Monthly Archives: September 2011

The best defense…

Phil Kent didn’t really want to talk to me.   When I asked him for an interview September 12, he flatly declined.  He said he thought I was “biased.”  He said I was a “gotcha” reporter.

A cheery departure following the interview.

I was a day or two late to the Phil Kent story.  He’d already talked to two reporters at WXIA, who had asked him about his appointment to the newly created Immigration Enforcement Review board.  But I wanted to ask him specifically about his views on multiculturalism, which he says “wars” with the traditional Judeo-Christian values that make America great.

Kent’s views are easy to find, and he frames some of his opinions with reference to race and the “whiteness” of American culture.  But Kent became wary of me after seeing an interview I’d done with Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson.  The subject was Kent’s appointment, and I’d asked Robinson if Gov. Deal agreed with Kent’s views on “race.”  Robinson wouldn’t answer.

Although Kent’s views were, shall we say, eye-opening (but “mainstream,” he says, among Georgians), Kent had a reputation as an affable, good-humored dude.  He was once a reporter and editorial writer at the Augusta Chronicle.  He currently appears weekly on WAGA’s Georgia Gang.  So after he initially slammed the door on my interview request, I wrote him back, and made a concession that I thought he’d understand and appreciate, given his background in journalism.

I said:  If I’d had it to do over again, I’d have rephrased the question to Robinson.  Instead of asking about “race,” I’d have used the word “multiculturalism.”

Though the rephrasing wouldn’t have substantially changed the meaning of the question, it would have replaced a volatile word with a less volatile word.  I didn’t apologize for the question or say that I regretted asking it.

Brian Robinson evades a question.

(Reporters don’t like to make concessions like that.  It’s easier to admit to a fact error than it is a tactical miscue, which can end up in performance reviews or — much worse — court.   Fact errors are usually undeniable, while tactics can be argued ad nauseum.   I don’t mind admitting to my many flaws.  Fortunately, I work in a humane newsroom that encourages transparency in newsgathering.  Admitting to a less-than-ideal choice of words during a spontaneous Q&A is rare, though it shouldn’t be.)

It took a week, but Kent finally agreed to talk to me.  We chatted for about 25 minutes.  I asked some questions he didn’t like, and he let me know it.  Sometimes, he challenged my motives (“ratings”).  Sometimes he implied I was poorly prepared  (“do your research”)  or just idiotic (“you might have fallen asleep in journalism 101″).

Yet he was never ugly or genuinely hostile.  It was almost like a game to him, undoubtedly honed during his years on the Georgia Gang.  I asked him questions that might have made him defensive.  He adhered to the old football adage “the best defense is a good offense.”  So he clobbered me frequently.

Call me a masochist, but I found it refreshingly honest.

We aired the story.  I also put together nearly 18 minutes of very lightly edited  Q&A.   But I thought viewers deserved to see Kent’s style.  So I re-edited the  Q&A to include highlights of Kent’s aggression.  We aired it in my Suspicious Package segment Sunday morning.

Reporters and editors usually get the last word following controversial encounters.  This struck me as a way to let Phil Kent have his due.  The audience could use its own judgment on who, if anybody, was out of line.

Or simply be amused, as I was.

Morning people

Here’s a little secret.  TV stations have no trouble staffing early-morning newscasts, whose grueling schedules require workdays beginning anywhere from midnight to 3:30am.

It’s not just because, in this economy, any paying job with a decent salary can get filled.  In the below live shot, you see two perfectly sensible dayside TV news veterans engaging in a perfectly ridiculous 5:30am live shot, working that shift because they want to be there.

When you turn on your TV at 5am (or 4:30am — and apparently, plenty of you actually do this), odds are good that the cheery newscasters and reporters you’re watching have kids at home.  At WXIA, the folks who schlep into work at the ripe hour of 3am have a very good chance of exiting the property by 12:30.  That gives them a chance to get home, maybe grab a catnap, then actually function as parents when school lets out.

(Not all workplaces are so predictable, schedule-wise.  One Atlanta TV station has been pretty well known for abusing their 3:30am reporter, putting him through the morning live shot grind, then assigning him a story at 9am to produce for the evening newscast.  That poor SOB almost never left before 3pm.  And no, reporters don’t get paid overtime.)

When Ted Hall anchored WXIA’s evening news, you could tell that the format stifled his folksiness and easygoing charm.  The below live shot shows him drily unleashed.

Likewise, Jaye Watson has an erudite ice-queen quality when delivering stories for the evening news.  The live shot below shows the amusing and impulsive Watson known by her coworkers.  It’s the kind of thing that you’d never see during the evening news.

On Thursdays and Fridays, when she works mornings, nobody in the newsroom looks more content than Watson, a mother of two small children.  Except maybe Ted Hall.  Or Jennifer Leslie, who has cheerfully worked the 3:30am shift as a reporter for years.

Especially at 12:30pm.

Conception

“It’s a concept piece.”  I’ll say this when the puzzled look forms, after the questioner has asked the most reasonable of questions:  What’s your story about?

The answer doesn’t help explain the story necessarily.  It’s usually just a desperate effort to make my convoluted explanation seem sensible.

A GSU student holds a Kindle

The concept piece is the hillbilly cousin to the more urbane think piece.  It’s just as analytical, but typically explores lighter subject matter.  I like doing concept pieces.  I even enjoy the challenge of trying to explain them to people, up to a point.  “You’ll get it when you see the story,” is the last, desperate explanation.

