Monthly Archives: May 2011

Dumb luck

Frequently, the toughest part about producing TV stories is getting the principals to agree to allow a TV crew anywhere near them.  There’s an easy explanation for this.  Folks are distrustful of the news media.

  • They’ve seen TV news hack good stories to death with poor storytelling.
  • They’re afraid of having their words and meaning distorted under malevolent editing, as the TV station pursues some hidden agenda.
  • They’ve seen scary promotion that shows the TV station in nonstop confrontation mode (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt compelled to assure newsmakers I’m not with that “tough questions” station.  If nothing else, it’s usually good for a laugh).

The goat lady

When people decline to talk with me on camera, I frequently find myself empathizing with them.  It’s an unhelpful attitude from a guy who makes a living interviewing people on TV, and shaping their stories into 90 second chunklets.

Yet of late, I’ve had an inexplicable run of good luck.  Most of them were on feature stories.  All were with people who had every reason to not talk to me, yet did so anyway.

The goat lady.  She was an adorable mother of two, living in a somewhat ramshackle house in Oakhurst.  She had pygmy goats in her yard.  The city of Decatur had ruled that the goats were pets and not livestock.

Upon arriving unannounced at her doorstep one evening, she adamantly declined to talk on TV.  She was shy.  She was exhausted from some grief she’d gotten from an angry neighbor.  She wanted nothing to do with Tyson Paul’s TV camera, which remained stashed in the truck.  Yet we chatted on her doorstep for about 15 minutes.  She said she needed to feed the goats.  I asked if we could merely document the feeding on video.  “And nothing else?” she asked.  “Well, no.  That’s my foot in the door,” I admitted.  Within minutes, she was reluctantly but agreeably answering questions  on TV.

Valerie Jackson

The widow.  I was producing an advancer on Tunes from the Tombs, a music festival at Oakland Cemetery.  I wanted to talk with a descendant of somebody entombed there.  I spent two days trying to reach Valerie Jackson, widow of two-time Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.

Mrs. Jackson, a WABE-FM talk show host, is one of those folks who doesn’t need publicity.  She recognizes that submitting to an interview with a local TV guy means killing ten or fifteen minutes from her day to get five or ten seconds of actual air time.  Plus, she’d just arrived home from a vacation.  Her hair wasn’t TV-ready.  So she declined, initially.

“Why don’t you wear a hat?” I suggested.  “I’ll get back to you,” she said.  Amazingly, she left me a voice mail several hours later, agreeing to chat on her front lawn that evening.  Her eight-to-ten seconds (along with comments from Buffi Aguero with Tiger! Tiger!) made the piece.

The judge.  I wanted to talk with Gwinnett Superior Court judge Michael Clark about an audit showing some billing irregularities involving another judge.  Judges are notoriously reluctant to submit to on-camera interviews.  Clark agreed to an off-camera, on-the-record chat in his chambers.  “Need anything else?” he asked at the end of our chat.  “Yes, I need all this on-camera, please.”  He demurred amiably.  I gently pushed, and he finally agreed.

Inside Victory United Holy Tabernacle Church

The Gospel quartet.  I was producing a story on Judgment Day, scheduled for May 21.   Because the rapture rhetoric was mostly rooted in a California religious group, I was having trouble getting any local folk to discuss it from a spiritual perspective.  Plus, I was working a night shift, and it wasn’t a Wednesday.  Church folk mostly weren’t in church.  Academicians had gone home.

Jon Samuels and I drove to a tiny clapboard church I’d noticed for years on Monroe Drive near Ponce de Leon Ave.  We ventured onto the property.  There was no sign of life.  The church was locked.  It had been kind of absurd to think anybody would have been there.  We were about to leave, and I was facing the grim task of trolling among additional empty churches.

Then a pickup truck pulled onto the property.  An older gent sat inside.  We looked at each other.  I asked if he was affiliated with the church.

“Well, my gospel group is supposed to rehearse here in about 45 minutes.”

My eyebrows shot up, I’m sure.  Suddenly, the rapture was looking pretty good.

Amateur hour


Most politicians, and their staffs, have sense enough to avoid the hamhanded treatment Gov. Nathan Deal gave WAGA Friday.  It inevitably hurts the politician, not the news organization.  It happened to Deal Friday.

Banished! Brian Robinson, with an assist from two state troopers, overreacts to WAGA's Justin Gray

Deal’s communications director Brian Robinson ordered state troopers to banish WAGA from a high-profile news conference.  A day earlier,WAGA’s Dale Russell reported on campaign payments made to Deal’s daughter-in-law.

