Monthly Archives: October 2008

Grading WXIA Wednesday

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

No fraud, no frizz: Valerie Hoff, WXIA

If WXIA news director Ellen Crooke critiqued its 6 and 7pm newscasts Wednesday, it may have read like this:

Denis O’Hayer led the 6 with a piece from the Capitol about early voting.  O’Hayer’s task was to ask about extending early voting hours.  He got a lot of rhetorical finger-pointing.  The story was smart and well-told.  Grade:  A-

Catherine Kim’s piece from the Fulton Co. jail was the show’s most memorable.  She chronicled the brutal beating of an inmate who testified against / “snitched” on Brian Nichols the previous day.  WSB had crude photocopied pictures of the beaten inmate, which Kim’s story lacked.  Kim also should have used interior file video of the jail, but didn’t.  Grade:  B-

Paul Crawley produced a live vo/sot on the Nichols trial.  We aren’t fans of the live vo/sot.  Pre-taped packages are much more effective, and don’t take much longer to produce or to show on TV.  Knock that stuff off, please, Ms. Crooke.  Grade:  C+ for Crawley, D- for the producer who demanded a live vo/sot.

Bill Liss’s live v/o on the Delta / Northwest merger should have played higher in the show.  Liss also had time to produce a file tape package.  At least he wasn’t live at the airport interviewing passengers, as the other stations were wont to do.  Talk about a cliche…  Grade:  C+

Ted Hall read a tease that said:  “So many job seekers, so little openings.”  Did he really say that?  Yes.  Some writer punk’d Hall.  C’mon guys, there are children watching.  Grade:  F

Bill Liss returned with a piece on a job fair at the airport.  The good news was that Liss produced a package.  The bad news is that it was hideous.  The shooting and editing were amateurish, leading us to believe that Liss may have been forced to shoot and edit this himself.  Say it ain’t so.  Grade:  D+

Fred Kalil‘s sportscast was short, with vo/sots on the Hawks and Falcons.  Done.  Grade:  C+

At 7pm, Denis O’Hayer returned with another edition of his 6pm story.  Rather than producing a package or a live vo/sot, O’Hayer gave the audience four soundbites, back-to-back, lightly covered with b-roll.  He gave it context with the intro, and the four bites essentially told the story.  Understated and well done, but the lead story needs more meat.  Grade:  B+

Jon Shirek produced a piece narrated entirely via a colorful interview Shirek conducted (and apparently shot himself) with a Gwinnett pollworker.  The piece was shot OK enough, but was (for the most part) nicely edited.  Our favorite bit:  The nat sound of a baby crying while his Mom waited in line.  Grade:  A-

Paul Crawley delivered a lean, lucid piece on the testimony at the Nichols trial.  Too bad he wasn’t allowed to do the same at 6.  We’re glad to see Crawley back out in the daylight.  Grade:  B+

Brenda Wood spent almost four minutes interviewing Elizabeth Olimani about the upcoming Hosea Feed the Hungry event.  It wasn’t great TV, but we’d rather see this than a newscast clogged with bogus breaking news.  Grade:  B

Valerie Hoff is now apparently WXIA’s coupon reporter.  Wednesday, she did a piece about internet coupons and the potential for fraud.  We learned something, which is never a bad thing.  We liked the prominent can of hair spray on Hoff’s desk during her standup close.  Grade:  B-

Overall: We’re accustomed to seeing WXIA showing off its better-than-average photography and storytelling.   Tonight, both were oddly missing.  Yet the pieces at 7 by Shirek and O’Hayer showed some innovative touches you don’t often see.  The live vo/sot, however, ain’t innovative.  It’s lousy TV.  Grade:   B-

Salacious but not scandalous

We’ll start by saying the obvious:  Richard Belcher is a better newsman in his sleep than we’ve ever been awake and fully caffeinated.  He’s the mac daddy of Atlanta investigative reporters.  He rarely missteps, but he did this week.  He should have left the Gena Abraham Evans story alone.

Evans is the DOT commissioner, known as Gena Abraham before marrying board member Mike Evans.  As a single woman, Abraham apparently had a rather normal personal life, which included a relationship with another DOT employee prior to Evans.  Abraham and that employee corresponded by e-mail, and some of their personal e-mails transacted through the state e-mail system.  This subjected them to exposure via the Open Records Act, apparently making them reason enough for an investigative report.

