Category Archives: AJC

The awkward chase

Believe it or not, I actually like some Georgia politicians.  My favorites, of course, are the ones who return my calls / texts and readily agree to interviews on short notice.  Atlanta city councilman Michael Julian Bond is one of them.

Michael Julian Bond dodges Catie Beck

Michael Julian Bond dodges Catie Beck

So yeah, I cringed a bit when I found out that my new-ish coworker, WXIA investigative reporter Catie Beck, was producing a story about Bond’s use of his city council expense account to pay for personal stuff.  The evidence was convincing.  Catie had the story cold.

Then came the follow up — after the original story — when Bond took a plane trip to Boston and Catie and photog Shawn Hoder followed him there.  He’d gotten the city to pay for his travel to a conference that he never attended.  Catie not only had the story cold, but Bond had been nailed a second time for the same offense.

It was not an attractive moment for a guy I liked and respected.

Catie Beck, WXIA

Catie Beck, WXIA

(By the way, Catie and Shawn and another new-to-Atlanta investigative reporter, Brendan Keefe, are three excellent reasons why you people — and I’m pointing and wagging my finger here — ought to be glued to the news programming of WXIA-TV!)

Councilman Bond had many fans at WXIA.  We could call him day, night or weekends and if he could help us do our jobs, he would.

Tuesday, Common Cause Georgia planned to appear at the Atlanta city council meeting to call for Bond’s resignation.  Catie and Shawn had a double-secret investigative shoot planned for that day, so I got to cover it.

I called Bond.  He answered the phone.  “It’s Doug from your favorite TV station…” I started, a weak effort to lighten the overture.  I heard silence.  I stammered on, requesting an interview.

Not gonna do it, Bond answered.  He said he felt like he hadn’t gotten a fair shake from my TV station.  In particular, he didn’t like the station ballyhooing the investigative story in promotional spots.

The complaints sounded nitpicky, but perhaps understandable coming from a proud guy who, a few days earlier, had essentially admitted to the central facts of Catie’s story to the city ethics agency.

“Your organization has treated me shabbily,” he concluded.  The phone conversation ended cordially.  Bond wasn’t blaming me personally, but was disinclined to play ball with the news organization that had exposed his behavior.

At the city council meeting, I saw Bond exit his seat and head toward the door to the foyer.  Mike Zakel and I bolted from the press room and spotted him in a public hallway.  I stood there with a mic.  Yes, Bond had already told me “no” to an interview.  I had to ask him again with Zakel’s camera recording it.

Councilman Bond declines to chat

Councilman Bond declines to chat

It was an awkward moment.  “I know you’re recording me,” he said.  “Yes sir, we are,” I answered.  I asked a question.  He stopped and calmly reminded me that he had declined my earlier request for an interview.  “I wanted to give you another chance,” I said.  Bond demurred again.

At that point, I might have started firing specific questions at him, knowing he wouldn’t answer and knowing he would probably walk away.  Instead, I backed off and let him return to the council chamber.  I had what I needed.

“Good to see you, Doug,” Bond said as we parted company, a moment of civility that Bond could have easily skipped.

Elaine Boyer. AJC photo

Elaine Boyer. AJC photo

When DeKalb County commissioner Elaine Boyer appeared in federal court last year following a guilty plea, it set up another awkward moment.  Boyer was another politician I liked.  She was especially helpful providing interviews about the misbehavior of other politicians.

Boyer was about to enter a guilty plea to a charge of misusing county funds, an allegation first exposed by the AJC.

When I entered the courtroom, I walked up to the defense table and said hi.  Boyer smiled and greeted me, as she always had.  And then she looked at me and said: “I’m sorry.”

I was too.

 

Highlights from an election season

photo(6)Covering the 2014 election has been fulfilling and entertaining.  It’s also been very “clubby.” I can count on seeing the same reporters from WSB and the AJC at most events that I cover, with occasional visits from WABE and GPB radio.  I almost never see reporters from WAGA or WGCL.

I can understand why news managers might decide to pass on politics.  Specifically, audience research tends to show that political coverage isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser.  I suspect that TV viewers are so annoyed by political commercials that they don’t want to see another layer of their least-favorite pols taking up valuable dog-rescue space on the local news.

