Monthly Archives: December 2011

At the top of his game

Richard Crabbe, Summer 2011, Krog St. NE

Richard Crabbe’s retirement was a bittersweet moment. Viewed selfishly, it irritated me because he is such a talented photographer and editor. Such folk can make my stories look great and make me look like I actually know what I’m doing.

Viewed through the evolution of the TV news business, it makes more sense.  Crabbe spent three decades at WXIA.  During the first half of his career there, the station had developed a strong reputation for storytelling and news video.  But the last decade was rough for Crabbe and other veteran photographers.  As Gannett’s fortunes stumbled with the decline of the newspaper industry, WXIA shrunk its staff with buyouts; it furloughed staff in 2008.  Photographers lost a valuable perk when they were no longer allowed to take home news vehicles.

In the last two years, WXIA has updated some of its technology and added staff.  It seems to have built an identity as a news operation (flattered by the occasional cross-town copycat). The storytelling is still strong, and the newsgathering staff is slowly expanding again.

But one cannot overstate how tough it’s been to endure the last 15 years or so at WXIA, which has (by my reckoning) gone through more news directors during that period than WAGA and WSB (and WGCL too, maybe) combined.

Given a sometimes head-spinning absence of stability, one can see why a guy like Crabbe might favorably view an earlier, rather than later retirement.

As he told folks who attended his sendoff, Crabbe was also motivated to retire while still at the top of his game.  Though approaching his mid-60s, he was still physically able to handle the demands of schlepping gear and gunning through breaking news (his coverage of the Fulton County Courthouse shootings in 2005 was pretty much unmatched).

He also embraced technology as a much younger man might.  Crabbe frequently brought his personal Macbook to work, which he used for its Photoshop program, among other things.  When WXIA updated its editing program in 2010, Crabbe immediately mastered it.  Nobody in the building could create quality graphics as quickly as Crabbe did.

Crabbe's last day at work

He had a personal standard for his own work that the entire staff appreciated.   Photogs would say that Crabbe was the guy who set the standard that made WXIA the best news video shop in Atlanta in the 80s and 90s.  Fortunately, many of that standard’s adherents are still on staff.

Crabbe said that he wanted to exit before his skills deteriorated, before he was unable to live up to his own standards.

I respect that.  But damn.  I’m still sorry to see him go.

Crabbe’s retirement spurred a reunion of old-school WXIA folks.  Click here to see a photo gallery.

Confessional

Happy holidays.  Here’s my gift to you.  I’m going to admit that a competitor kicked my ass on a story.

This will be a bit of heresy.  Getting one’s ass kicked on a story isn’t something TV reporters enjoy discussing.  Just the opposite actually.  If somebody beats you on a story, you cling to the hope that nobody notices.  Viewers almost certainly won’t notice — because, quaintly, they’re either watching my TV station or yours, in all likelihood.  But not both.

But newsroom folks will notice because they tend to click amongst TV channels, or watch the wall with four monitors playing four TV stations at the same time.

The worst, of course, is when one of your own supervisors notices.  This happened periodically at a previous employer, where my supervisors obsessively watched WSB’s newscasts instead of the newscasts on their own station.  In fact, they would frequently see an element they liked in a WSB story — and automatically assume that we overlooked it.  We’d have to explain:  Hey– we had that element, and more!  Watch your own TV station, for cryin’ out loud.

I don’t know if my previous employer is still that way.  I’ve heard they’re still obsessed with WSB, but are less scornful of their own staff these days.  I hope that’s right.

I digress.  It’s the egg nog typing.

Not only did WGCL kick my ass, but they did it on a feature story.  In other words, it was a story that was more cute than competitive.  Or so I thought.

The story was about a guy who fired his shotgun into some trees at North DeKalb Mall in order to harvest some mistletoe, the kissy-face Christmas season fungus that grows in treetops.  The cops caught him and he went to jail.

I learned that such practice is commonplace in rural areas.  This gave the story a bizarre touch I found appealing.  I wanted to explore the practice.  Richard Crabbe and I spent all day compiling video elements to tell the story with a bit of flair, or so I hoped.

Mike Paluska, WGCL

My first stop was at the guy’s house.  There, I saw WGCL’s Mike Paluska sitting in a marked car.    Paluska cheerfully informed me the guy wasn’t home.   I’d heard elsewhere he was still in jail.  The house looked empty, but I did the perfunctory knock on the door and nobody answered.  We both drove off and I never saw Paluska again.

