Monthly Archives: September 2010

One of a kind

Budd McEntee is an old-school newsman.  For years, he had a portrait of Walter Cronkite on the wall of his corner office at WAGA.  He was passionate about being first with important stories.  He loved breaking news, which he believed had a crowd-pleasing quality for the audience.  He was devoted to overturning rocks and exposing secrets.  He was the most competitive guy I’ve ever known in the news business.

Budd McEntee

The WAGA news director abruptly announced his retirement Monday, effective four days later.  This comes on the heels of the similar departure of GM Gene McHugh several weeks earlier.

McEntee was one of the best newsmen I’d ever known.  He was also the worst boss I’ve ever had.

McEntee became news director in 1991.   McEntee added Good Day Atlanta, which became one of the station’s biggest moneymakers, meriting expansion to the five-plus hour morning block it occupies now.  When he started, WAGA had two and a half hours of news per day.  It now has ten.

With that, McEntee became a very busy man, increasingly immersed in what used to be called paperwork.  He kept sporadic track of the day-to-day doings of his newsroom, and became a guy who reacted mostly to whatever he disliked.  It made him an increasingly caustic presence.

McEntee was obsessed — and I think that’s the correct word — with WSB.  The competitor in him wanted to catch WSB in the ratings, but it never happened.   When WAGA and WSB had concurrent newscasts — as they do at noon, 5, 6 and 11 — monitors in WAGA’s newsroom typically were tuned to WSB.  Frequently, McEntee and his managers knew WSB’s content better than the content on their own station.

McEntee wanted to out-cover WSB on big stories, and wanted whip WSB with important scoops.  Frequently, his staff succeeded.  Just as frequently, WSB succeeded.  Much of that is a function of a key fact that McEntee couldn’t overcome:  WSB is a large-budget operation.  WAGA’s web site lists 17 general assignment reporters.  WSB’s site lists 25, giving it almost fifty percent more firepower on day-to-day news.  WSB has state-of-the-art equipment, and more of it than anybody else in Atlanta.

Richard Elliott with Crawford Lewis

Yet when WAGA got beaten on a big story — as happened in March, when WSB’s Jodie Fleischer got a jump on the indictment of DeKalb School Superintendent Crawford Lewis — McEntee had a tendency to come unglued.  That night, after seeing Fleischer and Richard Elliott with elements his station lacked, McEntee ordered dayside staff to work double shifts.   There was no journalistic reason to do it.  McEntee did it because he was angry.

There are similar stories that are too numerous to count, incidents that went well beyond a manager’s legitimate interest in holding his staff accountable.  When competitive issues arose that were systemic or managerial or just plain dumb luck, McEntee regularly responded by irrationally punishing the staff.

I can’t help but compare him to Ellen Crooke at WXIA.  She has a newsroom full of reporters who would happily jump off a cliff for her.  McEntee may have had some of that devotion in his earliest years as news director, but it didn’t last long.

Morale at WAGA stayed in the dumps during the last ten years of his tenure, and deteriorated with each successive year.  McEntee hired a lot of talented people, but then drove many of them away from the TV news industry.  It’s an unfortunate part of his legacy.

WAGA GM Bill Schneider, with Budd McEntee 9.27.10

McEntee deserves credit for keeping WAGA competitive while the WSB juggernaut gained strength (and continues to do so, now that its alliance with the AJC is official and active).  McEntee’s protection of  WAGA’s investigative unit, at a time when bean-counters wanted to slash costs, showed his solid journalistic (and marketing) instincts.  The I-Team is assuredly taking McEntee’s departure with a great deal of unease.

But not so the rest of the staff, one of whom e-mailed me to say s/he was “looking forward to work today for the first time in… years.”

McEntee had a human quality that he seemed to increasingly suppress.  I’ve seen him do many kind and generous things.  Word has been that he and McHugh are gone, in part, because they resisted Fox’s desire to cut staff.   Yet most of the staff will remember him as a bully who took the satisfaction journalists get from their profession, and wrung it dry.

TV news already faces plenty of challenges that threaten its very survival.  If it’s going to succeed, it will need personnel who are motivated by something more than a paycheck.  One can only hope Budd McEntee was a one-of-a-kind leader.  He was great at journalism.   He was pretty lousy with journalists.

Either / or

Photo by Joeff Davis, Creative Loafing

About a month ago, a man named Joeff Davis rang my cell phone.  He identified himself as a photographer with Creative Loafing.  “I need to photograph you for our upcoming ‘Best Of’ issue,” said Davis, whose first name is pronounced “johf.”

“Does this mean I’m going to be the ‘best of’ something?” I asked.

