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Making NewsHour Weekend: From remote Maryland islands to the Salton Sea

NewsHour Weekend airs only small excerpts of footage from weeks of planning and production. So in our holiday series “Making NewsHour Weekend,” Hari Sreenivasan points the camera on our producers. In part one of four, Christopher Booker, Laura Fong and Mori Rothman talk about filming crab fisheries in Maryland, a run-in with a ferocious baby deer on the way to the Moab Music Festival and more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    For our year-end broadcasts, we thought we'd let you hear from the team of producers who bring you our NewsHour Weekend stories each week — to gain some insight into our production and journalistic process, and maybe even hear a few war stories along the way. NewsHour Weekend's Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with the team of Chris Booker, Laura Fong and Mori Rothman.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Chris, we'll start with you. Let's talk about one of the pieces that mattered to you, moved you this year.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    So, in July, my producer and I, Laura Fong, we went down to Hooper's Island on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Basically the Eastern Shore of Maryland is known for its crabs.

    Everybody goes to Maryland. Everybody eats Maryland crabs. But this year they were missing about 40 percent of their workforce.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    The American crab picker's gone by the wayside. The old ladies have died off and the younger ladies now want a full-time job. We only offer eight months out of a year. We're seasonal, so they want something that they can count on year-round with benefits and we don't offer that.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Like others in the area, Harry Phillips has gotten around the shortage of American workers with the migrant workforce, hired season after season and brought legally to the U.S. on H2B visas.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    In the past, the visas were issued on a first-come, first-served basis, but this year due to record demand, the Department of Homeland Security switched to a lottery system, which meant that if I'm Crab Company X and Laura is Crab Company Y, we apply, and if I'm selected in the lottery, I'm able to get all of my visas. If Laura is not selected, she gets none of her visas. And so there were a number of crab houses on Hooper's Island, that had no workers. They were sitting there empty, at the height of their season.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So Laura tell me, how do you make this interesting TV? He just laid out why this is important for businesses and so forth. When you're doing your research, when you're trying to figure out where we go to shoot this?

  • LAURA FONG:

    Yeah, it was tricky because one of our main characters, Harry Phillips, he had no workers. So what do you film?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So empty shelves where people would be.

  • LAURA FONG:

    I basically filmed an empty room where there was a table and no people. And that was his story, that he needed those workers in order to make his business work.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are these companies going to do next year?

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    So speaking with a number of the fishermen, they are in a situation where they don't know, they don't know what will happen. Maybe they'll get selected in the lottery, maybe they won't. Maybe they'll be able to extend some of the visas they had from last season into this season. Maybe they won't. It's a really gray area right now, and unfortunately, they're caught in this perfect storm of politics and economics.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Lacking solutions, Harry Phillips is making contingency plans.

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    I can't do it two years in a row, no. If we don't get the workers another year, we will shut the door. We've even considered, there's crabs in Mexico, and we we've been checking to see what's going on and we're going to fly down there this winter.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    To see about maybe setting up shop down there?

  • HARRY PHILLIPS:

    Setting up shop in Mexico. The ladies are there. They are all willing to work the crab are there. This is all I know. I don't have much education and I do know what I'm doing here. So what else can we do? You know we can't sit here idle.

  • LAURA FONG:

    That was a very strange comment from him. We didn't expect it. It kind of took us off guard.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He hasn't gone yet?

  • LAURA FONG:

    As far as we know, he hasn't. He was able to get some workers late in the season, so he has not made that move, but the fact that he was even considering it, being a native of you know the Eastern Shore of Maryland for so many generations. We were shocked that he even considered it.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Yeah, he's a third generation fisherman. And you know a lot of times I think we're looking to tell big stories through small windows. And I think this is a perfect example of that. I mean you know you're really trying to look at stories through a person's individual experience and you're trying to find stories that include the bigger things that may be more difficult or more complicated to talk about, but you can really clearly see, wow this is a policy that's having a direct impact on people and there's really no black or white. It's remarkably gray, it requires a bit of of nuance in the way we look at things.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK, not all our stories are big policy issues. You and Mori have been kind of on a hot streak this year of going to some beautiful places. Let's talk about a couple of those.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Yes, so I'll give it to you Mori. Because Mori is a great partner to have in the field. We've been in the desert, we've been in the mountains, and it's always good to have Mori at your side.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    Yeah, well we've had the luck this year of going to several locations that are a producer's dream to film. We've been in the desert where everything you point the camera at is picturesque and you can't miss. Every single frame.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is the story of the Salton Sea?