I’m very grateful that my two supervisors, Ellen Crooke and Matt King, have opted to interpret  that research within the framework of a TV newsroom’s traditional responsibilities to ask reasonable questions of those seeking positions of power.

My moments covering politics have included some pretty great highlights, including but not limited to

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

  • Spotting the image of WXIA photog Mike Zakel looming ominously in an anti-Jason Carter Republican Governors Association ad;
  • Spotting my cast-covered right wrist holding a mic in another anti-Carter ad (my still-broken wrist is improving, thanks);
  • Taking my mom, who is visiting from California and took me to my first political rally as a ten-year old, to the debates at the fairgrounds in Perry.   (We watched 5-7 year olds competitively ride sheep beforehand.)
  • Abundant emails in my inbox from candidates and their surrogates that aggressively suggest stories about why the other guy sucks;
  • Suggesting (and getting) a do-over from a candidate who awkwardly walked away in the middle of a contentious Q&A;
  • Getting that candidate to subsequently vow to never again walk away in the middle of a press scrum;
  • Getting a grammatically incorrect emailed statement from a candidate’s PR person — which I ran as-is when the publicist declined my suggestion to correct the grammar;
  • Watching two lesser-known statewide candidates crash a Jason Carter press conference;

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

  • Watching “women for Michelle Nunn” and “women for Nathan Deal” events get crashed by women backing their opponents;
  • Getting accused (incorrectly) by the staff of one candidate of attending a fundraiser for that candidate’s opponent;
  • Nearly getting Rep. Jack Kingston to play on my over-45 old-guy baseball team;
  • Seeing a retired WAGA assignment editor, Tammy Lloyd Clabby, at a Women for Nunn rally, decrying salary inequality in the news business.

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

As with much of our business, there is a sometimes tense, often amusing love-hate relationship candidates and their staff have with the news media.  Campaigns will occasionally issue press releases citing some story I’ve done (or the AJC or WSB) as proof positive of why their opponent isn’t fit to breathe the air of the Peach State, much less run for office.  Conversely, the same campaigns are quick to bust out text messages or emails squawking about a perfectly reasonable story that they wish I’d handled differently or overlooked completely.

photoThe adjacent text message exchange exemplifies it perfectly.  The text writer (we’ll call him “Brian,” the publicist for a GOP incumbent seeking re-election) had clobbered me for a story I’d done a few days earlier, then subsequently offered a hint of praise for another story.  This prompted me to ask him, tongue in cheek, to “make up your mind” about whether I was a right- or left-wing stooge.

His answer resulted in a genuine out-loud guffaw.  (He also agreed to let me post it here, knowing that you’d probably figure out who “Brian” is.)

Point being:  Those news entities that have sidestepped covering politics should maybe reconsider.  Lord knows, the campaigns are filling the coffers of their TV stations with cash from sweet, sweet political advertising.  One could argue that their viewers deserve a chance to see those people in a real-world context, answering questions posed by genuine newsm’n and women.

Plus, they’d further distract the already-overworked staffs of the candidates, perhaps divert their affection and ire, and add to an already gloriously-confused story.

 

Ernie, Blayne and Ferguson

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

The eruption of Ferguson MO deserved the attention it got, yet covering a riot can be a bit problematic.  WXIA’s Blayne Alexander went to provide some backup for Gannett-owned KSDK and ended up spending a week in the St. Louis suburb.  She returned to Atlanta and delivered a reporter’s notebook piece on WXIA’s weekend news, viewable here.  Excerpt:

  • The anger. It was thick. You could feel it in the air. I spent my nights in the protest zone, what we came to know as ground zero. Even for reporters, every night, the threat of getting tear gassed was very real. Just before a live report one night, I had to jump away from the camera and dive into a car just go get out of the way of the gas. And i was still hit. It was a battle. It was unreal.

A kid named Ryan Schueller, freelancing for Al-Jazeera, wrote a blog post about what he viewed as the horrors of the media siege in Ferguson.  It’s got a deer-in-the-headlights quality to it, but his observations are worth a click. 

Ernie Suggs of the AJC wrote a lively / amusing / harrowing first-person piece after spending a week in Ferguson.  The entire piece is behind a paywall here, and worth the click.  I’ve lifted a few lines below.

 

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Police lined Ferguson Street and were beginning to push the protesters down West Florissant Avenue. A loud, piercing noise filled the air, which was already thick with tear gas.

