Monthly Archives: March 2012

Monty’s weird little war

One day, a man named Monty White Jr. decided to start a heating and air conditioning company based in Marietta, GA.  The company did legitimate HVAC work.  But it also developed a reputation for diagnosing nonexistent problems, and clobbering customers with a “no refunds” policy buried in its standard contract.

Monty G. White, Jr., news warrior

Monty’s company drew some deserved attention from the Better Business Bureau, and Randy Travis of WAGA.  Travis produced a piece on it five years ago, outlining its sketchy practices.

It was solid reporting, but it could have easily been lumped among the many scheisters exposed, then forgotten, on local news.  But five years later, Travis’s piece still resonates — especially with Monty White Jr.

Monty is now a man in a cyberbunker, waging war on reporters like Travis, and on customers who go public with their unhappy experiences with his HVAC company.

Monty’s company is now called Mechanic’s Heating and Air Conditioning.  It currently has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau.  Travis reports he’s done business under several names.

Monty has lots of web sites (I’ll provide no links), all of them within the umbrella of his HVAC company, and an LLC awkwardly called Mechanic’s Responds.  The latter is his “news” organization (with a logo for what he calls “the F team”).  Its purpose is to answer Monty’s critics.

So far, so good.  Monty White Jr. has as much right as anybody to use the internet to talk about whatever he wants.  A genuinely aggrieved party might take issue with news coverage or customer complaints by detailing the issues faced in the disputes, and making his case.  Monty does a little bit of that.

But he does much more.

Using public records, he has posted Randy Travis’s home address in Lawrenceville.  Monty has also posted the names of Travis’s wife and children, and the property tax records of his home.

He has done the same to customers.  In a wickedly perverse twist, Monty has purchased URLs that mimic the names of his targets.  For example, Simon Weinstein is a former customer who spoke with Travis years ago.  Go to simonweinstein.com, and you’ll see Monty’s hit on Weinstein, listing his home address, its tax records, and links to Weinstein’s divorce records.  There are a dozen or so other examples.

What Monty has done to Wendy Saltzman is even worse.  Saltzman, of WGCL, conducted a hidden-camera sting in February that snared Mechanics among a number of sketchy HVAC dealers.  Saltzman has told her viewers that Monty retaliated by posting her home address and phone number on one of his web sites.

Monty has supplemented his attack on Saltzman.  He has a page calling her a “lying bitch,” and is loaded with sexually explicit innuendo that could be used to smear anybody.  Except he doesn’t do it to Travis.  Monty, a twice-divorced father of four girls, appears to save his ugliest attacks for women.

Saltzman has made an impact in her seven years in Atlanta as an investigative reporter.  It would be easy to suggest that she dismiss Monty’s nasty missives, posted on sites nobody reads.

But Monty plays the search engine game with a measure of skill.  Saltzman values her reputation and plays hardball.  She’s talking with defamation attorney Lin Wood, who reportedly reached settlements with NBC, CNN and the New York Post over the Richard Jewell libel case.

That may make the hairs on Monty’s neck stand a bit.

On one hand, nobody in the news biz wants to set up First Amendment roadblocks.  If you try to curb a guy like Monty, you curb free speech.  On the other hand, legitimate news folk don’t play “news” the way Monty does, with an utter absence of a conscience or ethics.  Got a beef with a reporter?  Make your case.  But post a reporter’s home address?  It’s not relevant.  It’s mere harassment, designed to have a chilling effect.

I produced a story about Monty’s curious customer relations this month, interviewing Weinstein.  The piece lacked the hidden-camera heft of Saltzman and Travis’s pieces.

Monty responded with an email crowing that, because of all of the fab news coverage his company has gotten, he would post “as seen on TV” emblems on his Mechanics trucks.

Since then, Monty has written some dark emails to me demanding this-and-that, while ignoring my interview requests.  I fully expect him to post my home address, which is 602 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta GA 30307. Maybe he’ll buy dougrichards.com, which is currently owned by a domain broker who wants $1800 for it.

Since I’m not female, I doubt he’ll disparage me sexually.

What won’t he do?  According to Fred Elsberry of the Atlanta Better Business Bureau, improving his business methods doesn’t rank high on his to-do list.  He’s got lots of time to create numerous web sites that slam customers and reporters.  He even wrote a song about Simon Weinstein.

But actually improving his “F” rating?  That would take real work.

Evasive action

They lie all the time.  It’s their job.