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    In the Salton Sea story, the sun sets over these mountains by the sea and it's this incredible sunset. In another setting where we are filming in Moab with the Moab Music Festival and not only are we filming a classical music concert, but we are filming it in this canyon of red rock.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And that's not some place you can drive to.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    It's not. We had to hike to it. We have to bring our camera gear into the canyon.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All the musicians are carrying all their equipment, you show that in the story.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Yeah, we didn't have it as bad as them. I mean particularly the bass player. The bass player had his giant bass strapped to his back and he was ducking under the trees and having to move tree branches around and we just had two tripods, but the highlight of that hike, it has to be said, is that Mori was actually charged by a ferocious baby deer.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So somehow we didn't put it in the story.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    No, that somehow didn't get put in. We were grabbing some extra shots of the nature around the concert and we see this deer approach us and I'm getting closer with the camera. I'm thinking this is incredible, 'I'm getting this close of a shot,' and the deer starts getting closer to me and I am really staying in there, getting my shot and it starts to gallop a little bit in charge and kind of pick up its hooves and about 10feet from me, I realize 'ooh, this is very close to me. I probably should put my camera down and see if I'm in trouble here.'

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But, you know that thing is, we're bringing this up partly, Mori, not just to embarrass you, but you're on a streak of these kind of bizarre moments that are happening only to you compared to anybody else that we have. You come back and you have video of these things happening to you.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    It's doing everything to get the shot. Sometimes that includes when we were in Calgary crashing on a bike on a mountain trail. We had a GoPro strapped to my bike as I was following a person we're profiling.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And he made a really cool wheelchair bike.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Yeah, this is a story that hasn't run yet. We went and visited with a fellow named Christian Bagg and when he was 20 he broke his back snowboarding and has spent the last 22 years working on an all terrain wheelchair. It's got two front tires and one giant tire in the back and he has successfully built this machine that allows him to go extreme mountain biking.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    So we strapped Go Pros everywhere. We had them on Christian and we had him on Mori's bike and my bike and proceeding down. We were actually toward the end of the ride at this point and we're going down the mountains. We're feeling really good at this point.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    You were feeling good, I had already a couple of troubles up the bike, so I was feeling iffy.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But we've got the footage of Mori flipping up over the handlebars.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Are you okay?

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    My body's taken a beating.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The thing is, there's actually nothing in your way that you flipped over. That's what I'm kind of … Was there a big rock, was there a surprise baby deer? Nope.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    No, there wasn't. I had no excuse for this one.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Not a flashback from Moab?

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The other part of the story that's funny and I was thinking about this last night. We're about halfway through the ride. And I said to the guys, the Canadians, 'do we have to worry about bears?' And they were like, 'yeah, you do.' And they're like, 'do you know what you're supposed to do?' and I'm like, 'ride away really fast.' And they say, 'absolutely not!' So we're midway through the mountain.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what do you do?

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    They basically said a bear won't eat something that's not running. So stay still.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    News you can use right here. End of the year.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    And one of the guys that was with us pointed out 'oh yeah, I've got this bear spray with me.' The two New York guys are …

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    And in my difficulty on the bike and the risks there really just highlight how amazing it is that Christian can go out there on this 3D-printed wheelchair and I'm crashing, I crashed four times on that mountain. Christian? No problem. Speeding past me.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    You'll notice there's no one behind us and no one in front of us because we have to walk.

    I'm really excited about this story. Just because it's a story about technology because he's making a lot of the parts with his 3D printer. But it's also the story of innovation and the highlight for him isn't that he's out there in the mountains, it's that that I'm out there with my friends and I'm having an experience just like they are, and they don't have to worry that I'm going to slow them down. We're going just as fast as I went 20 years ago.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He's not left behind. Now you know this reminds us that we use all kinds of cameras and all kinds of places and you and I did a piece about Lyft and Uber and what's happening in the New York City taxi system and there are scenes in the beginning where you know if you weren't watching you wouldn't have known that Laura is in the backseat trying to get this shot in every way possible and every once in a while you're head you sort of drifts up there and drifts back.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Andy Gonzalez who drives her both begin with Uber shortly after the company first came to New York seven years ago. He drove me and my producer Laura who's filming in the backseat.

  • LAURA FONG:

    I didn't have a good way to monitor whether or not I was in the shot of the GoPro and of course I wanted to make the piece good I had to get a shot of you, Hari, so I sometimes had to cross over and lo and behold there was a shot we wanted to use where I was in the background.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So it's OK I mean it's a team effort and I think a lot of things that our viewers miss is that there's not just the one person that appears on camera doing this, but there's people back in the newsroom that are helping put the scripts together. There's editors that are working to make this stuff look good. There's right there's a lot of people that are involved in this process. What happened with that Lyft story? Has anything changed?