Belcher probably could have found personal e-mails sent by almost 100% of Georgia’s state employees.  Abraham had the misfortune of including some R-rated language in hers.  Mind you, nobody is saying that it’s scandalous to use earthy language in state e-mails.  But its inclusion certainly spices up a TV news story in the run-up to the November sweeps.  “This is the Bible belt,” Belcher reminds Abraham in their interview.  Abraham comes off more like the victim of a voyeur than a wrongdoing government employee.

The voyeur who pulled the e-mails is George Anderson.  Anderson has an almost obsessive interest in government ethics.  It makes him a bit of a gadfly.  But Anderson also plays a useful citizen role as a government watchdog.  In Belcher’s story, Anderson sniffs that it’s Abraham’s use of her on-the-clock time and state resources that troubles him about the e-mails.  Anderson sees the world of government in very black-and-white terms.   Often, he nitpicks out of a strict adherence to by-the-book principle that fails to account for the human element.  That’s what’s happening here.

Belcher bolsters the story somewhat by asking Abraham about the propriety of her relationships with other DOT employees.  But she answers credibly that there was nothing improper, and Belcher doesn’t challenge her response.

Nobody is seriously contending that government employees cannot use their state computers to send personal e-mails.  Aside from George Anderson’s complaint, why is this an issue?  It shouldn’t be.  Yes, maybe another news organization would have taken the same bait.  We wish Belcher would have been the one to say “thanks, but no thanks” to this.

“I can do whatever I want.”

Newark's not-so-finest

Newark's not-so-finest

There’s no question, most police officers understand and respect the role of the media in a free society.  And there’s no question that most police officers understand and respect the fact that the media can shoot pictures and gather news on public property.  But every now and then, a cop who doesn’t understand the limitations of his own badge gets it wrong.  In the case of a Newark NJ “special officer” Sunday, he justified the detention of a WCBS-TV photog by saying:  “I can do whatever I want.”  Wrong.

Jim Quodomine’s camera continued to roll as the cop grabbed the camera, then put the photog in a chokehold.  Quodomine was on public property, covering a peaceful protest.  Several bystanders snapped photos, and it appears reporter Christine Sloan picked up Quodomine’s camera and shot some video of her photog’s detention.  A Newark city councilwoman watched the scene, convinced the cop to release the photog (after an hour in the back of a patrol car) and filed a complaint with the Mayor.

From viewing the video, it’s impossible to glean what provoked the “special” officer into his “put the camera away” rage.  (In this case, “special” apparently means that he is trained by the city but only works crowd control, traffic details and other low-impact police chores.)

On Monday, the city of Newark suspended Special Officer Brian Shariff without pay.  Mayor Cory Booker said he was “disgusted” and “disturbed” by the incident.  One wonders what this cop got away with when no cameras were around.

It takes an extraordinary act of dumbassery to turn a member of the news media into a sympathetic figure.  Way to go, Shariff.  Your future as a rent-a-cop is all but ensured.  Or maybe the Burmese state police have an opening.

H/T Lenslinger/Viewfinder Blues

WSB radio woes

WSB radio showed the door to a couple of experienced Atlanta news guys last week.  Jeff Dantre and Kerry Browning were laid off.  Browning had been at WSB radio since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.   Cox Radio also laid off some FM DJs.

It wasn’t that long ago that Atlanta had two vigorously competitive radio news organizations.  When WGST threw in the towel and ended its local news presence, that left WSB as the only commercial radio news outfit.  (WVEE / WAOK has a fringe news presence, but it’s very spotty.)  But WSB’s product has never been particularly impressive, churning out forty-second reports from staffers who are usually a) on a breaking news story, b) covering a court hearing, meeting or news conference or c)  reading the AP wire / AJC.  It rarely generates enterprise stories.

Part of its problem is that the staff is spread absurdly thin.  WSB radio tries to convey a 24/7 presence with but a handful of people.  And those people don’t appear solely on AM 750.  They also have assignments with other Cox FM radio properties, the studios of which are neatly lined up on the ground floor of WSB’s monolith at 1601 Peachtree St.  Now the staff is spread even thinner.

