Monthly Archives: November 2012

No stones thrown

I got my first job in TV in Atlanta at a bar.

The late Jack Frazier

I’d flown in from Washington DC one day in April 1986.  Jack Frazier, then news director at WAGA, interviewed me in the morning.  Then he told me to spend all day “helping” in the newsroom, which was very awkward.  After the 6pm newscast ended, Frazier took me to PJ Haley’s, the bar that used to occupy the north part of the parking lot at the Sage Hill shopping center on Briarcliff Rd.

In the course of 20 minutes, Frazier slammed three Budweisers and offered me a three year contract. I was in my twenties and couldn’t keep up, intake-wise.  Frazier was an outstanding newsman and a somewhat notorious drinker.

A few weeks later, Frazier hired Amanda Davis.  Davis is now the station’s 6 and 10pm anchor.

When Davis got arrested for DUI last weekend, I mostly overheard words of surprise and yes, sympathy.  “I’m not going to throw stones,” I heard more than one coworker say.  I also heard some of them say that because of their jobs in a high-profile industry, they take extra care to never drive while intoxicated.

The news biz is an industry whose history is flavored with booze.  The aforementioned PJ Haley’s was frequently packed with WAGA (and later, WGNX/WGCL) folk who completed their work days, drove their logo-emblazoned news cars to the bar’s parking lot, and careened out of there in the wee hours.  For WSB and WXIA folk, the location of choice was a Peachtree St. establishment called The Beer Mug.

One night a now long-gone WAGA photog spent an evening drinking, exited the bar and drove his marked car straight into a police DUI checkpoint.  He pulled over, exited the vehicle, steadied himself, grabbed his camera and told the cop he’d been assigned to shoot the checkpoint.  After “shooting” the checkpoint, the cops waved him through.

Scotty was a talented and resourceful photog, and a helluva drinking buddy.

And of course, he showed a lapse in judgment by getting behind the wheel.

If I recognize that I’ve entered such a state, I will attempt to rationally find a way to get home that doesn’t involve getting behind the wheel of an automobile.  Have I always succeeded?  My answer to that is:  I’ve never been arrested for DUI, or anything else.

Amanda Davis, WAGA

As a coworker pointed out, Atlanta is a market where local TV folk almost never make the news the way Davis did.  Google “tampa tv anchor dui” and all kinds of results come up for stories about Florida anchors who allegedly drink too much and drive.  Who was the last Atlanta media figure (excluding “former” figures) to get popped with DUI?  The late Keith Kalland comes to mind.  Besides Davis in 1992, who else?   I draw a blank.

Times change.  If there’s a drinking culture at WXIA, it’s so far underground that I don’t know about it.  It seems to be embodied by the woman who hired me.  She drinks nothing stronger than a latté.

Davis’s story is exacerbated by the circumstances of her arrest:  Police say she drove the wrong way down a one-way street and was involved in a head-on collision.  A mere checkpoint incident would have given the rest of us less to talk about.

The fact that she’d been arrested for DUI twenty years ago added another element to the story, which got widespread Atlanta media coverage.

I worked with Davis for twenty-plus years.  I never had a drink with her.  I can’t say I got to know her very well.  Yet I feel certain that she is utterly humiliated by her arrest and the subsequent coverage.  If she drove drunk that night, she showed very poor judgment and endangered other motorists.  I’m sure she’d be the first to say that, if she could do so without incriminating herself legally.  Her case is pending.

I’ll throw no stones beyond that.  The justice system will put her through the wringer, which is what it’s supposed to do.  I hope she keeps her job, and never drives drunk again.

Jack Frazier worked at WXIA, WGNX/WGCL and WAGA during his career.  He died May 8, 2012 at age 66.  His memorial site is here.  He deserves a better epitaph than “an outstanding news man and a somewhat notorious drinker.”  I’ll work on that in a future post.  

The new sheriff

I stalked Victor Hill election night.  “Stalked” is a loaded word with creepy connotations.  I wasn’t particularly creepy.  But Victor Hill needed stalkin’.

Victor Hill, Clayton County Sheriff-elect

Election night would determine, once and for all, the extent to which Clayton County voters were willing to return to their sheriff’s office a man facing nearly three dozen criminal charges.   This made Hill a rather non-traditional candidate.  As such, Hill aggressively declined to play ball with the news media.  On election night, when he ran alone on the ballot, he chose to not have a public victory party.

Even after he unexpectedly won this year’s Democratic primary against incumbent Kem Kimbrough, Hill declined to respond to phone messages, texts and third-party queries from news media requesting even the blandest of comment regarding his upbeat political fortunes.

Election night would be another such night.  Hill was likely to beat write-in candidate Garland Watkins, giving Hill a great opportunity to crow a bit if the people of Clayton County voted to return him to office.  Turned out Hill got four times the votes of Watkins.

But Hill stayed underground.

During the day, I called and texted Hill’s cell phone to try to learn his victory party’s time and location.  He didn’t respond.  He never responds.  At least he’s consistent.

I didn’t leave a voice mail.  His mailbox was full and not accepting messages.

When we visited some of his volunteers, holding signs on Tara Boulevard, they all claimed they didn’t know the whereabouts of Hill’s election night party.  The ringleader’s denials were very sketchy.  Moments later, they piled into a red SUV and left.  For fun, we jumped in our live truck and followed them toward Lake Spivey.