  • LAURA FONG:

    You know, New York is still very much an anomaly, especially in the U.S. market in terms of these ride hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. We're still the only city here that has put some sort of cap and it's technically only a year long cap. It means that it could change after this year while they study the flow of traffic and how it will affect the city.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Since 2011, the number of for hire vehicles license in New York City has more than doubled from 50,000 to about 130,000 cars, all required to be licensed by the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission. The majority of the new cars are used for app services like Uber and Lyft.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You also got a chance to do something this year that I think anybody of a certain generation is so completely envious of which is to skate with Tony Hawk.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    I did. I did. Now the caveat is, it was as if Black Sabbath was playing a concert and I was the Carpenters and I jumped up midway through Black Sabbath's set and interrupted them, but for me it was pretty amazing.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    About two months before his fiftieth birthday, Tony Hawk set out to revisit 50 of the tricks he has invented or pioneered during his 41 years as a skateboarder.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    First of all, it's amazing. I mean lets just realize that this is a 50 year old doing what he's doing physically and you know regardless of whether it's skateboarding, he's in phenomenal shape and really good at what he does.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    And as he tells us in the piece no yoga no special diet, he surfs.

  • TONY HAWK:

    Nowadays. I really have to workout so if I do get hurt I'm the one doing the icing and doing and getting the mobility back and starting low and starting slow and it's just more work.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Tony Hawk's cultural footprint is substantial and it may seem a bit odd that he's appearing on a news program like this, but you know his foundation has built over 600 skate parks around the world, an estimated 6 million people use those skate parks every year and he's also involved in international organizations that are championing skateboarding and education. He's involved with this group called Skateistan and they've built schools and skate parks in South Africa and Afghanistan. And what's amazing is that he talks a lot about skateboarding in places like Afghanistan, it's viewed as a toy. So there's no gender dynamics there. The people are saying it's OK for the girls and boys to go skateboarding because it's a toy and you know skateboarding is an activity, I'm revealing myself, I was a lifetime skater. Now I really basically only skate my daughter, but skateboarding is an activity is something that it's really done by the individual. There's no league, there's no team, there's no ref, and there's no bar for what you need to do or be able to do. But it's also about falling. You know you fall down a lot and it maybe sounds hyperbolic but the idea of falling and getting back up is something that's really important.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mori, just in case the audience can't tell you guys are slightly different generation. It's amazing, it's amazing how long his brand has gone through all these different iterations and he's still…

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    He's still still very relevant and you know everybody who I told about this story was jealous of me forgetting to go report on this and it also is a rare opportunity to see someone who has been following Tony Hawk and skateboarding for so long. Meet the man, you rarely get to see all the fans here.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    We walked into the office which is just outside of San Diego and you know he has all of these amazing things on the wall, and the fella who is taking us around is this really nice guy. He said 'oh you know you could shoot here, you could shoot the ramp' and I was like I'm just going to need a minute to go.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    It's Tony Hawk's private personal half pipe. The mecca of skating really.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Well and the skating came up because Tony we did the interview. And then he said he's skated for us and he said oh you should've brought your board. And I was like well you have a helmet I'll happily do it and you know 30 seconds later I'm suiting up with the helmet and off we go and like I said it was. It did feel like I was interrupting something but it was still pretty pretty pretty cool.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Any kind of overall recollections. It's been a nutty news cycle this year you guys have had lots of opportunities to go do all kinds of interesting things. Any reflections on the state of the industry or any kind of topics that have stuck out to you.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    You know this is such a unique time as we hear day in and day out. I feel remarkably lucky to work for the PBS NewsHour Weekend because we are able to go a bit slower. You know, we're able to take time with stories and really I think give heart to things and to explain things. We see online our audience is growing, our audience is going on on television as well. That's really encouraging.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mori and Laura, what do you guys look for when, before you pitch a story to us, and say 'hey we really want to go out in the field and do this?' What are the things that kind of light you up and say this could make for an interesting piece?

  • LAURA FONG:

    I think it's so important to find the stories that connects with everyone and sometimes in New York, like story that we did, it's it seems like it's a new York story, but really it's a story that could be happening other cities as well.

  • MORI ROTHMAN:

    I think what I look for in a story is giving people the chance to learn more that they won't get from the headlines in a way where if they're talking to a friend about the news of the day they can say Well I watched the PBS NewsHour all weekend there's actually this interesting wrinkle to that story you might not have heard about and it really changed the way I feel about what we're all reading and talking about.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    You know the narrative is that we're divided and I feel that when we go out into the country it doesn't feel divided. Yes it feels different depending on where you are in the country. But when you get down and actually talk with people and talk with them about their experience. The noise goes away and it gets a lot simpler. How that manifests itself in politics I'll leave others to talk about, but I find that encouraging.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Laura Fong, Mori Rothman, Christopher Booker, thank you all. Thanks.

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