Radio news continues to play second fiddle to the all-important “weather and traffic together.”  And WSB’s promotion continues to harangue the “liberal” or “mainstream” media while promoting its right-wing talk shows.  When Dantre and Browning were released, were they released from some kind of Fox News Channel-style alternative media?  Doesn’t matter now, at least not to them.

Speaking of craven radio promotion:  WSB even made meteorologist  Kirk Melhuish change the spelling of his last name so that it could create billboards that say “when the weather turns hellish, rely on Mellish.”

One question is whether WSB will now fall behind the only other radio news outfit in town, WABE.  The NPR station broadcasts a full boat of local news cut-ins during its morning and evening drive shows.  The problem is that WABE reporters never cover breaking news.  The station’s stubbornness in that regard is almost admirable.  But it also shows that motorists wanting the very latest news can’t count on WABE for anything that isn’t a news conference, a court hearing, a meeting, or a rehash of the AJC.

Another question is whether WSB radio will begin to lean even more heavily on the staff of WSB-TV.  How long will it be before TV reporters are regularly calling in voicers for radio?

It’s never been truer:  Radio is a sad salvation.   And it just got sadder.

H/T Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.

Done

This ex-WAGA photog is due to leave his post in Iraq today as he concludes his 400 day call-up with the US Army.  We couldn’t be more pleased, though it’ll take him several days to get back to the USA.

Mike Daly is now a staff sergeant, in the seventh year of his six-year enlistment in the Army Reserve.  WAGA produced this piece in 2002 at Ft. Bragg, NC.

On the clock

WGCL’s ongoing effort to root out waste in Atlanta’s city government is admirable.  Its most recent installment hits the target but misses the bulls-eye.   And that’s a vast improvement over its last effort, which completely missed and was a bit of an embarrassment.

This time, investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman crunched some payroll numbers and found some eye-opening data:  A handful of city employees had doubled and tripled their salaries by working overtime. Saltzman showed the numbers to a couple of city council members who were shocked, shocked that the city was paying so much overtime while in the throes of a budget crisis.  So far, so good.

Saltzman also tracked down the department head whose agency paid the most overtime, a man who had spent months ignoring WGCL’s requests for an interview.  Watershed Management director Rob Hunter had a ready answer:  One of his employees abruptly left, and another employee essentially worked two jobs.   But Saltzman found that the employee’s overtime began months before the departure of his co-worker.  Good stuff.

Then the story sputters a bit.  Saltzman produced man-on-the-street interviews with garden-variety residents who expressed the same kind of shock as the council members.  The encounters probably went something like this:

Saltzman:  Ma’am, I’m with CBS-46.  May I talk with you for a moment?

Person on the street:  What?  Me?  What’d I do?

Saltzman:  Nothing.  What if I told you that some Atlanta city workers were doubling or tripling their regular salaries by working overtime?

POTS:  Huh?  What?

Saltzman:  You know, the city is laying off workers and closing fire stations.  But they’re paying all this overtime to city workers.

POTS:  That doesn’t sound right.  Seems like the city needs to get its act together and fix that.

Saltzman:  Want to say that on camera?

The interviews added nothing because the interviewees had no real knowledge about the situation or city government.  If Saltzman had asked the head of an NPU or a neighborhood association, it would have had more credibility.  Likewise, a Human Resources expert at a local university might have shed light on it.

But had she done that, they probably would have asked a question that WGCL’s investigation doesn’t ask:  Is the city really paying a water management supervisor only $33,000 a year to do his job?  And a person below him, only $25,000?  The overtime earnings of these folks — excessive or not —  only elevate them to a living wage.

It’s also worth noting that when Saltzman listed the departments paying the most overtime, the Sanitation department wasn’t among them.  Saltzman’s previous investigative miscue focused on Sanitation.  Time to move on.

Saltzman is on the right track, digging up whistleblowers and doing records-based investigative reporting.  This story, though imperfect, is a solid step in the right direction for WGCL.

