Category Archives: WAGA

The cheap suit

My favorite suit right now is one I purchased for $150 on eBay.  Its label says “Kenneth Cole / Reaction.”  It was listed as $300 retail.  It’s the proverbial cheap suit.

El cheapo

El cheapo

Yet the wife actually went “ooh!” last time I put it on, and without irony.  The label says it’s composed of 85 percent polyester and 15 percent rayon.  It has proven water resistant qualities.  Presumably, it’s durable and fireproof. And it looks OK on my lumpy frame.

I know many adult male professionals who never wear suits.  But lawyers, politicians and TV reporters are saddled with the burden of purchasing and wearing suits.  Lawyers and TV anchors can be frequently seen in thousand dollar-plus tailored suits.

The rest of us with more modest paychecks have to dress accordingly.  I know plenty of TV reporters who sing the praises of their cheap suits.  Their go-to typically is K&G Men’s Warehouse.  It’s also the go-to for police detectives, a profession whose couture and salaries are more mismatched than most.

Less cheap

Less cheap

My go-to is eBay, first suggested by my sister who is a public defender.  I’ve bought at least five suits off eBay.  All of them were new (verified by the fact that the pants were unhemmed).  Three of them were Hickey-Freeman brand, and had tags sewn in that indicated retail prices that were substantially higher than the two to three hundred dollars I paid for them.  They are my “expensive” suits.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

But lately I’m more sold on the cheap suits, and I’m not alone.

My friend Portia Bruner has created a thread on Facebook that shows her (looking great) in garments she has purchased at thrift stores.  Portia is a reporter and substitute anchor at WAGA, and a mom with two adorable boys in private school.  In other words, she is understandably budget-minded.

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

My coworker Valerie Hoff is a walking bargain-bin promotion, as detailed on her Ways to Save site and in random anecdotes I frequently overhear from her desk.  The WXIA anchor/reporter views bargain hunting as a sport.  Like Portia, she wears the cheap stuff with style.

I purchased the “Kenneth Cole / Reaction” suit by accident.  I needed a suit for a costume.  The suit that arrived in the mail had a subtle color that surprised me.  When I put it on, I was horrified that it not only lacked the costumey quality I’d expected, but also looked better than some of my pricier suits.

This points to one of the pitfalls of ordering a suit from eBay:  You may get surprised.  But it may be a pleasant surprise.

Last word:  Cheap neckties.

 

Finger pointing

AJC photo by Ben Gray

AJC photo by Ben Gray

On behalf of the Atlanta media, I’d like to thank you for not blaming us for the slow response to the Tuesday storm we’ll call Gridlockalypse 2014.  Because one could argue that you could.

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA's 4am news Tuesday

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA’s 4am news Tuesday

No, the blame rests with the government officials who failed to heed the hue and cry we raised Tuesday morning, when the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning at 3:39am.

That’s the technicality that lets us off the hook.

Here’s the reality:  The Atlanta news media — especially TV — likes nothing more than to raise a hue and cry about upcoming “weather events.”  And it doesn’t take a Winter Storm Warning to prompt it.  We get excited about Winter Weather Advisories, Winter Storm Watches, Severe Thunderstorm Watches, and Heat Advisories.  We get geeked when the temperature drops below freezing.

There’s a reason for that.  The audience actually turns on local TV news when they think the weather is getting bad.  It’s measurable.  And we are always happy to welcome our larger audience with hearty doses of the information they seek.

Whenever it happens, we are utterly truthful with the details. If the NWS has issued a Winter Storm Watch and not a warning, we’ll say that — over and over and over again, while producing  perilous-looking color schemes moving ominously across maps.

The problem, one could argue, is that we lack proportion.  We beat the weather drum with great urgency.  We put human beings — “team coverage!” — in the elements to add a measure of performance art to the story.  Residents of Carrollton are bracing for the line of thunderstorms that’s expected here any minute.  As you can see, the wind is starting to pick up and the sky is darkening…

It may not be apocalyptic, but it sure seems that way.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal

Can you blame state officials for failing to discern that the real thing was advancing upon us Tuesday?