People were running full out down the street. At McDonald’s, a group of frightened workers peered out the window, as if caged. Panicked marchers banged on the doors, begging for water to soothe their stinging eyes. A man picked up a brick and threw it, fracturing the plate glass window. When it didn’t fully break, he picked up another brick to finish the job.

It was 9:15 p.m. I had been on the street less than 30 seconds. (…)

I spotted Yamiche Alcindor, the national breaking news reporter for USA Today.

“Is this what you signed up for?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

But I was scared. In all my years as a reporter, I had never been in anything like this.

Thousands of angry protesters. Hundreds of police officers. Gallons of tear gas. And countless rounds of bullets, even if they were supposed to be rubber.

(Much respect to my colleagues who cover real wars.)

I had two major concerns: Getting shot by some knucklehead and getting a direct tear gas hit.

I called Blayne Alexander, a WXIA reporter who was also in town covering events. Straight to voicemail.

Reporters were getting caught up in the crowd. The cops were like bulldozers, smashing everything in their path.

When the helicopter above us began shining a light on the crowd, tear gas followed, then gunshots. The tear gas pushed people straight back. The gunshots made people scatter.

I fell to my knees and crawled.

We made it to the residential section of West Florissant and were hit with another volley of tear gas. Then bullets.

I ran into a yard, where I was face to face with a dude with a gun. It was pointed right at my gut, although he wasn’t pointing the gun at me.

“Y’all don’t want to come down here. Y’all don’t …”

I didn’t wait for him to say it twice. Yamiche was on my heels when I turned around and pushed her away, shouting, “Gun!!!”

I kept asking myself, where are we expected to go?

 

Holsteins and the helipad

Wednesday was a classic, a humbling day in the life of your friendly neighborhood TV reporter.  It was humbling for two reasons:  I spent part of it awkwardly stalking the governor of Georgia; and was doing so in pursuit of a story broken two days earlier by another TV station.TV-ad-4001

Monday, WAGA ballyhooed a big interview with Holly LaBerge, the embattled director of Georgia’s ethics commission.  Mrs. LAF and I actually cranked up the TV set and sat on the couch, 1950s style, to watch the report on their 10pm news.  I actually gasped when I saw the revelation of the memo LaBerge wrote documenting what she described as an intimidating phone call from the governor’s staff.  Good story, Dale Russell, I thought.  Damn your eyes.

Tuesday, the AJC appeared in my driveway with an “AJC exclusive” that had the same info as Russell’s story.  The “exclusive” also cited Russell’s exclusive interview with LaBerge, thus broadening the already-overused word to include exclusive coverage of your competitor’s exclusive material.

Tuesday, I followed Russell’s story with no pretense to exclusivity.  An Open Records Act request for the LaBerge memo was fruitful, as was my request to interview her attorney. (“I said my piece to Dale Russell” LaBerge answered when I phoned her, politely referring me to the lawyer.  Damn your eyes, Russell.)

By Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal still hadn’t talked at any length about the memo and the allegation his office had intimidated his hand-picked ethics director.  His spokesman gave me a vague “maybe, maybe not” response to my request for an interview.

So photog Steven Boissy and I wandered to the Capitol Wednesday morning.  I’ve never really staked out the Capitol with the hope of having an unscheduled encounter with the Governor.

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

But that’s how Wednesday began.  I believed that Gov. Deal was at an event but returning to the Capitol.  I didn’t know whether he was traveling by car or helicopter.  His SUV was absent from its usual parking space, leading me to believe he was probably in it.

Boissy and I hung around outside the Capitol, a building whose grounds have surprisingly little space for comfortable and inconspicuous loitering.  We found a spot that might have allowed us to see Gov. Deal arrive by car, and waited.

There was no place to sit.  The sun was shining and getting hotter.  Our stakeout spot was out of eyeshot of windows to the Governor’s office, and away from Capitol police perches.  One security guard walked past us but said nothing except “good morning.” We waited, maybe, thirty minutes.  I felt ridiculous and conspicuous and spent much of the time figuring out a) what to say when somebody questioned why we were hanging around there, and b) what to do after this gambit failed.

Boissy and I read obscure historic inscriptions, noted the surrounding flora and observed the increasing intensity of the sunshine. We discussed varying breeds of cattle, a subject in which we both share a surprising interest.

Our smalltalk dwindled rapidly.

