Monthly Archives: November 2011

The evangelist

Mom, Mrs. LAF, Jimmy, Rosalyn, Clint and Doug

Odds are, you haven’t been to Plains, GA on a Sunday morning when Jimmy Carter is teaching Sunday school.   Maybe you’ve considered it but have always had something better to do on a Saturday night / Sunday morning.

The trek has gnawed at me for much of the last twenty years.  I’d see the 39th president on TV, or see his grandson at the Capitol, and the prospect of a Sunday school visit would briefly flash in my mind, then recede.  We finally did it this weekend.

The impetus came from Mrs. LAF, who encountered Bill Clinton at a book signing this month and kinda dug it.  “We can go see Jimmy Carter pretty much any Sunday,” I told her.  I went to the Carter NPS site, which linked to his church’s site.  The Maranatha Baptist Church faithfully posts Carter’s Sunday school teaching schedule, often weeks in advance.

My mom was in town for Thanksgiving.  Mom loves Jesus and voted for Carter.  The plans were laid.

I’m often struck by longtime Georgians — and by people in the news biz — who overlook the amazing things about Georgia.  Odds are, you’ve never been to the Okefenokee Swamp.   Most people I ask haven’t.  It’s a uniquely breathtaking locale.  But it’s in the middle of nowhere, and the whole alligator thing freaks people out.

Likewise, it’s easy to underappreciate Georgia fixtures like Carter.  Some Georgians loathe him, still.  I’ve chatted with him on-camera several times.  He’s easy to take for granted.  Why make the trip to watch the guy teach Sunday school?  Like the Okefenokee, Plains is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and the whole Baptist Church thing freaks some people out.

the Windsor, Americus GA

We stayed at the Windsor Hotel.  The Windsor is remarkable, a fully restored antiquity that dominates downtown Americus.  I don’t know of another hotel in the state — including Savannah — that’s like it.  The lobby is ancient and breathtaking.  Our rooms had twelve-foot ceilings, walk-in closets and cost a hundred bucks each.

We showed up at church at about 8:45 am, fifteen minutes after the doors opened.  A dog sniffed our car upon entering the parking lot.  Secret Service agents casually wanded us at the front door.  We took seats in the fourth row.  Another row filled behind us by the time Sunday school started.

At 9:45, a woman entered the sanctuary and gave an amusing take on the ground rules.  Photos were allowed at certain times.  He is “Mr. Carter” or “President Carter” but not “Mr. President.”  Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter would take photos afterward, but you had to stick around for the hour-long church service that followed Sunday school.

Mrs. LAF insisted on watching from an overflow room with a TV so that she could also watch our one-year-old.  While backstage, Clint kept toddling into the Carters and their security detail.  Mr. Carter made eyes at the boy and cooed at him several times.

Wearing a bolo tie and sport coat, Carter began by referring to the book of Hebrews.  He talked about a little-known bit of Jesus lore rooted in Hebrews 1:2– that Christ was present at the Creation.

His lesson veered between the teachings of Jesus and the work of the Carter Center, and a story or two from his presidency.  He knew his audience — much of which was very versed in the New Testament, but were also politically-minded.

The closest he came to talking about politics was when he referred to 1 Corinthians 1:10, where Paul beseeches Christians that “there be no divisions among you.”

the program

“I may disagree with some of you about homosexuality or abortion” Carter said, while saying that followers of Christ could stay united in their faith.  Carter did not elaborate on his positions on those secular topics.

It was an entirely nonpartisan lesson, with matter-of-fact references to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and the upcoming elections in Egypt and the Congo.  It sounded like he referred to his wife as “Rosa,” though here may have been a silent “n” at the end, kinda like military folks call sergeants “sarn’t.”

My wife and mother sat through the church service afterward while I played with Clint in the nursery and on the swing set behind the church.

The 11am service ended promptly at noon.  The Carters took a side exit and stood within a rope line outside.  As the parishoners and tourists exited the front door, the woman who laid out the ground rules hurried them toward the rope line.  There, the Carters posed for photos with everybody who wanted one.  The ground rules included no handshakes and no autographs.  A volunteer used our camera, and shot a much-too-wide photo of our group.  The above photo is cropped.

Neither Carter appeared to recognize yours truly as part of the Atlanta local news rabble.  Our only conversation during the photo op was about Clint’s age.  I thanked him for the Sunday school lesson.