The speaker was a TV news type for whom I have great respect, a “house cat” who makes the gears turn in a newsroom while we “alley cats” — eg. reporters and photographers — gather the material used to fill newscasts.

The subject was a fib — a series of them, actually — told by a publicist for a politician.  The lie was substantial and provable.  The publicist was a youngster whom I’d found to be pretty impressive under difficult circumstances, until this incident.  Called on it, she quickly apologized and repented.

I had found the lie to be outrageous.  The speaker found me to be naïve.  They lie.  It’s part of their job, she said, referring to both politicians and their PR flacks.

It’s a sad hypothesis.  Perhaps my world, populated as it is with unicorns and rainbows, overlooks the cold realities of politics and communications.

First, “lies” are clearly part of the currency of politics, an accusation that’s thrown around with casual frequency.  Because politicians have so cheapened the word, listeners aren’t outraged by “lies” much — especially because they know there’s a good chance that the accuser is also lying about the alleged lie.

But that stuff is usually confined to campaigns.  Once they actually take office, the politician and his staff usually assume a more professional posture.  This includes being reasonably straight with the news media.  If they want to dodge a direct question, they’ll avoid it or talk around it.  They may even misdirect you, if you’re pursuing a story they don’t like.  But in my experience, political office-holders and their publicists are very careful about crossing the line into bald-faced lying.  If they lie, you usually have to work pretty hard to expose it.

Part of the reason for that:  They want reporters and other politicians to be truthful with them.  They know they can’t expect truthfulness if they lie.

This leads to another troubling hypothesis:  Reporters lie all the time.  It’s part of their job.

I fear that a lot of people believe this.  They hear about the occasional Stephen Glass or Dan Rather incident, and they apply the knowledge to our profession as a whole.  Or they hear the word “lie” bandied about in politics, and automatically apply it to the news media.  Likewise, the viewpoints expressed in newspaper editorial pages or Fox News or MSNBC confuse people and contribute to this cynicism.

There can be gamesmanship in reporting.  If a reporter is trying to uncover certain concealed information, he cannot always be completely forthcoming in his effort to get it.  We can’t reveal everything we know while making inroads to get the information.  Nor can we reveal every question we intend to ask in advance.

We may even fudge the subject matter, but honorably and truthfully so.  For example, we may request an interview with a politician about his “campaign,” when we really want to ask about the crooks backing his campaign.

The use of hidden cameras is deceptive by definition (and much criticized, and ought to be used only when it’s the only way to expose wrongdoing).  Stories that use them only contribute to our reputations as a profession that is slippery and evasive.

So in pursuit of the truth, reporters may withhold information as part of the newsgathering process.  If questioned by somebody trying to conceal the truth, the reporter may resort to the same type of evasion used by publicists trying to steer the questioner away.

Gamesmanship is part of the job.  But flat-out lying is out-of-bounds.  It’s dishonorable and it’s unprofessional– whether the liar is a reporter, a newsmaker, or a publicist.

So no, they don’t lie all the time.  It’s not part of their job.

And in my next post, I would like to introduce you to Clyde, my personal unicorn.

Unanswerable questions

Hemy Neuman

The Hemy Neuman murder trial will go to the jury this week, and reporters covering the trial will have to brace themselves.  This is the part of the trial where anxious and perhaps inexperienced newsroom personnel will ask them unanswerable questions regarding the verdict and the coverage thereof.   Fortunately, nobody in my newsroom will ask these questions.  They know better.  But as a public service, let me spare the rest of you the embarrassment by answering the unanswerable right now.

How long do you think the jury will deliberate?  This question gets asked with greater frequency the longer the deliberations take place.  In the Neuman trial, the facts of the crime are undisputed.  The question is whether Hemy Neuman was legally insane.  It’s easy to expect a quick verdict in this case, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  The jury will have three options:  Guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity — or, a compromise:  Guilty but insane.  This may muddle the deliberations for hours or even days.

On the other hand, they could reach a verdict within minutes.  The answer to this unanswerable question:  Nobody knows.  Quit asking.

What do you think the verdict will be?   This isn’t a completely silly question.   It’s fair game, if you’ve got time to kill and wish to speculate.  After covering the murder trials of Melvin Ramsey and David Walker in DeKalb County in 2002, I thought a verdict of “guilty” was a slam dunk.  The jury completely fooled me, and acquitted the men charged with killing Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown.

So the question is speculative and largely irrelevant, but you can ask.  Go ahead.