And then we heard a helicopter.

It bore down on the new helipad built atop the new parking garage across from the Capitol’s southeast corner.  Boissy and I scurried over, and saw the governor’s SUV parked outside the garage at a door.  His usual driver was behind the wheel.

The stakeout concludes

The stakeout concludes

The Governor exited the building.  I didn’t bum-rush him, but called from a respectful distance and asked if he would stop to chat.  “What about?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.

“Our office has already issued a statement about that,” he said.  I said I’d like to clarify some of what the statement said.  “OK, sure,” he answered.

What followed was a four minute chat wherein he challenged the accuracy of my first question, then proceeded to interlace his answers with questions for me that seemed to challenge the veracity of LaBerge’s memo.  He was lively and a bit more contentious than we usually see him.  He obviously wanted to talk.  The unedited interview is here.

Midway into our  Q&A, I saw a WSB mic flag pop into view alongside mine.  Richard Elliott had popped up, seemingly out of nowhere.

Elliott got what he needed without the indignity of the awkward stakeout. 

Damn your eyes.

Guns everywhere

Brant Sanderlin, AJC

Brant Sanderlin, AJC

You’ll find lots of self-congratulation — but rarely much news — when a Governor signs a bill into law.  But Gov. Nathan Deal’s signing of HB60 — the “guns everywhere” bill — had some entertaining twists.  Some observations:

There were perhaps two hundred supporters at the outdoor pavilion along the Coosawattee River in Ellijay to watch.  I didn’t see a single person of color.

There were guns everywhere.  The holstered handgun was the accessory of choice among supporters.

Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP photo

Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP photo

One supporter held a full-sized old school Georgia flag with the confederate battle emblem.  It probably got in every TV story.

House Speaker David Ralston’s statement to the roaring crowd that “it is a community where we cling to religion and guns” was the rhetorical highlight.

When Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun) gave a welcoming statement saying he’d “even welcome the news media.  (Pause) I’m not sure why,” it was tempting to answer out loud “because you love the first amendment as much as you love the second amendment.”  But that would have just started an argument.

Gov. Deal seemed stumped when I asked him three times, in various ways, why guns continue to be banished from the state capitol.  Deal is usually pretty nimble on his feet, but he never answered the question.  My story on WXIA featured the exchange.

The issue about guns in the capitol was a rare opportunity to ask a challenging question that expressed viewpoints  by those for and against broader gun rights.  I suspect it will be asked again in the fall debates.  Presumably, Gov. Deal (and Sen. Jason Carter, who supported the measure) will have formulated a coherent answer by then.

On the other hand, Greg Bluestein of the AJC and Jonathan Shapiro of WABE radio asked questions that were more relevant to issues raised by the new law.  It’s always fun to see a WABE reporter gathering news outside the perimeter.

Riley, left, gets into position

Riley, left, gets into position

As he walked to his car, I asked Deal if he was “afraid” to have guns in the capitol.  He didn’t answer, and we chose to edit out that question because it sounded disrespectful.

That night, the AJC reported that Carter also dodged a reporter trying to question him about the gun law.

Our video of Gov. Deal walking to his car prominently featured the shoulder of Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff.  When Riley saw us by the Governor’s black SUV, he positioned himself in front of the camera lens, and leaned into the lens as WXIA photog Luke Carter tried to move to get a clear shot.  It was the discreet version of the hand-in-the-lens shot.  Riley apologized to Carter afterward.  Well played, Riley.

After the event, I ran into two lawmakers at a restaurant who drove from metro Atlanta to support the event.  In a poorly phrased question, I asked them if they thought I was “a dick” for raising the issue about guns at the capitol.  “Not at all,” one of them said.  “That’s what it’s all about.”

Photos not allowed

ajc bill campbellThere’s undoubtedly some sound business rationale behind the AJC’s decision to eliminate nearly half of its photo staff.

Everybody and their dog is carrying a camera these days.  The most talked-about images — the ones that are “trending” — tend to be self-shot.  Or from surveillance video.  Or from paparazzi stalking celebs.

Used to be that compelling photos helped to sell newspapers.  We all know how that’s trending.

So the AJC is saying that photos don’t matter as much as they used to, which means that it’s all but giving up on an essential element of newsgathering.

When history documents events, the photos often record the emotion of the moment.  The press photographer records scenes, while writers gather information that often overlook the broader scenery — or the isolated moments within.

