Monthly Archives: July 2010

In the arena

After working in news for, like, fifty years, I finally have a coworker who shares my appreciation for Richard Nixon.  His name is Jeff Hullinger.

Given the fact that I shared a workplace with Hullinger for some sixteen years in a previous life, you’d think I’d have already known this.  And yes, when Hullinger covered sports at WAGA and I covered news, we clearly shared an affinity for Cold War trivia and other 20th century historical relics.

But then we began covering politics together at WXIA, with desks a few feet apart.  One morning last week, I heard him utter these words:  “I can’t get enough of Nixon.”  It was like hearing a whipoorwill on a summer evening, haunting and lovely.

“Look at this,” Hullinger said as I entered the newsroom for the first time on primary day (he always gets to work before I do, and is usually still there when I leave).

“It’s a Nixon for Governor commercial.  Talk about obscure.”  We both watched the Youtube video, chuckling as images of Eisenhower, Khruschev and Billy Graham (twice!) flashed on the screen in the cartoonishly dated spot.  As any Nixonphile knows, after he lost the presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, he ran for Governor of California in 1962.

“I have a Nixon for Governor button,” I answered.  “It’s one of my favorites.”

Nixon lost the 1962 election, and blamed the press in his “final” press conference.  How could you not love a guy like that?

In some ways, Hullinger and I became similarly taken with John Oxendine.  The Republican gubernatorial candidate had a Nixonian haircut, a sometimes-awkward personal style, an us-against-them mentality, and walked heavy-footed into the brackish waters of scandal.  Opponents and bloggers have written that Oxendine had a “the rules don’t apply to me” approach to politics.  Winning was what mattered.  Nixon, still considered by many to be a mostly-great president, would have approved.

Oxendine had a remarkable record of electoral success early in his career, winning statewide races four straight times.  The first time, he unseated incumbent insurance commissioner Tim Ryles, Oxendine’s Jerry Voorhis.  Nixon also began his electoral career with roaring success, winning election to Congress, the Senate and the vice presidency.

Helen Gahagan Douglas

When Oxendine lost Tuesday to Karen Handel, his campaign had undergone a breathtaking collapse.  A week earlier, polls had showed him to be the frontrunner.  He finished fourth, but only after attempting to smear Handel with innuendo and half-truths.  His strategy could have come straight from Nixon’s treatment of Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas, “the pink lady” who lost her seat to Nixon after Nixon tarred her as a Red (“pink right down to her underwear”).

Gahagan Douglas reciprocated by coining the term “Tricky Dick,” a gift to history.

Oxendine flavored his concession speech with a fine swipe at the news media, hinting that parasitic reporters drain the life from good and decent public servants like John Oxendine.  Hullinger got to watch it in person.  “Half the reporters would probably be unemployed,” Oxendine said, if it wasn’t for public-spirited men and women like him.  (Oxendine’s concession speech is posted below; his remarks about the media start at 1:20.)

He got it half right.  Our job is to tell stories the public wants to hear and see.  When public servants provide such fodder, we happily bite.  But the size of the news workforce is determined by our ability to sustain ourselves commercially, not by the number of public servants who provide stories.

Minutes after Oxendine’s concession speech, Hullinger texted me:  “My mother was a saint.”   It referred, of course, to Nixon’s post-resignation speech in the East Room of the White House on August 9, 1974.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” Nixon told the press after losing in 1962.  Afterward, he mostly went dark for six years.  What followed were the two greatest election victories of his career, 1968 and 1972.  Nixon’s rebirth produced spectacular stories that invigorated the news media as an industry.

Perhaps Oxendine has a comeback in him.

Pink lady

The desktop

Karyn Greer, WXIA

Welcome to the most glam-rock piece of real estate in the WXIA newsroom, and perhaps in all of TV news.  The desk of Karyn Greer, morning anchor, is a ten square foot workspace that transforms the mundane fixtures of the cubicle desktop into stuff  inexplicably yet cheerily pink and shiny.

Greer possesses the only pink computer keyboard I’ve ever seen.  On it, she can feel pretty while typing the grim details of newsworthy scandal and societal wreckage.

