Monthly Archives: March 2009

The advocate

adam-murphy-33009WGCL showed some enterprise and got a nice scoop earlier this month when Adam Murphy produced a story on metro Atlanta’s only toll road, Georgia 400.  The story basically said this:  Although tolls are producing many times the revenue needed to pay the road’s 18 year old construction bonds, the state intends to continue to keep raking in the surplus change until 2011.

Once the bond is paid off, the state is obliged to stop collecting the toll.  The implication is that the state is stalling paying off the bond so that it can keep milking the cash cow, fifty cents at a time.

“My goal is to find out why the state continues to collect your money,” says Murphy at the start of one of several follow-up pieces.  In the last week, Murphy and WGCL have become unflinching advocates for the viewpoint that the continued collection of the toll is a ripoff.  The station has even started an online petition to “take down Ga. 400 tolls.”  And it has a link on its web site to contact members of the Georgia Tollway board, several of whom are dodging WGCL’s effort to ask why the toll continues to be collected.

As the news business evolves, WGCL is trying to evolve with it.  In journalism schools, news is taught as the art of detachment and objectivity.  But advocacy has been rampant at Fox News for many years.  Newspapers and pamphlets have advocated certain viewpoints on stories since the invention of the printing press.  In fact, audiences often find advocacy where none exists and are increasingly suspicious when newsfolk plead that they deliver balance.

Likewise, investigative reporters all-but advocate viewpoints (Shouldn’t this loophole be closed?  Shouldn’t this bad guy be punished?  Shouldn’t the city stop overcharging water customers?  Shouldn’t this state government toilet stop wasting hot water?)  So WGCL is on firm ground here.

But the petition carries its advocacy to another level.  On one hand, it drives interested viewers to WGCL’s website, always an important goal.  On the other, it removes any pretense of objectivity.  The station is still a fact-finder, but in the same way that a plaintiff’s lawyer is a fact-finder:  With the goal of strengthening a particular viewpoint.  The dismissal of its own objectivity is a perilous strategy in a quest to build viewership.  Even if it’s on a story-by-story basis.

Curiously, WGCL’s petition only has about two hundred signatures on it as of Monday afternoon.

Don Mac

Ageless wonder:  Don McClellan, WSB

Ageless wonder: Don McClellan, WSB

Don McClellan’s piece on WSB about the ING Marathon wasn’t particularly memorable, except for the fact that the ageless McClellan actually showed up to do it.

McClellan retired from WSB as a full-time reporter many years ago.  But he still turns up periodically on the air, typically covering low-impact stories.  His  bio describes him as “the senior reporter for WSB-TV/Channel 2, and he’s believed to be the ‘dean’ of Atlanta’s active television journalists.”  It doesn’t give his age, but it says he’s been in the news business for forty-plus years and was “in the middle of the civil rights struggle (and) the war in Vietnam.”

A search of WSB’s site for McClellan’s stories turns up some oddities, like the 2006 piece he produced on a guy who stole his own dogs from a clinic.  His bio says he now focuses on “human interest stories.”

As a competitor, McClellan was a remarkable guy.  Though his storytelling was very by-the-book, his attitude was always upbeat.  For those of us a decade or two younger than him, it was rather inspiring that a guy with his years could stay so positive about such a flawed industry.  It was almost as amazing as his haircut.

McClellan sounds a little raspy in this week’s piece.  But he’s as sharp and apparently as upbeat as ever.  Ten years from now, we hope he’s still “the ‘dean’ of Atlanta’s active television journalists.”

Expense report

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

WSB has a strong and peculiar history of attacking the spending of colleges.   It plays into the hands of demagogue politicians who find seemingly-absurd instances of government-funded scientific research (“volcano monitoring,” say), then decry the waste of money.

Justin Farmer tapped into that journalistic / audience-pandering lineage with a report on March 5.  Farmer documented overseas travel by professors at Georgia State and the University of Georgia “to play the trumpet in Italy or study films in France.”  UGA objected, but not very strongly.   The script is very carefully written.  At first blush, it appears to be a clean hit on ridiculous college spending.

UGA’s protests got louder this week in a detailed story in the Red and Black.

In particular, the student newspaper reports that the two France-and-Italy professors were never contacted by WSB.  The trumpet-playing professor says a music festival in Italy paid his entire travel bill.  The film professor says he raised the travel money through endowments.  Both say they used no tax money for those trips.

Farmer’s story notes that much of the travel occurred in years past, and that UGA has significantly tightened its travel budget in light of the sour economy.  But then Farmer tries to have it both ways.  He uses Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as his main  mouthpiece– a guy with gubernatorial ambitions and who won’t hesitate to talk on TV about seemingly-extravagent state spending.  Cagle happily takes Farmer’s bait, decrying specific trips in 2006 / 2007, and doing so in light of recent layoffs — disingenuously overlooking the fact that the trips and the layoffs occurred in different time periods.

