Monthly Archives: March 2011

Battle rattle

Friday night with Vernon Keenan, from the Athens Banner-Herald

Sometimes, it pays to be the old guy.

There are a lot of things I could write about the cop-killer / hostage standoff / media intervention Friday night.  I’ll mostly stick to the competitive aspect.

GBI director Vernon Keenan with Tyson Paul (in the FBI vest). The siege is in the house in front of them.

First, the thumbnail:  A guy inexplicably shoots and injures an Athens / Clarke County police officer Tuesday, then shoots another one dead.  He goes underground for three-plus days.  Friday afternoon, he tells police he wants to turn himself in.  But he’s got hostages.  There’s a standoff, with no end in sight.

10:15pm, an exasperated and frustrated Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, approached a news media staging area in a Baptist church parking lot.  He told the assembled:  This guy won’t turn himself in unless he does it live on TV, because he’s afraid our guys will shoot him when he comes out of the house.  I need a TV crew to set up in front of the house, and feed a live picture to the other stations.

Reporters representing WAGA, WGCL and WSB responded affirmatively:  I can do that, but I have to call my boss first.  My answer was different.

We can do it.  I don’t need to call my boss.  Where do you want us to go? 

Keenan gave us the nod.  I don’t know the GBI director well, but he’s been with the GBI since 1973.  We’ve dealt with each other cordially for many years.

It also just so happened that my competitors that night were all youngsters, capable though they were.  Keenan knew me better than he knew them.

My competitors protested, and began to try to one-up me, telling Keenan that their satellite truck or backpack transmitters were better suited to the task.  Photog Tyson Paul and I were there with an old-school microwave truck, with a point-to-point transmitter.

Keenan asked how I would get the video to the other TV stations.  At this point, I suggested a couple of ways, not completely sure how linked-in all four stations were to microwave repeaters and / or the local satellite uplink company known as UpSouth.

Once again, a discussion began about the technological capabilities of the various TV stations.  I suggested that Keenan allow all four stations onto the scene, with WXIA shooting the pool video into a daisy-chain.  “I’m not going to do that,” Keenan answered.  He didn’t want the unruly media mob.  He was nervous enough about just having one of us there.

I quickly called my desk and apprised them of the need to send a pool signal.   I told my grumbling competitors the signal would be on UpSouth.

I also assured them it would be a clean feed, with no grandstanding by yours truly.  I told them I’d phone them personally when we got into position and established the live shot.  They grumbled a bit more.

I insisted on having WXIA do it for several reasons.

One, plainly, was ego.  I wanted WXIA to be the station to help the authorities end this siege, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

Two, I had a perverse desire give the situation adult treatment.  I’ve been around too many competitive TV news situations to have much faith that my competitors — and particularly, their managers — would have treated us the way I treated them.

Three:  If I hadn’t, Tyson would have never forgiven me, nor let me forget it.

In particular, I thought the notion of the clean feed was important.  The other stations, I’m almost dead-certain, would have delivered a feed laced with the on-camera and audio presence of their on-scene reporter.

I felt validated when I overheard a competing TV reporter talking with her manager, who was throwing a full-on hissy fit.  Not that I blame him, nor anybody else for squawking.  I’d have squawked too, had Keenan selected another station.

It turned out that the scene of the siege was a house on a hilltop, making the establishment of the microwave shot effortless.  The FBI equipped Tyson and me with Kevlar vests.  We drove the truck to the front of the house — closer to the gunman than any of the police vehicles.   It was one of several “pucker factor” moments.  Keenan impressed me by physically standing between the house and the exposed part of the live truck while Tyson established the live shot.

Although the pool feed was clean and neutral, our presence still gave us a considerable competitive advantage.  I was able to narrate events by phone over video from  Tyson’s pool camera.

I was also able to describe the scene outside of camera range.  Keenan never set any restrictions about what I could say on-air while the gunman was inside the house.  Had there been more time, we might have had that discussion.  But all this happened very quickly.

We could see the glow of a TV set through a window.  The alleged killer was watching.  I became very conscious of the fact that the gunman might have been listening to my voice.

Cops in battle-rattle

I became very guarded during my phone report.  Although I reported that there was a sizable police presence outside the house, I didn’t report that four guys in battle-rattle were crouching next to the bedroom wall, nor did I mention the snipers in the trees.   My motivation to report was tempered by my motivation to help the authorities end the siege safely.  I repeatedly stressed their desire to conclude it without firing any shots.

A purist could ask:  Is this a proper role for the news media?  I have no problem answering affirmatively.  It was a little bit like being embedded with the military, with reasonable restrictions.  I had a responsibility to report, but I also had a responsibility to not screw things up.