Technically, you can.  A Winter Storm Warning means that a winter storm is “imminent or occurring.” The word “warning” is always the key when attuned to NWS information.

But what if TV and radio routinely makes it sound like the bogeyman is about to get you?  It is up to you, dear viewer, to know the difference.  Sometimes, we just give you information that merely sounds really, really urgent.  And other times, you need to react by closing schools and staying off the roads.  (But by all means, go purchase some bread and milk first, and be sure to say hi to our highly trained journalist stationed live outside your grocery store.)

Meantime, you’ve got political appointees running agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency who are supposed to discern the subtle differences between our usual weather drumbeat, and the real deal.

So yes:  An alarm should go off in GEMA whenever the NWS issues a Winter Storm Warning.  That’s a tangible signal that our routine drumbeat of weather coverage has flipped into something genuinely noteworthy, and its time to activate Georgia’s paltry fleet of salt trucks.

Likewise, it would have been unseemly for Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal to point back at the news media and say “it’d help if y’all only got excited about serious weather.  Because it’s kind of hard to tell when it’s really getting dangerous, or whether it’s just y’all trying to excite the audience and keep them tuned into your TV station.”

That would have been petty.  But it would have been an interesting conversation starter.

Economy with words

In this post, the aging blogger begins with a well-worn 80s-era nostalgia trip, when newsrooms rattled with teletypes, teams of production people ripped and sorted ten-pack script paper, and reporters like Paul Yates pounded cigarettes in the cubicle adjacent to yours. 1510602_10201164375574681_819312756_n

When the late Jack Frazier bought me a plane ticket in 1986 to visit Atlanta and give his TV station a look-see, I spent an hour of my first day in the city in a hotel room, watching the 6pm news.

To a kid somewhat fresh out of Omaha, the newscast was a big market thing of beauty, brimming with solid content.  At the time, Frazier’s station was more-or-less in a dogfight with WSB and WXIA as Supreme Leader of the Nielsen and (then) Arbitron ratings in Atlanta news.

I distinctly remember seeing a piece by a reporter named Paul Yates.  He had the booming broadcast-y pipes of a network guy.  I don’t remember the subject matter, but I do remember the writing.  It had clarity and brevity and I was kind of awestruck.  If these people hire me, I remember thinking, I’m gonna have to up my writing game to keep up with this guy.

Ypaul_yatesates wasn’t the only reporter at WAGA that impressed me, but he (and Mo Diggs and Lisa Clark) were the ones I remember noting during that initial viewing.  (Diggs had done a piece on some kind of breaking-news fire or other mishap, and folded it expertly into a city hall story.  Clark delivered a smart and well-written entertainment segment.)

Yates capped a 40 year career at WAGA last week.  He exited college in 1973, got a job at WAGA and stayed 40 years.  15 or so years into his career there, management decided to make the building smoke free.  Yates gave up cigarettes and never wavered afterward.

And he never wavered from the thing that made him special:  Giving clarity to often complex stories.  As Mindy Larcom, the I-team producer, wrote on Facebook:  “Paul has an enviable economy with words.”

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Yates retired on the same day as Ira Spradlin, the WAGA photog I’ve previously lauded on this site. Spradlin was a newsman at least as much as he was “just” a photographer.  He knew Georgia and its politics better than the people riding shotgun in his live truck — Yates arguably being the notable exception.

Spradlin had announced his retirement nearly a year ago.  Yates’ finale came a bit more suddenly.  Both of them made WAGA a better place to work.

Best wishes to both men.  And thanks for making me up my game.

The booming voice

It was fun competing against Ron Sailor, the TV reporter – turned – preacher who died last week at age 61. Sailor and I worked nightside, which meant we frequently ended up crowding around the same story. Sailor was always the loudest guy in the vicinity — not because he was a loudmouth. He just had a booming, bass voice that I heard nightly for years.

