“He’s agreed to talk to Mark Winne and nobody else.”
Those spirit-draining words came from Lt. Sean Smith, the new temporary PIO for the Gwinnett County Sheriff. We were at the Gwinnett County jail, which was holding inmate Victor Hill. Hill, a former sheriff, had been arrested following a public corruption indictment.
Every local media goon and their brother had requested a jailhouse interview with Hill, myself included. Hill had a colorful history. He’d been a bit unorthodox, shall we say, when he was sheriff. He lost re-election and has been running to regain his seat in 2012’s election.
Why he would agree to talk solely to the WSB reporter was beyond my understanding. Sure, Winne’s a fine reporter for whom I have much love and mad respect. And sure, Atlanta’s TV viewership misguidedly turns to WSB in droves for its local news. Hill would have had a substantial audience by giving Winne the exclusive.
I didn’t expect Hill to say anything particularly interesting in a jailhouse interview. But I still wanted the video image of the former lawman dressed in a prison uniform, predictably professing his innocence.
And I didn’t want to see it on WSB without seeing it on WXIA.
Unfortunately, Hill’s attorney was complicit in the arrangement. When he walked into the lobby, he was highly agitated from a sleepless effort to post bond for Hill, and adamant that he speak only to Winne. When asked why, he wouldn’t / couldn’t explain it.
My options were limited: Credit Winne with a “win,” and watch him traipse into the jail for an exclusive; or try to do something about it. I only had one choice: I had to gripe. Like you, I hate whiners. But I also hate getting my ass kicked by a competitor — especially when I’m on the property, watching it happen.
Fortunately, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was answering his phone at just the right moment. Hill is only going to talk to Winne, Conway reiterated. I don’t have much say in it.
Conway knew there were reporters from four Atlanta TV stations in his parking lot. I couldn’t plausibly argue to replace Winne as the exclusive agent of Hill’s utterances. But Conway has a good relationship with local media. I appealed to his sense of fairness. Without saying it explicitly — because I didn’t want to back him into a corner — I was asking: Who’s in charge at your jail? Victor Hill, or you?
I proposed an unorthodox compromise: Agree to Hill’s request to only talk to Winne, but let TV cameras from the other stations record the interview.
Do what, now?
Let Winne ask the questions, I said. That gives Hill what he wants. But don’t allow the interview unless everybody gets to record it.
Conway hung up. Shortly thereafter, the PIO was telling the assembled media that they’d get a chance to record Winne’s interview. Winne reacted only by engaging the PIO in a hushed conversation afterward.
Minutes later, the PIO escorted Hill’s attorney, plus Winne and his photographer, past the security checkpoint and into the jail. Hill had to agree to the arrangement, Lt. Smith said. If he doesn’t, then we’ll escort WSB back out emptyhanded.
This was a worrisome moment. Winne was back in the jail with Victor Hill and no other news media. He was one “REC” button click away from the exclusive I’d tried to undo. Winne is a wily guy. If anybody could bamboozle an inexperienced PIO, it was Winne.
A long fifteen minutes or so passed.
Then Lt. Smith reappeared in the lobby. The cameras can go back, he told Winne’s competitors. The reporters have to stay in the lobby.
Aungelique Proctor and I sat in the lobby. We chatted about our children and looked at our wristwatches.
Mark Winne was the only reporter allowed in to ask him questions, intoned Justin Farmer as he led into Winne’s 5pm live shot. Winne had gotten his exclusive, in a manner of speaking.
But my day turned out just fine.