times as the stories unfurled I needed to be both correspondent and camera operator, here, with the radio people, I was a camera operator.

NBC Evening News sent west coast correspondent George Lewis to report the story and I attended three interviews with them. George was joined by his ace crew of cameraman, soundman and producer. They flew in, rented a car and went to work.NBC Evening News with George Lewis interviews Ty Kliewer in Klamath Falls, 2001.  Photo by Anders Tomlinson. The first interview was with Ty Kliewer, a young Klamath Falls college student – farmer. Ty tried repeatedly to engage NBC with the concept that the problem concerned the overall Klamath River Watershed and not the Klamath Reclamation Project. He was ignored. Interviews about something as large and complex as the 12,000,000 acre watershed across two states, seven large counties with eight rivers and 7,454 waterway miles do not translate neatly into sound-bites peppering a three minute news report. Years later, after an exhaustive study, the National Academy of Science agreed with the Ty, the problem was not about the localized Klamath Reclamation Project it was about the overall Klamath River Watershed. In the bigger picture, like a canary in a coal mine, the Klamath River Watershed was just another wake-up call for billions of humans trying to survive on little planet Earth.

CNN”s regional crew came to town crammed into a dirty mini-van. They had been covering large fires breaking out across the northwest. Smoke was still on their clothes. They were tired. CNN camera-person covering 2001 Klamath water shut-off, Klamath Falls, OR. Photo by Anders Tomlinson.The reporter, camera-person, sound-person and producer were all women. They were amused when they learned I was going on a couple of their interviews. They approached their subjects much like European radio. They had empathy and a willingness to take a minute and peel back a couple of layers. They were clearly after the images and words that shared the moment. The camera-person was always framing a new shot. I could see that they would have a bounty of shots to edit from. These women, in a male dominated arena at the national level, were the hardest working crew that I would encounter covering the 2001 water-shutoff. They didn’t put up with fools kindly nor did they engage in small talk with news crews that were stepping over each other’s cables.

The media circus was coming to town and setting up camp at the
Klamath Reclamation Project’s headgates

©2012 Anders Tomlinson, all rights reserved.