Monthly Archives: December 2012

Repeal the first amendment!

Want to restrict guns in America?  Good luck with that.  When the second amendment was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, it codified America’s gun culture.  Hundreds of millions of guns later, it’s a genie that’s so accustomed to being out of the bottle that it won’t get shoved back in without a bloodbath.

He's not even an NRA member.

He’s not even an NRA member.

Want to register those hundreds of millions of guns retroactively?  Right.  It’s not even an option, unless you’re proposing sending government jackboots into private homes to search every dwelling in America.

Want to repeal the second amendment?  Right.  Put aside the fact that three-quarters of the states would have to ratify it, it opens a door I don’t want to see opened.

Put the second amendment on the table for repeal, and the whole Constitution is up for grabs.

The first amendment is probably even less popular in America than the second amendment.  On his WSB radio show this month, Erick Erickson pitched repeal of the first amendment.  This, from a guy who makes a living on radio, blogs and by masterminding election material.

Erickson’s rant was probably mostly facetious, but was based on a legit gripe about the news media’s errors in the initial reporting of the Newtown massacre.

The errors were unfortunate.  It would be even more unfortunate to have the government restrict free expression and freedom of the press.  (I write “freedom of the press” reluctantly.  The phrase “freedom of speech, or of the press” appears in the first amendment.  In my mind, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the press.  It’s about saying whatever you want without crossing the legal lines of libel or defamation, or yelling “fire” in a movie theater.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re an individual, a blogger, a TV station or the New York Times.  But “the press” gets specific constitutional protection, and I won’t complain about it.)

Erick Erickson, WSB

Erick Erickson, WSB-AM

Everybody cherishes their own freedom of speech.  But they’re tired of “freedom of the press.”  They’re tired of the baggage attached to it — the promotion, the competition, the hype, the 24-hour news cycles, the foolishness in deciding what’s important and what isn’t (based on what decision-makers think the audience wants, of course).  And they’re annoyed by the mistakes, amplified when a story is of high interest.  I suspect Erickson’s rant reflects the sentiment of a lot of Americans.

But it beats the alternative, which would likely include government safeguards of “official secrets” and restrictions on political speech and Lord only knows what else.  I vote to keep it as it is, and to not tempt fate by tinkering with the Bill of Rights elsewhere.

Besides “freedom… of the press,” can you imagine the re-writes elsewhere?  Fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, eighth amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, even a trial by jury — all that stuff would get gutted.  And the much-despised freedom of religion / “establishment” clause would get a total re-write.  Hello, American theocracy.

And three quarters of the states would probably ratify it.  But they won’t touch the second amendment.

His political viewpoints notwithstanding, Erickson was great fun to listen to during the 2012 campaign.  What’s the over / under on how long it takes WSB radio to remove the lamentable Herman Cain from the post-Boortz morning show and replace him with Erickson?  I give Cain a year.

Double nickel

As a guy who covers news, I’m on the road a lot. Perhaps you are too. If so, odds are pretty good that we share a common gripe: A lot of people don’t know how to drive.

Arriving at a story intact.

Arriving at a story intact.

Here’s the dirty secret: Some of them are TV news photographers.

I am, of course, a fabulous driver. I never drive too fast, drive too slow, tailgate, abruptly change lanes, or clog the fast line with my slow-moving vehicle. I would argue that driver-wise, I’m pretty much the best there is (although, in fairness, my insurance company and cops from south Georgia to South Carolina to Nebraska to Pennsylvania to Louisiana might quibble with my self-assessment).

One news photographer with whom I’ve worked liked nothing more than to apply the brakes when approaching green lights. His thinking seemed to be that if the light was fixin’ to turn yellow, he wanted to be ready to grind to a halt. We were frequently the last crew in town to arrive at news incidents.

I’ve worked with a photographer who habitually and randomly applied the brakes while driving on an interstate. Frequently, he would slow waaaay down for no discernible reason while the rest of traffic whizzed by on both sides. There was no logic to it, except an apparent desire to be cautious, accompanied by sheer obliviousness to the danger he was causing.

Very few news vehicles are amphibious.

Very few news vehicles are amphibious.

I’ve worked with a photographer who treated every familiar interchange like a completely new adventure. Turn lane? Oh, right. There’s a turn lane.  I guess I need to use it. I’ve used it a thousand times in my career, but I don’t actually move into the turn lane until I’ve come to a halt in the adjacent lane. Sorry about that folks — mind if I move over? (Friendly wave, chorus of horns.)

I’ve worked with numerous photographers who viewed the use of the left lane on interstate highways as a birthright, rather than a lane for passing slower traffic. From the passengers seat, I’d glance out the exterior mirror, see the line of traffic clogged behind us, and cringe while the driver / photog cluelessly advances twenty miles up the highway.  And when other motorists fly past us on the right, I’d lean way back in the passenger seat so they can’t see me as they glare angrily into our vehicle.

