It was one day a few years ago that I found myself assigned to a job no reporter wanted - I was on Alec Baldwin watch.
Every reporter had to cover celebrities from time to time and on this Thursday morning I was unfortunate enough to have the 8 a.m. shift. Alec Baldwin was our cover story that day. We needed a follow.
Like most journalists, I hated covering celebrities. During my seven years at the New York Daily News I was more accustomed to covering crime all around the country.
A few weeks earlier I had gotten back after a month in Florida investigating the death of Trayvon Martin. A few weeks before that I was in North Dakota, then Florida again, investigating the strange affair of General David Petraeus.
But on this morning in late June of 2012 I was assigned to stand outside of Mr. Baldwin’s East Village apartment hoping to get a reaction to that day’s story.
I also had a personal stake in confronting Mr. Baldwin.
It was only two days earlier that Mr. Baldwin had been walking down the stairs outside the New York City marriage license bureau. It should have been a happy day. He was about to marry a beautiful young yoga instructor.
After a life in the public eye Mr. Baldwin would have had to expect a few photographers to be waiting outside to capture the moment.
One of those photographers was Marcos Santos of the New York Daily News.
It was an assignment that Mr. Santos didn't want either.
I know because Mr. Santos is not only a former co-worker, but a good friend. He is also an award-winning photographer who is widely respected in the industry.
Mr. Santos had more important things on his mind than Alec Baldwin. He and his wife had just welcomed a new baby into their little family and now he was looking forward to snapping a few pictures, ideally of a smiling Baldwin holding his marriage certificate, sending the shots into his desk, then going home to spend time with his child.
That was not to be.
Mr. Baldwin burst through the doors in a rage and went straight at one of the photographers, threatening words streaming out of his mouth. Mr. Santos, believing that his co-worker was in danger, put his camera down and shouted at the actor: “Hey, leave him alone.”
The actor responded by turning around and punching Mr. Santos in the jaw.
Every moment was chronicled by other photographers. (No charges were filed against the actor.)
It wasn't that Mr. Baldwin had lost his temper that irked me so much. It happens to all of us. Maybe he was having a bad day. Who knows? Mr. Santos wasn’t seriously hurt.
What grated on me was what happened afterwards.
The next day the powerful actor lied about the incident, claiming that Mr. Santos hit him with his camera. The allegation was beyond incredulous. The pictures clearly show Mr. Santos backpedalling with his arms flailing up in the air and the actor lunging forward.
Mr. Baldwin’s next move was to go on Letterman and yuck it up at the expense of the photographer.
The actor pointed his finger at the image of himself landing a blow on Mr. Santos’s chin on the New Daily News page, then joked;
“I think you see, I’m forming the letter ‘F’ with my mouth, and what I’m saying is — I said to him as I walked up on him, ‘What F-stop are you on with that camera?’”
They all laughed. How funny.
While Mr. Santos was deeply embarrassed by the incident it seemed to be something Mr. Baldwin couldn’t be more proud of.
This wouldn’t be the first or last of the actor’s transgressions against the media.
Baldwin addresses several of those incidents in the New York magazine piece, and while he admits using various profanities towards photographers, he denies he used two particularly offensive terms, one racist and one homophobic.
To most of us it was obvious that Mr. Baldwin was just cursing these guys out with whatever words of anger first popped into his head, not engaging in homophobia or racism as some have alleged.
Still, it’s hard not to see that Mr. Baldwin’s indignation and contempt for the media is well-justified.
Although they are in the minority, I’ve known of photographers, unlike Mr. Santos, who have intentionally tried anything in their power to provoke a reaction from the notoriously hot-headed celebrity. Everyone knows they are just one great Alec Baldwin blow up away from national fame and perhaps a quick settlement if they are really lucky.
I remember watching that scene play out in disgust as a photographer for a rival paper struck gold when he invoked Mr. Baldwin’s daughter in a negative way.
He got the reaction he wanted.
Mr. Baldwin reacted as many fathers would, grabbing the photographer by the neck and sharing some choice words.
The actor showed more restraint than I would have.
The photographer immediately called the police. His editors couldn’t have been more happy with his performance. He got a lot more work. Just shameful. (No charges were filed against Mr. Baldwin.)
It is incidents like this, where they try to entrap the hot-head, knowing they have a decent chance of setting him off then cashing in on a settlement, that have the sharks smelling blood in the water.
It also helps explain his reaction to the rest of us just trying to do our jobs.
Mr. Baldwin’s refusal to play the game that most celebrities play also made him a target to the tabloids. We in the media are easy to play. Celebrities usually go through the motions. Say the right thing. Pose. Say the right thing. Smile. All about promoting a brand. Mr. Baldwin’s brand, if he had one, was that he didn’t care about his brand.
On a personal note, I’m a big fan of Alec Baldwin’s work. Beetlejuice and Hunt for Red October are two of my favorite movies. Love him on Saturday Night Live. It is obvious that he is an absolutely amazing talent.
A lot of these thoughts were running through my head as I waited outside his apartment on that June morning of 2012 along with the question I was sent to ask: Why did he feel he had the right to strike our photographer? Then why did he lie about it?
When we finally saw him walk out, these were questions I asked him. As I spoke, the photographer I was working with (who didn’t want to be there, either) pointed and shot his DSLR at the actor.
Mr. Baldwin responded with his signature surliness:
“What was it in life that you failed at so miserably that now you have become what you are today?” the celebrity asked me.
I repeated the questions.
Mr. Baldwin ignored me this time and ducked into a coffee shop. We turned around, walked to our cars, and called our editors to report the interaction while a man shooting video for a website followed him inside the coffee shop.
The media cycle churned.
Less than one hour later this brief interaction would be spun into another story that would lead the homepage of the Daily News website.
The page hit count spun upward. People love reading stories about Alec Baldwin losing his temper.
After seeing the story posted and the photograph accompanying the story that showed Mr. Baldwin’s agitated state, editors around the city deployed more photographers to surround his apartment in hopes that he might explode again. Maybe even strike a reporter again.
Reporters and photographers came and stood in front of Mr. Baldwin’s doorway. Some blocked his entrance. Other waited on scooters so they could weave back and forth through the traffic if his driver tried to evade them.
From his building Mr. Baldwin took to his nearly 38,000 Twitter followers to insult the media. They ate it up.
The next day the story was a page lede in the Daily News.
Now Mr. Baldwin has said he is finished with the media and with New York.
Today the actor lamented how the New York City media scene has broken him. He made these thoughts known through New York Magazine.
“I probably have to move out of New York. I just can’t live in New York anymore. Everything I hated about L.A. I’m beginning to crave. L.A. is a place where you live behind a gate, you get in a car, your interaction with the public is minimal. I used to hate that. But New York has changed. Manhattan is like Beverly Hills. And the soul of New York has moved to Brooklyn, where everything new and exciting seems to be. I have to accept that. I want my newest child to have as normal and decent a life as I can provide. New York doesn’t seem the place for that anymore,” Mr. Baldwin wrote.
That story quickly went viral on social media. Drudge Report linked with a picture. It is the most read story on Vulture.com with over 600 comments.
The cycle continues.