There’s are also a tape dispenser and stapler, each covered in a pinkish rhinestone coat.  Stuff adheres better when sealed stylishly.

The same pink-rhinestone combo covers Greer’s computer mouse.  The coarse exterior likely roughens her right hand a bit, giving her street cred while exchanging hearty handshakes with the roughnecks she encounters during field trips to the studio.

Karyn Greer with the Bosslady.

It’s worth noting that her Rolodex, mousepad and post-its are pink.

When she totes beverages to her desk, she does so in pink travel cups.  When she speaks into a cell phone, it’s covered in a pinkish shell.

The Greer paradox is this:  Though her accessories, couture and anchorwoman job seem to be high profile, she was aghast — aghast! — when I pitched an LAF photo essay about her desk.  “Absolutely not!” she answered, repeatedly, to my gentle queries.  She didn’t want the attention, she explained.

Then one day I caught her in the throes of conversation with the Bosslady.  I stepped in, pitched it again.  Greer objected again.  The BL, who recognizes a colorful story when she sees it, overruled her.

Another victory for translucence.

Karyn Greer isn’t the first Pink Lady.  That would be Helen Gahagan Douglas, a 1940s era California politician, who will get her due in LAF shortly.

Undoubtedly, there are office supply catalogues that cater to the fanciful tendencies of Karyn Greer and her cublicle-dwelling ilk.  Since noticing this shiny stuff on Greer’s desk, I’ve occasionally noticed a sequined stapler elsewhere.

But never in such abundance, collected with such flair — by somebody so shy.

Third person

Jeff Hullinger, WXIA

By Jeff Hullinger

Question: What does speaking in third person mean?

Answer: Talking about one’s self as though you were talking about someone else.

Two GOP candidates for Governor habitually spoke in third person.

“…the voters want John Oxendine,” says John Oxendine.

The candidate did that Sunday during the debate on  Georgia Public Television and then Monday when I interviewed him inside The Varsity.

My guess is a political or speech consultant has encouraged Mr. Oxendine to refer to himself in public as John Oxendine.

Nathan Deal looks and sounds like a man cast to be governor by a television show or movie. He speaks in short clipped sentences and always stays on message.

He too has been speaking in the third person.

Monday before boarding an airplane at PDK, “.. Nathan Deal has the right ideas for Georgia,” said Nathan Deal.

Huh?

Maybe it’s a trend.

“Jeff Hullinger enjoyed covering Tuesday’s election results” said Jeff Hullinger.

Not a candidate: Deion Sanders

With my move from sports  to news- – I thought I was done hearing such phrases.

Athletes usually constitute the majority of those who speak in third person.

Deion Sanders owns the line, ” Deion will make an impact” said Deion Sanders.

Ricky Henderson also would speak in paragraphs using third person.

“Ricky Henderson must do what Ricky Henderson must do” said Ricky Henderson.

Maybe we can blame Seinfeld reruns.

Remember the Jimmy episode?  A hip guy who spoke in third person.

Try this tonight.

Speak to your spouse in third person and see how far you get.

“Jeff Hullinger would like his wife to bring him a cup of decaf  coffee” said Jeff Hullinger

On second thought.

Or is that third thought?

Hullinger is a reporter at WXIA.  This post originally appeared on 11alive.com/bullpen.

The gay avenger

I’m not the one who started talking about the gays. The Republican candidates for Governor of Georgia did.  I just asked them whether they really knew what they were talking about.

It started with Nathan Deal playing “gotcha” with Karen Handel by highlighting her willingness to play footsie with the Log Cabin Republicans in 2003.  The LRC represents gay Republicans.  Handel was running for office at the time in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, America’s Gayest City.

I asked Handel about it as her campaign bus rode from Duluth to Monroe last week.  Before the camera rolled, I told her we’d be covering this topic.  She seemed unconcerned.  Yet within two and a half minutes, she tried to steer the conversation elsewhere.

Rather than espouse any openmindedness on gay issues, Handel backpedaled into Christian Coalition territory.  Still, some voters continued to give her credit for at least acknowledging gay issues.  She was able to have it both ways.

It’s easy to demonize gays when you aren’t around them.  In the 50s, many white people weren’t around blacks.  “It’s not an issue for me,” I hear Republicans say about the gays. Out of sight, out of mind.

