Monthly Archives: August 2010

Overcompensation

Installing a computer, 9:32am 8.25.10

Sometime during the final years of the Reagan administration, WAGA  installed into its newsroom a computer system called Basys.  It enabled anybody looking at a computer monitor to look at newsroom rundowns, read assignment ques, read updated wire copy, and write stories that could be read by everybody and go straight into the newscast, among many other marvels.    Other larger-market TV stations, including WXIA, installed similar systems.

Basys replaced typewriters.  It also replaced AP wire teletypes.  Staffers logged into Basys could also surreptitiously and instantly communicate with each other via “top line,” later mimicked by AOL instant messenger, Google and others.

This eliminated the clatter of typewriters, teletypes and “which anchor is reading page A-7?!” -style word-of-hollering-mouth.  The newsroom became a very, very quiet place.

Wednesday, WXIA’s newsroom got very, very loud and stayed that way through the 6pm newscast.  It had nothing to do with breaking news, and everything to do with technology.

By 2010, WXIA’s old computer systems had become hopelessly outdated.  Wednesday, between 7am and noon, the old system that processed words and rundowns was euthanized, as was the creaky editing system installed during the Clinton administration.  Both were replaced with systems with funny names that I’ll actually remember one day.

Everybody on staff had been trained on the new systems over the previous month (I was, I’m told, the very last newsroom staffer to get training, which happened Monday).  Within the newsroom Wednesday, 8 to 10 men and women who’d installed the system flitted from desk to desk to troubleshoot.

The transition was cold, with no overlap between systems.  Either we used the new systems, or the newscasts didn’t get on TV.

Troubleshooting: 5:35pm, 8.25.10

This led to some comical overcompensation.  At 4pm, a producer-type urgently asked me to write my anchor lead-in into the 6pm newscast rundown.  At that moment, I was completing the writing of my taped package.  A photographer was champing at the bit to start editing on the new video system, his first on-deadline package.  He too wanted an extra hour to edit.

I snarled at the producer and pointed out that the newscast wouldn’t start for two more hours.  Overdramatizing, I suggested the package wouldn’t make deadline if I had to stop to write a lead-in.  Then I snarled again.

Producers rarely respond to my snarling the way they should.

Another producer walked to my desk moments later and told me to relate the lead-in verbally.  I snarled again.  She didn’t flinch.   “Fine.  ‘Residents of Doraville are up in arms over a poorly designed  sidewalk built with federal stimulus money.’”  I included the cliché with prejudice, knowing that I’d change it before it aired — I had two solid hours to fix it.

I finished writing the package, voice-tracked it and the photographer started editing.  He completed it 45 minutes before the newscast started.

When I opened the rundown to re-write my lead-in, somebody else had already done it.

It turns out that the new technology is quite user-friendly.  It helped that the staff was already computer savvy, which gave us a big advantage over my late ’80s counterparts who’d gotten newsroom computers for the first time ever.

And then noise died down a bit.  One more time.


Not balanced

Wah.

The concept of “balance” in a TV news story is tricky.   When people act a fool, odds are they’ll get coverage that highlights their foolishness.  When people in government do wrong or commit egregious mistakes, the coverage will reflect that newsworthy fact.   By definition, it will be unbalanced.  And it can still be good journalism.

Here’s a tip for public information officers (PIOs) who have to speak on behalf of individuals with government agencies who screw up:  Talk about it.  Own up to it.  Be honest.  Make the release of information timely.  Or, at least pay lip service to the concept of answering questions and exploring the issue that has suddenly thrust you into the spotlight.

And if you don’t, then don’t cry about the coverage you got.

Some weeks ago, I dealt with a government agency that screwed up, inadvertently victimizing an innocent person in the process.  I’m not going to name the agency or its spokesperson (it’s not a local law enforcement agency).  The agency doesn’t have a reputation for mistake-prone boneheadedness, and I’d never dealt with the spokesperson before.

I called the PIO, who quickly sent me a one-line e-mail acknowledging my voice mail message.  Six hours passed before the spokesperson communicated further.  I missed the phone call, which came shortly before my story aired.  Minutes later, I got an e-mail with a bland statement saying the agency “had reason to believe” its screwed-up behavior was based on good information.  There was no further explanation of the “reason,” which was at the heart of my inquiry.

The story aired.  The next day, I got a terse e-mail from the PIO complaining the piece was “one sided,” and that I’d failed to include verbatim the spokesperson’s “had reason to believe” line into my piece.

Really?

