Category Archives: AJC

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.”

Changing the question

For much of the last month, I’ve produced a steady drumbeat of stories about the project to build a new football stadium.   The story — and the project — is intriguing.  It seemed audacious to suggest the Georgia Dome was obsolete.  I’ve been in Atlanta 27 years, and went to a couple of Falcons games at Atlanta-Fulton County stadium.  The Georgia Dome still seems “new” to me.

Atlanta Fulton County Stadium

Atlanta Fulton County Stadium

Once you get past that, and once you accept that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is talking seriously about building his own open-air stadium in the suburbs if the state doesn’t help him replace the Dome (and many think Blank is bluffing), then the arguments to not not build the project become compelling.

  • If the Falcons leave, the Dome loses its biggest tenant and much of its revenue stream;
  • The stadium is an essential selling point for the Georgia World Congress Center, one of the world’s premier convention facilities;
  • Conventions — including stadium events — are the lifeblood of Atlanta’s tourism business, a huge moneymaker;
  • Blank wants to contribute $700 million to the project, giving the state and the Falcons a billion dollar stadium in exchange for a $300 million tax contribution, plus the cost of city infrastructure improvements;
  • If Blank builds another stadium, it would essentially become a competitor to the Dome;
  • The Dome without an NFL franchise quickly becomes the Astrodome, an aging and pathetic white elephant hosting tractor pulls and motocross, while requiring gobs of state money for upkeep.
The Astrodome is the giant relic next to Reliant Stadium, where the Houston Texans play football.

The Astrodome is the giant relic next to Reliant Stadium, where the Houston Texans play football.

This mostly puts aside the politics of contributing hotel-motel tax money.  The hotel-motel tax, paid by visitors to Atlanta, is specifically dedicated to the World Congress Center and a few other entities.  Yet it’s still tax money.  The legislature could pass a bill to put it in the state’s general fund and spend it on transportation, teacher salaries or something else.

Two days before Gov. Deal asked the Falcons to reshape its proposal– asking to reduce the hotel-motel tax contribution to the project from $300 million to $200 million — 11Alive conducted a poll on the stadium question.  The response arguably shifted the debate, showing less public opposition to the project than suggested by previous polls.

An 11Alive poll conducted in February 2012 showed 74% of Georgians opposed public funding for a new stadium.  The survey generically asked about “using tax dollars to pay for a portion” of the project.

A Cox poll conducted of “metro Atlanta residents” in December asks “do you favor hotel/motel tax providing $300 million our of (sic) $1.1 billion in funding?”  There was a similar Cox poll in January (though it’s apparently impossible to find the actual poll data in AJC and WSB stories).  Both put opposition at 67 – 73 percent.

The 11Alive News poll question, which I wrote,  actually explained the hotel-motel tax, saying  “the hotel-motel tax is collected from visitors to Atlanta paying for hotel rooms, and was used to build the Georgia Dome.”  It lacked snappy brevity, I’ll admit.

The Georgia Dome, possibly the most unimaginatively named stadium in America.

The Georgia Dome, possibly the most unimaginatively named stadium in America.

Countless people had told me they didn’t understand the funding for the stadium.  They assumed the stadium project would compete, in the traditional sense,  for funding for  other state programs.  Neutral lawmakers and backers of the project likewise griped that plain folks didn’t understand the funding scheme.

So I changed the question, sacrificing brevity for a bit of context.  The results showed strong opposition, but that it settled closer to 50-50 than 70-30.

Some commenters on Peach Pundit suggested that I’d skewed the question to bump the approval rating.  I would argue that we changed the question to account for Georgians’ well-known anti-tax tendencies, and to see if the type of tax involved actually matters.  Though there’s much truth to the argument that a tax is a tax is a tax, the respondents in our poll had ample opportunity to apply that position to the more-contextual question.

Until this poll, I’d been among the many reporters who routinely characterized the stadium project as being wildly unpopular among voters.  Now I’ll have to find a more contextual phrase to describe it.

It’s my own damned fault.

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.

