methow grist 2011-2014 archive


Not Getting the Story

After stoking the wood stove, I sit at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee. A light layer of chimney smoke lingers over the valley floor. Above, the tops of the Cascades stretch out of sight into a grey sky. It is fall in the Methow Valley, temperatures drop to the teens at night and get just above freezing during the day. For my first time, I’ve failed a video journalism assignment.

The assignment: conduct on camera interviews with the key players affected by Washington initiative 1183. This initiative will privatize liquor sales in the state of Washington to businesses 10,000 square feet or larger. The key players: the two grocery store owners, managers at the two state run liquor stores, police department, and the fire department. Ballots are due in seven days.

I prepare my camera gear, jump in the Subaru and drive to the first interview’s location, the state liquor store in Winthrop, three miles north up the valley from my house. I enter the store, introduce myself and explain why I’m carrying a professional video camera and tripod, an unusual sight in this small western-themed town. The lady behind the counter is short and red-haired, with a voice my high-power mic probably wouldn’t pick up anyways. I feel bad for even asking her to comment on the initiative. Although she works at a liquor store, I feel like she should be offering hot tea and cookies. She quickly refuses the interview, too camera shy. She says, “All that I’m worried about are the kids.” If the law passes, some say, it would be easier for minors to find alcohol with wider distribution, additionally presenting a safety hazard for children due to a likely increase in drunk drivers. She doesn’t mention the fact that she will probably lose her job if the initiative passes.

I leave the store having been denied a video interview for the first time, a true welcome to the world of journalism. I get a shot of the liquor store, and then climb back in the car setting my camera in the passenger’s seat. I drive a quarter mile down the road to the fire station. I find an unlocked door and let myself in. I follow a hallway to an open office with two firefighters at a computer. I ask if they saw the video I shot of them burning down a house over the weekend. One of them says yes, the other stares at the computer screen. I ask if they would like to comment on camera about initiative 1183. The firefighter at the computer says no. The other one gives a longer response explaining that he doesn’t know enough about it. I snap back to the video from the weekend, “Did you like the video from the weekend?”

“I just watched it from my phone, but yeah it looked pretty cool,” he says.

“Oh good,” I say as I lean away from the doorway thanking them anyways. I walk down the hallway back to the car having been denied interview number two. I head towards the police station.

I walk into the marshal’s office, greeted by a friendly officer. I’ve seen him before at the pub where I bartend. I ask him about the initiative. He responds, “My monkey sized brain isn’t big enough to intelligently comment on it.” I laugh with him. He says that a good person to talk to would be the marshal himself, although he is currently at the gym. He calls him on the phone. No answer. As I leave the office, I hear the phone ring. I stop in the doorway. The marshal is on the phone. I hear the officer explaining to the marshal why he called. “There’s a journalist in the office wanting to interview you about initiative 1183. It’s the one that privatizes state liquor sales.” He continues to explain the issue to the marshal better than I could with details about whom it effects and the amount of revenue it would generate for the state. I wish I had his explanation on camera. He puts down the phone and tells me that the marshal will give me a call back when he’s in the office.

I get in the car, set my camera down, and drive to the only grocery store in Winthrop, The Red Apple. I enter the store. Both cashiers know me. I ask one of them if the owner is in. He won’t be there until Friday.

I leave the town of Winthrop with zero interviews. I drive eight miles down the valley to Twisp. I go to Hank’s grocery store. I ask a lady stocking the shelves if Hank is in today. Stuffed animals Hank killed on safaris line the isles. She says that she just saw Hank by the deli. I walk towards the deli knowing what Hank looks like from other peoples’ descriptions. I do find him. He partially owns many businesses and restaurants throughout the Methow Valley. If I had to pick the most influential person to the valley’s economy, it would be him.

I introduce myself. I can tell he’s busy, but he still stops to chat. He turns down the video interview, but still makes some comments about the initiative. He’s uncertain how it will affect the balance of things. He says, “I will just check both boxes, yes and no, to ensure my vote on the ballet is cancelled out.” If anyone in the valley benefits from this initiative, it would be Hank or the Red Apple because they could sell hard liquor. His response surprises me. As I leave the store I get a shot of the building. I still have a small hope of creating a video.

I drive to the state liquor store in Twisp. Once again I explain myself to the manager. He refuses the interview, this time not at all because of being camera shy. He says, “If I lived in Seattle, I’d be jumping in front of your camera. The problem is that I live in a community with 800 people. I commented on a similar initiative last year for the paper, and I received a lot of flack for it. Now I’m known as the crazy left-sider.” I realize that he just taught me a valuable lesson about the small town political beat. In a small town, a comment goes much further than in a big city. He says, “I don’t want to make anybody mad. These are the people I see everyday.” I learn that he has over 20 years as a magazine editor in Seattle, and now owns a state liquor store in Twisp.

This makes me wonder how do you get people in the rural areas to share their opinions so that voters can make more informed decisions. A rural vote goes just as far as a vote in the city. 

Steve Foreman, trained in journalism and videography, did succeed recently in making a video of local volunteer firefighters at work on a training fire.