It was a life experience.  I recommend it.  Do it while the Carters are still young.

It’s also a a pretty brilliant way to spread the Word.  Carter is an unabashed evangelical.  How many of us actually remember the Biblical chapters and verses cited during Sunday school lessons?

Or write about them in secular blogs?

The Thanksgiving Trifecta

When young people enter the TV news business, they often do so for two reasons:  They desire a career that spontaneously puts them in strange situations on tight deadlines.  And, they want to see their pretty faces on TV and make lots of money as a big-time TV personality or whatever.

The spontaneity aspect of our industry is a given.  In fact, it’s so prevalent that veteran reporters (particularly with young families) often curse the very thing that drove them into it.  Events and assignments control the workday of the News Professional.  And after years of 6pm live shots in faraway locales on the fringe of their viewing areas, they crave predictability.  They want to know they’ll be home at a reasonable time that night.  At the very least, they want to exercise a measure of control over their work days.

Paying homage: Duffie Dixon, WXIA

Thanksgiving anchors a week that can provide that elusive predictability, as outlined in the above Suspicious Package piece.  The Thanksgiving Trifecta refers to three stories that Atlanta TV covers unfailingly, year after year, during Thanksgiving week.  You already know which stories they are; if you need your memory refreshed, click “play.”

My favorite part of the piece is the cameo appearance by Duffie Dixon, shot by yours truly with an Iphone — and it goes to the “pretty face” part of what motivates newcomers to the TV news biz.

I told her I was going to introduce her by dead rolling the video into her spoken portion of the piece– so she would appear on camera for a few seconds before speaking.

She responded with an ironic tribute to The Nod, the seemingly involuntary head-bob that nearly every reporter produces upon hearing their name in the earpiece while awaiting the completion of an anchor toss during a live shot.

While watching local news, it’s fun to watch for The Nod.   Some reporters exaggerate it with great flourish and importance.  A casual viewer could turn it into a game, rating the nods on various newscasts with a 1-10 scale.  My current favorite is the furrowed-brow neck-twist, perfected by Aasif Mandvi on the Daily Show.  In the past, my nod has tended to lean toward a lone arched eyebrow; lately it’s evolved into a last-minute eyeglass adjustment.

It’s another predictable element in an industry that draws newcomers looking for careers defined by spontaneity.

The 60s coat

This month, I started packing my winter overcoat to work.  I’ve been wearing the same coat to work for 23 years.  45 seconds into the above video, you’ll see the coat on a much-younger version of yours truly in 1991.  Jeff Hullinger, Brenda Wood and Bill Hartman are also in it.  I’m pretty sure they’ve changed out their overcoats since then.

I continue to wear the coat for several reasons.

Pete, Steve, EC (in a coat like mine) and Bruce

1) I like its style.  WXIA photog Al Ashe identifies it as a Donegal Tweed.  Whatever it’s called, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another one like it (with one significant exception:  On Elvis Costello on the cover of Get Happy! album, and inside sleeve of Taking Liberties).

About every other winter, a stranger will gaze at the coat and proclaim it awesome.  Usually, the admirer is an older gay man.  Otherwise, its style mostly goes unnoticed.

2)  It’s got a family history.  The coat was tailor-made for my step-grandfather, Charles R. Leick.  He married my grandmother Juanita while my mother was a teenager.  They lived in the Missouri Ozarks, and I frequently stayed with them for weeks at a time — doing chores on their cattle farm, and helping my grandfather get elected Magistrate Judge in 1978 in Crawford County.  One day in 1988, I fished the coat out of a cedar closet in the attic of their farmhouse in Davisville.  He told me he’d rarely worn the coat during the previous quarter-century and gave it to me on the spot.

3)  It’s a link to history.  A label inside the coat shows that it was tailor-made in  August 1963 by a Philadelphia clothier called White and Co.  Aside from that unhappy Dealey Plaza business in Dallas, 1963 was still an interesting year.

  • George Wallace became Governor of Alabama;
  • Betty Friedan jump-started feminism with The Feminine Mystique and the USSR put a woman in space;
  • Patsy Cline died in a plane crash;
  • The Beatles appear on record for the first time;
  • Instant replay aired for the first time during a sporting event;
  • Bull Connor’s cops fire-hosed protesters during the Birmingham campaign, and racist killers bombed the 16th St. Church;
  • The US Post Office introduced ZIP codes;
  • Lots of crazy shit happened in South Vietnam, culminating with the CIA-backed assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem;
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.