Russell’s story was low-impact compared to pieces done about Deal during the campaign outlining numerous issues that raised questions about the candidate.   Russell’s piece was a clean hit.  It raised reasonable questions.  Notably, Deal’s office declined comment — although the campaign’s chairman talked to Russell on camera.

The significance or fairness of Russell’s story is irrelevant here.  (In a conversation with me Friday, the only inaccuracy Robinson cited was Russell misidentifying Deal’s campaign chairman as “campaign manager.”)  Robinson felt the piece was a smear.  For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right.  Robinson is fiery and fiercely protective of his boss.  Robinson was instrumental in helping Deal rise from the third tier of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls to capture the nomination, then beating former Governor Roy Barnes in November.  Normally, he knows what he’s doing.

He botched this one in a big way.

Russell’s story was a mere blip on Friday’s political landscape until the moment Robinson decided to seek retribution on WAGA by banishing Justin Gray and photog Eric Len from Deal’s presser.  It was the lead on WAGA’s noon newscast.  Within minutes, it was on social media.  At 2:54pm, it was on Peach Pundit.   At 3:54, it was on Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.  At 6:21, it was posted to WSB and WGCL’s sites,via a CNN writeup (partly written by ex-WAGA guy Gustavo Valdes, who’s seen in the video holding an iPhone saying “CNN coming through!”).

"Clearly, it was not a good day for the Governor's office." Brenda Wood on WXIA, talking about WAGA and Deal.

In its 7pm newscast, WXIA’s Brenda Wood delivered a commentary condemning the Governor’s reaction.  “Talk about overstepping your boundaries,” she said.

Each story made reference to Dale Russell’s original story, giving the report legs it would have probably never gotten otherwise.  Russell’s original piece is embedded below.

“What else am I supposed to do?” Robinson asked me during our phone conversation late Friday afternoon, though he wasn’t really interested in the answer.  Robinson wanted to turn the conversation toward the finer points of his dispute with Russell’s story.

If you want to hear Robinson’s side of it, click here.  He debated Russell on a WGKA radio show Friday night.  (Click on “Brian vs Dale Round 2.”)

But the rest of the media coverage never touched on that, and he knew that it wouldn’t.  Instead, the other media gave a thumbnail sketch of Russell’s reporting, and focused on the the Governor’s office’s unusual reaction to a story most other media wouldn’t have otherwise followed.

It’s worth noting that banishing WAGA from the news conference accomplished almost nothing.   WAGA aired video from the news conference shot by WXIA, given to WAGA at the direction of news director Ellen Crooke.  WGCL also offered WAGA a copy of its video.

By the way, Deal was within his rights to be selective about whom to invite to his presser.  It’s not a “public” event, like a legislative committee hearing.  Politicians play favorites with the news media, but it’s usually subtle.   Banishing a longstanding news organization from a news conference isn’t illegal.  It’s just dumb.

Here’s the answer to Robinson’s “what can I do” question:  You gripe to the news organization that you feel wronged you.   If the report was a malicious smear, hire a lawyer and sue the news organization.  Otherwise, you keep it in perspective.  You don’t get emotional.  You take your lumps, as you’ve done in the past.

If the report merely painted your guy a little unfavorably, you take extra care to not make it worse.  Deal’s office should have done that Friday.

Roger and me

Memorandum

Roger McDowell

To:  Roger McDowell, pitching coach, Atlanta Braves

From:  LAF

Re:  Getting you right with the world

I read, with amazement, accounts of your encounter with baseball fans at San Francisco’s AT&T (or whatever they’re calling it these days) park last month.  Mostly, you’re accused of uttering anti-gay slurs; you then capped it by suggesting that “kids don’t belong in the (bleeping) ballpark.” If even partially true, it was a tour de force of boneheadedness.

You’re now serving a two-week suspension.  You kept your job, which suggests that the Atlanta Braves value you as a pitching coach.  You and I have never met.   I’d always heard you were one of the good guys — smart, talented, with an appealing streak of the crazy.  Sounds like that last part went kinda haywire in SF.  Let’s go out on a limb and assume you are worth redeeming.

Here’s what you need to do.  Most of it involves the news media.

John Rocker

First, I have to make the following assumption:  You want to fix this.  You really don’t hate gays, or what we call the GLBTQ community.  Or, if you did hate them, you now realize it’s not rational to do so.  You don’t want to turn into John Rocker, who compounded his own bigotry by becoming an angry fool afterward.  Although it made Rocker’s demise as a pitcher more entertaining to watch (and clearly inspired one of the best shows ever shown on television, Eastbound and Down), your intelligence presumably will guide you here.  Don’t make this worse.   Let’s make it better.

Your suspension will end in a few days.  The media will descend when you return to the clubhouse.  You may be tempted to issue a statement and take a few questions from the beat writers and local TV folk in attendance.  You’ll want to shut it down afterward, quickly.  You can do better.