When the AJC’s Joey Ivansco recorded the scrum that surrounded former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell’s March 2006 conviction in the above photo — which I saved for obvious reasons — I had no clue that the side image was remotely compelling.  The photo shows energy (and maybe a bit of confusion), contrasting the almost serene image of the mayor calmly listening to an undoubtedly convoluted question from yours truly.

The AJC ran the photo across the entire front page.  This weekend, a former AJC photog told me that there’s now an edict against such prominent photo placement.

Now, the AJC can continue to rely on reporters to competently shoot photos that aren’t especially challenging.  The newspaper can do screen-grabs of WSB-TV footage.  Thank goodness WSB isn’t thinning its photographer ranks.

And there’s always the stuff submitted from readers, nearly all of whom are carrying cameras these days.

But it doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.

The illuminati

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed meets with AABJ members

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed meets with AABJ members

For one brief, exciting moment last week, I was a walk-on member of the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.

It was exhilarating.  It was awkward.

A face in the crowd

A face in the crowd

I needed to talk to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about the Peachtree Road Race.  My station, WXIA, had gotten results Monday morning from a scientific poll which asked, among other things, about the public’s desire to see increased security at the Peachtree.

Reed has a 10:30 meeting with the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, somebody said.  Off I went with Mike Zakel.

Neither of us was a member of the AABJ.  Though both of us may be categorized as “journalist,” and we both gather news in Atlanta, we appeared to lack the third key qualification of membership.

We arrived in the lobby of the mayor’s office.  The receptionist pointed to a door off the lobby.  “They’re in there,” she said.

“Is Kasim in there?” I asked.  She answered affirmatively.  It was 10:33 am.  Reed is famously punctual, unlike me.

Morse Diggs, WAGA

Morse Diggs, WAGA

I opened the door.  The first person I identified was Mo Diggs, the WAGA reporter who has spent decades rattling cages around city hall.  Scanning the conference room table, I recognized at least two AJC reporters.  The mayor was at the head of the table, speaking informally.  There were no notebooks on the table.  It was clearly an off-the-record chat.

There were about a dozen people in the room.  All of them appeared to have the key AABJ qualification that I lacked.

I closed the door behind me and sat at a chair along a wall behind the table.  If Mo Diggs was in the room, then by gosh, I was gonna be there too.

My eyes met with those of Sonji Jacobs Dade, Reed’s communications director.  She was seated next to the mayor.  Sonji has a lovely smile, and she directed it toward me.  But the smile and the gaze lingered.  I could detect wheels turning in her head.

I sat and listened.  Act like you belong there is a rule that often guides me in the news biz.

Sonji Jacobs Dade

Sonji Jacobs Dade

It took about three minutes for Sonji to rise from her seat.  She and Eric Sturgis, the workhorse AJC reporter and president of the AABJ, walked toward me.  They led me out of the conference room.

This is a members-only event for the AABJ, Sonji started.  The mayor’s office put this together at their request.  It’s a private meeting.  This isn’t a press conference.  Though she wasn’t kicking me out, she appeared to be laying the factual groundwork to convince me that I belonged outside.

“So you’ve checked the membership credentials of everybody in the room?” I asked.

I’m pretty sure everybody in there is a member, she answered.

“How do you know I’m not a member?” I asked.  There was an awkward pause.

Sonji regrouped.  Here’s the deal.  There are ground rules.  The first part of the meeting is off-the-record.  Midway into the meeting, we’ll open it up for on-the-record questions.  I just want to make sure you’re aware of the ground rules and that you’ll abide by them.

“Works for me,” I said.  We returned to the room.  I took my seat against the wall.  I also took the opportunity to imagine myself in the shoes of Sonji and Sturgis.  Reed has private meetings all day long.  This was, admittedly, a gray area.  On one hand, they were generous for allowing me to crash their private meeting.  On the other hand, I’d kind of backed them into an uncomfortable corner.

That afternoon, I sent Sonji an email acknowledging the awkwardness of the encounter, and thanking her for handling it as well as one could have hoped.

Later in the week, I saw Mo Diggs at another story.  When I worked at WAGA, Diggs’ cubicle was two seats from mine.  “I need you to sponsor my membership in the AABJ,” I told him.

He laughed.  “Oh, I’m not a member either.”