First you see the baggage they bring with them, great gray fiberglass and metal crates plastered with stickers reading CBS or ABC or NBC or ASAHI TV Japan.
Then from the plush bar of the Camino Real Hotel, where herds of reporters cluster telling stories of their day in the Salvadoran war or someone else's night in bed, a cry goes up, a kind of savage, half-laughing cheer: "More crews. More crews! More crews!!"
But that was three weeks ago when the White House and State Department were still certain this tiny country so full of war and misery was the great new showplace for American strength, before almost anybody but the reporters and photographers who have spent much of the last year here were saying, "Hey, what's the big deal?"
Washington's sudden fascination with El Salvador had taken many of them by surprise. The sudden deluge of one, two, three, in some cases four television crews from each major American network and the advent of reporters from all over the world appalled the old-timers. Usually there were perhaps half a dozen of them in the Camino Real. Now there were a hundred.
Worse, most of the newcomers knew nothing about this place. The Washington correspondents coming here to cover part of what clearly had become a Washington story seemed especially reluctant to learn.
There was a legendary argument recently between John Snow, a British television correspondent who made himself an instant veteran by spending a month of intense reporting all over this country on all sides of the conflict, and a newly arrived State Department correspondent who had done a "stand-up" analysis of the Salvadoran situation at the airport here minutes after his arrival.
The State Department correspondent could not be convinced that after 20 years in Washington he might actually know less about El Salvador than his colleagues who had reported the story on the ground. The debate went on for hours.
Several times it came close to first fighting between veterans aware of the dangers and rules of covering this war and newcomers who figured they could take the same liberties here as anywhere else.
The veteran correspondents have long been aware of the perils of this place for the United States. Many were more than a little chagrined that now that the dangers were being noticed, the people describing them were doing so on the basis of snap judgments and Washington perceptions.
At the same Camino Real bar the night in January that U.S. Ambassador Robert White had denounced the landing of troops from across the little Gulf of Fonseca in boats that were made of wood "found only in Nicaragua," reporters had openly wondered when Congress would be asked to pass, as they did with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that got us into Vietnam, the Gulf of Fonseca resolution to go into El Salvador.
The reporters had written stories about the risks for the United States here. They had been writing them for months and years in some cases. Sometimes they were published or put on the air and sometimes not, and occasionally the danger was noticed by that portion of the population in the United States that knew where El Salvador was.
A favorite story among the old-timers was of the woman correspondent flying across the United States last year who was asked by the good ol' boy seated next to her, "What do you do little lady?"
She said she was a reporter and she covered Central America.
The good ol' boy thought about this for a moment. "Oh," he said curiously, "you mean you write about Iowa?"
But of course that was before the Reagan administration decided to "draw the line" against communism in El Salvador.
Then the crews started to pour into the Camino Real. Correspondents from the New Yorker and TV Guide, from the Irish Times and the Australian Times, from France and Italy and Canada and Japan. A paper in Buffalo sent an ex-congressman. Meanwhile calls were coming into the hotel from every corner of the globe. "Freelancers," many of them little more than college students, were getting ready to come down and make their reputations. One young photography student in Arizona called to ask about spending his summer vacation here.
Journalists and television crews have become as much a fixture of Salvadoran life as soliders and corpes, except they are more conspicuous. In a country where people are rarely as tall as the average American, TV Guide sent a correspondent who is seven feet tall.
There are so many reporters that any "gringo" is assumed to be one.
"I must have been asked if I was a journalist 60 times today," said one disgruntled American agrarian economist.
At least he knew what was being asked. He spoke the language.
The casualties, Ian Mates and Olivier Rebbot, knew what they were doing here. Rebbot was a veteran photographer of countless wars. Mates was a veteran of this one as no one else has ever been. But they were caught by shrapnel from a mine and a bullet from a pistol.
Mates was not yet 30. Rebbot was 31. But they were old men here.
The babies are all these first-timers, come in their 20s and some in their 50s who want to see the big story for themselves -- fair enough -- but don't know the country, the language or the people.
That, right now in El Salvador, is a good way to get dead. It is also a lousy way to get a story. They come cramming on news clips and Xeroxed files as if they have only the vaguest idea just how final it could be.
They come in looking for simple answers where there are none, and what they send out often reflects the appetites of the American public more than the reality of what's going on.
For most of the last month El Salvador, by Salvadoran standards, has been relatively quite. But of all the networks, the only one not being pressured to get "bang-bang" (as fighting is known in the trade) is ABC -- Bill Stewart's network.
But one of ABC's camermen, Carl Hersh, is one of the best bang-bang men in the business. In Nicaragua he was known as "el iman," the magnet, for all the bullets he seemed to attract. He knew what he was doing, and he survived to do the same thing here.
Other television crews go out and wait around for shooting to start or find themselves in the middle of guns. In one week, three crews were waylaid by armed men and had everything on them stolen.
Covering any way, but especially this war without fronts, is like playing Russian roulette. You go out one day. Click. Okay. Exhilaration. Another day. Click. Exhilaration. Another day. Click. Great footage, good story. Hero-grams from the home office. Another day. Click. Another day. Click. Another day. . . If you are lucky you never hear the last click that explodes.
But what does all this mean to the people back home?
One hopes it makes for better understanding. But at least as often it is nothing more than "entertainment," as network correspondents say in their blacker moments.
The risk becomes tied to a question of ratings, careers, reputations. More than one television reporter believed that part of the pressure he was under resulted from the star wars going on in New York in the week after Walter Cronkite signed off the air.
One correspondent and his crew gave their network bang-bang three days running. The third day it wasn't put on the air. Salvadoran bang-bang was getting old. The fourth day the correspondent said to his office, you're not running anymore bang-bang from me and I want to get out.
In fact, a lot of them are getting out, at least for awhile. With a few exceptions, stories that fascinated Washington a week ago are now being held for space or, in the networks, time.
The Reagan administration is once again deciding whether it wants to focus too much attention here, and the focus as a result is once again being moved away, perhaps to fix on some other hard line drawn against communism somewhere else in the world. The war here will go on.
"Less crews. Less crews," is not a cheer heard in the Camino Real. It is just a fact.
The attemp on President Reagan's life this week, the grim footage of press secretary James Brady lying on the pavement, struck some reporters in El Salvador as the kind of scene they have grown all too accustomed to seeing. Of course there was no direct relation between what happened in front happens outside the Camino Real every day except the bare realities of bang-bang. The innocent man shot in the head for no reason. The political leader narrowly escaping with his life. Bang-bang.