Ron Sailor - AJC photo

Ron Sailor – AJC photo

On numerous occasions, we’d find ourselves at the old APD Homicide Task Force office on Somerset  Terrace. There was plenty of room in front of the building, but photogs always liked to crowd competing reporters together into a tight space — a subtly sadistic twist exacerbated when Sailor was part of the equation. Not only was he loud, he was a man of some size. Because TV newscast producers are part of a grand media conspiracy, Sailor’s stories on WSB (and later WXIA), and mine on WAGA would frequently pop up at exactly the same time during the half-hour 11pm newscast.

This meant Sailor and I would start delivering our live reports at exactly the same time. It would take all the concentration I could muster to ignore his booming voice while I feebly attempted to make mine heard.

Once, Sailor and former mayor Andy Young spent a night or three on Atlanta’s streets, producing a report that sought to give insight into Atlanta’s homeless population. Young and Sailor donned skullies and thrift-store clothing and reported that they, too, were shunned or abused by folks downtown who’d mistaken them for homeless people.

I read about it in the AJC, and wished I’d done it. In 1996, I kinda did the same thing during the Olympics. It was a total ripoff of what Ron Sailor had done.

The last time I saw Sailor, I was knocking on his door because he’d become part of some unflattering story involving his finances; there had been allegations he had grifted some folk. We were giving Sailor celebrity treatment on a story that was otherwise really nobody’s business. I went to his door sans camera, unwilling to bum-rush the guy. He answered graciously, declined comment and we left.

Since then, I’d seen him do Wayfield Foods commercials and heard about his career as a preacher. I’d read about the issues his sons faced — one, as a disgraced former legislator, the other as a man convicted of murdering his girlfriend.

I was a green newcomer to Atlanta when I became Ron Sailor’s competitor. He was always friendly, willing to share his experience and seemed to know what he was doing. At age 61, he died too young.

Praiseworthy

The southeastern region of NATAS did something remarkable last week:  It recognized three humble, hardworking Atlanta news grunts.

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Donna Lowry and I were both new hires at competing stations when she arrived in Atlanta in 1986.  We both did general assignment reporting, and wore the shell-shocked look that comes with a reporter’s first brushes with big-city news.   Lowry went on to become WXIA’s education reporter — an assignment that seemed destined to fade in the face of changing news directors and audience research.  Instead, the ageless Lowry (and her photog, the ageless Kathy Bourn) has turned it into a calling.

Paul Crawley, WXIA

Paul Crawley, WXIA

Paul Crawley began working at WXIA in 1978.  Crawley (and yeah, Mark Winne) are the Atlanta reporters who most seem to come straight out of the Damon Runyon school of journalism — news-breaking, trench-coated, and tirelessly devoted to getting it right.  Crawley adds a sharp sense of humor, and the adaptability of a guy who became a one-man-band late in life.  Every day, Crawley is among the first to arrive and the last to leave his desk.

Jon Shirek, WXIA

Jon Shirek, WXIA

My man-crush on Jon Shirek has been somewhat well documented on this site.  Shirek’s personal style is understated and thoughtful.  He writes and delivers stories with uncommon elegance and clarity.  And he’s done it at WXIA since 1980.  Like Crawley, Shirek agreed to become a one-man-band in the last decade.

Russ Spencer, WAGA

Russ Spencer, WAGA

As a postscript, I’ve got to include Russ Spencer in my list of accolades.  With Monica Pearson finally out to pasture, the readers of Creative Loafing recognized the WAGA anchor in the weekly’s “best of” issue.  They probably don’t realize what an outstanding choice they made.  Spencer is frequently the smartest guy in the room, but won’t jump up and down to out-shout the folks who think they’re the smartest guys in the room.  Watch his chatter with reporters following stories; Spencer is a news anchor who pays close attention to the stories that fly by on the broadcast, and grasps the story’s essence.

Plus, he looks great in a set of fake teeth.

 

I was fired by a legend

That's my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

That’s my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

Item:  WAGA reporter Justin Gray is leaving the station to work for Cox’s Washington DC bureau.  What follows is a cold war-era cautionary tale about my sad experience in DC.

It was the mid-80s.  Back then, media companies big and small had DC bureaus for their local TV news operations across America:  Jefferson Pilot, Gannett, Hearst, Storer, Cox.  Most of them were located in offices at 400 North Capitol, across from Union Station and overlooking the dome itself.