Fire the publicists

The political communications business is much uglier than it used to be.  When I call a publicist, it’s frequently a crapshoot:  Will I be talking with somebody who actually facilitates communication?  Or will I get an obstructionist, somebody who applies the anything-goes absurdity of political campaigning to the business of communicating with the news media?

Too often, it’s the latter.  Although most publicists still work with old-school professionalism — with timely, face-value responses to reasonable inquiries — there are too many who automatically assume that Mainstream Media inquiries equal a pending attack.  Therefore the response is automatically defensive, or a proactive counterattack.

“Go ahead with your liberal hit-job,” one congressional publicist sneered at one of my coworkers some months ago, when he inquired about something-or-other that was outside the publicist’s comfort zone.

“You’ve got two strikes against you.  Third strike, and you’re cut off” another local government publicist told another of my coworkers, when the coworker gently suggested he adjust his almost laughably unprofessional behavior.

This brings us to the lamentable firing of John Kennedy.

John Kennedy, former Atlanta airport spokesman

Kennedy was a longtime publicist for Delta Air Lines.  He was hired by the city of Atlanta to run the communications division of Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.  It was a smart move.  Kennedy knows aviation, knows the airport and knows communications.

The city won’t say why Kennedy and his two communications underlings were fired.  All three were rated “highly effective” in personnel evaluations obtained by WXIA and the AJC.

Whenever I phoned Kennedy, I always got the communication-facilitator described above, rather than the paranoid political hack who assumed the worst.  Kennedy was smart, experienced and and knew news (as well as aviation and city politics), but was also appropriately guarded.  He viewed challenging news queries through the prism of public relations, and how the end product might affect the public image of the airport and City Hall.  He struck a perfectly reasonable balance between transparency, caution and spin.

Kennedy reportedly got caught in the gears of city politics after some unflattering stories appeared on WAGA and in the AJC about the new international terminal which opened over the summer.  The stories undoubtedly angered Mayor Kasim Reed.  Kennedy, it appears, became a fall guy for problems created far outside the airport communications office.

Was Kennedy supposed to somehow kill the unflattering stories?  “Spin” the truth into something that suited city hall?  Deny the existence of evidence?

Maybe there’s another side to this story, but the city has declined to tell it.  Kennedy’s firing was barely a blip on the news radar.  But news-biz insiders noticed because we respected Kennedy’s unwavering professionalism.

The best publicists are the ones who earn the respect of their potential adversaries — rather than the ones who strive merely for “attaboys” from within their own echo chambers. These days, a lot of politicians seem to think that all you need is a well-managed Facebook page to sell your story.  They overlook the fact that all those links on Twitter and Facebook still tend to come from mainstream-type media.

Those folks need publicists who can juggle the demands of internal politics with the sometimes unpredictable demands of news goons tromping through your airport.

Kennedy was one of those guys

Media relations still matter.  When you fire the guy who mastered that game, you only hurt yourself.

The commentariat

The best and worst thing about blogs is the “comments” section.  This blog has had 3967 comments (not including a couple dozen I’ve deleted), and I’ve read every word of each of them.  Blog commentary can be illuminating.  Because the comment-makers can stay anonymous, they can also be horrifying, ugly, personal and hateful.   The AJC’s blogs — which appear to lack moderators, who would have the discretion to delete over-the-top, pointless commentary — are outstanding examples of the latter.

Unfortunately, blog commentary is the closest thing Atlanta has to news media analysis nowadays.

Without any judgmental prose, Jim Galloway posted the above video of Monica Pearson’s lamentable encounter with Beverly Hall.  The commentary, critical of Pearson and Hall, drove the storyline.  Yet most of it missed the salient point:  WSB spent a bunch of money to send Pearson to Hawaii to find and interview Hall, only to get an on-camera apology from Pearson for “invading your privacy.”

No apologies! Rod Gelatt, University of Missouri professor emeritus guy

(Back in the ’70s, J-school professors named Gelatt, Gafke, Dugan, Utsler, Morris and others pounded a point to we callow students at Mizzou:  Never apologize for doing your job as a reporter — especially when pursuing an evasive public figure implicated in a big-time scandal.)