I’ve worked with a handful of photogs who passive-aggressively do the double-nickel on interstates at all times, regardless of the actual speed of surrounding traffic or the haste needed to get to a story on a timely basis. “The station’s not gonna pay for my speeding ticket,” they’ll correctly but bitchily fume while grimly assuming a spot as the slowest vehicle on the road.

I should hasten to add:  The vast majority of photogs with whom I’ve worked are skilled and safe drivers.  The folks I’m writing about here are the exception.

Here’s the weird thing:  When I, the model motorist, encounter crappy drivers, they piss me off.  I automatically judge these strangers to be fools, numbskulls, lowlifes, morons, idiots and / or brain-dead.  (Unless they’re behind the wheel of a Buick Riviera or a Lincoln Town Car, in which case I will judge them to be somebody’s elderly grandparent.)

Yet every single one of these lousy drivers with whom I have worked are otherwise enlightened in the ways of the world, considerate to other people, have above-average intelligence and are not what you’d consider to be elderly.  Most of them are people whose presence has actually brightened my career.  In other words, they aren’t fools, numbskulls, lowlifes, morons, idiots and / or brain-dead.  They’re mostly a credit to humanity and to TV news, except while driving.

Like the photog who sloppily parks his news car overlapping two spaces.  He’s the sweetest friggin’ guy in the building.

Eyes and ears

I had intended to write another annoyed rant about the news media’s use of the word “shooter” to describe a cold blooded killer, but the topic seemed inadequate to the Connecticut school massacre story.  I realized this especially after reading a raw and eloquent Facebook post by one of Atlanta’s best TV reporters, WSB’s Jodie Fleischer.  I can’t really top it.  It’s reposted below in its entirety.

Jodie Fleischer, WSB

Jodie Fleischer, WSB

I am a reporter and a human being. Just like the hundreds of reporters and photographers and producers who are covering this story, we are all crying, inside and out.

We do not show pictures of people grieving to make more money or because it gives us some sort of thrill. We do it because it’s our job to be the eyes and ears for the rest of you. Those images, as horrific as they are for you to see, are even worse in person. Trust me, the devastating images on tv never fully depict what we really see. Yes, sometimes we have to put aside that emotion to do our jobs without looking like bumbling idiots on tv.

Sometimes we just can’t.

In the past 3 days, I’ve seen dozens of Facebook posts criticizing ‘the media’ for not being emotional enough, or for being too emotional showing reporters’ interactions with these grieving families. I’ve seen posts criticizing reporters for interviewing children, who were the majority of the witnesses to this tragedy. Their parents likely made the decision to allow that, because they recognize that the world needs to feel what their children felt.

Reporters are not ‘vultures’ chasing down parents for sport. I have the utmost respect for Emilie Parker’s father for choosing to speak about his beautiful daughter and wanting everyone to know more than just her name.

If you don’t want to see and hear what happened in Connecticut, from the people who lived it, turn off your television. But for the rest of us who can’t stop watching, let’s please allow this to be a platform for meaningful discussions about mental health, guns, and humanity, not opinionated ranting about one political view or another.

I just don’t understand how any rational person could think a deranged lunatic would shoot a bunch of 6 year olds just to get his name in the news. I’m guessing there were other problems in his life, problems that exist for countless others whom we all encounter every day.

Yes, those images my colleagues are sending into your homes are hard to see. They are uncomfortable and disturbing and heartbreaking. I hope we all become better people for recognizing that.

Trust me

Should this woman have talked to me?

Should this woman have talked to me?

The guy had every reason to talk to me on TV. He’d lost business because his neighborhood was getting overrun with Falcons fans. The city wasn’t enforcing codes that might have curbed the onslaught. He had plenty of annoyed company. It seemed like a no-brainer to me.

Of course you should talk to this guy.

Of course you should talk to this guy.

But he wanted nothing to do with my generous offer of a brief on-camera interview. “I see what TV does. You blow things out of proportion. Every time it rains, it’s doomsday. I just don’t want to be a part of that.”

I didn’t argue. He was right. He wouldn’t have been right about my little story. But I couldn’t credibly split that hair with him.

“You’re going to edit this, right?” That question frequently comes at the end of interviews I conduct. The question is asked either hopefully or skeptically. Either way, much of the time, my answer will address the unstated concern: “You better believe I’m going to edit you, and it’ll be completely out of context! You won’t recognize yourself by the time we’re done distorting your remarks.” So far, the line has always gotten a chuckle. It signals my recognition that anybody interviewed wants to be seen saying something contextual. I view this as a moment where I can actually earn a bit of trust. Trust is a rare commodity these days in media relations.