Gannett hired me, then fired me within six months.  It was a head spinning adventure.

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The guy who hired and fired me was the nicest guy in the world.  Jack Hurley had been a news director at WXIA.  His most recent work made him a respected honcho at the Newseum.  “You got fired by a legend at Gannett!” I heard as I re-told the story when WXIA hired me.

When he ran Gannett’s DC bureau, Hurley had parlayed it into an outfit that traveled the world to cover stories, then spent time between trips covering the minutiae of Washington.  Whenever the Minneapolis congressman, James Oberstar, held a hearing of his transportation subcommittee, we covered it for KARE.  Whenever Sen. Gary Hart belched, we covered it for KUSA.  We went to all of Sam Nunn’s pressers for WXIA.

Anyway — I found it a bit stifling and predictable.  At age 27, I thought I had a better idea.  Can we enterprise some stories, please?  Maybe do some investigative stuff?  Hurley let me stomp around the Capitol a wee bit but kept the leash very, very short.  Whatever I came back with failed to impress, apparently.

It didn’t help that I was, at that stage of my career, a poor performer in live shots.  It took me many more years to get somewhat comfortable delivering live utterances on TV.  And in that job, I was constantly concluding the day with a 7:15 pm live shot to a midwestern station– usually about a hearing or a presser that had bored me to death.

So I became a liability.  Hurley warned me I was in a tailspin.  I couldn’t pull out.  With the blessing of his corporate VP, he fired me.  It was the only time I’d been fired from a job, unless you count the time Morrisville, PA pizza legend Spike Maruca fired me from his restaurant for allegedly smoking weed out back with the cook.  (At age 15, the accused denied the allegation.)

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest awards the “fuquewad of the week” on the white board

It took me three months to land another job, and the new job at a freelance bureau– also at 400 North Capitol — paid me 40 percent less than the Gannett job.  Fortunately, my boss there was amazing.  Aside from my current boss, the lovely Ellen Crooke, Ken Vest remains my favorite boss ever.

And when I told Vest four months later that WAGA had offered me work in Atlanta, he said:  For the love of God, son, get out of DC while you still can!

I don’t regret working in DC.  I lived in a great city.  I had a handful of cool experiences.  Before my situation there soured, Gannett’s DC bureau sent me to Europe to produce three stories over a languid ten day period.

But I was in over my head and it nearly killed my career.

I made a point of disclosing my Gannett work history before WXIA hired me.  I never fully understood why Hurley fired me, and had hoped the company’s personnel records would shed some light.  But the records are in paper form in a warehouse somewhere, apparently.  The company, to its credit, made no heroic effort to find them.  My skeletons stayed closeted.

I hear Cox’s DC bureau is more about enterprise / investigative work, and less about covering hearings and pressers.  So I wish my friend Justin lots o’ luck.  I hope DC bureau work is a lot different now.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House.  My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House. My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.

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.”

The shallow end of the pool

I was all set to boldly urge a little jail time for the news director at WSB-TV.  The contention would have been that the TV station flagrantly violated a court order Friday March 29, the day the Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 people in connection with the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

This was the violation:  WSB’s exclusive use of court-ordered pool video in its newscast without first distributing the video to the other Atlanta TV stations who were part of the pool.

The blurry images of WSB's pool photog, WAGA's Justin Gray, WXIA's Donna Lowry and WGCL's

The blurry images of WSB’s pool photog, WAGA’s Justin Gray, WXIA’s Donna Lowry, WGCL’s Sonia Moghe, WSB radio’s Pete Combs, and WXIA’s Blayne Alexander

The video was short but significant.  It showed a Fulton County sheriff’s deputy walking out the door of the district attorney’s office, carrying a hundred-or-so page indictment.  He then exited the DA’s lobby and headed to the courtroom of Superior Court judge T. Jackson Bedford, who was due to give the indictment his blessing before it would get certified by the court clerk.  The video — and a news conference a few minutes later — culminated a three-day stakeout of the grand jury.