Comedian wanted

Mark Hyman, WAGA

Mark Hyman, WAGA

Rodney Ho’s AJC blog reports WAGA is re-assigning its so-called Road Warrior.  Mark Hyman is returning to daytime general assignment reporting.  Ho says WAGA hasn’t decided how to replace him and is considering rotating reporters through the shift, a notion that probably chills the bones of some of the staff there now.

The Road Warrior is a worthwhile effort to take the hours-long Good Day Atlanta away from the tedium of the studio.  The problem is that it hasn’t worked well.  Hyman’s predecessor, Brett Martin, cultivated an image as an on-air fool.  It seemed to play well with the audience but made folks cringe at the TV station.  Hyman is a good reporter and is a genuinely funny guy.  But he isn’t a truly natural TV performer.

Sarah Parker, WGCL

Sarah Parker, WGCL

It isn’t just Hyman’s fault.  Too often, the segment finds itself at restaurants that have opened early just to accommodate WAGA. The Road Warrior needs a full-time producer to figure a way out of the restrictions that naturally occur at that hour.

Few have noticed, but WGCL has installed Sarah Parker as its version of the Road Warrior on Better Mornings Atlanta.  Parker may help that program expand its viewership beyond friends and family of the on-air talent.  She’s at ease, a bit wry and bubbly when necessary.  Like Hyman, she too often finds herself at restaurants.

Matt "Lucky" Yates

We'll have what he's drinking: Matt "Lucky" Yates

The problem with both Hyman and Parker is that they’re TV reporters.  WAGA needs to realize that this isn’t a reporter gig.  They need to hire a comedian. somebody who is smart and knows Atlanta and has some varied experiences as a performer.  A quick wit is essential.  A slightly subversive streak would be a plus.

WAGA would be lucky to get this guy.

Suspects

Yes, we nitpick.  Darryl Carver, WAGA

Yes, we nitpick. Darryl Carver, WAGA

It’s an easy mistake to make, but it still ain’t right.  News professionals like WAGA’s Darryl Carver ought to know better:  If no person has been identified as a possible suspect in a crime, then there is no “suspect.”  There are only bad guys, crooks, attackers, gunmen, swordsmen, killers, robbers etc.

Or, to use policespeak (but please don’t):  Unidentified male subjects.   Likewise, “shooters.”  Please.  No to “shooters.”

But if they merely exist in composite sketches but without any other substantial identifying labels, then they aren’t suspects.

From a Bud Veazey memo dated May 18, 2005:

Foolish optimist that I am, I will once again try to explain the proper use of the word “suspect” in the hope that eventually someone will get it.
Police have a “suspect” when—and only when—they know, or think they know, who they are looking for. In other words, an individual has been identified as a “suspect” in the crime. If no one has been identified, THERE IS NO SUSPECT!
Take a moment and think about the logic.
Until a “suspect” has been identified, police are looking for a robber, a burglar, a purse snatcher, a rapist, a murderer, a reckless driver, a bad person, a clown, a mime, etc.
Once again, if police haven’t identified a person as a suspect, THERE IS NO SUSPECT!!

While producing two pieces Monday on a killing in Riverdale, Mr. Carver violated Mr. Veazey’s dictum five times. He referred to a composite sketch indicating the likeness of a gunman, attacker, killer. He insisted on referring to the person depicted as a “suspect.”

No.  A “suspect” has a name, or a photograph, or is a person known to the investigating agency.  “We have a suspect” means that somebody has been, or is about to get locked up.

Carver is but an unfortunate example.  He has plenty of company in Atlanta TV.

Exposed plumbing

Exposing the waste

Exposing the waste while dodging the double entendres

Grading WSB at 6 Monday:

Lori Geary’s lead story put the state’s budget troubles in stark perspective, focusing on cutbacks at the GBI.  Geary revealed that the GBI was asked to deepen cuts beyond the Governor’s mandated six percent, a tidbit the Gov’s office wouldn’t confirm.  She gave clarity to a potentially cloudy topic.  Grade:  B+

Richard Elliott did a serviceable job previewing a home foreclosure auction.  He trolled for buyers who showed up early, and quickly turned the material. Grade:  B

Ross Cavitt was live in Dalton with tape of a 911 call from a woman who watched the law office bombing unfold.  The tape was vivid, and it appears none of the other stations had it.  Cavitt also had a court document that foretold the mindset of the whackjob who did the deed.  Grade:  A-

