Highlights from an election season

photo(6)Covering the 2014 election has been fulfilling and entertaining.  It’s also been very “clubby.” I can count on seeing the same reporters from WSB and the AJC at most events that I cover, with occasional visits from WABE and GPB radio.  I almost never see reporters from WAGA or WGCL.

I can understand why news managers might decide to pass on politics.  Specifically, audience research tends to show that political coverage isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser.  I suspect that TV viewers are so annoyed by political commercials that they don’t want to see another layer of their least-favorite pols taking up valuable dog-rescue space on the local news.

I’m very grateful that my two supervisors, Ellen Crooke and Matt King, have opted to interpret  that research within the framework of a TV newsroom’s traditional responsibilities to ask reasonable questions of those seeking positions of power.

My moments covering politics have included some pretty great highlights, including but not limited to

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

  • Spotting the image of WXIA photog Mike Zakel looming ominously in an anti-Jason Carter Republican Governors Association ad;
  • Spotting my cast-covered right wrist holding a mic in another anti-Carter ad (my still-broken wrist is improving, thanks);
  • Taking my mom, who is visiting from California and took me to my first political rally as a ten-year old, to the debates at the fairgrounds in Perry.   (We watched 5-7 year olds competitively ride sheep beforehand.)
  • Abundant emails in my inbox from candidates and their surrogates that aggressively suggest stories about why the other guy sucks;
  • Suggesting (and getting) a do-over from a candidate who awkwardly walked away in the middle of a contentious Q&A;
  • Getting that candidate to subsequently vow to never again walk away in the middle of a press scrum;
  • Getting a grammatically incorrect emailed statement from a candidate’s PR person — which I ran as-is when the publicist declined my suggestion to correct the grammar;
  • Watching two lesser-known statewide candidates crash a Jason Carter press conference;

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

  • Watching “women for Michelle Nunn” and “women for Nathan Deal” events get crashed by women backing their opponents;
  • Getting accused (incorrectly) by the staff of one candidate of attending a fundraiser for that candidate’s opponent;
  • Nearly getting Rep. Jack Kingston to play on my over-45 old-guy baseball team;
  • Seeing a retired WAGA assignment editor, Tammy Lloyd Clabby, at a Women for Nunn rally, decrying salary inequality in the news business.

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

As with much of our business, there is a sometimes tense, often amusing love-hate relationship candidates and their staff have with the news media.  Campaigns will occasionally issue press releases citing some story I’ve done (or the AJC or WSB) as proof positive of why their opponent isn’t fit to breathe the air of the Peach State, much less run for office.  Conversely, the same campaigns are quick to bust out text messages or emails squawking about a perfectly reasonable story that they wish I’d handled differently or overlooked completely.

photoThe adjacent text message exchange exemplifies it perfectly.  The text writer (we’ll call him “Brian,” the publicist for a GOP incumbent seeking re-election) had clobbered me for a story I’d done a few days earlier, then subsequently offered a hint of praise for another story.  This prompted me to ask him, tongue in cheek, to “make up your mind” about whether I was a right- or left-wing stooge.

His answer resulted in a genuine out-loud guffaw.  (He also agreed to let me post it here, knowing that you’d probably figure out who “Brian” is.)

Point being:  Those news entities that have sidestepped covering politics should maybe reconsider.  Lord knows, the campaigns are filling the coffers of their TV stations with cash from sweet, sweet political advertising.  One could argue that their viewers deserve a chance to see those people in a real-world context, answering questions posed by genuine newsm’n and women.

Plus, they’d further distract the already-overworked staffs of the candidates, perhaps divert their affection and ire, and add to an already gloriously-confused story.

 

Robo-arm

Here’s the most surprising thing about covering news as a man with only one fully-functioning arm:  Nearly everybody sees my arm in a sling and assumes that my injury occurred during an act of physical violence with another human being.

Gov. Deal and I are chuckling about my unfortunate need to wear short sleeved dress shirts

Gov. Deal and I are chuckling about my unfortunate need to wear short sleeved dress shirts

In particular, they tend to assume that the injury came during a physical altercation with an aggrieved interviewee.

My explanation that it occurred “during a bizarre gardening accident” tends to disappoint universally.  “You need to come up with a better story” is the typical rejoinder, perhaps because people assume that I’m well-practiced in delivering stories that are rooted entirely in fantasy.