Many private companies offer spousal benefits to gay employees.  Some governments do, some don’t.  Aside from that, the only real issues that uniquely affect gay Americans are their inability to enter into legally binding spousal relationships, and the hurdles they frequently face when they adopt children.

I asked Karen Handel about the latter two issues.  She took the anti-equality position, and was unwilling or unable to give a rational explanation for it.   Her words echoed those of Robert Byrd and others who invoked Scripture to justify segregation, only to renounce it years later.  Handel seems like an enlightened woman, but appears stuck pandering (along with her GOP opponents) to voters unwilling to grant equality to people who scare them because they mostly don’t know them.

Bill Richards, 11alive.com/bullpen

We put the unedited interview on 11alive.com/bullpen (transcribed here).  Jim Galloway at the AJC picked it up.   Luckovich drew a cartoon. Laura Douglas-Brown at the Georgia Voice wrote a complimentary yet angry piece about it.  It was rather stirring to see the reach of an unedited interview that never actually aired on TV.

(About that Luckovich cartoon:  It’s a first for me, something I never dreamed would happen, and it’s certain to make me even more of an insufferable egomaniac than I already am.  I’m just grateful I didn’t get the Justin Farmer treatment.)

I also questioned John Oxendine about gay adoption.  Because another TV crew was lined up behind me, and because I wanted to question Oxendine about other issues, I was unable to press him as I would have liked.

Oxendine also told me he was against gay adoption.  When I told him that some studies had shown gay parents raised children just as effectively as straight parents, he said he had no expertise on gay adoption.

Oxendine and Deal are now running laughably disingenuous commercials meant to frighten GOP homophobes about Handel, who clearly stated her disinterest in giving gays equal spousal and adoption access.

It’s reasonable to ask:  Why question right wing candidates about an issue mostly important to the left?  The answer is:  They raised it.

If Democrats used gun rights / gun control as an issue for internecine party warfare (“Augustus Ankle has a carry permit!  You can’t trust Augustus Ankle!”), it would be reasonable to question Democrats on second amendment issues.

If they’re going to clobber the other guy with an issue — or play footsie with a group espousing it —  it seems like they ought to know what they’re talking about.

I’m not “the gay avenger,” but the person with whom I enjoy a legal, spousal relationship called me that on the Facebooks.  Here’s a hat-tip to the Georgia Voice, which began publication last year after the Southern Voice abruptly folded.  America’s Gayest City needs a solid gay newspaper, and they’re making it happen.

“My house is alive and breathing…”

Jennifer Leslie and David Ries, WXIA

Here’s a helpful tip for fans of local TV news:  Want to get the attention of a human being working in a newsroom?  Call at 3am.

TV stations in major markets staff their newsrooms overnight whenever they’ve scheduled an early morning newscast.  At WXIA, that’s every night.  When you call a newsroom at 3am, the only competition you have is the stifling boredom that sometimes dulls the senses to even the most incessant ringing.  But odds are, somebody will answer.

At WXIA, that someone may be a guy named David Ries, who produces some of those early newscasts.   Ries reports that he took such a call Saturday morning:  “You know it’s going to be good when the phone call starts with ‘I’m not on amphetamines.'”

The caller informed Ries that he had a story that would “put your station on the map.”

“My house is alive and breathing and I can prove it.”

When I heard it, it brought to mind a classic Star Trek (TOS) episode, where an alien steals the brain of Mr. Spock.  She installed Spock’s brain into a “controller” to provide life support for an underground city.  When reached via communicator by the Enterprise crew, “Spock reports that… his medulla oblongata seems to be breathing, pumping blood, and maintaining temperature,” as described by memoryalpha.org “the Star Trek Wiki.”

Perhaps the caller’s home had indoor plumbing that was actually part of a living circulatory system, and an HVAC that was part of a pulmonary system.  If so, it would represent a significant bio-technological breakthrough.  Or, perhaps, something scary and horrible,  Either way, it had undeniable TV news potential if true.