Mike Zakel was the reluctant driver on this caper.  I can’t remember ever tailing a vehicle before.  It felt ridiculous from the get-go.  But it was early, we had time and few other options at that moment.  After the SUV crossed the Henry County line, we peeled off.  The passengers in the red SUV waved at us as we circled away.  I waved back.

I put out calls to police sources in Clayton County.  I put out calls to some of Hill’s political opponents.  I called one of his attorneys.  All said they didn’t know where Hill was planning to declare victory.  One sheriff’s deputy snorted:  You think I give a shit about his victory party?   That guy fired me the first time around.

Hill was sheriff four years ago, before Kimbrough beat him.  Hill’s firing of a battalion of sheriff deputies during his first day of office, complete with rooftop snipers as they were escorted out, is part of his legend.

The red SUV at the Lake Spivey-area house

Finally, a contact gave me the name of a street near Lake Spivey, telling me that’s where Hill celebrated his primary victory against Kimbrough.   Zakel and I drove up the street.  Outside one private home, there were a half-dozen cars parked.  We spotted the red SUV in the driveway.

Bingo.

I’d also gotten a description of a car Hill had been driving around Clayton County Tuesday (grey Dodge Charger, distinctive markings on the driver side door).  It appeared Hill wasn’t at the Lake Spivey house yet.  So we left, figuring we’d return before the night was out.

A little while later, another contact told Zakel that Hill might be found at a restaurant in College Park election night. Meantime, Watkins cheerfully gave us the location of his election night party.  We went there and stayed for a couple of hours.

We then headed to the College Park restaurant.  By this time, the TV station was clamoring for a live shot.  Although Hill wasn’t at the restaurant, we set the shot, wired the camera and waited.

By the time we were cleared at 1:30am, I’d done one thirty-second live shot.  We never returned to the Lake Spivey house, where Hill undoubtedly would have invited us us in for refreshments, and savored his victory while dissecting his legal case with a friendly, exclusive on-camera chat.

My fantasy world is a place where PIOs are helpful and responsive, human beings answer phone calls and web hit data isn’t substituted for news judgment.

Hey Victor:  Call me!

A version of this piece appeared election night on 11alive.com

Gotcha question

Hint: He’s a square-jawed white guy with a TV haircut.

Quick:  Name the prime minister of Canada. Can’t?  You have plenty of distinguished company, it turns out.

I had raised the question while interviewing Lee Anderson. He’s a Republican running for Congress against incumbent Democrat John Barrow, in a district re-drawn to by the GOP to squeeze Barrow out. Anderson is a rough-hewn farmer and state lawmaker. Because I can somehow hold my own talking about agriculture and politics, he and I got along quite well over lunch.

Lee Anderson, Republican challenger

The encounter took place in suburban Augusta, at a meat-and-three down the road from Anderson’s HQ. The story was largely about Anderson’s unlikely position as the race’s arguable frontrunner against the incumbent, and about Anderson’s refusal to debate Barrow.

Such refusals typically come from incumbents in congressional races. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) has stopped debating his opponents, figuring debates only provide a high-profile stage for a no-name, no-chance opponent. But Anderson’s curious refusal also appeared to be a recognition of his own limitations. Side-by-side with the Harvard-educated Barrow, Anderson’s crude command of the English language might provide a stark contrast that Anderson’s camp might prefer to avoid.

“I’m not ducking nobody. I’m not scared of nobody. I sure ain’t scared of John Barrow,” Anderson told me.  He said he would debate Barrow only after Barrow said explicitly “on TV” that he’s voting for President Obama.  (Barrow, whose campaign has stressed his independence and willingness to piss off both political parties, couches his answer to that questionby saying he supports “the top of the ticket.”)

John Barrow, Democratic incumbent

As we left the restaurant, I continued to ask Anderson about his refusal to debate Barrow.  “For example — if you were asked, in a debate, to name the Prime Minister of Canada, would you be able to do it?”

He paused, then answered:  If I could remember it, I would.  He then dismissed the query as a “gotcha” question.

But was it unfair?  It’s not like I asked him to name the prime minister of Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan.  Canada is the US’s neighbor across the street.  In agriculture, it’s a huge trading partner and competitor.  It seemed reasonable to ask about Canada when the candidate’s campaign graphics feature a tractor.

I didn’t use the question in the story.  Because I hadn’t asked Barrow the same question, my bossfolk felt it wasn’t fair.  (On the day I visited Anderson, Barrow was 130 miles south in Savannah.  I had talked to Barrow a couple of weeks earlier, on a day when Anderson was likewise unreachable.)

After putting the story on the air, I started quizzing friends, family members and coworkers:  Name the Prime Minister of Canada.

Turns out, it’s not an easy question.  Of those I asked, only Ross McLaughlin, 11Alive’s investigative guy, correctly identified Stephen Harper.  McLaughlin was born in Canada.  So maybe he doesn’t count.

I’d like to think John Barrow or any other four-term Congressman would have answered the question correctly.  But I’m not so sure now.

And the truth is:  I didn’t know the answer until I looked it up.

Meantime, Anderson concluded our encounter with this snappy retort:  I can tell you who the Agriculture Commissioner of South Carolina is.  Can you?

He got me on that one.