For the first few days after the injury, my workplace experiences included a fair amount of cold panic.  I learned to type at age ten.  The idea of having to look at the keyboard while hunting-and-pecking with the middle finger of my robo-hand was more than an inconvenience.  It was a mindf&ck.  An act that was second-nature — typing — had become a bothersome ordeal, upending my sense of routine and timing that had helped me retain the confidence to write stories that made sense and made deadline.

It also hurt to type.  I have to keep the right hand raised above the keyboard in order to avoid hitting stray keys with the part of the cast that covers my right palm. (On my Windows computer at work, these stray keys sometimes want to launch commands to do things like shut down the computer.)  The combination of the raised hand, the unnatural muscle movements and the broken wrist brought on pain that only added to the panic.

I didn't know it was called a "stenomask" until I googled it

I didn’t know it was called a “stenomask” until I googled it

Within a couple of weeks, the hand adapted and the pain subsided.  The mind has returned more-or-less to normal.  But it has killed my typing accuracy.  Dashing off emails and blog posts and whatnot are no fun nowadays.

I do endorse the use of Dragon.  I shouldn’t have purchased the program for my computer.  It’s a free download on the Iphone.  Instead of logging interviews via keyboard, I listen to them and repeat the noteworthy material verbally into Dragon, including time codes and punctuation (kinda like a court reporter using a Stenomask).  Dragon emails the material to me unfailingly.  I may never go back to logging interviews by keyboard.

But I do look forward to the day that I can.  And to the day I can stop wearing short-sleeved dress shirts.

 

 

Bonehead

Sunday, I broke my wrist.  I was doing yard work, breaking up some tree limbs, which DeKalb County’s sanitation workers had declined to fetch from an unruly curbside pile I’d made six weeks ago.

It's on the right, below that bump that sticks out on the right, leading to five or so fissures inside

It’s below that bump that sticks out on the right, leading to five or so fissures inside

I thought I found a brilliant shortcut that involved me swinging, like a baseball bat, a too-thick limb against a tree truck. Turns out, I really am an idiot.

I’m now wearing a cast, and typing this post with my left hand.  I can’t work this way.  I’m not just a TV news goon.  I’m a writer, dammit, of TV news copy, web copy and a trancriber of TV news interviews.  One who now hunts and pecks.

This tops a long list of things I can’t do with my right hand and forearm immobilized. I can’t

  • pick up heavy stuff
  • wash my hands
  • tie a necktie
  • wear a dress shirt
  • tie my shoelaces
  • wash my left armpit
  • shave, except shittily
  • sleep worth a damn

This list seems to expand by the hour.

I’ve purchased some transcription software called Dragon. If it works, I’ll be able to do my job.  I’ll be unclean, poorly dressed, have a bulgy right arm and will have sad, uneven whiskers viewable on HD.  But I’ll be able to commit acts of television– if it works.

This means my income stream will continue, allowing the option of doing something I should have done weeks or years ago:

Hire a guy to do my yard work.

 

 

Ernie, Blayne and Ferguson

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

The eruption of Ferguson MO deserved the attention it got, yet covering a riot can be a bit problematic.  WXIA’s Blayne Alexander went to provide some backup for Gannett-owned KSDK and ended up spending a week in the St. Louis suburb.  She returned to Atlanta and delivered a reporter’s notebook piece on WXIA’s weekend news, viewable here.  Excerpt:

  • The anger. It was thick. You could feel it in the air. I spent my nights in the protest zone, what we came to know as ground zero. Even for reporters, every night, the threat of getting tear gassed was very real. Just before a live report one night, I had to jump away from the camera and dive into a car just go get out of the way of the gas. And i was still hit. It was a battle. It was unreal.

A kid named Ryan Schueller, freelancing for Al-Jazeera, wrote a blog post about what he viewed as the horrors of the media siege in Ferguson.  It’s got a deer-in-the-headlights quality to it, but his observations are worth a click. 

Ernie Suggs of the AJC wrote a lively / amusing / harrowing first-person piece after spending a week in Ferguson.  The entire piece is behind a paywall here, and worth the click.  I’ve lifted a few lines below.

 

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Police lined Ferguson Street and were beginning to push the protesters down West Florissant Avenue. A loud, piercing noise filled the air, which was already thick with tear gas.

People were running full out down the street. At McDonald’s, a group of frightened workers peered out the window, as if caged. Panicked marchers banged on the doors, begging for water to soothe their stinging eyes. A man picked up a brick and threw it, fracturing the plate glass window. When it didn’t fully break, he picked up another brick to finish the job.

It was 9:15 p.m. I had been on the street less than 30 seconds. (…)

I spotted Yamiche Alcindor, the national breaking news reporter for USA Today.