Elsewhere at the AJC, Rodney Ho’s Radio and TV column lacked any mention of this remarkable gaffe by Atlanta TV’s highest-profile personality.

The absence of coverage is almost certainly a function of the newfound integration of the Cox-owned WSB and AJC properties.  AJC reporters, booted from their longtime Marietta St. HQ, now occupy space in the WSB building at 1601 Peachtree St.  The pages of the AJC now promote WSB material as a matter of course.  The newspaper’s long-running disclaimer — WSB-TV is owned by Cox Enterprises, which also owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — is no longer used when mentioning WSB.  The merger of the two news organizations is all-but complete.

(Quaintly, WABE-FM still uses a disclaimer whenever reporting on the Atlanta Board of Education, which owns the NPR affiliate.)

In the 1980s and 90s, the AJC expended some noteworthy energy and talent covering the local TV news biz.  A writer named Gerry Yandel frequently mentioned talent moves and sweeps pieces produced by the various TV stations.  Another writer named Drew Jubera once wrote a lengthy piece wherein he watched local news for an entire month and analyzed what he saw, a clever and amusing snapshot of a significant element of local life in Atlanta.  Both wrote critically of WSB, treating it no differently than WXIA, WAGA or WGCL / WGNX.  And their pieces always used the disclaimer.

Ho writes irregularly about hires and departures in Atlanta TV news during gaps in his coverage of commercial radio and American Idol.  Apart from that, his last substantial piece about local news was a profile of Dagmar Midcap.  That was three years ago.

So who’s going to write thoughtful analysis of local news — print, radio or TV?  Not me.  I don’t have time.  Nor do any other bloggers, apparently.

So it’ll stay unruly, occasionally enlightening and frequently ugly as the commentariat fills the void.

Seeing red

"News team! Assemble!" Doug Richards, Julie Wolfe, Jerry Carnes, Matt Pearl, Ted Hall, Blayne Alexander

The long-awaited report into test cheating at the Atlanta Public Schools system was, journalistically, the paperwork equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.  Everywhere you turned, there was a head-spinning story.  Wednesday morning, Ellen Crooke recognized this prior to the start of the morning editorial meeting..  This commenced a most unusual half-week for reporters at WXIA, as well as our viewers.

Wednesday morning, every person in the editorial meeting was assigned to read a portion of the 800 page (or 400, depending on how you counted) report — managers, photographers, interns, reporters, everybody.  The meeting broke up, then reconvened 45 minutes later.  During that 45 minutes, there was more noise in the newsroom than I’d heard in months — mostly, the audible gasps of people reading, then sharing passages from the report.

For the next two days, WXIA focused single-mindedly on reporting the contents of the report and the consequences thereof.   And even the newsroom’s eye-rolling cynics were on board.  This story was bigger than Snowmageddon 2011, the last story that got whole-staff treatment.

Of course, not everybody agreed.  WXIA’s Facebook page got a few squawks from suburbanites who felt that an inner-city cheating scandal didn’t concern them.  What about “other” news? they asked.  They could have found it on the other Atlanta stations, which led some of their newscasts with a fatal house fire.

The same Facebook page also had praise for appropriately focusing on, arguably, the biggest local story of the year.

Some were also amused by Crooke’s decision to clad her field reporters in matching red 11 Alive polo shirts.  “Is that for real?” wrote one guy on another Facebook site.  “What year is this, 1974?”  The matching shirts gave the station’s audience visual reinforcement that everybody was on the same page, covering aspects of the same big story.  I get it.

(Regrettably, I hadn’t brought mine to work Thursday.  Somebody tossed me a new one.  When I got to the live shot location, I learned the shirt was a women’s XL.  I now know that women’s polo shirts have very, very short sleeves.  When photog Steve Flood offered to lend me a generic men’s red polo from his news car, I took it and hoped nobody would notice.)

(It would be easy to blame myself for my regrettable pose above, marring an otherwise amusing photo taken by the legendary Al Ashe.  I blame the shirt.  Flood’s clothes look great on Flood.  Perhaps I should have stuck with the women’s XL.)

