Fuck Rick James, and Corbin Bernsen, too


The issue of photographers’ rights and entertainment photography is creating a lot of discussion right now (July 2015) as several photographers and media organizations are reporting that they are being asked to sign extraordinary agreements by bands. Called “rights grabs,” these agreements require photographers to surrender all copyrights and ownership to the band, without compensation, for the band’s exclusive use. An agreement by Taylor Swift (what a hypocrite she is!) goes so far as to allow her managers to seize and destroy the equipment of any photographer they perceive as violating the agreement. I wrote this post back in December, but given the current climate, I have decided to move it to the blog’s home page for a while.

There’s no photo to go with this post, and that’s the point of this story.  Sometimes good journalism meant walking away from a story, especially if the alternative was allowing sources and the subjects of those stories to control how it was reported. Shortly after I joined the photo staff at The Bakersfield Californian in the summer of 1981, I was assigned my first concert. The “Super Freak,” legendary rhythm and blues singer Rick James, was performing at the Civic Auditorium. As soon as I entered the auditorium, I was approached by a representative of James’ team. He told me that I could shoot the performance, but only if he would be allowed to accompany me back to the newspaper and choose the photo that would be published. There’s not a newspaper in the country, at least not a real one, that would permit that. I told him no. He changed course. OK, he said, I could choose the photo, but I would have to bring it back to the auditorium and get his approval for publication. This bozo apparently thought he was negotiating something. Again, I said no. So he made one more offer. OK, I could choose the photo, but I had to agree to turn all the negatives over to him. This was absurd. Again, no. No, no and no. Since I was a newbie, and I would be returning from an assignment with no photos, I thought it best to call the office, so I found a pay phone in the lobby. Jim Varley was one of The Californian’s legendary editors, a larger-than-life presence in the newsroom. He was a military veteran with a bit of a shit-kicker attitude. He wore cowboy boots and he didn’t walk around the newsroom, he stomped, the hard boot bottoms announcing his impending arrival long before you would see him. He seemed to enjoy terrorizing new staffers to see how tough they were, then if things were going badly for a member of the staff, he would show a soft and caring side. I told Varley what was going on. “Fuck Rick James,” he barked into the phone. “Get the hell out of there.” A few years later, I was assigned to cover an appearance by the actor Corbin Bernsen at some charity event in Bakersfield. Bernsen was a star on the hit TV show “LA Law” and at the time was one of the hottest actors in the business. We were told we would have an interview with the star before the event, then would cover the event itself. When we arrived – I’m pretty sure the reporter was Sally Connell – we were told by Bernsen’s management team that things had changed. Bernsen would not be giving us the promised interview. We were welcome to watch and photograph Bernsens’s talk, and we could report on any of the questions the audience would ask him in the question and answer session that would follow, but we could not ask any questions. At this time, Sally and I had a few years under our belts, and we knew our newsroom. We didn’t have to call the office. We told Bernsen’s representative that the terms were not acceptable, how does no story sound,  and we got up and walked out. I remember the shocked look on the representative’s face as we were leaving. I don’t know exactly when it started changing. I know it was gradual, and like so many things in this business, it spread throughout the industry. Negotiating with sources and media handlers just to do a story. Agreeing to what questions could be asked and what you couldn’t ask in an interview. Publishing press releases ver batim, written by the people whose jobs are to promote their cause or business or position, one sided, unchecked and presented as fact. Allowing story subjects, or more likely their representatives, to respond to questions by email or tweet or Facebook, eliminating any chance to follow up, to press for clarification, to observe nuance that gives seasoned journalists valuable insight. And, oh yeah, citizen journalism, the greatest farce in the history of the newspaper business. Don’t get me started on citizen journalism. It’s a great football day today, some fantastic games are on as I work on this site, and I’m in a good mood. I want it to stay that way. Some of my colleagues and I frequently speak about how the public no longer respects the role of the media. We believe that the selling of our journalistic soul – a big part of it no longer standing up to the people who have learned how easy it is to manipulate and control the press – has played at least a part in the woes the newspaper industry faces today. The Internet era certainly was the major force that has led to so much of the public abandoning newspapers, but sometimes I wonder, did we set the table for the mass exodus by surrendering journalistic integrity? Did we make it just a little easier for them to turn away? Did we sell that soul, thinking it was better to have a story, even if it meant surrendering our control of that story, rather than simply walking away? One day in the late 1990s, I was filling in as photo editor. We would do that when the boss was on vacation. We had sent photographer Sarah Reingewirtz to cover a Professional Bull Riders event at Bakersfield’s new venue, the Centennial Garden (now Rabobank Arena.) The phone rang, it was Sarah. The PBR media people were telling her she could only shoot if she agreed to give the PBR all of her negatives. What should she do, she asked? Just like I was on that day in 1981, Sarah was a newbie. She was pretty sure what the answer would be, but she wanted to make sure. The smile on my face was so wide, I don’t know how my lips didn’t split open. “Fuck the PBR,” I told her. “Get the hell out of there.”

2 thoughts on “Fuck Rick James, and Corbin Bernsen, too

  1. In the 1960s at San Jose State I interviewed various celebrities for “LYKE” our campus feature magazine. We brought along a student photographer and not one person ever asked to see our photos. They included Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck and Mort Sahl. I was schedule to interview Lenny Bruce that same month as we were going to ask the two the same questions. Lenny got arrested in San Francisco for saying an obscene word during his act, but later mailed me a column he had written and authorized me to run it.

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