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.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form, zero, zilch, nada. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

24 thoughts on “Battle rattle

  1. Grayson

    Such drama. Such old media theatrics. Considering anyone and their momma could have just live-streamed the thing, globally, with an iPhone.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Oh, Grayson. Such new-media smugness. We were 100 yards from the front door. Have you seen the zoom capability on an iphone? Or the 8fps stop-action video? Old media works better still, when it works. But I’m sure the iphone 5 will wow us, any day now.

      Reply
  2. Randy Travis

    Thanks for explaining why the shot didn’t initially follow the hostages out of the apartment. I was sitting there screaming at my television and the anonymous photographer who, unbeknownst to the viewers, was not allowed near his camera at the seminal moment.

    Reply
  3. Deanna

    The very little bit I’ve learned about journalism tells me that media shouldn’t let itself become a pawn in a hostage situation like this. But I haven’t heard any discussion of that since this all unfolded. Why was this OK? Won’t everybody want to surrender on live television now? I’m not trying to start an argument, just wondering what the other side of the argument is.

    Reply
    1. Mr. Bear

      The same thing is happening with televised freeway chases. The police follow politely while the helicopter cameras broadcast the event. Meanwhile, the perps are watching and learning.

      Did Doug do the right thing? Probably so. Certainly the brave/foolish thing. Is the media being manipulated by the perpetrators? Probably. How do you stop it?

      Reply
  4. Dickson

    I particularly enjoyed the ending of your report. We should all be available and willing to rise to the occasion and move into and unknown or ‘chaotic’ situation by using our abilities and preparation — whether we have experienced it before or not.

    Reply
  5. Esteban71

    Dang, Doug, after that interview, you can expect a subpoena, should this thing go to trial…Reporters don’t need to read suspects their Miranda rights…

    Reply
  6. Og Ogglby

    Good job! I don’t see what the problem is with the live shot. It covered the story and they didn’t put a muzzle on you. And it helped save at least one life…the suspect. In some parts of the country he would have met his maker as soon as he got away from the hostages.

    Reply
  7. Love it

    Thanks for having real class! Your analogy of the military embed is perfect. As to the commenter wondering if the media should be a ‘pawn’ in this situation, I think the answer is: If a guy like Vernon Keenan thought this was necessary, it probably was.

    Reply
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    1. arky

      So your reasoning has gone from “anybody could have done this” to “anybody who does this is a whore.” Hmm.

      Reply
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  10. csquared

    Good Luck with that attitude, Grayson.
    I hope you’re never in the position to make that choice, because then the public will never get to know. Stay comfy BEHIND the LINES and be sure to stream that video from your Iphone.
    Very well done, Doug.

    Reply
  11. Bailey - Splice the Mainbrace

    Doug,
    I like the comparison to being an embed. Well played.

    I am not sure that this is what we would like to think of as a traditional role of the media, but clearly these were not normal circumstances.

    As for the “anyone could have done it” argument, I am not sure that livestream carries the same weight as an 11 o’clock newscast.

    Reply
  12. John In Athens

    Without knowing what was happening behind the scenes, my wife and I switched it over to the NBC coverage after the Fox guy started whining about not being chosen!

    Reply
  13. Leila Case

    Good for you!!! As a former crime reporter for a small town newspaper and a female I understand the circumstances and the way you were treated by the competition. You did right in the way you reported the scene and also a major role in bringing the alleged killer out without getting anyone killed. The FBI was right in choosing a pro. Good work.

    Reply
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