Monthly Archives: March 2008

Embedded

Moni Basu is an animal. The AJC reporter is on her fourth? fifth? tour of Iraq now, embedded with the Army’s Third Infantry Division. Her front-page piece today is really good, describing the jitters at a Forward Operating Base near Baghdad. Her first-person account of a mortar attack– catching her in the shower– is harrowing and hilarious. Curtis Compton’s photos of GIs taking shelter in a bunker during an attack are great too. Compton is on at least his third tour of Iraq. Compton’s also an animal.

The AJC can’t be bothered to cover a killer sugar mill fire in Savannah, or the World Series. But give the newspaper credit for covering the war as the Georgia story that it is.  And Basu for being the gutsiest reporter in town.

Today’s AJC piece by Jim Auchmutey, looking at how Atlanta managed to not be among the many cities that rioted following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., is also well worth the price of a Sunday paper.

WXIA’s backpack journalists

About a year ago, WXIA launched a somewhat revolutionary concept in the Atlanta market. It began using what it calls “backpack journalists,” reporters who tote and shoot their own cameras, as well as write and produce their own stories. It’s revolutionary, all right. Kinda like 1979 Iranian revolution. It’s disturbing, destabilizing, and nobody wins except the mullahs in the bean-counting divisions of media companies like Gannett.

Most TV reporters begin their careers as one-man-band reporter/photographers in tiny markets. LAF began in Tupelo Miss., just a few weeks after the American hostages were seized in Teheran. The TV station was owned by some dude who had enough revenue to fund a 10-person newsroom and produce a half hour at noon, six and ten each day. Those of us in such work environments were highly motivated to escape to the big-time, where news was more plentiful and where a professional photog would actually shoot our stories.

Fast forward to the 21st century. At WXIA, three reporters are now designated as backpack journalists. Catherine Kim and Julie Wolfe are youngsters, fresh from markets like Buffalo and Chattanooga.  They went on the WXIA payroll knowing their fate.   Jerry Carnes has been with WXIA since 1988. He volunteered to revert to his one-man-band roots. No doubt, Carnes would admit to a slightly masochistic streak.

This trend began in San Francisco at KRON, a station desperately on the ropes in 2006. The station’s experiment with backpack journalism was deliciously chronicled by the SF Weekly in an article called “KRON’s Last Gasp.” But WXIA isn’t gasping. Though consistently third in the ratings, it’s got strong personnel and presents a quality product, as local TV news broadcasts go.

WXIA’s motivation is pretty simple: Make one person do the work of two. It’s a concept dating back to the steel barons of the late 1800s. But there’s no question, it puts WXIA’s backpack journalists at a disadvantage. It means they have to navigate, make phone calls, load, unload and operate equipment while their competitors are focusing solely on story development. It means they can’t collaborate with photographers, who know news as well as (and may know the story better than) the reporter does. Unless the backpack journalist is doing a story that’s off the beaten path, away from a competitive environment, it means WXIA’s viewers get cheated.

Wolfe and Kim are talented young reporters. They’re not bad shooters. Carnes is one of WXIA’s best. But when you see their work, keep in mind that they’re working with one hand tied behind their backs. And by the time their stuff airs at 6pm or 7pm, the mullahs in Finance are already on their commute home.

No Comparison

LAF is not necessarily a timely blog. By mistake, we just dialed up and watched WAGA’s version of the Wednesday 6pm show. That’s the show we found so underwhelming on WSB. What a difference, at least on this particular day.

While WSB was lamely leading with the Tom Jones men’s-room “exclusive,” WAGA’s Morse Diggs broke news by revealing the DUI arrest of longtime Municipal Court Judge Andrew Mickel. Diggs had all the goods, though no interview with the judge. Mickel was always very media friendly. LAF enjoyed a beverage with him at Manuel’s on Super Tuesday. The Hon. Mr. Mickel’s mug shot is unfortunate.

WAGA then went to live chopper coverage of a shooting, and arrests therefrom, near McNair HS in DeKalb. Didn’t see that on 2 either.

After that, WAGA’s Doug Evans had an exclusive piece about another grow-house marijuana bust in Hall Co. Evans was steeped in the story, so to speak, with ample perspective from previous busts. At this point, WSB was talking about digging wells at WhiteWater.

Then Patty Pan capped WAGA’s a-block with an exclusive bit about thieves breaking into classrooms at Gwinnett schools. Pan is one of the best young TV reporters in town. Hopefully her career can flourish, probably elsewhere.

In other words, 5 packed more news into its a-block than viewers saw on 2 the entire 6pm hour.

WAGA and WSB are the two biggest local news players in town. WAGA will get its tail handed to it another day. But on this day, there was no comparison. Viewers of 5 won.

Ugly. Shameful.

WSB led its 6 o’clock news Wednesday with a story that would have been laughable, were it not so destructive and shameful. Tom Jones was live at the Clayton Co. Courthouse with “exclusive” coverage of a trial of a former FBI agent. He was charged with a misdemeanor, accused of making googly-eyes at men in a restroom at Hartsfield-Jackson. Problem was: The accused was found not guilty.

So WSB showed the defendant’s name. Showed his face. Showed absurdly long slow-motion footage of urinals in the restroom. Essentially, the station smeared this guy needlessly so that it could lead its newscast with an “exclusive.”

Yes, the defendant was on public trial. Yes, the judge allowed the camera in the courtroom (as the judge must unless the circumstances are deemed truly extraordinary). And yes, one can say, as Jones did, that such behavior in restrooms is a “major problem.”

But because WSB had this story to itself, its managers were in an extraordinary position. They had no competitive pressure. The verdict of Not Guilty gave WSB the opportunity to let this man off the hook, just as the judicial system had done.