“Can’t tell ya that.  Sorry,” was the answer.   “When can I shoot you?”

I figured the editors of that magazine had run out of local blogs, and had defaulted onto this one as a “best of” in Atlanta.  It didn’t make much sense though, given that this blog packed more punch prior to my employment at WXIA, and the Loaf had never acknowledged it then (except in irregular links in the daily “fresh loaf.”)

The “editor’s choice” arguably carries more prestige than the “reader’s choice.”  CL typically does a brief write-up on the “editor” winners, as was the case with this year’s Best Celebrity, Kevin Gillespie’s beard.  The shameless egomaniac in me would have welcomed a glowing graf in the Loaf.

Fast forward to last week, when the “Best Of” issue hit the streets.   Pecanne Log got the writeup for best local blog, again.   The wife found me under “Reader’s Choice:  Best Local TV, Magazine or Newspaper Reporter.”  I got my name in print, plus a photo online, but no writeup.  (Readers’ Choice for Best Blog was a blog I’d never read called The Quick + Dirty Dirty.  It appears to a be a lively, photo-filled blog about the nightlife and shopping exploits of two young Atlanta women.  Congrats to them, Pecanne Log, and Brook.)

In 2004, Mrs. LAF lovingly and shamelessly launched a mini-campaign to get her pals to enter my name in the “Best Local TV or News Reporter” category, and it worked. The Loaf gave me a piece of printed cardboard, suitable for framing.  Mrs. LAF framed it, and hung it alongside her 2000 “Editor’s Choice:  Best Radio DJ” award.

I was amused by the backhanded swipe that the “Best Local TV or News Reporter” award gave to the TV industry.  It was during the time when newspaper folk still had a bit of a superiority complex, generally speaking, vis a vis your TV news goonfolk.  The award clearly suggested that one could be a TV reporter, or a news reporter, but not both.

By 2010, CL had gone into bankruptcy, downsized its still-lively newspaper and generously revised its category title.  By putting newspaper, magazine and TV reporters in the same category, it seems to acknowledge that we’re all equally capable, institutionally-speaking, of covering news.

Mrs. LAF admits to one posting on Facebook encouraging friends to submit “best of” entries to the Loaf this summer.  She included me with Criminal Records, Aurora Coffee and other mainstays.  It was a casual, one-off post, she insists.  She wants me to believe that the people actually rose up and anointed me organically.  I believe her.

I also believe that no campaigning benefited The Quick + Dirty Dirty.   And OJ Simpson is innocent.

Written on the wind

WXIA reporter Marc Pickard will retire Friday, concluding a 34 year career as one of the premier storytellers in Atlanta TV news. I asked longtime WXIA reporter Jon Shirek to write a few words marking the occasion, excerpted below.

By Jon Shirek

For news to remain “news,” we will always need journalists to dig up stories of public officials committing acts of malfeasance and other offenses of self-centered stupidity at the cost of others. Our government “of the people” depends, in part, on the independent watchdogs of a free press.

Marc Pickard, WXIA

But we will also, always, need investigative reporters whose ammunition includes the spirit and skills of a Charles Kuralt and of a Marc Pickard, who know how to tell the real stories of real life. They serve up a hard-hitting report by gently getting inside the soul of a story . Marc’s gift has included being able to convince a succession of news directors that he will do his best work for them when they trust him and give him lots of room, and let him forge his own path, away from the rutted roads that many of the rest of us tread.

As much as Marc loves TV News and storytelling, he will, with little prompting, tell you with his serene but rascally and nearly always smiling and congenial spirit how much he has grown to hate being subject to the whims of the breaking news gods. Special projects, environmental reporting, health reporting, the years he spent focusing on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, have been some of what he’s always loved to do. And in every role, on his own terms, he’s broken stories, he’s provoked change, he’s inspired viewers, he’s made a positive difference.

To the end, Marc is still the idealistic and eager cub reporter on his first assignment, in the body of a vet newsguy – scheduling 7am breakfast meetings; at his desk by 8 or 8:30 working the phone; entertaining any and all who stop by his desk. Then he’s at the morning meeting, and out the door.

Where are his thousands of news stories, now? Aside from the relative few that are preserved here or there, it’s left to science fiction writers to speculate about all those TV news stories riding forever at the speed of light on TV signals that drift into other galaxies, maybe for our neighbors to reassemble and see someday as they study what kind of planet is this Earth. And from a man named Marc Pickard, they’ll see the work of a barnstorming Shakespeare skywriting sonnets in the wind that were already wisps of memories by the time he began his next assignment, day after week after month after year, and always, always, having a grand time.

