Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Immersion Incursion

Burning question: Did waders flatter Diane Sawyer’s figure?

Posted By on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 10:46 AM

We are all photojournalists now. Some of us wore rubber boots and flip-flops. Some of us wore high heels and Sunday dresses and pushed baby strollers. Some of us went barefoot and waded in the river at Tom Lee Park or Mud Island.

But if you have not come down to the Mississippi River to take a picture or 20, you are either not trying very hard or, like me until last year, do not own a cellphone.

Phone camera in hand, I took lots of you-gotta-see-this pictures last week, but I don't have anyone to show them to because everyone in Memphis has their own you-gotta-see-this pictures. Outside of Memphis, people think we're all drowning or fleeing to shelters because the national media is suddenly on this story like mud on Music Fest.

How disappointing it must be to them to find FedExForum, Graceland, Beale Street, the Peabody, and most of the rest of Memphis high and dry. And blue skies on top of that. And people happy for the Grizzlies. Sometimes nothing goes right.

Inspired by the hardcore storm chasers of the Weather Channel and desperate to outdo one another in the "best dramatic production by a television anchor" category, reporters have been donning fishing waders and plunging into the Wolf River Harbor, the faux Mississippi River, up to their waists to do their live reports. On Monday evening, ABC's Diane Sawyer took the plunge and anchored ABC's World News from a variety of settings that wouldn't have looked bad on Animal Planet.

From highly placed sources at ABC News, this reporter obtained exclusive details of the intricate planning that went into Operation Immersion Incursion, also known as "Dunking Diane."

Planning for the operation began weeks ago when the Mississippi River passed 34 feet on the Memphis river gauge. Sawyer and an elite team of producers known as Flood Team Six rehearsed various scenarios at a model of the Mississippi River in a location in Missouri so secret it still cannot be disclosed. The grueling exercises involved doffing and donning waders, walking on slippery ground, and going without limousine service and room service for five days.

A stand-up report from the Mud Island bridge was considered safer but wimpy. "We've got to go in," Sawyer reportedly insisted. The waders were a producer's idea, and Sawyer was skeptical at first, wondering aloud: "Do these waders make my butt look big?" A network bigwig reportedly replied that "for what ABC is paying you, you'll put on an 'I'm With Stupid' T-shirt if I say so."

Memphis officials were not informed of the incursion into their river space. It was feared that the information would be leaked and that NBC's Brian Williams would go camo and that Fox News correspondents would go barechested.

A team of Navy SEALs disguised as sightseers patrolled the area around Sawyer, with shoot-to-kill orders for snakes and varmints. A Black Hawk helicopter was stationed in West Memphis, prepared to extract Sawyer by a rope ladder if necessary.

The planning team still worried that Sawyer might slip and fall during the broadcast. In that case, the network would have immediately cut to a Cialis commercial. A total immersion of Sawyer at the end of the report was briefly considered, but the idea was discarded because it was feared that it might offend the local Southern Baptist population.

"It was the longest 24 minutes of my life," said one person who watched with bated breath from the ABC situation room.

Sawyer also had to contend with Bob Nations, the head of emergency preparedness for Shelby County, who earlier Monday pleaded with reporters to "stay out of the water."

On the broadcast Monday evening, Nations could be seen smiling broadly and riding in a very cool amphibious vehicle with the comely Sawyer. He declined comment Tuesday.

When the broadcast went off without a slip, there were cheers and high-fives in the ABC situation room. But the celebration was tempered by the realization that waders, which are now flying off the shelves at Bass Pro Shops, won't be enough next time.

"They say this river is too thick to drink and too thin to plow," said an ABC executive. "There's some guy named Andy and a dude called the Watchdog at the Memphis stations. We're not getting beaten on this story. Get yourself a mug and some overalls, Diane."

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