It gets lost in the shuffle, but I can’t overlook the fact that this story would have never emerged had not the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broken it months ago by merely checking CRCT scores and examining the improbability of some of them.  They did it at a time that the newspaper was cutting staff and fighting for its very survival.

It’s a story that could have easily gone untold, were it not for the “lamestream” commercial news media.  Just imagine…

Amateur hour


Most politicians, and their staffs, have sense enough to avoid the hamhanded treatment Gov. Nathan Deal gave WAGA Friday.  It inevitably hurts the politician, not the news organization.  It happened to Deal Friday.

Banished! Brian Robinson, with an assist from two state troopers, overreacts to WAGA's Justin Gray

Deal’s communications director Brian Robinson ordered state troopers to banish WAGA from a high-profile news conference.  A day earlier,WAGA’s Dale Russell reported on campaign payments made to Deal’s daughter-in-law.

Russell’s story was low-impact compared to pieces done about Deal during the campaign outlining numerous issues that raised questions about the candidate.   Russell’s piece was a clean hit.  It raised reasonable questions.  Notably, Deal’s office declined comment — although the campaign’s chairman talked to Russell on camera.

The significance or fairness of Russell’s story is irrelevant here.  (In a conversation with me Friday, the only inaccuracy Robinson cited was Russell misidentifying Deal’s campaign chairman as “campaign manager.”)  Robinson felt the piece was a smear.  For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right.  Robinson is fiery and fiercely protective of his boss.  Robinson was instrumental in helping Deal rise from the third tier of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls to capture the nomination, then beating former Governor Roy Barnes in November.  Normally, he knows what he’s doing.

He botched this one in a big way.

Russell’s story was a mere blip on Friday’s political landscape until the moment Robinson decided to seek retribution on WAGA by banishing Justin Gray and photog Eric Len from Deal’s presser.  It was the lead on WAGA’s noon newscast.  Within minutes, it was on social media.  At 2:54pm, it was on Peach Pundit.   At 3:54, it was on Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.  At 6:21, it was posted to WSB and WGCL’s sites,via a CNN writeup (partly written by ex-WAGA guy Gustavo Valdes, who’s seen in the video holding an iPhone saying “CNN coming through!”).

"Clearly, it was not a good day for the Governor's office." Brenda Wood on WXIA, talking about WAGA and Deal.

In its 7pm newscast, WXIA’s Brenda Wood delivered a commentary condemning the Governor’s reaction.  “Talk about overstepping your boundaries,” she said.

Each story made reference to Dale Russell’s original story, giving the report legs it would have probably never gotten otherwise.  Russell’s original piece is embedded below.

“What else am I supposed to do?” Robinson asked me during our phone conversation late Friday afternoon, though he wasn’t really interested in the answer.  Robinson wanted to turn the conversation toward the finer points of his dispute with Russell’s story.

If you want to hear Robinson’s side of it, click here.  He debated Russell on a WGKA radio show Friday night.  (Click on “Brian vs Dale Round 2.”)

But the rest of the media coverage never touched on that, and he knew that it wouldn’t.  Instead, the other media gave a thumbnail sketch of Russell’s reporting, and focused on the the Governor’s office’s unusual reaction to a story most other media wouldn’t have otherwise followed.

It’s worth noting that banishing WAGA from the news conference accomplished almost nothing.   WAGA aired video from the news conference shot by WXIA, given to WAGA at the direction of news director Ellen Crooke.  WGCL also offered WAGA a copy of its video.

By the way, Deal was within his rights to be selective about whom to invite to his presser.  It’s not a “public” event, like a legislative committee hearing.  Politicians play favorites with the news media, but it’s usually subtle.   Banishing a longstanding news organization from a news conference isn’t illegal.  It’s just dumb.

Here’s the answer to Robinson’s “what can I do” question:  You gripe to the news organization that you feel wronged you.   If the report was a malicious smear, hire a lawyer and sue the news organization.  Otherwise, you keep it in perspective.  You don’t get emotional.  You take your lumps, as you’ve done in the past.