So here are five of Pickard’s news scripts; again, I picked them at random.

A good TV news script is not always self-contained on the printed page, and may not even make complete sense, it needs the video and sound to complete the “package.” Think of these few examples, though, as Pickard “Unplugged.” Notice the notes he writes to the photographers/editors suggesting how he thought his words might fit with what they’d shot.

I would be the first to say: journalism will diminish without Marc Pickard digging, reporting, interviewing — gaining the confidence of people who bare their hearts and souls to him eloquently — meticulously logging every second of every tape, calling back, fact-checking, letting his non-fiction tales emerge on their own, naturally, from seed to blossom, in a day… after day after day. I can’t imagine this place, this city and state, without him finding and telling us his stories.

__________

Some asides:

I could tell you how one Sunday long ago, during Marc’s WSB spot-news life, I witnessed him wearing a tux (!) covering a twelve-hour police SWAT and FBI hostage crisis in downtown Atlanta. He always wore his beeper (this was 1981, way pre-cell-phone), and he had it on with his rarely-worn tux Saturday night, and it went off. He was so focused on the story I don’t think he ever realized he looked like a penguin in the Sahara. No one else but Marc in that unexpected situation could have pulled off Fred Astaire at a crime scene with such understated flair.

I could tell you about the amazing work he and Photographer Mike Zakel did for most of a decade covering the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. WXIA was the “official” Summer Olympics TV station in Atlanta in ’96. More than once, Marc heard second and third hand that competitors were discounting anything Marc aired because he and Mike were simply receiving their scoops on a silver platter. To this day he has never said a word in his own defense. The reality is that ACOG was often too disorganized and overwhelmed to bother much with the likes of us or anyone else in the local news media. Marc and Mike just kept digging, and striking, excuse the pun, gold, on their own with no help from any “official” relationship.

But a few additional years of doing general news stories, often the same ones, over and over again – same song, different verse — he said, wore him down. So he found a way to retire from that type of local news reporting a long time ago; he found a way to pursue the work he loves by doing more of the types of stories he hoped could impact people’s lives for the better.

Marc loves baseball. He loves Braves baseball. He had season tickets long before the Braves began their winning ways in ’91. He held on to those tickets when the Braves moved from Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field. These aren’t just seats somewhere at the ballpark. These are behind-the-Braves-dugout seats. As you walk down, down, down the steps toward the field, Walter greets you and escorts you to those seats. You can smell the lawn, hear the whoosh of the fastball, practically talk to the guys as they warm up to bat. Every once in a while when Marc and Jeannie can’t go, he lets go of his tickets, and once in a while I’ve won the scramble to grab ‘em up. That’s how I know.

Pickard, 2nd from left; Shirek, 3rd from right (standing)

Marc’s nickname in the newsroom, and good sport that he is, he’s never complained, is “EarthWorm.” Or, to his closest tormentors, “Worm.” Randy Waters is one of our sports guys who decide someone’s nickname.  Randy came up with Marc’s soon after Marc arrived, because Marc started as the environmental “EarthWatch” reporter. And through all his many other assignments, EarthWorm he’s remained and will always be.

There’s been some talk among the reporters in the newsroom, with Marc eavesdropping surreptitiously as any self-respecting journalist will do, about what will happen to his desk. It’s valuable real estate — News Central for anyone who wants to keep up with what’s going on in our newsroom. It’s in the cubicle cluster consisting Marc, Jaye Watson, Duffie Dixon, Matt Pearl, Kevin Rowson, Julie Wolfe, Bill Liss, with Paul Crawley, Donna Lowry and Jennifer Leslie and the C.I.A. guys Ross and Shawn nearby. More importantly, the desk is the one that’s closest to the office of Marlene Henderson, one of Marc’s best friends, fellow Braves fan, and our newsroom protector whose administrative title does not hint at the millions of little but lifesaving miracles she constantly performs for the rest of us knuckleheads, including listening patiently and sympathetically to anyone who needs a patient and sympathetic ear.

I’ve said we should reserve Marc’s desk, keep it as it is and unoccupied, complete with some of his clutter that he could will to us, and, on top of it, place a small sign engraved, of course, “Gone Fishing.” I’m holding out hope that he’ll get the itch to come back to that desk and do some freelancing in between all those fishing trips.

Age before beauty

164 years of awesome - photo by Ryan Young on Spink's equipment

  • From left: Alan Hand started at CBS in Atlanta in 1981, then switched to WSB;
  • John Spink started at the AJC in 1984;
  • Doug Richards started at WAGA in 1986, then upgraded to WXIA;
  • Richard Crabbe started at WXIA in 1980;
  • Bruce Mason started at WXIA in 1982;
  • Dave Darling started at WSB in 1981.