Jeff Dore gave excellent perspective on Brian Nichols’ best defense witness:  A shrink who says Nichols was, in fact, legally insane when he went on his deadly rampage.  Dore’s TV coverage of the trial is the most clearheaded in town.  Grade:  A-

A bemused Richard Belcher easily had the weirdest story of the night:  An exposé on a toilet in a government building that has filled with hot water for some three years.  A whistleblower who’d complained about the obvious waste of money measured the temps in the bowl at 109 degrees.  Belcher put his hand in the bowl but sensibly stopped short of the water.  Remarkably, the public restroom was immaculate.  Belcher’s coup was getting the Lieutenant Governor to talk on TV about a wasteful state toilet.  Grade:  A- for Belcher, F+ for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle

John Pruitt’s v/o about the Clayton County sheriff’s race debate featured a wandering studio camera that slowly panned away from Pruitt, to a visibly surprised Jovita Moore to an empty space in the studio.  Pruitt intoned “each candidate says he is the one who can get the department back on track  — unlike our camera.”  It’ll be in the Gorilla BallGrade: B-

Secret Squirrel

Secret Squirrel

Mark Winne’s story about an investigation into a Sandy Springs cop showed uncharacteristic restraint.  The cop allegedly had sex with prostitution suspects — then interrupted the acts to call his Vice Squad backups to arrest them.  While writing the piece, Winne (like Belcher) doubtless had to self-edit numerous double entendres.  Drama points:  √ (out of five); Grade B+

Jim Strickland produced a predictable piece that featured the advice of a financial planner:  Don’t panic.  It was a weak link in Strickland’s otherwise strong local coverage of the financial fallout.  Grade:  C+

Political analyst Matt Towery showed up to predict that the presidential race would tighten.  Both candidates are saying the same thing.  Grade:  C

Chuck Dowdle’s sportscast was a rehash of the weekend, a look forward to next weekend, and mercifully short.  Grade:  B-

Overall: Despite a couple of odd technical glitches, this was a solid newscast  Grade:  B

No brainer

A mean old SOB in Dalton builds an explosive device, loads his SUV with fuel and becomes what the ATF calls a suicide bomber.  He targets a downtown law firm.  The device explodes, killing the bomber and badly injuring a lawyer.

WXIA heard this, then made a remarkable decision.  WXIA decided not to send a crew to Dalton.

Wrong call.

It’s wrong in light of this:   During Ted Hall’s 7:30pm hit in the “information center” (as opposed to “news room”?), Hall began his report on the bombing by exclaiming “this is really something.”  He was right.  Hall knew something that the managers who make assignments overlooked.  It was the most interesting local news story of the day.

Hall voiced over video that appeared to have been fed from a Chattanooga station.  WXIA repeated the exercise in its Saturday newscasts.

WXIA’s decision was also wrong in light of this:  While WSB, WAGA and WGCL had reporters live in Dalton producing lead stories on the bombing, WXIA led at 11 with a very feature-y Keith Whitney piece on the BET hip-hop awards.  At 7:30, WXIA led with a Denis O’Hayer story about teacher pensions.  By comparison, the station looked dumb.  Both of those guys should have been in Dalton.

Had it sent a crew to Dalton, it would have seen quite a story unfolding.  It might have gotten the same chilling interview WGCL’s Renee Starzyk got with a neighbor of the bomber, who described his hard-headedness and instability.  Or it might have gotten the interview WAGA’s Tony Thomas got with a woman who was working in the office when it happened.

For Atlanta TV, covering this story was a no-brainer.  What was WXIA thinking?

Dalton is 80 miles away, part of the Chattanooga ADI.  The bomb didn’t go off in Atlanta’s back yard.  Perhaps WXIA decided it wasn’t a “local” story.  But the producers of its newscasts obviously thought otherwise, giving the story high play, while relying on video from a station in the nation’s 86th largest market.

Perhaps the bombing didn’t sync with WXIA’s apparent effort to produce a somewhat brainier newscast.  We’re all for that.  But this was no garden-variety breaking news story.  You can’t just ignore a suicide bomber in the North Georgia mountains, and hope to retain your credibility.