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Being vulture is lots harder than it looks

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - I was going to be a press vulture.

But I slept too long.Want to stake out the Ken Starr grand jury? Want in on Monica watch? Want to be able to reach out and touch the witnesses? Want to stand where Bob Franken stands?

Then be there at six. In the morning.

The trucks out on the Pennsylvania Avenue curb, in front of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Court House, are permanent fixtures here, like the Redskins, like diplomatic plates. It's a First Amendment right or something. And it's a good thing. Otherwise, the parking tickets would be horrendous.

Just in case, CNN has explanatory signs on its camera trucks that say, "We Are Here For The Ken Starr Grand Jury." They add, "Monica Is Not Here."

For more than six months now, they have been out there. The world's longest media stakeout.

The strategy is simple: Shoot everything.

Teri Schultz, a producer for CNN and veteran of covering the Balkan revolutions, explains as she catches some sun - a lot of sun, actually - on the sidewalk in front of a CNN van. "Most of the witnesses are unknowns," she says, "so we take pictures of everybody going in."

It works like this: The various news outlets - CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, the Washington Post, et al - station lookouts inside the courthouse on the third floor, the grand jury floor, and when people get off the elevator, these lookouts get on their cellulars and talk to the producers in the camera truck, with dialogue that goes like, "I've got a woman in a white dress. Did you get a woman in a white dress?"

Basically, it's a variation of the Bubba Smith method, who used to "tackle everybody, and then throw them out until I find the one with the ball."

Sometimes it backfires.

Schultz remembers the time they chased a person down the sidewalk, camera crews and reporters and boom men, and everybody, running after this man - and it turned out he'd been in the court disputing a water bill.

"We can be really disgusting," she says.

Today, witnesses for the Secret Service are scheduled to testify in front of Ken Starr's grand jury for the first time.

It's a day that will test everyone's skills, since Secret Service men are trained in the art of blending into the crowd. Plus, they know how to get in and out of buildings in unconventional ways. Plus, they don't want to talk.

Undeterred, the media shows up.

I stroll in around 10, thinking I'm on the early side.

The sneers from my colleagues are obvious.

I soon discover that the stakeout spots on the third floor are all gone - and have been since six. There are only 10 of these spots, so they go fast, and the courthouse rules are strict. You have to stand in a roped-off area by the elevators, and you cannot sit down. The veterans bring "Dell's Big Book of Crossword Puzzles."

I go back out to the street and talk to Schultz, who now has turned on her side.

"People walk by and spit at us," she says. "They tell us to get a life."

She gets an amused look in her eye.

"So how come every time we show "Burden of Proof" it gets our highest ratings?" she asks.

Hey, good question. What if they held a grand jury and nobody cared? What if the president was involved in a sex scandal and people yawned and flipped to the Discovery Channel? What if . . .

But wait, hold those thoughts. A man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bob Bennett is just leaving the court house, by the side door on the 1st Street side, while on the 2nd Street side, a guy carrying a jug of bottled water exits.

He could be a water delivery man. Or he could be Secret Service.

Like everything else, being a media vulture is a lot harder than it looks.