“Is this what you signed up for?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

But I was scared. In all my years as a reporter, I had never been in anything like this.

Thousands of angry protesters. Hundreds of police officers. Gallons of tear gas. And countless rounds of bullets, even if they were supposed to be rubber.

(Much respect to my colleagues who cover real wars.)

I had two major concerns: Getting shot by some knucklehead and getting a direct tear gas hit.

I called Blayne Alexander, a WXIA reporter who was also in town covering events. Straight to voicemail.

Reporters were getting caught up in the crowd. The cops were like bulldozers, smashing everything in their path.

When the helicopter above us began shining a light on the crowd, tear gas followed, then gunshots. The tear gas pushed people straight back. The gunshots made people scatter.

I fell to my knees and crawled.

We made it to the residential section of West Florissant and were hit with another volley of tear gas. Then bullets.

I ran into a yard, where I was face to face with a dude with a gun. It was pointed right at my gut, although he wasn’t pointing the gun at me.

“Y’all don’t want to come down here. Y’all don’t …”

I didn’t wait for him to say it twice. Yamiche was on my heels when I turned around and pushed her away, shouting, “Gun!!!”

I kept asking myself, where are we expected to go?

 

The auteur

This post has to start with an admission:  I’m a bit of a thief.  I stole shamelessly from Tom Corvin.

When Corvin showed up as a freelancer at WAGA in the early 90s, he was a brooding, too-tall, chain smoking enigma; viewed warily as the object of a recently blown-apart relationship with a well-liked 11pm newscast producer.

Tom Corvin

Tom Corvin

Then Budd McEntee put him on the payroll as a reporter, and it kind of transformed the whole newsroom.

Corvin was a ridiculously talented writer, who packed multilayered, mindbending copy into prosaic ten or fifteen second increments, multiplied across the breadth of a 90 second or four-minute piece of TV.  At the same time, he rarely overwrote.  Some of his best pieces had no narration at all.

Corvin viewed TV news as filmmaking.  He didn’t shoot his own stories, but he was the director of photography on his shoots.  In our shop, he blazed trails on techniques widely used today as afterthoughts:  Wide angle lenses, starkly-lit interviews, using foreground objects to frame background images.  Corvin had a sharp eye for meaningful cutaways that lent texture (and often irony) to stories.

Compound the irony with his Rod Serling-esque delivery, and the copy he wrote for anchors.  You can just envision Corvin chuckling as he wrote lead-ins to his pieces, wondering if Jim Axel or Brenda Wood would actually intone the circuitous barrage of words he’d written for them.

He was also the king of the standup-as-cameo.  He was loathe to make a story about him, but understood that local news more-or-less requires the presence of the reporter as newsgatherer.  His interactions with newsmakers added Corvin’s personality to stories and enhanced the journalism at the same time.  His occasional appearances as a participant or observer were typically brief, surprising and hilarious.

In May 1993, WAGA sent Corvin out to produce a series called “Night People.”  In it, Corvin visited the legendary 24-hour gay bar Backstreet for a look at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, the nightclub’s infamous drag show.  (Years later, Backstreet was forced to shut down after WAGA’s I-team exposed its 24 hour license as a sham.)

In July 1994, Corvin produced a two-part series (!) on Romeo Cologne, the Atlanta DJ who brought back disco and continues to power funk dance parties around town.  The pieces, shot by Jeff Moore, blew my mind stylistically.  (“This is out of control,” said Mrs. LAF when I showed her the Cologne series last weekend.)

“Night People” was an apt subject for Corvin, inasmuch as he became one of them, a bit of a legend for his after-hours carousing in Little 5 Points and beyond.  I still get asked about his doings all the time, and not by people who watched local news.

He left WAGA to move to Kansas City, where he pulled a nights-and-weekends shift at a TV station, then left the business and never returned.  He wrote a rousing, fanciful resignation letter, posted on this site in 2008, that was a cri de coeur about the things that drive everybody in our business a little nuts.

A face in the crowd:  TC at Turner Field in July 2014

A face in the crowd: TC at Turner Field in July 2014

He now lives with his family in San Francisco.  Prior to a recent trip to Atlanta, I twisted his arm into bringing the Cologne pieces with him, and he obliged with an entire Beta tape filled with his now-vintage work at WAGA.

The son of a Baptist minister and a Bob Jones University graduate, he has reacquainted himself with Christianity and has evened out his life.  He ought to be a fighting off offers for TV and teaching work, but competes against kids who are now mimicking, digitally, what Corvin did in analog twenty years ago.