With great restraint, I sent the spokesperson an e-mail:

“I note and respect your criticism of my story…  I would like to chat with you or your designee on-camera about the specific point you emphasize in your note, eg. the reasons you (screwed up).  This would give you an on-camera opportunity to shape the story to your satisfaction, an opportunity (your agency) declined yesterday.”

The spokesperson replied by saying it would be “inappropriate” to provide an interview because an investigation was “ongoing.”

Ron Ziegler, 1973

  • Side rant:  Investigative agencies routinely give information about, and provide interviews detailing, “ongoing investigations.”   Examples:  Any interview with a fedora-wearing detective at a crime scene; any cold-case interview.  Yet spokespersons for such agencies use the “ongoing investigation” as excuses to withhold information and especially interviews, and expect reporters to take this excuse seriously.  I am forever restraining an incredulous chortle when I hear this excuse; it’s unprofessional to openly make fun of PIOs who think they’re offering serious-minded reasoning when they aren’t.
  • Obviously, there is proprietary information in certain ongoing investigations that can and should be withheld.   Reporters expect that.  But using it as an excuse for a news blackout is just plain lazy.  (And when PIOs hear this excuse from higher-ups in their agencies, they should demand a higher-quality excuse.)

So this is what we get:  An agency that screwed up; declined to provide timely or responsive information; declined two interview requests — and complained that the coverage was one-sided.

And this, from an agency with a reputation for a measure of sophistication and serious-mindedness.

I don’t know where public information officers come from.  Perhaps there’s a Ronald L. Ziegler School of Spokesmanism someplace, which churns out obfuscating publicists who learn to distrust reporters and shade the truth.  It’s unlikely that school’s teachers want any advice from me.

But for those hiring a PIO, though, allow me this:  Generally speaking, the best spokesmen / women are former reporters.  There are plenty of them out there.  Hire one.

Dammit, Janet

Top Ten Reasons Reporters Should Not Profess Devotion to their Significant Others in TV Stories:

10.  After the break-up, it will still live forever on the web.

9.  You’re not likely to do it as stylishly and amiably as John Gerard did.

8.  Odds are, your significant other isn’t as absurdly adorable as Janet, nor are you as adorable as John Gerard.

Team Coverage: John and Janet

7.  Folks will continually ask:  Is that really your girlfriend?

6.  Next time, you’ll have to record a song for her.

5.  When she tells you “we’re getting a pet together,” you’ll have no choice but to agree.

4.  Subsequently, you’ll have to buy her jewelry.  It’s a slippery slope, yo.

3.  TV viewers will suspect the worst when they see you out alone.

2.  You don’t want to be another Commuter Dude copycat.

1.  You’ll tick off your coworkers and competitors, whose significant others will hound them with “Hey, Lame-O.  Where’s my on-air valentine?”

Trampling the flag

Update: This is video of WXIA’s coverage.  The flag topples at 1:52.

Nathan Deal and company

Runoff night got really weird at the Nathan Deal celebratory party Tuesday.  It was a low moment for Atlanta TV news.

Deal was unexpectedly eking out a victory for the Republican nomination for Governor.  He ascended to the podium to address his supporters.  It was no coincidence that he did so at the exact moment local newscasts began, at 11pm.    Candidates do that.

But it wasn’t enough to hear Deal’s heartfelt remarks to his supporters.  As Deal and his wife Sandra took the stage, TV crews from WSB and WAGA presumed to join him onstage.

TV cameras had a riser in the back of the room at the Gainesville Civic Center, which gave them a pretty clear shot at the podium.  But WSB and WAGA, which sent two crews to Deal’s camp, set up a second camera near the podium — so that their reporters could bum-rush Deal after his  remarks.

As Deal spoke to supporters, TV viewers could see Richard Belcher of WSB and Deidra Dukes of WAGA alongside the candidate, jostling for position.  In so doing, Deal’s wife got elbowed aside — and the Georgia state flag was toppled.

They trampled the flag to get to Nathan Deal.  It was the talk of our newsroom the following day.

It was unintentional of course.  It was also plainly unnecessary.  Deal was accessible through the night.  Why the heavyhanded behavior?

Competition.  But it wasn’t competition for viewers, who couldn’t give two sh-ts about such stuff.  It was about ego and sticking it to the other guy.

Belcher, an excellent reporter in whose fan club I stand front and center, has always bum-rushed candidates on election night.  Because each of the TV stations broadcasts the winner’s speech live in the 11pm news, the first reporter to question the candidate following the speech gets his / her question asked on live TV.  If the question ends up on competing stations, even better.  It’s a game of “if we ask the first question — and your TV station is forced to broadcast it, because you’re live too — we win!”