If the report merely painted your guy a little unfavorably, you take extra care to not make it worse.  Deal’s office should have done that Friday.

Photo withheld

Accused: Antonio Cardenas-Rico

This post has been updated and corrected to reflect the fact that WSB-TV also blurred the photo of Antonio Cardenas-Rico.

I covered the stabbing deaths of two children Thursday, and immediately faced one of those journalistic conundrums.  Perplexing as that was, it was compounded by the fact that my competitors handled it completely differently than I did.

Gwinnett police arrested a guy early Thursday morning.  They announced the arrest, and a news conference in a press release.  Within the press release was this plea:  Please don’t publish / broadcast the mug shot of the suspect.

Thankfully, I don’t cover crime much anymore.  But back in the day, we took requests like this very seriously.  As in most such cases, Gwinnett cops told us that they needed to use the mug shot in a photo lineup.  By publishing the mug shot, they argue, the value of the photo lineup — presented to witnesses to verify the identity of the bad guy — becomes worthless.

Here’s the problem:  Police overplay this “we don’t want you to harm the investigation” card constantly. They use it as an excuse to withhold basic information about crimes.  Lately, cops have used it to withhold the identity of those arrested — public information which falls within the “right to know” realm of a free society.  “Because the investigation is ongoing, we can’t answer” basic questions, they say.  In so doing, they overlook the fact that every criminal investigation is “ongoing” up to the moment that the alleged bad guy’s case is adjudicated.  It’s a blanket excuse for cops to clam up.  And reporters rarely challenge it.

Nobody in the news media wants to harm a criminal investigation.  When a case is less than 24 hours old — as was the case when Gwinnett police arrested Antonio Cardenas-Rico Thursday morning on two counts of murder — the “you’ll harm the investigation” argument has much more credibility.

Murdered: 3 year old Bradley Garcia and 1 year old Edward Garcia (front left, center)

Amazingly, much of the Atlanta news media made a swift decision to disregard Gwinnett County’s request to withhold the image of Cardenas-Rico.  WXIA and WSB-TV were, to my knowledge, the sole exceptions.

Gwinnett PD hurt its own case by misleading reporters who asked if Cardenas-Rico would have a first-appearance in Magistrate Court Thursday.  There would be no appearance, a spokesman said emphatically.  To their credit, WSB/AJC staffed the 1pm Magistrate court session anyway.  Sure enough, Cardenas-Rico showed up, along with Gwinnett cops.  WSB got the only video of the court appearance, and the AJC got photos.  Once that happened, the AJC didn’t hesitate to use Cardenas-Rico’s image.  WSB hesitated.

Perhaps the AJC felt that the public court appearance, and Cardenas-Rico’s mugshot on the Gwinnett Sheriff’s website, put the suspect’s image irretrievably into the public realm.  Perhaps they felt the police department’s duplicity killed the credibility of its request to withhold the image.  I might have made the same arguments.

I felt a counter-argument was equally strong:  The image of the bad guy doesn’t give the public any useful, vital information.  Our free-society interests aren’t served by going all freedom of the press! on a mug shot. Yes, the public has a fascination with mug shots — and in this case, it has an understandable interest in seeing the alleged face of evil.

But I didn’t want to be the media outlet that undermined an investigation into the murders of two tiny children.  And I didn’t want to do it simply because my competition made a decision to do it.  At least, not right away.

Knowing that the AJC was showing the mug shot on its web site, I called the Gwinnett police spokesman late in the afternoon.  I squawked at him about his handling of the court appearance question.  He continued to plead his case to withhold the mug shot.

The blurred mug shot of Cardenas-Rico

His case wasn’t very compelling, but he was emphatic.  When police officers aren’t acting like dipshits — and Gwinnett’s duplicity seemed to be a communication error as much as anything –  I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and yield to their professional judgment about crime fighting.  They’re the experts on that stuff, not me.

(And it turned out the investigation was still in a very dynamic state.  By Saturday, police had cleared Cardenas-Rico and arrested another suspect.)

Based on my recommendation, WXIA chose the route of caution and blurred the photo of Cardenas-Rico.