The news biz routinely covers the sagas of accused persons, prior to ajudication. But this one-day case (apparently) had little if any pre-trial coverage. This was a horse that never got out of the barn. There was no compelling need to tell the story of a man found Not Guilty of some very embarrassing stuff.

Tom Jones had a perplexed look on his face as he delivered the story (though Jones often looks that way). Perhaps the argument was made to make the story simply go away. One can almost hear the 6 o’clock producer: “But I don’t have another lead!” So WSB couldn’t resist ballyhooing an “exclusive” that the other stations overlooked. This is one of those instances where people of conscience in the TV news biz– and there are such people– ought to have trouble sleeping at night.

The rest of WSB at 6

Do normal people actually watch an entire hour of local TV news? After the shock of watching 2’s lead story, we were too stunned to leave our seat. Maybe that’s what they intended. Observations:

Rachel Kim had a forgettable story about a killing that won’t be news for much longer. The family declined to talk on TV. Neighbors were somewhat helpful. Kim is good at developing stories, but not on this particular evening.

Ross Cavitt had a nice enterprise story about WhiteWater’s plan to dig wells to supplement its water supply. The story gained nuance when Cavitt revealed that it ain’t likely the wells will help much.

Jovita Moore– substituting for the thankfully absent Monica Pearson– had the best scoop of the show: An exclusive interview with the new, and much-criticized CEO of Grady, Pam Stephenson. It was a nice lick for Moore, who frequently spends her days in the trenches covering news prior to her nightly anchor appearances at 5.

Lori Geary had a rare emotional story from the Capitol about school bullying. She deftly removed her earpiece during her live lead-in because a technical glitch created a distracting echo. Geary didn’t miss a beat.

Ashley Hayes had what could have been the show’s most interesting story: Cops in Hilton Head talked at length about the disappearance of an Atlanta couple, and the suicide of the main suspect. But the story lacked immediacy because it was obvious Hayes was relying on material fed from other TV stations based in SC.

WSB ran an anchor reader on a captured fugitive. They must have grit their teeth as they gave a photo courtesy to America’s Most Wanted, a show on their arch-competitor WAGA.

And then there was weather with Glenn Burns:


Afterward– live in the dreaded 6:30 slot– Tom Regan produced possibly the most watchable story of the day: A trade show that opened at the storm-battered World Congress Center. Apparently, the GWCC is in better shape than most expected.

Ryan Young had the gratuitous live shot of the night: “Live in midtown” with a story about a robbery in DeKalb Co. “Live in midtown?” That’s WSB telling the world that they’re making one of their reporters stand on the lawn of the TV station on Peachtree. Why? Who knows.

Sports had the best surprise: Bill Hartman reported on new seats at Turner Field, built in front of the previous front row. The story showed rows of seats that drift absurdly close to home plate– the closest spectator view in all of MLB, according to Hartman. Local TV sports no longer exists in many markets– yielding to the hegemony of ESPN. Atlanta retains a lively and competitive local sports presence. It’s often worth watching.

Perhaps we’ll slog through the 6 o’clock show of another station next time.

Morgan v. Jones

Last week, WAGA’s Dale Russell did a piece that linked DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones to the DeKalb judge who awarded attorney fees to the lawyers for admitted perjurer (and prolific baby-daddy) Bishop Earl Paulk. The story showed that Jones and Judge Mark Anthony Scott are friends. Jones contributed to Scott’s campaign for Judge. Scott’s ruling let Jones off the hook from testifying in the Paulk trial, at least temporarily. A courtroom appearance in this case may have been embarrassing for Jones, who’s running for US Senate.

No doubt, Jones’s camp howled at WAGA management about the story. That’s because the only on-camera critic of the ruling was J. Tom Morgan– a former DA whose open disdain for Jones runs every bit as deep as the friendship between Jones and Scott. Morgan spoke articulately about why the ruling, and the relationship mattered. Russell is perhaps the best investigative reporter in town. But Russell had to know that Jones’s people– who famously cry and moan about any unfavorable coverage– would raise a stink about this. Likewise, casual observers familiar with DeKalb politics might watch this story and say: Oh well– that’s J. Tom beating up on Vernon again.

The story was about political ties tainting a judicial proceeding. No doubt, the judge (and Jones) deserved the scrutiny. But political ties— Morgan v. Jones– tainted Russell’s story too. If the issue was so troubling, Russell should have been able to strengthen his story by finding a critic other than a longtime enemy of Vernon Jones. Maybe he’s saving it for the follow-up.

Barbie Bandits

Everybody covered the sentencing of the “barbie bandits” yesterday. All four stations have the stories on their web sites. The story sells. Every station had the same video– mug shots, courtroom, file tape. The difference was in the style of the storytellers.

The best was Ross Cavitt on WSB. Cavitt grasped what made the story different and ran with it: The fact that the suspects were former “exotic dancers,” as he put it. The fact that it was an inside job. The fact that various co-defendants ratted each other out. He laid it out efficiently and with just enough snark in his delivery to signal the audience that he was letting them in on a story that was ridiculous from beginning to end.

On WGCL, Rebekka Schramm was almost as good as Cavitt. She had the same tone as Cavitt and covered the same highlights. She overreached a bit, though, by opening her package with an awkward line about the defendants “looking more like Barbie dolls.” A subtler touch would have been better. But Schramm and Cavitt both had the right idea: Show the viewers why this garden-variety bank robbery sentencing was worth your time, and theirs.

WXIA’s Jennifer Leslie and WAGA’s Darryl Carver had solid facts and pictures, but both told the story without much style. At 10pm, Carver never mentioned that the defendants were former strippers. Maybe the fact seemed sensational. But hey– that’s the whole reason TV covered this story to begin with. Might as well have fun with it.