In a sea of blow-dried TV talking heads, Steve Barnes — the mellow-voiced former anchor and current host of AETN’s “Arkansas Week”— might be a paragon of old-school newscasterly decorum. Which is why we just had to give him a call when we heard that he’d spent part of his June tailing teen-age pregnancy statistic Jamie Lynn Spears around Mississippi and Louisiana for People magazine.
Along with his gig on “Arkansas Week,” Barnes makes a living as a freelancer for a laundry list of the country’s most prestigious news sources: Time magazine, Newsweek, the New York Times, Reuters and Bloomberg. For the last 10 years, he has regularly contributed to stories for People, though his name has rarely seen a byline there. The stories in People are almost always a group effort, he said, with half a dozen writers or more contributing to a single piece — “a group grope,” he said.
“The magazine and I have a good relationship,” Barnes said. “I think it sometimes — sometimes — gets a bum rap. I’ve got a lot of freelance clients and none of them — none, emphasis, none — vet a story the way People does. I’d be surprised if the New Yorker vets as hard.”
Even if he thought People (or the Spears clan) were trash, Barnes said that freelancers like him can’t be too choosy.
“I tell people two things,” he said. “One, a lawyer need not like his client — in this case, his assignment. … Two, if you want to be successful, or if you want to make it as a freelancer in Arkansas, you can’t afford to be terribly picky. I love working for myself and I love the freelance life, but the tradeoff is that you can’t often say no.”
While on the Spears assignment, which took him to small towns along the Mississippi/Louisiana state line, Barnes got to see the paparazzi in action. They are, he said, the most cunning guys he’s ever been around.
“God help me, I love ’em,” he said. “There’s something so absolutely pure about them. They’re absolutely untouched. It’s just pure, animal instinct: Get the picture.”
Though Barnes would probably rather be interviewing the governor than chatting up the cousins of some bun-in-the-oven dropout in Dirtwater, Miss., he said he doesn’t want to give the impression that he’s high-minded about the job. It was a break from the routine, and writing about Britney’s kid sis keeps the lights on just as well as writing about anything else.
“Look, in its own way it was fun. You get out of town on somebody’s dime,” Barnes said. “Now, you try to find a good restaurant in McComb, Mississippi. … It’s the Golden Arches or Ruby Tuesday.”
Little Rock residents — former and current — will see some heavy national airtime next week when CNN’s two-part documentary “Black in America” airs at 8 p.m. July 23-24.
The second half of the series, “The Black Man,” features several Arkansans, including James “Butch” Warren, an assistant school superintendent for the Pulaski County Special School District who graduated from Central High School in 1968. In the documentary, Warren talks of racism that he endured while at Central, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the hurt he felt when black friends told him he was raising his three sons “too white” by encouraging them to join the Boy Scouts and to excel in school. Warren’s son Jonathan, now a deputy prosecutor in Maumelle, is also featured prominently in the episode.
On an Arkansas Times-connected note, another familiar face that appears in “Black in America” is Adrian “607” Tillman, the Little Rock rapper who won our 2007 Musician’s Showcase competition. In the doc, 607 is shown teaching kids at an after-school program, working the mic and talking about being a role model for kids who often lack any positive male figures in their lives.
Even if you don’t care about some Arkies getting national air, “Black in America” makes for compelling television.
Hasta la vista!