And then in his script, Farmer reports that “all this travel comes as families are asked to pay more, students face new fees, possible tuition hikes and core class restrictions.”  UGA told Farmer that it had cut its travel by more than thirty percent.  This leads Farmer to tag his story thusly:  “We’ve confirmed that 69 percent of the travel budget it still intact.”  At this point, Farmer is implying that all academic travel is wasteful.

Though he didn’t talk with the professors involved, he spoke with their supervisors.   UGA wouldn’t release more recent records.  It’s legitimate to scrutinize all areas of state spending, including universities.  But Farmer’s piece carefully uses the facts he finds, and shapes them to suit his storyline.

Farmer’s sleight-of-hand combined past travel, current economic conditions and never-fully-explained sources of funding for specific, seemingly-outrageous trips.  It’s the type of story that makes educated people suspicious of TV news.  It’s also the type of story that draws cries of “huzzah!” from the cheap seats.  WSB knows its audience.

Farmer implied that the trips to Italy and France were state-funded.  Casey Cagle squawked about them as state-funded trips.  If they weren’t state funded, then Farmer has some ‘splaining to do.

It’s worth noting that WSB has removed the piece from its web site.  The Red and Black reports that Farmer told the newspaper the story disappeared because of “corporate policy.”  Perhaps WSB has a policy to remove pieces that are having trouble withstanding scrutiny.  The Red and Black found a copy and uploaded it to Youtube.

One can only imagine the kind of academic travel Casey Cagle would approve in advance:  None.  It’s worth noting that WSB’s main critic of “elite” academic spending never graduated from college.   Nothing wrong with that — but Cagle is spouting as an expert on academic spending.

Cagle probably watches local TV news every night.

Low-hanging fruit

"You're a deadbeat!  Any comment?"  John Bachman, WSB with Hal Ross of Auto Loan Finders

'You're a deadbeat! Any comment?' John Bachman, WSB with Hal Ross of Auto Loan Finders

Some investigation.

WSB goes to a state web site listing delinquent taxpayers.  WSB cherry-picks a few names.  It sends John Bachman to a few addresses.  Bachman and a camera-rolling photog demand to know why the taxpayer is delinquent.  The taxpayer stammers on camera.  The Revenue commissioner clucks on-camera that these folks ought to know better.

The reporter wraps it into a by-the-numbers TV package (culled from the Restaurant Report Card handbook of investigative journalism), then directs the viewer to the station website, and calls it a news story.

It must be a great idea, because Bachman tells the viewer that WSB has done this story before.  “Last year, we looked at individuals owing taxes.  This year, we’re taking on businesses,” Bachman says in his intro.  The list of delinquent taxpayers has 50,000 entries.  The story cries out for the “shooting fish in a barrel” cliche.

Meantime at WXIA, the website’s home page asks:  “Did your lawmaker pay taxes?  Click here to find out.”  It appears WXIA’s furlough-diminished news staff has spent many hours making phone calls to some 94 state representatives and state senators, simply asking:  Are your taxes paid up?  The vast majority of the lawmakers on the site answer “yes,” and WXIA is publishing the answers with no follow-up.  (The station appears to be waiting for additional lawmakers’ names to turn up on a state list of deadbeat taxpayers.  The idea seems to be:  If you’re lying, we’ll expose you eventually.)

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-None of your business

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-None of your damned business

One state senator refused to answer, citing the Georgia Code that keeps tax matters private. Sen. Valencia Seay wrote in a news release that WXIA libeled her by using her photo in a story about tax deadbeats.  Seay demanded a retraction.  (WXIA says it merely reported that Seay declined to answer.)

“Undaunted by their ignorance of the facts, 11 Alive News showed their willingness to take a refusal to disclose personal information as license to imply the worst. For the record, I have NO tax delinquencies – federal, state or local.  11 Alive should go back to doing what they do best – empty reporting on celebrity drug addiction and car crashes,” the freshman Democrat from Riverdale wrote.

“11 Alive is taking action for you,” the station writes, justifying its devotion to this story.  It’s staggering to imagine all the manpower being used to gather zero independent, verifiable  information.

The story does provide something tangible for WXIA’s website, always one of the best TV websites in town.  It gives the site an ongoing “story” to which the TV version can repeatedly refer.  As the web supplants traditional media, the strategy is understandable.  It’s regrettable the story is so hollow.

“We here at 11Alive feel that you have a right to know which lawmakers are breaking the law…. We’re taking them at their word for now,” the station writes on its web site, with no apparent irony.

At least WXIA isn’t calling it an “investigation.”  That’s an admirable show of restraint.

Shading the truth

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

In 2003, Gwinnett County prosecutors tried to send a 16 year old boy to prison for life for killing a child he was babysitting.  The trial got lots of media attention.  Prosecutors claimed the victim died from Shaken Baby Syndrome.

