Monthly Archives: February 2012

Within the pool

What’s she doing in the shot?!?

The question erupted in the press room of the Hemy Neuman murder trial.  The courtroom camera was fixed on Andrea Sneiderman, who was seated in the gallery of the courtroom.  Mrs. Sneiderman was having a visible reaction to some of the opening statements made by attorneys at the start of the trial.

Fleischer, to the left, and Mrs. Sneiderman

The pool feed, shot by Turner Broadcasting’s Tru TV (formerly Court TV), showed Sneiderman in the second row of the courtroom audience.  Seated in the row in front of her was WSB-TV reporter Jodie Fleischer.  And Fleischer was plainly in the shot, slightly out of focus, screen left of Mrs. Sneiderman.

Nothing against Fleischer, a fine reporter who recently won a prestigious Columbia-duPont award.  But given a choice, most reporters at WSB’s competitors would prefer to minimize the visual presence of competing reporters in their stories.

For those who haven’t followed, Hemy Neuman has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  He claims an angel who looks like Olivia Newton John, and  demon resembling Barry White, convinced him to gun down Rusty Sneiderman outside a day care center in Dunwoody.  Neuman was infatuated with the victim’s wife Andrea.  Andrea Sneiderman called Neuman a “stalker,” but other testimony suggests she returned the defendant’s affections prior to her husband’s killing.  Mrs. Sneiderman faces no criminal charge, and is the most intriguing character in the case.

There are two ways to watch a criminal trial.  One way is to sit in the courtroom.  In Federal court, that’s the only choice, because the US Supreme Court continues to illogically ban TV cameras from federal courtrooms.  In local courts — where cameras are allowed —  reporters can also sit in the courtroom.  By doing so, you can watch things that aren’t on the pool TV feed, including the jury’s reaction to testimony.  You can learn subtle nuances of the case from sitting in the courtroom.

Barry White

But when you’re facing successive deadlines starting at noon (yes, there are still newscasts at noon, and they frequently get staffed by actual reporters covering actual stories.  Ask your grandparents, or your out-of-work uncle), then TV reporters have to watch the pool feed.

In the Neuman trial, the pool feed goes into a room in the basement of the courthouse, four stories below the actual courtroom.  The room has no windows, no cell phone service and intermittent wifi.  But it has a clean audio and video feed of the trial — the same feed you can see on 11alive.com all day (or channel 211 on your Comcast cable; 11.2 over-the-air on your HD TV thing).

In the press room, the feed goes into machines that read time code.  The time code enables TV reporters to quickly and accurately locate interesting tidbits of testimony or other courtroom yammer.  To edit their stories, they have to schlep outdoors to a live truck parked in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse.

From left: Yours truly, Lewis, Renee Starzyk of WGCL, WGCL mystery photog, Portia Bruner of WAGA

But the best reason to watch the pool feed:  You can yell at the TV.  You can make witty comments about the testimony.  You can analyze the characters out loud, with maturity and restraint, of course.

This is the deep end of the pool.  There’s no snarky commentary whatsoever.  We’re all professionals here.

Olivia Newton John

Some of us play roles.  WXIA’s Duffie Dixon is among those with the steel-trap memory of the case from the get-go.  WSB radio’s Jon Lewis is the legal consultant.  Others are lay psychologists, failed murder mystery novelists, twisted marriage consultants and would-be humorists.

I occasionally play the role of Andrea Sneiderman’s apologist, only because I know I’ll get heckled when I do so.

And then there’s Fleischer.  She played no role in the press room on the trial’s first day because she was in the courtroom, horning in on the pool video, forced to sit in silence, while the rest of us yelled at the TVs.  Her WSB coworker Mike Petchinek manned the feed.

But by the trial’s second day, she sensibly moved out of the pool feed spotlight and into the windowless basement room with the rest of us.

Calista, Jill and me

Q:  Callista.  That’s an unusual name, no?

Newt and Callista Gingrich

A:  Well, there’s Calista Flockhart.

That bit of chit-chat followed an encounter with the wife of Newt Gingrich last weekend.  I’ve made smalltalk with Mrs. Gingrich once, and the weather was the subject.  My encounter with Calista Flockhart, the actress, was much more interesting, though not because of her.

Early in the history of a TV series called Aly McBeal, Fox decided to invite affiliates to supply extras for the show.  Aly typically ended its episodes with a dance scene in a bar, with pianist/singer Vonda Shepard supplying the soundtrack.  The local news invitees would perform as extras in the bar scene, and shoot news stories about their experiences for the folks back home.

For some reason, WAGA asked me to do it.  Andi Larner edited the piece.  The 1997 video shows that unlike me, Russ Spencer hasn’t aged a day.

The story is arguably interesting because of the setup.  Fox wouldn’t allow us to send a photographer, just “talent.”  Fox supplied an LA-based photog, and I had to share the photog with another local news-type who was there for the same reason.

Upon arriving at the studio, I met the photog.  He was an agreeable man whose name I don’t remember, unfortunately, shooting a Betacam.  I also met the supervisor of the extras.  And I met a Philadelphia TV anchor named Jill Chernekoff.

Jill Chernekoff

I hadn’t watched an entire episode of Aly McBeal until I learned of my assignment.  The show was getting a lot of buzz, though.  And Chernekoff was obviously a huge fan.  She was pumped about being part of the production.

