Category Archives: AJC

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.”

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.