But defense attorneys had a different story:  The baby had died from a brain hemorrhage that had begun more than a week prior to her death.  Their expert witness was Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s state medical examiner.  Sperry’s testimony refuted the testimony of the local forensic pathologist, and torpedoed the prosecution’s case.  When the jury acquitted the 16-year-old, nobody in the press room was surprised.  The surprise was that the Gwinnett District Attorney’s office, one of the state’s best, had brought such a weak case to trial in the first place.

Sperry’s testimony openly angered prosecutors.  They fumed that because Sperry works for the state, he should only testify on behalf of prosecutors.   Asked about it on the witness stand, Sperry’s answer was perfectly sensible:  Why should I shade the truth for anybody?

Since then, Sperry’s bosses at the GBI have reined him in.  Sperry is allowed to run a side business as an expert medical examiner.  But his contract won’t allow him to provide testimony that undermines prosecutions.  Yet Sperry has apparently done it anyway, in violation of his contract.   WAGA’s I-Team has concluded a two-part exposé on it.

Dale Russell, WAGA

Dale Russell, WAGA

Dale Russell’s investigation apparently has Sperry cold on the issue of violating his contract.  Russell visited locales in Mississippi and Tennessee where Sperry testified on behalf of murder defendants.  Sperry’s boss, Vernon Keenan, tells Russell that Sperry isn’t supposed to do that.

But most of Russell’s storylines explored the “conflict of interest” angle, and it ill-serves Russell’s investigation.  Russell seems to buy into the notion that Sperry has a conflict of interest when he testifies against the prosecution.  It makes no sense, unless the “interest” is something other than a full, honest exploration of the evidence.

(A separate issue goes unexplored:  Should the state medical examiner have a side business at all?  Judges and prosecutors can’t do it.  Police officers can.   Ideally, the state would pay its people well enough to keep this from being an issue.)

Unfortunately, Sperry didn’t talk to Russell  — probably because a) he knows he’s violating his contract and b) he knows his boss is annoyed with him.  But if Sperry had talked, he might have said the same thing he told that courtroom in Gwinnett County in 2003:  It’s not my job to shade the truth for either the prosecution or the defense.  My job is to present the evidence, draw my conclusions as a forensic pathologist, and let the jury decide the truth.

Instead of exploring the conflict of interest angle, Russell’s investigation might have asked this question:  Why is the GBI gagging the state’s chief medical examiner, arguably one of the top pathologists in the country?  Sperry’s testimony saved the life of a wrongly-accused 16-year old in 2003 (a kid who’s now finishing college on a scholarship, we’re told).  Sperry’s contract would prevent him from doing that now.

Sperry has screwed up, and Russell’s got the goods on Sperry’s contract.  But the whole “conflict of interest” issue fails to pass the stink test.  Grade:  C+

Not so tough, part two

By Race Bannon

Today’s tv news follows predictable algebra: stories need to be an easy to get quick turn, and have a low litigation risk. Hustlers, hookers and dirty preachers are busted yet again, but purveyors of true lawlessness and high crimes at the executive level…WALK.

Broadcasters want their news operations to be viewed as smart. They fly 20 color HD graphics with wiping titles to announce “From your street…to Wall Street”. Don’t forget the jet engine sound beneath the 80’s era, canned, rock and roll. How desperate.

For years tv stations kept education reporters, health reporters, and feature reporters on staff. That was before consultants convinced news directors to sell their news as “Live!-Local!-and Late Breaking!” No one knows for sure when abstract video of cars and buildings took over substantive feature, medical, and education stories, but it did. Traffic fatality? That’s your story. Late to a story but have to cover it anyway? Run video of cars near the story that was missed. Don’t have time to do the story? Hang an HD camera out the window run that video with a stand up…remember to use the chopper video first. That’s not smart.

Broadcasters want their news departments to be viewed as committed, but with managers programming two, three, and four hour live shows, there can be no commitment to news in its classical meaning, only in its meaning as “reality“ news. The everyday occurrences which are many, must be made into “news” by a lucky few. Each reporter must tell at least three stories, preferably all different. They may have many false starts or “throw aways “ (shoot this story until something more ratings oriented comes along )

So if you‘re one of the unfortunates who has a reporter begging you to tell them what you saw yesterday morning, just say no, and offer them a bathroom and a big glass of water. Though they may look OK outwardly, inwardly they’re tired, hungry, and dehydrated zombies, who likely suffer from a two weeks old, stimulant oriented U.T.I. More importantly these poor wretches have been driving in a live truck all day, breathing mobile generator fumes, and have either aired or thrown away at least two stories already, and have only thirty minutes left to tell yours, which may also be soon thrown away. Now that’s coverage you can count on!

In summary broadcasters want their news operations to be viewed as tough, smart, and committed, but the business practice of killing good stories for fear of litigation and time consuming fact-finding, the obsession with fancy graphics and sounds in place of legitimate community franchises like education, features, and health, and the filling of giant news holes with what is in effect hotdogs and cereal, make a charge of hypocrisy more than dedicated, determined, and dependable.

Race Bannon is a pseudonym for a current employee at an Atlanta TV station.