“Everybody’s a thief,” he texted me when I gave him a heads-up about this post.  Count me among the many who swiped from him.

 

 

Mabra: I’m amazed

Rep. Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville)

Rep. Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville)

Ronnie Mabra is my new poster child for botched media relations.  This is unfortunate.  Mabra, a Democratic state representative from Fayetteville, doesn’t appear to be a villain.  His backers say he is talented and genuinely public-spirited.  He has enough brainpower to have completed law school and passed the Georgia bar exam.

But good sense is a whole ‘nother thing, as exhibited in two similar encounters over the last year and a half.  We’ll start at the beginning.

In early 2013, Mabra was among many legislators I had approached to ask about gifts they’d gotten from lobbyists.  Disclosure forms showed Mabra had gotten Falcons playoff tickets from the Georgia World Congress Center.   The newly-elected freshman lawmaker had taken the freebies before he’d taken the oath of office.

In his state office across from the Capitol, Mabra told me he’d be happy to talk with me about it — but with this caveat:  You have to ask my caucus leader if it’s OK for me to do the interview. 

This was a first.  I have seen elected officials defer to other elected officials on issues, in order to preserve the leadership role of somebody with a pet piece of legislation.  But my question for Mabra was about his personal decision to accept valuable freebies from people who, at that time, were seeking state help to fund a new football stadium.

I told Mabra his caveat was absurd.  He stuck by it.  Later that day, I saw him outside the Capitol and ambushed him with a camera, asking about the tickets.  He looked surprised, defensive, evasive, sketchy.  It was not a good look for him, but it was good theater for my story.1406236966000-ronnie-mabra

Fast forward to this summer: Driving up Atlanta’s downtown connector, I noticed a billboard above 14th Street.  It featured Mabra’s smiling face, and text that said Lawyer and Lawmaker / State Rep. Ronnie Mabra.  It was advertising his law firm.

Over the next few days, while covering other stories, I’d asked politicos about the billboard, wherein Mabra was clearly using his public title as a way to market his private business.  Most asked:  Can he do that?  Is that legal?  The answer was yes, it’s legal and yes he can do that.

It was not a huge, breaking story, but it was worth a mention on the news.  So I approached it pretty casually. I called Mabra.  He answered.  He seemed to think the billboard was a great idea and expressed willingness to do an interview.  He remembered our previous encounter.

Our second awkward, unscheduled interview

Our second awkward, unscheduled interview

I told him I wanted to avoid another awkward, unscheduled interview.  I suggested a civilized, adult visit.  I gave him some leeway to put me on his schedule.  He said he’d get back to me.

In subsequent days, his tone changed.  He stalled.  Then he fell back into the old excuse:  I can’t talk to you unless you get permission from my caucus leader.

Seriously?! I said.  Do you not remember what happened last time?  

Rep. Mabra hadn’t used our previous encounter as a teachable moment.  Nonetheless — for reasons I can’t fully understand myself — I wanted to bend over backwards to avoid being a dick to this guy.  The story wasn’t that big a deal.  The billboard was even, arguably, defensible.  He wasn’t using his public office to promote his law practice, only his title / resume.  Legislators make crappy money passing laws.  If he could make a case for doing what he’d done, I’d have let him.

In my inexplicable spirit of generosity, I actually texted Rep. Stacy Abrams, the House Democratic caucus leader, to seek her blessing to chat with Rep. Mabra.  I didn’t hear back from her.  Days passed.  Other stories happened.  Vacation happened.

One day in late July, after another story blew apart, I pitched the billboard story and my bossfolk bought it. I set out to put it on TV that night.  I’d given Mabra ‘way more opportunities to comment than is typical.  We went to his office.  Photog Dan Reilly and I entered the lobby, and I asked to see him.  Reilly’s camera was powered up.

Within minutes, Mabra appeared in the lobby — explaining, yet again, that he wouldn’t talk to me without approval of his leadership.

Rep. Mabra adjusts his tie

Rep. Mabra adjusts his tie

“That’s like asking your mommy’s permission,” I said at one point.  “This isn’t about policy. This is about you.  You’re a grown man, and I know you’ve got a side to this story I want to hear.”  I even tried to coach him on how he would look on the news if he just stood there being evasive — for the second time.  His response:  “I look good all the time.”  He even mugged for the camera and adjusted his tie, taking it from bad to worse.