3)  It’s still a rock-solid coat.  Its structural integrity is sound.  Except for the liner — which I’ve replaced a few times — nothing on the coat has frayed or even worn, except for the labels.   It’s warm.  And now, it’s “vintage.”

In the Suspicious Package segment below, I clunkily turn the old coat into a parable for the worthiness of old things — like TV reporters — that still work well.  “Like the man who wears it, the old coat still works fine.  I see no reason to trade it in for a newer, fresher, less weathered model” I intone, while gratefully accepting the assistance of Blayne Alexander, a newer, fresher, less weathered reporter.

The video is worth watching for her punch line at the end.

My magnetic TV personality

Tuesday, I’ll deliver election results in-studio in front of a green screen on WXIA and WATL.  Though I’ve pre-recorded material in front of a green screen before, this will be my first live performance wherein I reference graphics chromakeyed behind me.  This is weatherman territory, a place I’ve ventured exactly one other time in my career.

It was a nightmare.

The internet says this guy is Brace Gilson of WHNT-TV Hartford, master of the magnetic map. Or maybe those are Colorforms.

At WTVA-TV, my very first post-college TV station, there was a rotating weather map in the middle of the news set featuring state and national maps.

Each of the maps were suitable for overlaying with magnetic pieces that composed graphics.  A series of magnetic squiggles could be used to create a cold front, for example.  There were magnets depicting sunshine, clouds, rain and whatnot.  There were magnetic numerals for temperatures.

One night in 1980, I had to do the weather.  The same night, I also had to produce, write and anchor the newscast– including sports and weather.  It was a Saturday.   The show was at 10pm.

After I’d written most of my newscast copy, I quickly looked at the AP weather wire, which broadly described fronts and weather systems across the US.  The same wire also showed forecasts for major cities.  I deduced the shapes and locations of the weather fronts, and started putting up magnets.  By the time I was done, it looked somewhat like a weather map.  I moved on to preparing the sportscast, which was filled with late scores.

The problem was:  I’d never done weather before.  In fact, I’d never really ad-libbed on TV at any length before.  I was accustomed to benign anchor tosses, or stuff that was otherwise scripted in advance.

Plus, I was a horrible ad-libber.  It’s never been a strength of mine.  Some people can talk lucidly all day off the cuff.  Not me.

That night, I delivered the first ten minutes of the newscast, then teased weather.  I think I gave myself five or six minutes to do weather — about 50 percent too long.  But I needed to kill the time.

During the break, I grabbed a pointer used by our real weather guys.  I extended it, like they did, so that I could reference the fabulous magnetic map I’d made.  I stood at the map, with only my magnetic graphics to guide my remarks.

The break ended.  I inhaled.  I began my spiel.

My coherence quickly began to fade as I babbled about fronts and weather systems with which I had scant familiarity.  I flailed with the pointer.  When I whacked the map with the pointer, some of my magnets clattered to the floor of the studio.  My confidence dropped just as quickly.

And then the guy behind the studio camera started laughing uncontrollably.

The cameraman lost control because he habitually smoked marijuana behind the TV station shortly before each weekend newscast.  He always offered to share; I always declined — a lesson indelibly learned from one rough decision made during my first radio news job.  Let’s just say the mary-jane does NOT make the newsman smarter.

So here I was:  Standing under bright studio lights, wrestling with unfamiliar material with zero self-confidence, flailing with a pointer, trying to avoid whacking my magnets, trying to ad-lib — all while gazing at a camera operated by a stoned, red-faced, howling cameraman.  We were the only two people in the studio, though I could also hear muffled laughter coming from behind the glass in the control room.

I was utterly embarrassed and humiliated.  However, only one person I knew had actually seen the broadcast.  “What happened?” he asked, charitably.

The video editor, who’d promised to tape the newscast, forgot to hit REC.  Regrettably, no record of the newscast exists — except as a fragmentary broadcast signal perhaps still drifting toward Alpha Centauri.

If aliens pick up the signal, they will not be impressed with humanity.

Tuesday, I return to the weather position.  Fortunately, my material will be about politics and geography.  Unfortunately, I’ll be mostly ad-libbing and probably won’t have much prep time.  I’m somewhat pumped to have an opportunity to redeem myself.

At least there won’t be magnets.