Crabbe and I then drove from the guy’s house to the mall; to a Big John’s Christmas tree store that sold mistletoe; to a shooting range; and to the DeKalb police department, where spokeswoman Mekka Parish agreed to answer my silly questions about this holiday tradition.  Including lunch, it killed several hours.

Meantime, Paluska apparently single-mindedly focused on the mistletoe gunman’s house.  Smart guy.

A one-man-band, it appeared Paluska encountered 66-year old Bill Robinson at his house at some point during the day.  Paluska rolled while Robinson described and then justified what he did.  Robinson was animated and colorful.  Paluska’s story gave WGCL’s viewers a lovely first-person journey into the mind of a guy who would shoot mistletoe out of treetops at an urban shopping mall.

Absent the actual gunman, my story (below) was much more of a smoke-and-mirrors effort, dressed up with gunfire and fringe characters.

I saw Paluska’s story on a monitor across the newsroom as Crabbe was finishing editing our piece.  My heart sank.  Nobody else in our newsroom noticed.  Or if they did, they were gracious enough to keep it to themselves.

The next day, I blandly suggested a follow-up.  “The mistletoe guy might talk to us,” I said vaguely in the morning meeting.  The consensus was that this story had gotten sufficient attention already, and I covered something else.  Nobody mentioned our competitors’ treatment of the story, especially me.  Until now.

Perhaps this confessional will go toward saving my tortured and occasionally misdirected soul.  It seems appropriate for this particular season.

Here’s wishing Merry Christmas to TV’s Mike Paluska.  I’ll get you next time.

And Merry Christmas to Richard Crabbe, who retired last week.  I’m gonna miss that guy.  A post is in the works.

Names you remember

Jorelys Rivera

The disappearance and murder of seven year old Jorelys Rivera was undeniably awful.   Most news folk are able to detach themselves emotionally from stories they cover, in part because they’ve frequently seen similar stories before.  But thankfully, children are rarely murdered in metro Atlanta nowadays.  That made this story rough.

My career in Atlanta started after Wayne Williams was convicted in the Atlanta child murders cases.  In my first two years here, I covered the murders of two children and never forgot their names.

10-year old Amy Holman was abducted, sexually assaulted and strangled in Hall County in 1987.  A sheriff’s deputy who lived nearby was convicted of the crime.

Bricola Coleman was 12.  Her mother found her body in their SW Atlanta apartment in 1988.   An intense police search for the killer produced a suspect, but the charges were finally dropped in 2000.  The child’s killer remains at large.  (Both cases deserve more than the scant six sentences I’ve given them.  Sadly, I can’t find either victim’s photo on the internet.)

Both cases gnawed at me, just as I knew the Rivera case gnawed at the reporters (and the police investigators) covering this case.  I only produced sidebar pieces on the Rivera case and wasn’t part of the media siege at the Canton apartment complex where Jorelys and her alleged killer lived.

WXIA’s Jaye Watson was what she calls “a supporting player” covering the Rivera case.  Duffie Dixon, Kevin Rowson, Blayne Alexander, Jon Shirek and Jennifer Leslie did most of the heavy lifting — as well as photogs Mike Zakel, Charles Olmstead, Tyson Paul and others.  I asked Watson to write the following.

++

In the 12 years I’d been in Atlanta, I couldn’t recall something like this, a story that epitomizes my worst nightmare as a mother. I pictured it:  A sunny day, a playground, the laughter of children. And there in the shadows lurked a real-life monster, about to pick a child to torture and kill.

We camped out at the apartment complex, talking to neighbors, most of whom were already pointing to Ryan Brunn,  People said he put off a ‘bad vibe,’ that he was weird and didn’t look people in the eye, that nobody knew him well and he hadn’t been there very long. I challenged them. I pointed out that it’s easy to call someone weird or ‘off’ once you’ve seen GBI agents in their apartment, towing away their car. They said no, everyone thought he was weird before that.

Jennifer "Jaye Watson" Hamilton, with Jude, Iris and husband Kenny

Later in the week,  I had a rather heated exchange with someone in my neighborhood who said it was the mother’s fault for not supervising Jorelys – that she was an awful mother.  I don’t know anything about Jorelys’s mother, except that she works the overnight shift at a factory, and that she is raising three kids.  We were told a teenager in the complex was babysitting when this happened.