At WAGA, news director Budd McEntee hates losing that game.  Belcher and McEntee once worked in the same newsroom.  Deidra Dukes undoubtedly was on the podium because McEntee, perhaps via his mid-managers, communicated to her that her only measure of success that evening was to beat Belcher to the candidate following his speech.

Nathan and Sandra Deal, August 10, 2010

This ratcheted up the need to “get” Deal the instant he stopped speaking from the podium, causing the goonish flag-toppling, wife-elbowing scene.

Did the viewers care a whit?  No.  WXIA declined to play along.  Any clearheaded observer would say that Nathan Deal deserved an evening with a measure of decorum, unfouled by the dueling egos of TV reporters and news directors.

Not to mention, Deal deserved to stand alongside his wife and and upright flag of Georgia — and not dueling TV crews.

I don’t know who got to Deal first, Belcher or Dukes.  Doesn’t really matter.  It was a sad moment, played out by two TV news pros whose work is normally a credit to their profession.

But not this night.

Transmission chip

Bill Kalway, in WXIA's sat truck with one of Carrollton PD's finest

“Sir, is this your vehicle?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“May I come in?”

“Please do.”

“Sir, I’ve gotten a complaint that you’re using this vehicle to send messages to microchips implanted in the brains of residents around here.   Got any ID?”

“Ma’am, I work at an Atlanta TV station.  This is a satellite truck.”

Satellite truck? What’s that?”

“It sends a signal to a satellite 22,000 miles in orbit, which then sends it back to earth.”

“…And then into the chips implanted in the brains of our residents?  Sir, step out of the vehicle, please.”

“This is television.  We send the signals into outer space, then the TV station receives them, then sends them to a transmitter or a cable company, which then sends the picture to TV sets in homes across north Georgia.”

Dan Reilly, WXIA; Richard Elliott, WSB

“So you expect me to believe that you send a signal 44,000 miles in order to get it to my TV set just up the road?

“Exactly.”

“Whatever you say, pal.   What are all these other trucks doing here?”

“Same thing.”

“You know, my iphone sends a live video picture to another iphone.  I don’t need a truck or satellites or outer space. “

“But that’s a phone.  This is television.”

“Right.  Turn around, hands behind your back.”

“You can’t arrest me for committing acts of television.”

“Tell it to the judge, spaceman.”

OK.  So, the cops really ventured into our sat truck to tell us we needed to move it to another piece of property, which wasn’t very interesting.

Water torture

Based on a detailed email from a tipster, we set out for Dahlonega last week to produce a story on the stink in the city’s water supply.  The tipster was very detailed:  The city had built a new reservoir, changed the intake for its water system, and the result was lousy-tasting water.  The city was struggling to fight it.  The tipster suggested that the solution — dumping copper sulfate into the reservoir to kill stink-producing algae — was also a health hazard.

“But I can’t be out front on it.  I’m strictly background,” said the tipster by phone.

At Yahoola Creek reservoir: Mike Zakel, WXIA

“Know anybody who can publicly express your concerns?” I asked.

“No.”

Great.

The good news:  When Mike Zakel and I got to Dahlonega, we found the city manager just before he left city hall for lunch.  Bill Lewis described the water as having a “musty, kind of muddy smell.”  He said the city was trying to find the right chemical cocktail to kill the algae and restore the water’s taste.

I left with a sense of relief.  I thought getting a city official to talk on-camera about the problem would be the tough part.

Shows what I know.

We shot pictures at the reservoir, where I saw an actual bald eagle grab a fish, a first for me in Georgia.  It seemed like a good sign.   It wasn’t.

We still had no water customers talking about their experience with the water.  With great reluctance, we turned to the tried-and-true:  We camped out in the parking lot of a busy shopping center and approached random folks as they walked to and from their cars.

This is embarrassing, of course.  Folks are understandably wary when a sweaty middle-aged man approaches them with “Ma’am, I’m a reporter with channel eleven in Atlanta…”  I show them the flag on the wireless hand-held stick mic, which helps distinguish me from members of the Unification Church and others who way-lay strangers typically seeking charitable contributions.

“Do you live in Dahlonega?  Do you use the city water?”

I approached a dozen people.   Only one brushed me off with “I don’t have time.”  The others were very sweet, and each of them answered “no.”