By the way, coaching an interview subject is a taboo taught in Journalism 101.  If an interviewee insists on saying or doing something unsuitable to the story, it’s not cool to direct him to say something else.  I came very close to doing this by urging him to answer my questions, recalling his previous explanation by phone, and appealing to his sense of self-image.  It didn’t work.

We argued for seven minutes.  Reilly rolled the whole time.  Had Mabra told us to leave the property, we would have been obliged to do so.  But he never did.

Instead he wore me out.  We exited the lobby, a bit exhausted, with Mabra still talking about why he couldn’t talk.  With Reilly’s camera recording his evasions, we’d gotten sufficient material to produce a watchable story.  Once again, Rep. Mabra was not at his best– despite my best efforts.

It didn’t have to be that way.

 

 

 

 

Holsteins and the helipad

Wednesday was a classic, a humbling day in the life of your friendly neighborhood TV reporter.  It was humbling for two reasons:  I spent part of it awkwardly stalking the governor of Georgia; and was doing so in pursuit of a story broken two days earlier by another TV station.TV-ad-4001

Monday, WAGA ballyhooed a big interview with Holly LaBerge, the embattled director of Georgia’s ethics commission.  Mrs. LAF and I actually cranked up the TV set and sat on the couch, 1950s style, to watch the report on their 10pm news.  I actually gasped when I saw the revelation of the memo LaBerge wrote documenting what she described as an intimidating phone call from the governor’s staff.  Good story, Dale Russell, I thought.  Damn your eyes.

Tuesday, the AJC appeared in my driveway with an “AJC exclusive” that had the same info as Russell’s story.  The “exclusive” also cited Russell’s exclusive interview with LaBerge, thus broadening the already-overused word to include exclusive coverage of your competitor’s exclusive material.

Tuesday, I followed Russell’s story with no pretense to exclusivity.  An Open Records Act request for the LaBerge memo was fruitful, as was my request to interview her attorney. (“I said my piece to Dale Russell” LaBerge answered when I phoned her, politely referring me to the lawyer.  Damn your eyes, Russell.)

By Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal still hadn’t talked at any length about the memo and the allegation his office had intimidated his hand-picked ethics director.  His spokesman gave me a vague “maybe, maybe not” response to my request for an interview.

So photog Steven Boissy and I wandered to the Capitol Wednesday morning.  I’ve never really staked out the Capitol with the hope of having an unscheduled encounter with the Governor.

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

But that’s how Wednesday began.  I believed that Gov. Deal was at an event but returning to the Capitol.  I didn’t know whether he was traveling by car or helicopter.  His SUV was absent from its usual parking space, leading me to believe he was probably in it.

Boissy and I hung around outside the Capitol, a building whose grounds have surprisingly little space for comfortable and inconspicuous loitering.  We found a spot that might have allowed us to see Gov. Deal arrive by car, and waited.

There was no place to sit.  The sun was shining and getting hotter.  Our stakeout spot was out of eyeshot of windows to the Governor’s office, and away from Capitol police perches.  One security guard walked past us but said nothing except “good morning.” We waited, maybe, thirty minutes.  I felt ridiculous and conspicuous and spent much of the time figuring out a) what to say when somebody questioned why we were hanging around there, and b) what to do after this gambit failed.

Boissy and I read obscure historic inscriptions, noted the surrounding flora and observed the increasing intensity of the sunshine. We discussed varying breeds of cattle, a subject in which we both share a surprising interest.

Our smalltalk dwindled rapidly.

And then we heard a helicopter.

It bore down on the new helipad built atop the new parking garage across from the Capitol’s southeast corner.  Boissy and I scurried over, and saw the governor’s SUV parked outside the garage at a door.  His usual driver was behind the wheel.

The stakeout concludes

The stakeout concludes

The Governor exited the building.  I didn’t bum-rush him, but called from a respectful distance and asked if he would stop to chat.  “What about?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.

“Our office has already issued a statement about that,” he said.  I said I’d like to clarify some of what the statement said.  “OK, sure,” he answered.

What followed was a four minute chat wherein he challenged the accuracy of my first question, then proceeded to interlace his answers with questions for me that seemed to challenge the veracity of LaBerge’s memo.  He was lively and a bit more contentious than we usually see him.  He obviously wanted to talk.  The unedited interview is here.

Midway into our  Q&A, I saw a WSB mic flag pop into view alongside mine.  Richard Elliott had popped up, seemingly out of nowhere.

Elliott got what he needed without the indignity of the awkward stakeout. 

Damn your eyes.