I saw some of my Facebook friends slamming the mother early on, and all I could think was:  This is what we do as humans.  We try to blame the mother to reassure ourselves that something this heinous will never happen to our children.

I’m a mother.  The night Jorelys’ body was found, I went home to my children. I held my almost seven year old son on the couch as he watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  I felt the lightness of his little body as he sank back against my chest, I looked at his slender arms, his tiny boy torso with its bony ribcage, and I imagined it. I let myself imagine the terror and confusion Jorelys felt, how she wished for her mother, for someone to save her, and how help never came.

I imagined my son or my daughter enduring the same fate as Jorelys, and I felt sickened. I felt terrified. Because I’m not always there. I work. I have a wonderful babysitter. But no one can watch every second of every day, forever. And it was in one of those tiny cracks of time that an innocent girl was abducted and murdered.

I stood outside the Cherokee County Detention Center Friday morning, reporting the latest on the case.  As reporters, we see, not through the TV screen but with our own eyes, the last place Jorelys played, the home she used to live in.  We meet the friends she used to know. And while I know how to use sound and images to structure a TV story, I have no idea how to make sense of what happened to a 7 year old girl who deserved what my children have — love, safety, a home.

Instead, Jorelys suffered and was alone with a monster at the end of her short life. Regardless of the judicial system, it’s hard for me to feel that there can ever be any true justice for the destruction of innocence.

A convenient target

Gloria and Herman Cain Saturday

Herman Cain ended his campaign for president Saturday.  I attended the speech he delivered announcing his exit, and heard the crowd roar loudest when he denounced the news media.

The news media is a convenient object of scorn.  It’s easy to clobber reporters, whose jobs are to look for and tell interesting real-life stories.  Frequently, those stories are salacious — especially when the key players are celebrities.  The audience eats up the stories, while at the same time denouncing the whole business as smarmy.

It would have been much more uncomfortable for Cain to address the particular allegations of the small parade of women who reported untoward personal encounters with Cain, particularly in front of a large group of supporters.  And with Gloria Cain standing in the wings.  “So what if I didn’t tell my wife about my secret 13-year friendship with a single woman, which included generous financial assistance and 4:30am text messages?” Cain could have said.

Instead, the crowd roared at the lines bashing the media.  In interviews afterward, Cain supporters expressed anger at the news media for undoing their candidate.

A woman gave away these buttons at the Cain event

He bitterly attacked “professional scavengers and gossip mongers who have made life hell for innocent people.” An hour later, he went on a local radio talk show and called reporters “vultures and hooligans.”

The above line comes from a 1987  article about Julian Bond, following allegations the former Georgia legislator habitually used cocaine.  The allegations came from his estranged wife Alice.

Bond was and still is an outspoken liberal.  The same guy who broke the story about Herman Cain’s alleged mistress also broke the Alice Bond story.  I honestly don’t know Dale Russell’s political leanings.  But he’s an equal-opportunity pain-in-the-ass to powerful people prone to excess.  Ask Terrell Bolton.  Ask Earl Paulk.  Ask Glenn Richardson.

Donna Rice and Gary Hart share a moment, circa 1987

The rest of the news media are similarly motivated.  We’ll chase a good story, regardless of the political bent of the target.  Since the term became vogue, the “liberal media” has a rich history of clobbering liberals, from Gary Hart to Elliott Spitzer to Anthony Weiner.  Their salacious behavior demanded it.  Hart has probably experienced many flashbacks during the past month.

Thankfully, you don’t hear about the “liberal media” much anymore.  There were “don’t believe the liberal media!” signs and buttons distributed at the Cain event.  It seemed like a throwback to the 90s.

Cain supporters can argue that the string of allegations against Cain were nebulous and unproven.  They can argue that the news media, whose 24 hour presence magnifies the most meaningless stories, gave the allegations undue attention.  They can decry “spin,” though I think that’s merely a pejorative term for the free expression of ideas you don’t like.

The news media is an almost textbook example of a free market entity.  When critics demand reform of the news media and its priorities, they rarely offer an alternative framework.  “Would you rather have the government control the news media?” I’ll occasionally ask them.  “No, but…” the response will invariably begin.

The media is your savior when reporters find dirt on the guy you don’t like.  When your enemy is exposed as a scoundrel, you will happily “spin” the material to suit you.  You might even praise the news media for doing its job.

But when your guy is the target, the media becomes a convenient whipping boy.  It’s much easier than discussing the facts.