(To my despair, Spock’s Brain is derided as one of the worst-ever episodes of Star Trek, “as hollow and nonsensical as any given episode of Lost In Space,” according to one reviewer.   Yet, I love Spock’s Brain. I love the premise; love the tension as they search for the disembodied brain; love the footwear on the aliens.  Love Leonard Nimoy’s performance as a brainless robo-Vulcan, and DeForrest Kelley as the performance-enhanced surgeon trying to restore it.)

But I digress.

Perhaps the home of the 3am caller really was alive and breathing.  It would be the story of the day, certainly, and maybe more.  Ries had dutifully recorded the caller’s phone number.  Presumably, we were invited to swing by anytime.

“I think we should check it out,” said photog Dan Reilly, straight-faced.

It makes perfect sense that anybody realizing at 3am that their house is “alive” and “breathing” would immediately look up the phone number of their favorite TV station and make the call.  We thrive on such tips, which regularly yield solid news.

And you overlook them at your peril.  The amphetamine-free guy in the breathing house could be on the phone with your competitor the next day — giving them the hottest news tip of the year, at 3am.

Pants on fire

Hello.  I’m a liar.  Pleased to meet you.

I know that I’m a liar for this reason:  Twice in one week, operatives for two Georgia politicians have informed me of it.  “YOU LIED TO ME!” one of them screamed (in ALL CAPS) in a voice mail, one of two screaming voice mails he left on my phone following a fairly bland story I produced that included an interview with his candidate.

A few days later, another operative was more diplomatic and mature, but no less emphatic.  We feel like you told us you were doing one story.  Then, on TV, we saw a different story. It’s worth noting that this particular candidate declined to be interviewed for the story I pitched.

Did I actually lie to these people?  Of course not.  In both cases, I broadly outlined the story I was producing.  I intentionally declined to provide specifics.  I couldn’t — I hadn’t gathered the material nor written the story yet.

In the news biz, we write the story after we gather the relevant material, and distill the available facts.

In the news biz, sometimes the story changes based on the material gathered.

Suppose I interview Augustus Ankle, candidate for Governor.  I’m asking Mr. Ankle about education.  During the course of the interview, he reveals he wants to legalize prostitution.  Odds are, the story as described earlier would change drastically by air time.

More likely, the thumbnail of any story described at the outset during a phone call at 9am will evolve by the time it airs at 6.

That doesn’t make me a liar.

In both cases, I had follow up chats with my accusers.  We concluded with a better understanding of each other, and seemed to salve the wounds.  (My favorite part was when the screaming ALL CAPS operative began a sentence by saying “Look — I’ve been doing this for eight years…” After he finished, I stage-whispered:  “Want to know how long I’ve been doing this?”  He changed the subject.)

I don’t like being called a liar.  But I don’t take it too personally when the epithet comes from a political operative.  Here’s why.

Those people are accustomed to throwing around the word “liar.”  In debates.  In commercials.  In casual conversation.  In press interviews.

“My opponent is lying when he calls me a liar.”  It’s a word that’s so overused in politics, its meaning has been devalued more than a Zimbabwean dollar.

So a political operative or two has called me a liar.

You’re breaking my heart.

Charge dismissed

George Franco, WAGA

It took a week or three, but WAGA has released a portion of the video showing the encounter that got reporter George Franco arrested in Pensacola June 7.  In so doing, WAGA reports that the misdemeanor battery charge against Franco was dismissed.

From WAGA’s web site“Franco was working on a story about the use of heavy machinery to clean up oil on the beaches. BP planned to offer a demonstration and a county official invited FOX 5 to come along. On the way to the story, our FOX 5 crew spotted workers in a public parking lot, where they stopped to videotape their efforts.

Franco says a BP contractor managing part of the clean up ordered him to leave the parking lot. Franco refused, and he says that’s when things got tense.”

BP contractor Joshua James Mitchell told Escambia County sheriff’s deputies that Franco “grabbed his arm and spun him around.”  The video released by WAGA shows Franco touching Mitchell’s elbow, and Mitchell spinning angrily (and voluntarily) to confront Franco.  Photographer Chris Rosenthal rolled on the encounter.

WAGA’s web site says a prosecutor dismissed the charge because “there was minimal contact with the victim and there were no injuries.”