I frequently have to negotiate with potential interview subjects, whose first instinct is to decline but nonetheless stick around long enough to consider the offer.

I used to argue that, by speaking out, the subject can get a problem noticed and perhaps effect desired change.  Sometimes that’s really true.  But I can’t assure that’s actually the case, so I rarely do it now.

“The good news is that because we’re TV, we can’t really misquote you.” This is literally true, but sidesteps the issues of context and potential distortion — although complaints of “distortion” typically come from interviewees who say something they wish afterward that they hadn’t.

“If it’s good, we’ll use it. If it’s not, we won’t.” I will often say this to fence-sitting potential interviewees, and it frequently puts them at ease and makes them agreeable.  The promise is easy to keep.  It goes without saying, however, that I’ll be the judge of what’s “good.”

“Trust me.” That’s something I’m pretty sure I’ve never said and never will say.  Would you trust a TV reporter who used this line?  I immediately becomes suspicious of almost anybody who utters those two words.

We can only make limited assurances about the accuracy and fairness of the stories we’re producing.  We have very little control, however, over the drumbeat of promotion and teases.  If the TV station overblows content with live team coverage or a succession of follow-ups, then viewers and potential interviewees can get uneasy with our generous offers of TV interviews.

It doesn’t help that there’s too much hamhanded writing and breathless delivery of TV stories, and that reporters are the guilty parties.  I’m no exception, especially with an uncomfortably tight deadline.

All that said, here’s the answer to the question:  Of course you should talk to me, on camera.

It’s just easier that way.  And thanks.  It’ll be on at 6.

You choose the lead

Just when you thought the news media was a monolithic entity working in lockstep to exploit advertisers of geriatric medical supplies and to destroy America, there comes this refreshing nugget from the local news in Atlanta GA:

From the AJC

From the AJC

Andrea Sneiderman, the accused master criminal / seductress who, prosecutors say, manipulated one would-be paramour to kill her husband so she could get with another paramour, filed a legal brief last week.  It wasn’t a huge story, but it was significant enough to warrant coverage in the ongoing Sneiderman saga. And varying news organizations chose to stress various aspects of the brief.

It helped that her attorney used an abundance of colorful language to debunk what he called the prosecution’s “fantastical” theory behind Mrs. Sneiderman’s alleged crime.  There was a lot from which to choose.

“Civil attorneys spar over Sneiderman’s love life” was the headline on the AJC’s web site.  Christian Boone wrote the piece, whose first quote was that the accusations against Mrs. Sneiderman were “rife with false allegations.”

Newspaper reporters used to always disclaim the headlines of stories that appeared in print.  Newspaper headlines were, and presumably still are, written by specialists who combined typeface options and sizes to fit the available space above the story.  Some of them are damned clever.  “Ford to City:  Drop Dead” and “Headless Woman in Topless Bar” were much more memorable than the stories that followed.

Joseph Dell with Andrea Sneiderman.  From 11Alive.com

Joseph Dell with Andrea Sneiderman. From 11Alive.com

When I put a story on 11alive.com, I always write the headline.  Though we have a whole pod full of web specialists, the web lacks the space-and-size restrictions that old-school newspaper headline writers deal with.  So reporters write online headlines.  Mine are usually too wordy.

I don’t know if Boone wrote the Sneiderman headline, which was nonetheless catchy and accurate.

On WSB-TV’s site, Mike Petchenik’s piece appears under the headline “Sneiderman denies claims involving 3rd man.”

At WGCL, Renee Starzyk’s headline was an eye-grabber:  “New motions reveal details in Andrea Sneiderman love affair.”  She declined to quote from the brief, however, and instead quoted extensively (as did Petchenik) from an interview with attorney Ken Hodges.  This is the first time I’ve heard of Mrs. Sneiderman’s relationship with Joseph Dell referred to as a “love affair,” a characterization I have thus far avoided.

My story on 11alive.com dipped into the back pages of the brief for a headline:  “Sneiderman: Prosecutors want to enrage Neuman into testifying.”  In this part of the brief, Mrs. Sneiderman’s attorneys contended that prosecutors cooked up the love quadrangle story in order to taunt the jailed Neuman into spitefully appearing on the witness stand to incriminate Mrs. Sneiderman in the murder of her husband.

I stuck to the brief and skipped the outside expertise of Mr. Hodges.  My headline was catchy.  I’ll even go out on a limb and say it was a bit sensational.  I’m OK with that, because it accurately described new information contained in the story.  And my job, among other things, is to draw eyeballs to my TV station’s material.

The news business is often unscientific and, in terms of its decision-making, even a bit sloppy.  Yet the end results frequently make us appear to work in lockstep.

Except for when we don’t.