We conducted interviews with members of the cast (including Jane Krakowski, the hilarious woman who now appears on 30 Rock, but excluding Calista Flockhart, the show’s star, who was unwilling to chat with us).  Otherwise, Chernekoff mostly ignored the photographer.  So he and I stuck together.  He let me hang on to his wireless lavaliere mic and worked with me to produce the story to my liking.

Chernekoff and I ended up sharing the Beta tape shot by the photog.  While viewing the tape afterward, I saw her say, on camera, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.”  It was irresistible.  I had to use it.  I ended up shaping the story around our shared experience.

Crunch time time came at the end of the day, when they finally shot the bar scene.

They escorted the extras onto the set.  Flockhart was there.  While wearing the lav, I introduced myself and struck up an awkward conversation with her about the show’s place in pop culture.

Calista Flockhart

Jill saw this and tried to ask Flockhart a question.  Flockhart put her hand in front of her face and objected to the “interview,” a classic diva moment.  I used it in my story.

The director told us to find a spot on the dance floor.  I scanned the room, observed the cameras, and found a spot I judged to be somewhat high-profile.  Jill stood opposite me.

Then she scanned the room, observed the cameras and realized she wasn’t as in-range as I was.  “Switch places with me!” she pleaded.

I’m usually pretty accommodating with a pleading woman.  I briefly considered the request, then coldly refused.

Sadly, Jill’s face time in the episode was pretty nonexistent (it didn’t help that she was not a very tall person).   Mine was minimal, but I’m easy to spot if you’re looking for me.   I wrote Jill an email afterward.  She never answered, and I guess I can’t blame her.

If Aly McBeal ever made it into syndication, I never saw it.   It only recently came out on DVD.  I think this is the episode in which I appear.  At its conclusion, there’s a point at which you can briefly see the top of Jill’s head.

I’m the 90s-era extra who clearly can’t dance.

Viewer mail

Ford Farm, Lakeland GA

This week, I got a 500 word letter from a man who was unhappy about a story I had produced.

I was delighted.

I take no joy in ticking off viewers.  But I do admire a guy who is thoughtful and passionate and honorable enough to actually analyze my story and critique it thoughtfully.  And such complaints pop up occasionally.  It’s the nature of the business.

In the last year, I’ve had people gripe to my superiors and coworkers about stories.  But  for some reason, they’re disinclined to actually contact me.  I find that puzzling.  As long as they’re rational and open-minded, I’m game to discuss pretty much anything.

Just for the record:  If you don’t like my story, please contact me.  My email is easy to find on 11alive.com.

The story was a one-off piece that reported a gift accepted by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, using it as an example of Georgia pols accepting (perfectly legal) gifts from lobbyists.  The gift was a visit to a south Georgia hunting lodge called Ford Farm, a $600 value, according to the manager of the lodge.  The story led into a poll  commissioned by WXIA which showed that Georgians overwhelmingly favor legislation capping the value of such gifts at $100.

Kemp agreed to an interview, wherein he said he accepted a “celebrity” invitation to the hunt, but didn’t know who had paid for the visit.  However, he said he specifically asked if lobbyists were picking up the tab.  He said he was assured that wasn’t the case.  Kemp accepted, confident that there would be no embarrassing disclosure.  Three lobbyists nonetheless disclosed it, as required by law.

The writer who contacted me was a Kemp confidant.  It doesn’t matter, though.  If the story was bullshit, the background of the complainant is irrelevant.

He wrote, in part:

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Your story … was a ridiculous cheap shot on a good public official that also was factually misleading and inaccurate.  

 Yes, several legislators attended this quail hunt and it is reasonable to assume their expenses were covered by lobbyists. 

However, Secretary Kemp was invited by the charity as a special guest to help the charity raise money.  He paid his own travel expenses and used his own equipment.  He was specifically told upfront that no lobbyist was paying for his participation or for any of his expenses.  

 Public officials volunteering their time and paying their own way to help charities is a good and noble thing.  We should be encouraging it!  Instead you misrepresent what he did and use it as an example of legal corruption?!  

 Yes, lobbyist spending in GA is a legitimate issue.  Yes, there are many, many examples of gross abuse of the system.  And for some unknown reason you chose to factually misrepresent a public official helping out a charity to make your point?!

 You are not some amateur jerk on a blog.  You’re a highly respected professional in your field.  You have and can do better than this.  This type of slimy journalism is beneath you and raises questions of your personal integrity and credibility. 

 You owe Secretary Kemp a correction on this story.

I wrote back, in part:

Although I reported that Kemp felt he was misled about the likelihood of lobbyist disclosure, I’m going to change the story to clarify what Kemp said about his understanding in advance of the trip.  You’re right — it could be clearer than I made it.

I don’t agree with your characterization that I “distorted the facts.”  I disclosed that Kemp hadn’t expected the trip to be part of a lobbyist disclosure.  However, I agree that the language in the piece could have been stronger.

(W)e always strive to be fair.  I thought Kemp got a fair shake in this piece, but you’ve made some valid points.

I added three lines to the online version of the story — the one that really matters, since it lives forever on the web — which strengthened the language in Kemp’s defense.

And I was delighted to do it.  The saga wasn’t a particularly important story of excessive lobbyist largesse, but rather a topical example of what critics say is an ongoing problem.  Kemp’s defense, though arguably flawed, was plausible and deserved a fuller explanation than I’d allowed.

Got a problem with a story you see on TV or read on the web?  Then do what this guy did:  Contact the writer.  If you don’t get a satisfactory response, write his boss.

And throw in a little flattery as part of your critique — even if you don’t mean it.