A day later, I had a phone conversation with a Gwinnett investigator who said:  I don’t know why y’all did that.  It was up on the AJC’s site all day.

Tone deaf

To the amazement of my friends and the annoyance of my wife, I’ve once again renewed my subscription to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  In the last year it has re-emerged as a must-read.  Its coverage of government and politics has been vigorous and top notch.  The AJC has been enterprising and investigative.    Because of the AJC, we know about

  • the CRCT cheating scandal
  • the DeKalb schools construction scandal that eventually cost the superintendent his job
  • Governor-elect Nathan Deal’s strong-arming of the Department of Revenue to benefit his business, as well as his personal financial problems
  • John Oxendine’s illegal campaign contributions, which he subsequently returned
  • Gov. Perdue’s use of state resources and contacts to further his private business interests

… and the list goes on.

But the AJC has a curious bunker mentality that is unseemly for a re-emerging news organization.  That mentality became glaringly evident when editor Julia Wallace blew off a scheduled interview with WABE radio last week.

It appeared to start this fall, when the Georgia Voice criticized the AJC for completely ignoring Pride in its print edition.   Pride is a festival recognizing Atlanta’s gay community.  Atlanta’s Pride celebration is one of America’s largest.  (WXIA streamed the Pride parade on 11alive.com.)

Pride is a lot like the Peachtree Road Race.  They’re both predictable festivals, but both draw tens of thousands of people to the city (and a lot of money) for a cultural happening.  The AJC breathlessly covers the Peachtree Road Race (which it also sponsors) every year.

(True, the Peachtree Road Race is a competition, and the AJC covers that part of it as a sports story.  But most of the newsprint spilled is about the cultural part of the event.  Pride and the PRR are comparable in terms of size, impact and Atlanta-style flavor.)

Empty space: Former AJC offices at 72 Marietta St. Creative Loafing photo.

It’s well documented that the AJC moved its office from downtown Atlanta to Dunwoody early this year.  The AJC also announced it would stop endorsing candidates in elections.  It began showcasing conservative commentators and cartoonists, and began deliberately muting its traditionally liberal viewpoint, to the point where it now employs a “bias” editor to weed out lefty tendencies.

In her blog last week, former AJC columnist Maria Saporta suggested that the AJC’s effort to win the hearts of potential suburban subscribers is a loser business-wise and conscience-wise.

“Turning its back on its core readers has been a devastating strategy. To the best of my knowledge, Atlanta Journal-Constitution has lost more readers in the past decade than any other major newspaper in the United States… So the AJC’s attempts to appeal to conservative, Republican suburbanites by alienating its urban readers is not paying off — to the detriment of Atlanta and to the detriment of itself” Saporta writes.

Creative Loafing gave serious treatment to the evolution of the AJC in an article last week, then dressed it up with a hilarious spoof (click on it and read Thomas Wheatley’s text in a mock-up of the “Dunwoody Journal Constitution”) of the newspaper’s suburban drift.  Editor Julia Wallace answered questions for that piece.  Yet she chose to merely release a prepared statement when WABE followed up.  Next time an AJC reporter seeks an interview with a beleaguered newsmaker, that newsmaker can cite Wallace’s approach as sufficient reason to refuse to answer questions.

Thanks, Julia.

Julia Wallace, AJC

I respect the AJC’s struggle to survive, and the hard choices its management has had to make to cut costs and become more customer-friendly.

On the other hand, I can’t respect its refusal to even mention Pride in its print editions.  It seems like blatant cowardice, based on fear of alienating its all-important readership in the conservative (and in many quarters, homophobic) suburbs.

And I can’t respect Wallace’s cowardly refusal to answer WABE’s questions.  It seems that the editor of a major newspaper would understand the kind of signal that sends to those pondering interview requests from AJC reporters.

A great newspaper ought to show no fear.

Wallace missed an opportunity to tell WABE a great story about the AJC’s renewal.   Despite some unsettling tone deafness,  I continue to root for the AJC.  It’s a much better newspaper than it was two years ago, and worth the price I pay to get it from my driveway every morning.

I wish I’d have broken those stories.