By Daniel Walters
Jimmy Wallet clawed through the wreckage of his La Conchita house, desperately trying to find the bodies of his family. Keith Spitzer, '03, stood on the sidelines with his video camera whirring. As a photographer for KEYT, the Santa Barbara (Calif.) ABC affiliate, Spitzer worked as a broadcast journalist covering the news, including disasters and tragedies.
Wallet left his La Conchita house that day in 2005 to get some ice cream and returned to find it crushed to pieces and buried in mud. His wife and three daughters were trapped inside the house and killed by the mudslide.
For the grieving Wallet, the cruel eye of the video camera only intensified the pain.
"I can't believe you," Wallet said to Spitzer and the group of photographers. "You're standing here like a bunch of vultures, watching my family die."
And Spitzer continued filming.
"That day really put some perspective into what I do," Spitzer says.
Spitzer says he knew that Wallet was partially right. To a certain extent, he says, the media is like a pack of vultures who feed off of fires, earthquakes and arrests.
"I stood there and watched 10 people die," Spitzer says. "It wasn't just a mudslide; it was a life-changing experience."
On the other hand, the media provide a valuable service by offering a fleeting glimpse into the lives, triumphs and suffering of other people in the world, Spitzer says.
"People all over the country, all over the world could see the pain and the anguish that this guy was going through," Spitzer says.
When Spitzer filmed the grieving father, he helped communicate Wallet's suffering to the rest of the country. The nation, in turn, could respond to what they had seen. And they did. Donations poured in, and a local Christian radio station and the Salvation Army hosted a concert in order to raise funds.
The camera captures the surreality of reality — the tragic, the surprising, the downright bizarre. It is the photographer's and reporter's job to tell the story, to add the thousand words to the picture, Spitzer says. As the station's assistant chief photographer, Spitzer teaches the photographers he supervises to find the story behind the story; he wants them to learn the process of truly understanding and not just regurgitating facts. His skill and passion for quality were refined at his alma mater.
Spitzer's list of Whitworth accomplishments is long and varied. He served as Warren dorm president, wrote for The Whitworthian, and served as KWRS general manager.
Spitzer spent four years performing with Cool Whip, Whitworth's resident improvisational comedy troupe. He auditioned with a broken collarbone – an injury that he'd sustained while diving for a Frisbee in an Ultimate Frisbee game a few hours earlier. He is currently engaged to Whitworth alumna Jenna Ronnquist, '03.
Spitzer lives by the motto "Do something big and important, or don't do anything at all." During his tenure at Whitworth, he installed a large antenna on the Warren roof so that residents could watch television. He also received a grant to replace some equipment in the college radio station.
Spitzer's position as KWRS general manager was particularly helpful in preparing him for his current job.
"I used to teach 50 people how to run a radio station," Spitzer says. "But now, instead of a radio station it's a TV station."
Each newscast is a collaborative effort. Spitzer and the reporter work closely by batting around ideas, shooting out suggestions and looking for camera and story angles.
"There's telling the story, and then there's telling the story well," Spitzer says.
Sometimes that means filming tragedies such as the La Conchita mudslide or ceremonies such as Ronald Reagan's funeral. Other times it means covering less pivotal issues, such as the Michael Jackson trial.
"That was a circus," Spitzer says. "Even Triumph the Insult Dog showed up. It was bizarre that all of this was going on around a child-molestation trial."
Still, a good journalist can find an interesting aspect in even the most inane topic.
"Everything that you cover has a better, deeper, richer story than what you originally think," Spitzer says.
Stories often take unexpected twists and turns, Spitzer says.
Spitzer once interviewed Sir Anthony Hopkins. Along with portraying C.S. Lewis and Hannibal Lecter on the silver screen, Hopkins is also a renowned painter. When Hopkins opened a new art exhibit, Spitzer was assigned to interview the legendary actor. On the 40-minute drive to the gallery, Spitzer practiced what he was going to say, expecting the knighted actor to have a staunch regal air.
"Well … how do I introduce myself to him …" Spitzer thought. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Sir Hopkins? It's a pleasure to meet you, sir?"
After arriving early, Spitzer was staring through his viewfinder to set up the focus when Hopkins grabbed him from behind.
"Well, you're a local boy who's here to interview me," Hopkins says.
The resulting interview, surprisingly, was very casual and friendly.
"You always go in with a preconceived notion for what the story's going to be about," Spitzer says. "But as long as you're looking for it, you can find a better story to tell."
One of Spitzer's favorite stories involves a sculpture at the Santa Barbara mission. Statues of Saint Barbara were carved long ago by an Indian staying at the mission, but they gradually fell into disrepair. Spitzer filmed two artists working painstakingly to refurbish the statues.
"They lifted off all of the paint that had been slapped on to cover nicks, and they repaired fingers that had broken off," Spitzer says.
While the La Conchita story dealt with destruction, the Santa Barbara mission story dealt with restoration. The camera recorded it all.
And Spitzer believes that when he stands behind that camera, peering through the viewfinder and seeking another angle, he illuminates important issues.
"It makes the world a little bit smaller," he says.