Per an order issued by Judge Bedford under Rule 22 of the Electronic and Photographic News Coverage of Judicial Proceedings in the Uniform Superior Court Rules, WSB was named as the pool camera in the stakeout.  This meant the video belonged to all the TV stations present at the stakeout.

I’ll again note the absurdity of using Rule 22 to cover a stakeout in an office lobby; Rule 22 covers “official court proceedings,” but the Fulton County sheriff and courts have broadened it so that a Rule 22 form, signed by a judge, is required almost anytime a commercial TV camera enters the Fulton County Courthouse.   Since I’m not calling for the jailing of WSB’s news director for violating Rule 22, I’ll gently avoid demanding an adjoining cell for Sheriff Ted Jackson for abusing the rule.

Back to the video of the deputy carrying the indictment:

Reps from all three of WSB’s TV competitors watched WSB’s pool photographer shoot it.  I shot a perfectly lousy Iphone photo of it at 4:57pm.

The only station that matters

The only station that matters, apparently

WSB aired the video at 5:31, perhaps even earlier.

A few minutes later, a WXIA producer asked me about the video she’d seen on WSB.  “You don’t already have it?” I asked her.

Oopsie!  Golly, did we forget to distribute the video to the TV stations who don’t call themselves “the number one news team in America”?

Actually, WSB didn’t overlook it.  WXIA’s desk made repeated calls to WSB to distribute the video.  WSB’s desk apparently questioned whether the video was pool video, then dragged its feet getting the right  answer.  The station finally distributed the video well after 7pm, when most early evening newscasts were done.

Rule 22 states that “approval … shall be granted without partiality or preference to any person, news agency, or type of electronic or photographic coverage…”  In this instance, WSB clearly exercised “partiality” to itself by failing to distribute the pool video before airing it.

WSB's exclusive pool video

WSB’s exclusive pool video

Rule 22 does not set out how pool video will be distributed.  “Photographers, electronic reporters and technicians shall be expected to arrange among themselves pooled coverage…”  TV stations don’t “arrange” pool coverage on a case-by-case basis.  Instead, they rely on a sensible and time-honored arrangement:  Until the pool station distributes its video, the station that shoots it can’t broadcast it.

It presumes that TV stations can behave honorably and not like children.  This isn’t as hilarious as it sounds.  Every pool photographer I’ve worked with at WXIA and WAGA honored the principle that pool video could not air on the pool camera’s station until after every station received it.  WSB photogs also reliably honor that tradition.

Somehow, WSB decided to be dishonorable Friday, ignoring the “no partiality” clause in Rule 22.  And ignoring the what goes around, comes around concept that really drives the rules behind pool video.  All for a 15 second shot.

Superior Court Judge Jackson Bedford

Superior Court Judge Jackson Bedford

It would make perfect sense for Judge Bedford to hold a hearing and demand an explanation from WSB’s news director.   Bedford is a tough guy, especially with the news media.  He can be a bit scary when he’s angry.  A hearing would likely deter such behavior going forward.

However, Fulton County’s courts are pretty clogged with serious criminal cases.  And another Superior Court judge tells me that jail time — even a few hours in a holding cell, like the one that held Beverly Hall — is unlikely in a civil contempt case.  So, I wouldn’t ask Bedford to spend his valuable time on this.

Which leaves us with the concept of honor.  Or the lack thereof at WSB.

Two final nights

Last installment!  From emails sent to family and friends shortly after Eddie Cortes and I got home from the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

March 26. The Chinook helicopter that took us out of Iraq lands at Camp Udairi in Kuwait at 1am.  We are dropped onto the tarmac.  We haul our gear to a nearby building.  The people in the building want nothing to do with us. They advise that we find the “mayor’s tent.”  It’s a half-mile that-a-way.

Scott, who works for Newsweek, and I start walking.  Yves, who works for LeMonde and Eddie stay behind.  MPs escort the four suspected spies out of there.

Camp Udairi

Camp Udairi

We find the mayor’s tent, and ask for Specialist Boyer.  Never heard of him, they say.  I note that the alleged spies are there, too.

It’s 2am.  I call the station on the sat phone.  I tell the managing editor we’re out of Iraq.  She repeats the news to co-workers nearby.  I hear a collective whoop over the phone.