The gunman emerged with his hostages at about 11:15pm. Our camera was locked down at that point.  The FBI had insisted that Tyson move away from the camera to a spot behind the live truck.

As authorities cuffed Jamie Hood, the alleged cop killer, I was able to ask him a couple of questions.  He expressed regret for killing Officer Buddy Christian, whom he described as “innocent.”  It sounded like a confession to me.

“You ever do anything like this before?”  Keenan asked me as the FBI was fitting me with a vest.  I told him I hadn’t.

“Me either,” he laughed.

Happy face

The carload of people drove up to our live truck.  Two of them stepped out, then swept past our truck to the WAGA truck a few feet away.  Within minutes, I saw Russ Spencer interviewing one of the occupants, a woman about my age.

Athens Mayor Nancy Denson, in the parking lot of Athens Regional Hospital

We had spent the evening staking out Athens Regional, the trauma center treating an Athens-Clarke County police officer shot following a traffic stop.

During the stakeout, reporters from Atlanta’s four TV stations encountered numerous members of the officer’s family.  Though most were helpful and polite, none wanted their conversations with us recorded by TV cameras.  By 8:30pm, our only on-camera interview was with Athens’ mayor.  We retreated to our live truck, which was parked across the street, to begin production for the 10pm newscast on WATL.

A few minutes later, the carload of people appeared.

As Spencer interviewed the woman, I approached the people in the car.  They identified themselves as relatives of the hospitalized officer, who was expected to recover from two gunshot wounds.

The woman returned from the WAGA truck.  “I know who you are,” she said to me.  “I spoke to you earlier.  You looked like you didn’t want to be here.”  As I tried to coax her into agreeing to another interview, she was getting in the car.  “You looked like you were having a bad day at your job or something.”

Apparently, I had failed to impress her during our innocuous encounter in the hospital parking lot.  At the time, I didn’t know she was a member of the officer’s family.  She didn’t identify herself as such.

Gloria Jones, cousin of Ofcr. Tony Howard

Her conclusion had a whiff of truth to it.  It had been a frustrating stakeout on an unhappy story, 70 miles from home.  It wasn’t the greatest assignment in the world.

I’m also cursed with one of those faces, to which strangers often feel compelled to say:  Hey!  Are you having a bad day?  Why so down-in-the-mouth? It happens periodically, usually when my mood is bright and cheery.  I just don’t look bright and cheery.

Gloria Jones was a cousin of officer Tony Howard.  I asked her about her job.  She told me she was a postal worker.

Do you ever have less-than-great day at work? I asked, with as much cheer as I could muster.  She became agreeable and granted the interview I’d requested.

She volunteered that she had scurried away from us earlier because some of the TV folk had been overly aggressive approaching family members.  She singled out WAGA and WXIA for their civility, but faulted WXIA for its frowny-faced reporter.

Funny thing was, despite the assignment, my spirits had been pretty high.  My photog, John Duffy, was keeping the mood light, as usual.  Justin Gray and Chris Francis were there, both friends from WAGA.  Spencer arrived later.

It had been a beautiful spring evening in a lovely city, albeit on a lousy story.

Open season

It turns out I’m a stalker.  Like you, I find stalkers to be a little twisted.  Maybe that makes me twisted.  But I’m a stalker, and so are a lot of reporters.

It turns out I’m a pretty effective stalker, too.  My stalking instincts rise up when a court case is settled and jurors exit the courthouse.  We almost always talk to prosecutors and defense attorneys and victims following criminal cases.  But jurors can give the most insightful and unpredictable analyses of court cases, when they’re willing to give it.  Yet jurors rarely show up on the courthouse steps, agreeably waiting for cameras and reporters.  You’ve got to hunt them down.

The toughest part is knowing who they are.  They’re never on camera when trials are televised.  The court rules disallow it.  TV folks typically operate their recording devices outside the courtroom.  So except for the pool photographer and newspaper reporters (who usually prefer to sit in the courtroom and not the media room), media folk rarely eyeball the jury box.

I was in the courtroom during the verdict in the John Henderson murder case, where a jury convicted 30 Deep gangster Jonathan Redding.  I spent most of the time eyeballing the jury, trying to memorize faces.  While the trial is pending, judges instruct jurors to keep mum about the case.  After the verdict is delivered, judges tell them they are free to talk about it if they so choose.

Once released, it’s not easy to know where the jurors will go.   In some courthouses, bailiffs will escort them out of the building.  At the Fulton County courthouse, they simply scatter.  Fulton is complicated by the fact that they can exit on opposite sides of two buildings.