The combined experience of the News Professionals in this photo would date back to the James K. Polk administration, if one could legitimately combine such data into such an absurd and historically irrelevant conclusion. One could do that, particularly when one writes a blog that lacks the moderating influence of a sensible editor. In this case, I’ll renounce it myself.

More accurately, all these knuckleheads News Professionals managed to get themselves hired in Atlanta news during the Reagan administration (Crabbe, during the final year of Carter) and somehow managed to never leave. No wonder all those kids beating at the door to experience the Great Adventure of somewhat-large market news can’t get a foot in. These damned old guys won’t open a slot for them. Now you know who to blame.

Another old guy: J.K. Polk

Old guys (and gals) have their advantages. We’ve already successfully hurdled the “jaded and dispirited” phase of our careers, a phase that vexes many of the thirty-somethings who enter midlife asking “you mean this is my illustrious career? I had hoped for better.” We all wanted to work for 60 Minutes once. We’ve adjusted, as will they.

Sadly for those ambitious market-climbing youngsters, for every Crabbe, Hand, and Spink et al, there are another five Spradlins, Ashes, Bevelles, Belchers and Crawleys. So the clog in the pipeline is thick — but it’s getting grayer and craggier.

But it’s all relative. I agreed to pose with these News Professionals because I knew I could say I was the least senior of the bunch. It’s a curious way to cling to what little is left of my youth.

Why I’d want to do that, I don’t know.

Neighborhood newspaper

“It’s extremely popular,” said the store clerk whom I’d encountered by chance while visiting Oconee County week before last.  “Some people call it ‘the family album.'”  She was referring to, of all things, a newspaper.  Given the state of newspapers these days, her analysis of the new local tabloid was intriguing.

So was the content, which was 100% mug shots from fresh jail inmates in five surrounding counties, along with basic text info that included the names and charges that got them booked.

I wanted to look down my nose at Bad and Busted! as a one-note rag that exploited those dumb or unfortunate enough to get themselves arrested.  I didn’t, of course, given that “exploitation” is a very loaded term when used by a man who works for a for-profit news organization.

I could complain about context, and the fact that Bad and Busted gives equal treatment to alleged killers and alleged shoplifters.  But context is something any news organization grapples with.   On a day without murders, TV types might play up a road rage incident that would surely be overlooked on a busier news day.

I could complain about the name of the newspaper, which seems to presume certain things about those depicted therein.  Within the newspaper, the words “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty” appears in fine print irregularly.  Though we producers of crime stories couch our copy with qualifying words like “allegedly,” explicit innocent until proven guilty disclaimers rarely appear.  “Bad and Busted,” as the name of a newspaper, is no worse than the theme song to “Cops.”

And I could gripe about the sketchy anonymity of the publisher, who agreed to meet with me if I agreed to withhold his name.  I reached him through a phone number published in Bad and Busted. A native of the Athens area, he was a buttoned-down, educated and fit middle-aged guy who described himself as an entrepreneur.  He looked like a real estate developer, whatever one of those looks like.

Mr. Royko, the Chicago Sun-Times

I asked him if it was hypocritical to remain anonymous while publishing the mug shots of his neighbors.  He answered that should he ever be arrested, his photo would also appear in Bad and Busted. It was a good answer, whatever you may think of its veracity.  There was no way to really know, although the Oconee County sheriff told me the publisher has no criminal record.

Yet most commercial media have identifiable faces behind their material.  When I put a mug shot (or anything else) on TV, folks prone to complain know how to find and browbeat and even threaten me if so inclined.  Tough guy columnists like Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin took on high and low-grade crooks and politicians without flinching or hiding, and I’m pretty sure they’d find this Bad and Busted guy to be a bit limp in his anonymity.  (Feel free to submit your anonymous comments below.)

Mr. Breslin, NY Newsday and others

But I’m not going to look down my nose at Bad and Busted. I saw a couple viewing (“reading” would be too strong a word) it while parked in their pickup truck, and they seemed to be getting $1.50 worth of enjoyment from it.  Like me, they marveled that a night club, a bail bondsman, a furniture store and an ice cream parlor had bought advertising in it.

Like other newspapers, however, Bad and Busted is in mortal peril.  Many sheriff web sites publish mug shots online.  Some TV stations have begun posting “neighborhood” mug shot galleries online.  If local bloggers in rural counties aren’t already posting local mug shots, they will soon enough.

So I would advise the anonymous entrepreneur behind Bad and Busted to enjoy his success while he can, and devise a plan B.