This took place on a sun-drenched asphalt parking lot on the hottest day of the week.  I could feel my life force fading with each failure, in a setting where I expected at least a small measure of success.  It was an excruciating exercise.

Zakel and I concluded that oh-for-twelve was some kind of sign from God that we needed to try another approach at another location.

Dahlonega, GA USA

We decided to roll through a subdivision in the city.  This, too, was problematic inasmuch as it would involve knocking on random doors.  Nobody wants to do that unless they absolutely have to.

En route to the subdivision, we drove through Dahlonega’s scenic downtown, a place filled with tourist-town shops and such.  I’d avoided it initially because I surmised that the folks strolling through would be from somewhere else.

“Let’s stop downtown.  Maybe a business owner can help us.”

The manager of the fudge shop said:  Yeah, the water’s been a problem, but we can’t help you.  Try the folks at the sandwich shop.

The owner of the sandwich shop said:  Yeah, the water’s been pretty awful.  Try the pizza place.

The hostess at the pizza place said:  Yeah, the water’s been wretched, but the manager’s not here and we’re slammed.

These failures involved greater amounts of work:  Identifying a store, walking up to the counter (past customers), making a more formal introduction and explanation of our motives.  The quest for an interview with a Dahlonega water customer was becoming darkly comic, and not in a good way.

Zakel spotted a bar called “The Watering Hole.”  Drawn by the name, I entered.  The owner was there.  She agreed to let us in.  Within moments, a bartender / cook / brewer was designated spokesman for the bar.

Mission accomplished.

The bartender even offered me a thimble of a new 11% Belgian ale he’d just brewed.  Maybe I looked like I’d needed it.

We finally left town at 3pm.  I was exhausted from the self-inflicted pounding I’d given my head against the proverbial wall.  Zakel graciously allowed me to snooze en route back to Atlanta.  Aside from seeing the eagle, it was the best part of the day.

I’d say I owe that guy a beer.

Friend of the devil

Somewhere in Carrollton, GA

Though I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness, I may have knocked on as many doors as the average JW.   Most of them were the doors of folks whose neighbors were mired in some kind of terrible tragedy, a story-type covered with gusto at my previous, crime-obsessed workplace.

It ain’t rocket science:  You get an address.  You find the neighborhood, typically at midday or so when many houses are empty.  You exit the vehicle, and begin the rounds.   I always look for shortcuts, of course.  Any human being in a driveway or wielding a garden tool gets my first friendly visit.  Otherwise, it’s cold-calling, telemarketing style, except with shoe leather.

The “talk to neighbors” drill is typically a tell-tale sign of weakness.   If  the story lacks on-camera commentary from folks with strong ties to the principal figures in a story — victims, family members, eyewitnesses — in other words, the folks who are frequently the most reluctant figures to make public comment — then we resort to chatting with neighbors.

This invites the kind of cliched commentary that viewers of TV news are too often familiar with:

“We spoke.  We said hi to each other.  Didn’t know each other very well.”

“He was a quiet guy.  Kept to himself.”

“We knew each other a little.  He loved his mother / children / spouse.”

“Never expected this in our neighborhood.”

“He had a great dog.”

So when I knocked on the door of a guy in Carrollton named E.J. Critten, I struck gold.  Critten lived next door to a woman charged with murdering college student Marcie Elliott.

They’d known each other only two months, but Critten spilled jaw-dropping tidbit after tidbit about his allegedly homicidal neighbor.

Farrah Strength, murder suspect and neighbor

Some of the headlines that emerged from three or four minutes on Critten’s porch:

- The murder suspect was obsessed with demons, and claimed to have “talked to” a demon as a child.

- She drove a hearse (before it stopped working, which subsequently stayed parked in the back yard).

- She’d “escaped” from a psychiatric institution (“crazy house,” as he put it).

- She’d casually informed him that she once killed somebody and would consider doing it again.

She was also covered with demon tattoos and loved loud heavy metal music.  Those details aren’t shocking, but they add seasoning to the rest of the story.

“Gotta tell you, sir.  I didn’t expect to hear all that,” I told Critten as I thanked him for the interview and exited his porch.  I’d also interviewed two other neighbors, who provided the more predictable “I’d seen her around, but didn’t really know her” kind of material.

They didn’t make the cut.

Once, I knocked on the door of the neighbor of a murder victim.  The suspect was already in custody.  I needed material.  The neighbor answered, and told me what he knew:  “Tell you the truth, that guy was an a–hole.  I’m sorry he got killed, but I won’t miss him.  He was a complete jackass.”

That, too, was eye-opening.  I decided not to use it.