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I join the Tiger beat and the James gang for a day each. This amounted to the usual media clusters, clogging up neighborhoods like an occupying force. Everybody was looking for a unique angle, but we all got the same thing: basically, nothing.

It’s a lot more fun when you’re snatching somebody else’s exclusive, like my gotcha with the bikini model. It takes two trips to cajole the woman who has the photos, but I finally convince her to sell them.

“I already gave them to the network,” she reminds me.

“They didn’t give you any money, so you don’t have a deal with them. They’re exploiting you.” There’s genuine anger in my voice. I’m pissed at the jackals in New York who rely on the public’s inexperience in dealing with national media.

It’s their hypocrisy that really gets me. I hear the sanctimonious denials of checkbook journalism, but I received a $400 finder’s fee for hooking up another newsmagazine with photos of the adolescent Kristin Rossum. She was the toxicologist at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office who poisoned her husband in the infamous “American Beauty Murder.” The forensic femme fatale is serving a life sentence, though she is appealing her conviction.

I mix it up with a second network over the Rossum story. A female producer asks me to take notes during the murder trial, which lasts for weeks.

“Do you have any idea how extraordinary it is for you to be working for us under these circumstances?” she demands, sensing my lack of deference. She’s based on the East Coast, one of the feudal lords who rule the media fiefdoms. I’m in San Diego, a clueless serf.

Her partner at the newsmagazine gets tweaked when I recommend a local cameraman to spray some video outside the courthouse. He’s freelanced for other big-name outfits, but she’s never heard of him.

“I can’t deal with this,” she whines.

The bikini model won’t be nearly as big as Rossum was, though the bathing beauty has her own salacious kick: her body, stuffed in a suitcase, was so mutilated that pathologists identified the corpse by serial numbers on her breast implants. That’s why the syndicated media love the story. It’s another nice payday for me, if I can keep the deal from going sideways.

The Chula Vista woman with the $750 portfolio is worried. “I just don’t want to get in trouble with the network,” she says.

“Give them my number. I’d love to tell them exactly what I think of the way they treated you.”

I never get the chance. By the time I return from copying her prints, which I scanned and emailed to the syndicated show, I’ve become the bad guy. The newsmagazine is now offering more money than the woman has already accepted from my bureau chief. Naturally, she wants the extra cash.

“But you didn’t have anything before I showed up,” I explain patiently. “The network is the one that’s screwing you. We’re the people who are treating you fairly.”

“No, you’re taking advantage of me. I never agreed to anything.”

I apologize, but she’s the one who should be thanking me. It’s pointless to continue the discussion. This frazzled woman doesn’t understand how she’s getting abused again. The gutless TV execs in New York are using her to cover up their own incompetence.

I drive home to North County. The bureau chief in L.A. calls with even more distressing developments.

“Kevin, I have to ask you a question: Did you steal those photos?”

“No, I’m better than that.”

“Oh, I know.” He’s laughing, so everything’s cool. “Their lawyers called our lawyers,” he continues. “They’re claiming that Kevin Koch grabbed the shots out of the lady’s hand and ran out the door.”

The vicious lies about my behavior aren’t as comical as the mishandling of my last name. It’s Cox, not Koch.

“They couldn’t get one frigging fact right?”

We chat about the network’s pathetic tactics. There’s a perverse pleasure in being labeled as thieves. If the newsmagazine’s attorneys are lashing out like this, we must have really nailed them with our Doc Martens.

Like most legal blustering, it all evaporates. Later that afternoon, the bureau chief calls back. I’m not being accused of a felony anymore. The woman in Chula Vista is happy. She’s undoubtedly realized that she’s $750 richer, thanks to a freelancer named Koch.

I’m working another job for the syndicated entertainment program, following up on the guy who kidnaps a teenager from Utah named Elizabeth Smart. Apparently, the perp gets on I-15 and keeps heading south, because he ends up in Lakeside. When he hits the streets — in a beard and a bathrobe — a woman in her car takes home video of the spectacle through the windshield, complete with a hilarious audio track.

On the tape, she makes up a name for the hairy freak: Osama bin Dairy Queen, because the dude is standing outside the fast-food joint. “He’s a very scary man,” she adds.

That clip, maybe a couple of minutes long, was worth $1500 to the amateur newshound. I feel sorry for the local affiliates who can’t keep up when my bureau chief in L.A. whips out his wallet. He is also buying lunch today to celebrate our East County score. I join the crew from the bureau as we chauffeur the four-figure videographer around town so the competition can’t find her.

As we’re cruising west on I-8, my cell phone rings. It’s an assignment editor at a TV station in San Diego, where I once worked as a reporter.

“Where are you right now?” he asks, a blast from the past: that was his opening line as he prepared to launch me like buckshot at stories from Oceanside to San Ysidro.

“I’m going to feed the Lakeside video.”

“Is there any way I could get a copy?” He’s pleading because his bosses are all over him. I know the players and can imagine the scene. I haven’t been gone that long. But they’re SOL because my syndicated show appears on a different affiliate in the market, and I can’t share with them. Even if I could, the locals don’t have that kind of coin. I’m not about to cheat the woman who bagged Osama bin Dairy Queen.

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