The Fulton Co. Courthouse Tower foyer

I spent about forty minutes standing in the foyer of the Fulton Courthouse Tower.  It afforded me a view of the Central Ave. exit, and a view of a 2nd-floor walkway leading to the Pryor St. exit.  A savvy (or completely lost) juror could have eluded me.  But that’s where I began my stalk.  Sometimes jurors hang out together in the jury room following long trials.  Sometimes, they chat with attorneys or the judge about the case.   Sometimes, they’re anxious to get on with their lives.  The timetable of their departure is never certain.

About an hour after they delivered the verdict, the AJC’s Steve Visser and I spotted the jurors exiting Central Avenue.  A WXIA photog was waiting outside.  I approached the foreman, a middle-aged white guy.  I held a mic but didn’t extend it.  I cheerfully identified myself and said “may I ask you a question?”

“Get the fuck away from me,” he answered.  That was a first.  I can’t recall ever getting that kind of treatment from a juror.

“All right.  Thank you.”  I turned to a handful of other jurors.  They had either made a pact beforehand, or the foreman’s response had poisoned the well.  The other jurors at least smiled while emphatically turning Visser and me away.

Frequently, jurors want to talk to the news media following high-profile cases.  If their verdict is intended to send a message, they often want to say so explicitly. If the verdict has a bizarre quality — think Curtis Rower or Marcus Dixon — then reporters might chase jurors a little more aggressively.

The gang activity involved in this case may have given this group of jurors the jitters, though it would have been easy to withhold their identities had they chosen to speak.

But you never know until you ask.  And you can’t ask until you stalk.

My New Attitude

During Ronald Reagan’s first term, I worked at KMTV in Omaha.  I still have a lot of rose-colored affection for Omaha.  It was a competitive three-station market.  We had one live truck, a helicopter and a twin-engine plane owned by May Seed and Feed, which also owned KMTV.  They took news pretty seriously.

Nebraska had tornadoes and thunderstorms and blizzards.  Our weather guys would show the storms coming, with appropriate  crawls and cut-ins.  When there was damage, we’d  cover it afterward.   I never once found myself outdoors, in a live shot, in anticipation of bad weather.  Even when eastern Nebraska was in the process of getting a foot of snow — or staying below zero for a week straight — we mostly treated it as part of the wallpaper of daily life in that part of the country.  A photog would get a weather shot, and the meteorologists would handle weather coverage.

At some point in the late 80s, somebody figured out that “households using television,” a Nielsen measurement, shot up when bad weather was coming.  TV stations strove to grab those eyeballs by putting its field crews into the path of oncoming weather.

I used to gripe about this practice, with tedious frequency.  I quit griping this week, forever.

I now embrace it for two reasons:  A)  It’s awesome.  B)  It’s like the weather.  Complain all you want, but you can’t do anything about it.

Wet the rain, posted with vodpod

An awkward moment

My illustrious career as a TV reporter has been chock-full of awkward moments. Here’s one you may appreciate. It centers on a question posed to me by a state trooper in McRae, Georgia some years ago.

McRae is a town best known for its delightful reproduction of the Statue of Liberty. A conscientious trooper with the Georgia State Patrol pulled my vehicle over after claiming that it had exceeded the speed limit.

He began to question me. What are you doing here in McRae? he asked, as if it was any of his business.

I explained that I was driving my children to southeast Georgia to visit Cumberland Island. Sir.

What do you do for a living? he asked.

I hesitated. Some people hold lifelong grudges against the news media. If this guy was one of them, he could throw me into jail and put my children into DFCS custody.

I’m a TV reporter in Atlanta, sir. I started to squirm.

His eyebrows shot up.  And he asked a question that’s pretty impossible to answer:  Oh yeah? What kind of reporter are you?

Of course the question made no sense. What he wanted to know was:

Are you the kind of reporter who noses around into stuff they shouldn’t?  Or are you the kind of reporter who makes the police look bad?

The honest answer was yes, I occasionally nose around into stuff that some people — perhaps even police officers — would prefer stayed out of the public eye. And yes, when police officers do things they shouldn’t, it’s absolutely one of the type of stories I would tell in a heartbeat. So that’s what kind of reporter I am.  Most of us are like that.

But I didn’t give him an honest answer. Instead, I said “huh?”

Then the awkward moment shifted back to our conscientious state trooper.

You’ve got some fine lookin’ young uns, he said, viewing my two kids strapped into the car. You’re probably one of the good reporters.

I sure am, sir, I answered. He wrote me a warning instead of a speeding ticket.   My well-timed “huh?” kept me out of trouble.


…with thanks to WXIA photog Richard Crabbe for lending his eye and re-enactment skills to this piece.