Melvin Walker and David Ramsey

Will the attorneys talk to us after the verdict?  Probably.  It’s almost guaranteed that whichever side wins the case will talk to the news media afterward, probably in a cluster on the courthouse steps about 45 minutes after the verdict is returned.  In this case, both the prosecution and defense are staffed by experienced, media-savvy adults.  They’ll talk.  They’ll even take turns.

Will members of the jury talk to us after the verdict?  This is the most intriguing question of the day, and it’s unanswerable until the jurors are actually asked.  The media cannot approach jurors prior to the conclusion of the trial, so there’s no way to know until after they’re dismissed.

Sometimes, savvy judges will give jurors a heads-up that the media would like to talk with them after a trial. Sometimes, those jurors willing to discuss the evidence and their deliberations will, with the blessing of the judge, appear in the courtroom after the trial is over and take questions in front of the pool camera that’s set up in the courtroom.  This is the most civilized approach.  But it usually requires the help of a media-savvy judge who knows that the alternative is for his jurors to get chased out of the courthouse by a gaggle of cameras.

Some jurors want to put the trial behind them immediately once they reach a verdict, and clam up.  Others view an encounter with the news media as somewhat cleansing (really), where they get to vent publicly about this-or-that piece of evidence or witness.   Juror comments are almost always the most enlightening postgame analyses of trials.

Can we get a one-on-one interview with the judge?  Judges have no good reason to talk to reporters about criminal cases, and the exceptions tend to send up red flags.  So, no.

That said, call the judge’s office if you want.  You can hear the answer first hand.

Poker face

It’s no secret that the visual demands of TV news are both a blessing and a curse.  The blessings are what keep us in business:   We can show you motion pictures, unlike newspapers and radio.  Plus, there’s that whole “personality” thing embodied by the likes of Monica Pearson, whose retirement announcement was heartily welcomed by newsrooms across Atlanta.

The curse is this:  We sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time developing visual gimmicks to tell stories.  Reporters and photographers frequently have to make their own graphics nowadays from gnarly cookie-cutter templates.  We’re told to perform clever, story-advancing standups — which frequently merely result in reporters walking and gesturing and whatnot.

The octagon

I killed most of Friday tying together loose ends from a two-week period spent covering a murder trial, and Newt Gingrich campaigning in Georgia.   And I spent an inordinate amount of time on a bit of performance art that may or may not have given our viewers valuable information about how Georgia’s Republican convention delegates will be allocated following the March 6 primary.

Ben Mayer, our Manager of Content wünderkind, walked in with the research in hand.   He’d figured out the complex formula that would divide the state’s 76 convention delegates, based on votes statewide and within Congressional districts.

Do something interesting with it, I was told during the morning editorial meeting.  Using conventional graphics, it was strongly suggested, would be too easy.

Use marbles!  suggested Julie Wolfe helpfully.  Somebody else suggested using old-school jacks as props.  Somebody suggested baseball cards.

Due to the deleterious effects of a concert I’d attended the previous evening, I wasn’t thinking too clearly.  I was sold on using marbles, but the idea of watching them rolling around uncontrollably as props gave me pause.

Then Dan Reilly, the photog assigned to shoot this looming disaster, suggested using poker chips.  The fog began to clear as I envisioned poker chips and a poker table.  I banged out a short script based on Mayer’s research.

A small circle of Atlanta media folk and other miscreants will recognize the poker table that I schlepped from my house to the studio.

The poker table was necessary because its edge has eight chip-holding pockets.   Since the piece would explain the allocation of delgates-as-poker chips, the schtick would require the chips to have a place to go.

The woman who’d gotten me into these straits, Julie Wolfe, helpfully noted that WXIA promotions guy and artist Bryan Hendrix had previously created caricatures of the four GOP candidates.  While I went home to fetch the table and some poker chips, Reilly assembled the art.

I’m not completely convinced the piece was illuminating.  But it was different.  One particular line required more than a dozen takes, due to my inability to get the poker chips to land in exactly the right spot.  Maximizing my productivity, I edited a quick Suspicious Package segment (below) based on this exercise in near-futility.

The upshot was that I’d spent almost zero time on reportage this particular day, while spending lots of time on television production.  The two tasks are mutually exclusive during the creation of a story, but seem to magically integrate by the time it gets on TV.

At the end of the piece, I crudely threw a handful of poker chips on the table, where the four caricatures stood.  We’d had trouble keeping the caricatures upright during the shoot.  Reilly and I reckoned that the tossed poker chips would knock over the artwork like bowling pins.

To our amazement, the artwork stayed upright.  On TV, it looked like we’d planned it that way.

If only we were that good.