Schapiro: Photog Brown’s career marked change | Government and politics

BY JEFF E. SCHAPIRO Richmond Times-Dispatch

There was a time when reporters and photographers could sneak onto the floor of the Virginia Senate by rushing down a narrow staircase accessed through an unmarked door on the ground floor of the state capitol. Few people knew about this back entrance. Bob Brown did it.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer, who is retiring at the end of March after 54 years with the newspaper, loved to cover politics. It’s what he did best. Brown could capture the pace and personalities of the Jefferson-designed state house because his visibility there, dating to the early 1970s, made him invisible.

Brown – draped in cameras and lenses, zipped here and there in his signature cowboy boots, belying his 84 years and sporting a Van Dyke beard that evoked a sword-wielding horseman – was part of the place . Like the slender pillars of the south portico. Like the fossil-embossed black-and-white stone tiles that line the hallways. Like the Houdon statue sculpted from life of George Washington in the Rotunda.

Brown was ubiquitous. The fact that he knew the best places to get the best photographs meant he often knew, capturing in two dimensions the many dimensions of a political story. Figurative train wrecks that could be fights over politics were Brown’s stocks and trading. Its images could be as evocative as those of a real train wreck.

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A personal favorite: A snapshot Brown took from the gallery of the House of Delegates in the late 1970s, the final years of Democrat John Warren Cooke’s presidency. A weary-looking Cooke, a Mathews County newspaper publisher, the son of a personal aide to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and sponsor of the first Sun Law in the Virginia government, sits at the rostrum, cross-legged, head resting on his left hand, surrounded by two dozen people – almost all delegates and most speaking.

Brown paired the photo — as he would others over the years before sticking them on the press room wall — with a clever caption. This one, given the ongoing fuss over the redistricting, would seem as relevant now as it was then: “All I asked was, ‘What than a single-member district?'”

Brown’s departure is not just a reminder of how things were, but a measure of what they are becoming.

Until about 20 years ago, media coverage of the General Assembly amounted to saturation bombardment, with most reporters working just a stone’s throw from the newsrooms of the stairway that allowed Brown to surreptitiously access the Senate. Rare was the daily that did not have a reporter – or reporters – in Richmond. Ditto for television and radio stations in major state markets.

Two general news services, the Associated Press and United Press International, which I worked for, meant all print and broadcast media – morning and afternoon major city newspapers (remember that? ) to small-town radio stations from morning to night – had eyes and ears on the Capitol and its regulars, most of whom were older, conservative white men. AP and UPI were the Internet before the Internet, reaching vast audiences with continuous coverage delivered over phone lines to noisy printers that chimed when an urgent story arrived.

The very old was giving way to the somewhat new when Brown first landed on Capitol Hill.

Until suburbanization, population growth, economic expansion, and advances in civil rights broke the iron grip of the white racist oligarchy that controlled Virginia for the better part of a century, politics was an activity reserved for members. Many of its practitioners were products of the countryside and had risen through the ranks, covered by an equally clubby and masculine press corps.

Mills Godwin, a rural segregationist who would reinvent himself as a tax-spending progressive to win over suburban voters in his first gubernatorial victory in 1965, would invite privileged journalists, many of them known for years. Stories were told – unofficially – before the good old boys got down to the big business: watching the World Series. Godwin, a left-handed pitcher in college whose nickname was “Bud,” stuck to that formula in his second term, beginning in 1974.

But it’s the women who have helped tell the fuller story of Virginia politics — and Virginia political journalism.

During Godwin’s second term, two female journalists were the first to reveal a poorly-kept secret: a low-stakes card game played for years in the newsroom by several reporters, lobbyists, lawmakers, judges and CEOs. ‘agency. A permutation of gin rummy, the game was called Mullet. Named after a particularly dumb fish, its rules were based on the quirks – and weird birds, including Harry Byrd, father and son – of state politics.

These early reports of the Mullet game depicted a post-prandial gathering around a cigarette-scorched desk in which important matters of state were discussed – and possibly settled – by a cabal of influential men, apparently irresponsible to people who might be affected by their thoughts. The fact that there were bets – and that Godwin was asked to comment – compelled the governor to invoke a level of contrived disbelief akin to that of Captain Louis Renault in the movie ‘Casablanca’.

Like the “Casablanca” casino-discotheque, the Mullet game was closed. It was briefly revived, largely off the Capitol Square, in the late 1980s when I tried to give it a go – only to lose badly.

Two developments heavily re-roofed the Statehouse.

First, reporters were moved out of the Capitol itself in 2007 to work in two cramped underground rooms and a windowless box on the ground floor of the Provisional Legislative Office building. These new quarters, where Brown digitally selects and edits the day’s photos on his laptop, aren’t as accessible as the old press room, with its always-open doors, sooty charm, and view of the Capitol.

Second, the move to the web – as a source of news and advertising – has decimated most newsrooms. On Capitol Hill, what once seemed like a crowd of reporters, photographers and videographers is now just a team, with a small number of online operations helping to fill the void. With the internet and social media, potentially a lot more people can get a lot more information about what’s going on in Richmond and who’s doing what to whom. But it also allows journalists — Democrats and Republicans — to tell their stories without the so-called press filter. And news consumers gravitate to news sources that confirm their biases rather than challenge them.

Bob Brown picked a bad time to retire.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.

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