The Art of the Stakeout

By Julia Hoppock

Aug 22, 2008 3:24pm

ABC News’ Maddy Sauer reports: While most people wait with baited breath for their text from Obama so that the suspense can finally end, I am hoping they hurry up and announce already for another reason. While many of us go on with our days while we anticipate the news, there are a myriad of poor news producers who have been camped out, 24-7, in front of the possible candidates’ homes as part of the dreaded newsroom assignment, the stakeout. To those outside the news profession, a stakeout may sound like a stealth operation involving an exciting game of cat and mouse. In reality stakeouts are, for the most part, painfully boring.  This can be illustrated from some of the highlights sent in via blackberry from those camped out this week. From ABC’s producer at Senator Bayh’s home at 11:46 this morning. "Sen. Bayh just walked out of his front door and went running. ‘Just going for a run,”he said. ‘Nothing to report’….Then he put in his earphones and took off jogging down the street."  This was the highlight of the morning. Though aside from boredom, there are a few other pitfalls from the stakeout that are worth noting. After eight years in ABC News’ investigative unit, I can readily name just a few. The Mosh Pit           Let’s begin with the standard stakeout that most producers will be sent on at least once in their careers. These are the mosh pits, the hours or days of waiting that can take place anywhere from the steps of a courthouse, to outside a disgraced politician’s office or home, to an airport gate. The cameramen have usually staked out their territory in the very early hours but that doesn’t stop the latecomers from trying to squeeze in to get a good spot, often resulting in cursing matches. It only took me once to learn to back up every time that court house door opens or else you’ll get an elbow in the eye when every cameraman there lifts their equipment to their shoulders at the exact same time. This, of course, is often done prematurely and then followed by a loud chorus of groans as a poor irrelevant staffer walks by. "Stand down, that’s nobody important." During the waiting period, there will be cigarettes shared, jokes told, even the occasional flask passed. But that atmosphere of camaraderie instantly disappears when the subject appears and the race is one to get the best shot — the head on shot, over 5 seconds long, preferably not with 15 other cameras blocking the view. And usually, the same shot that everyone else has. The Wrong Guy While many people know what the various potential running mates look like, there are plenty of stories that may require staking out someone who is not a public figure, someone who not every else in the world is already looking for. Stakeout subjects can range from an elusive corporate executive, to an alleged mother of a love child, to an official of a lesser-known government agency. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to find a picture of the subject online. When you are standing in front of an office building waiting for that person to arrive at work, however, it is you, the news producer, armed with a grainy image printed from a website versus the army of dopplegangers. "Wait, that looks like him but where are his glasses??" "Has he lost hair since this photo was taken?" "That could be him but he looks thinner here." And you just don’t want to walk up to the wrong guy and ask him about those embezzlement allegations. Once I was on a stakeout and I didn’t even have a photo to go by. All I had was one source, lacking in the power of description, who described the subject to me as "slight, wears glasses sometimes, and has a bald spot at the very top of his head." But after 90 minutes at an airport lounge and asking no less than a hundred men if they were Mr. X, I found him. Gotta Go This one gets me every time. I settle in front of the subject’s house at 4am in the pitch black with my big old cup of joe and six hours later….gotta go. But I just know that if I risk it and drive to the closest gas station it will be the exact second the subject decides to leave his home and then I’ve lost him. Producers I know have solved this problem a variety of ways, which I will leave to the reader’s imagination. Backdoor No matter how much you plan, there is always the unexpected — The backdoor to the courthouse that you can’t see, the underground parking lot that leads directly into the building, the housing development with gates and security. There are also the signs that you got there too late. No car in the driveway, newspapers piled on the porch, and worst of all, the competitor’s news crew already there. So this afternoon my thoughts are with the producers in Delaware, Virginia, Indiana and elsewhere who are trying to stay awake as they keep their eyes peeled for a front door to open, a car to pull-up, a family member to arrive, and an opportunity to hit the rest room. For more coverage of the veepstakes click HERE.

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