On the day before you return to the clubhouse, ask the Braves PR folk to call a news conference in the 755 Club.  Give the news media at least 24 hours advance notice, including media in San Francisco.  This will allow everybody who wants to attend to plan accordingly.  This will make your news conference a big deal.  That’s OK.  You want it to be a big deal, because you want to fix this problem in one 48-hour period.

During the news conference:  You’ll stand alone at a podium.  If you have a statement, make it.  Your statement will conclude with:  After this news conference, I’m not going to talk about this anymore.

Then you’ll take questions.  You’ll take them exhaustively.  You’ll answer questions that are redundant.  You’ll answer questions that you may think are disrespectful or judgmental.  You’ll answer questions that may seem designed to embarrass you.  You’ll treat all the questions and questioners respectfully, and you’ll answer every question thoughtfully.

It will take a while– an hour, maybe longer.  Your goal:  Outlast the press corps.  Answer questions until there are no more questions.  It’ll happen.  The press will want to file their stories, and they’ll realize every question has been asked and answered.

Your template is Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 1984.  During that campaign, questions arose about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro.  Ferraro called a news conference, answered questions until the questions were exhausted, and was the last person to leave the room.  She got lots of credit for doing so.  The issue mostly went away, and Ferraro was free to get on with her job.  The same will happen to you.

Two other suggestions, to make your contrition complete.

The day before your news conference, grant an exclusive interview to the Georgia Voice, Atlanta’s gay newspaper.  It’ll demonstrate the seriousness of your intent to make reparations with Atlanta’s gay community.  It won’t get a large audience but it will win you respect, in both Atlanta and San Francisco.

In October, plan to march in Atlanta’s Pride parade.  I’m serious.  I know you’ve got it in you.  It’ll be fun.   There’s  only one thing the GLBTQ community loves more than open-minded, gay-friendly folk:  Former haters who have seen the light.  That will be you, my friend.

You may follow this course.  You needn’t thank me for the advice.

Or, you may follow the Rocker course, and decide you don’t care what people think.  You may utter a halfhearted statement of apology, depart abruptly, and let the ugly whiff of bigotry linger on you forever.  I’m sure Rocker would enjoy having some company in whatever purgatory it is in which he dwells.

Your call.

Standup options, outlined here


When I produced a sometimes-amusing feature segment in the late 90s, it was frequently derailed by inconvenient breaking news.  When a madman decides to commit mass murder in Buckhead, nobody wants to hear about the guy who made jewelry out of Viagra.  When tornadoes ravage nearby communities, no producer wants to include a segment in her newscast about cows sleeping on waterbeds in Tifton.  When the US has a foreign policy event that is the talk of the world, nobody wants to see the story about the pig guzzling Pepsi-Cola in Jesup.

But as the Managing Editor of this blog, I no longer have to abide by the old-school norms of the Lamestream Media.  Yeah, I wrote a post Monday about Bin Laden, and related it to my little stint during the invasion of Iraq.  The post was weak, so I didn’t publish it (though I’ve stashed it here.  Feel free to agree with my assessment.)

Outstanding in their field: Predecessors of Flood and Richards

Instead of pulling something from today’s headlines, I’m delighted to inflict upon you the above video, shot in late April while Steve Flood and I visited Vidalia for a story about agricultural workers and immigration and the awesome Vidalia onion.  While Flood had a field day (yes!) with the video, I tried to roughly assemble the story’s framework in my brain.  Such assembly is necessary in order to execute a standup that actually enhances the storytelling.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I discard about one in ten standups I perform (as I do blog posts) because they don’t fit or I just don’t like them upon review.

Though you’re not supposed to write a story before completing the newsgathering process, it’s OK to write a framework.  Sometimes I’ll actually do it on paper, in the field.  More often, I do it in my head.  For a standup, I’ll try to find a part of the story that

  • needs editorial emphasis
  • transitions visually or editorially between one point and another
  • covers copy that isn’t supported by video
  • demonstrates something or shows a relationship between two locations (usually within walking distance.)

Standups can also be done to fulfill promotional or formatting needs.  The standup close is often helpful when a deadline is tight — it helps conclude the story quickly in editing.

But enough about that.  The above video is about technique.  As I pondered a standup for my onion / immigration story, this Suspicious Package piece burst into my head instead.  It’s the first one I’ve produced spontaneously, without a script.  Flood graciously shot it.  In so doing, I also managed to execute a standup (“the network standup”) for our onion field story.

And it actually worked.

The photo was lifted from Feeding the Beast,  a cool blog about old-old school motion-picture newsgathering.