I’ve done several concept pieces in recent weeks.  The story about the Decatur Book Fair-in-the-age-of-Kindle was easy to explain.  It was my idea.  I’m one of the few TV reporters who doesn’t feel it’s beneath them to cover book fairs or cat shows.

(It should have been easy to execute, too.  But try to find somebody actually reading a Kindle in Decatur.  Go ahead, try.  The coffee shops are slammed with laptop users and — gasp — readers of actual books and magazines.  But in three coffee shops, I couldn’t find a single person reading a book on a Kindle or Ipad, until Richard Crabbe and I left Decatur and headed to Georgia State University.

(This, of course, would lead many to question the very concept of my concept story.  But I was untroubled by the absence of Kindle readers in my age-of-Kindle story.  The evidence was too strong, as any bookstore owner will tell you.)

Firefighter Patrick Lindstrom takes a breather in the stairwell.

The concept story about the Dunwoody firefighter hosting a 9/11 climb up a staircase was a bit more difficult to explain.  The firefighter was doing it to raise money for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation.  He wanted to give folks a taste of a meaningful 9/11 experience.  My job was to climb the 27-story staircase with him (twice, it turned out), then write the hell out of it so that it was somewhat analytical.

Climbing the staircase was much easier than writing the story.  And much, much easier than explaining it to puzzled producers.

The third piece I pitched thusly:  Labor Day begins the slippery slope to Christmas.

Those of us who are in no hurry to put reindeer antlers on our car hoods got it pretty quickly.  A two-month long Christmas season is already too long.

But it also met with puzzlement.  You’re doing a story on– the calendar?  What?

“It’s a concept piece.”

Maya Angelou is right

“Content without context is pretext.”- Rev. Jesse Jackson

A National Park Service ranger stands by the King monument. Washington Post photo.

The longer is sinks in, the more distressed I become about the “drum major” quote on the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington DC.  The creators of that monument took a liberty with the truth that journalists could never take.   To do it on a historic monument in one of America’s most sacred spots is kind of appalling.

The back story is here.  Basically, the creators of the King monument shortened a quote from one of Dr. King’s sermons, and inscribed it on the monument.  Poet Maya Angelou complained that the shortened quote deprived it of context and made King seem like an “arrogant twit.”  She’s right.  But even if the changed quote hadn’t changed the meaning, it would still be wrong.

Journalism has a responsibility to use quotes within a measure of context.  The words have to be exactly right, or as honest a representation of accuracy as the journalist can make.  If the journalist is scribbling quotes in federal court, where no recording devices are allowed, it can be difficult to get every single word right every time.  But the journalist has to use his memory (and sometimes, share notes with competitors about wording) to make the quote as honest as possible.

Journalists can also eliminate stammering word repetitions.  When translating from another language, the quote is created in English.  Yet it’s still considered accurate.

I use TV to record quotes, which gives my audience an excellent sense of what newsmakers say.  Viewers see the lips flap, and they hear the words come out.  Yet I use my discretion as an editor to remove excess.  “With all due respect to my distinguished opponent…” may get eliminated before a politician slams his opponent.  It removes a mostly-unimportant element of context and gets to the heart of the argument with greater strength.

Calling for context: Dr. Maya Angelou

Historians have the same responsibility, but in a different sense.  Bob Woodward has made a living creating quotes in books as if he were there to listen to them.  He’s actually creating quotes based on the memories of persons who heard them.  Woodward is, presumably, painstaking when making notes on those who remember hearing the words, and presumably double-checks the wording with as many people as he can find to make the quotes as accurate as possible.  But there’s no way he’s getting the quotes right, word-for-word, as spoken at that time, every time.  There’s no way.  But it’s the honesty of the effort that redeems the work.

When I visit the Lincoln Memorial, I read the words inscribed in the monument.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is there, as is his second inaugural speech.  Both are there in their entireties.   When it was dedicated 90 years ago, the creators of the Lincoln Memorial made the decision to quote Lincoln’s speeches verbatim.  Nearly a century later, folks reading those words assume them to be word-for-word accurate. 

If you visit the King Center in Atlanta, you can see a large chunk of Dr. King’s “drum major” quote inscribed on an exhibit.  The quote is edited for length, but otherwise accurate.  The quote refers to the potential shallowness of tributes; it essentially says disregard my Nobel Prize. Forget the March on Washington.  If you want to pay me tribute, simply call me ‘a drum major for justice…’  The words are spoken by an essentially humble guy.

But the monument says “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”  There are no quotation marks.  But because it’s written in the first person, it implies those were words uttered by Dr. King.

The creators of the monument blamed space limitations for inscription.  They obviously dismissed the issue of strict accuracy.  Perhaps they didn’t consider the context until Dr. Angelou brought it up.  Thank goodness she did. 

Journalism could use a third-person paraphrase to describe what King said about himself:  “Dr. King said a eulogist could call him a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”  But the monument doesn’t do that. 

If the inscription isn’t removed or changed, generations of visitors to that monument will believe that Dr. King uttered those words about himself.  They’ll be wrong, and they’ll have gotten that impression from some sloppy work by folks who undoubtedly intended to accurately honor Dr. King.

Here’s an easy fix:  Change “I” to “He.”