There’s confusion in the tent because the army guys think that I’m among the spies.  They were expecting four civilians on the Chinook flight.  I explain that I’m with a group of four civilians, two of whom are still waiting a half-mile away.  Well– who are these guys?  the army guys ask, double-taking me and the alleged spies.

Finally, a Sergeant named Butch comes to my aid. What?  You got dumped on the tarmac?  Nobody met you? What the hell kind of shit is that?  he asks sympathetically.

He gets a car.  He takes Scott and me back to the hangar where Eddie and Yves are still waiting. We load the stuff.  The whole time, Butch is going off on the army:  I’m so sick of this goddam army.  This is the kind of shit the drives me fuckin crazy.  I can’t wait to retire from this.

I’m loving Butch at this point.  He takes us to an empty tent.  He gives us four cots, four bottles of water and four MREs.  We bid each other goodnight.

Dawn breaks on camp Udairi.  I wake up freezing, having slept sans sleeping bag.  But the camp has an actual chow hall, Butch informed us.  It’s across the way from our tent.  Because they’re in sleeping bags, everybody else is still asleep.  I head out for the mayor’s tent.  I detour thru the chow hall.  Breakfast is very strange– white rice, hot dogs and boiled eggs.  Soldiers are scarfing it down. I see some cereal– cereal!  First cereal I’ve seen in a month.  I drink some coffee.  So far, so good.

I head to the mayor’s tent.  I meet the colonel who calls himself the mayor of camp Udairi, a friendly guy.  I ask for suggestions on how to get out of there.  I need to go to Kuwait City, eighty miles south.  He says, you need somebody to pick you up. Great.  I got nobody.

I’ve got a phone number to call at Camp Doha, which is the US army post in Kuwait City.  I try the number. Mostly, it won’t even ring.  When somebody finally answers, it’s the wrong number.  This does not surprise me in the least.  And “Specialist Boyer,” the purported Army PIO who was to meet us at Udairi, is clearly a phantom at this point.

The colonel makes a suggestion:  Let us drop you off at Udairi’s gate.  Hitch a ride with somebody leaving the camp.

I return to the tent.  My tent-mates are rising.  I tell them about the phone calls, and the colonel’s suggestion.  Debate ensues.  We agree to take our chances hitchhiking.

The colonel puts us in an SUV with a private.  He drives us to the gate.  Among the four of us, we have a ton of stuff, which gets piled onto a curb.  We discharge and wait.  The guards at the gate don’t appear alarmed; apparently, they’ve seen this act before.

While Eddie, Yves and Scott hang back, I start approaching vehicles.  It is a lesson in humility, something to which I’m well accustomed as a local TV reporter.  Finally, an American contractor in an empty SUV says — sure.  Get in.  We load our stuff.  We all get in.  He’s going to Doha.

He drives across the desert like a madman.  Since I secured the ride, I scored the front seat.  I’m enjoying it.  The three guys stuffed in the back seat have gear falling on them.  But they don’t complain too much.  The contractor, a Bush supporter who sees the war as a moneymaker, drops us at the front gate at Doha.  Scott calls his co-worker in Kuwait City and asks him to pick us up.  Bring a big vehicle, says Scott.  We have four men and a ton of stuff.

The wired-up trunk of the mid-sized sedan at Camp Doha

The wired-up trunk of the mid-sized sedan at Camp Doha

Scott’s coworker shows up in a midsize four-door sedan.  And he’s got a passenger.  That means six of us have to pile into this vehicle, plus all our stuff. I’m crestfallen.  This can’t possibly work.

But Scott’s coworker, a cheerful guy with a British accent, insists it’ll work.  He finds some wire laying by the side of the road.  He starts wiring our stuff into the gaping car trunk.  We pile into the back.  I end up on Yves’s lap.

4pm, he drops us off at the Sheraton, downtown.  We purchase the French Suite, “the only room left” according to the slippery guy at the front desk. Over the phone at WAGA, Leslie informs us we’re leaving at 11am the next day.  I head to the gym, shower, then a real bed at 9pm.

March 27.  1am– Lilly, the news director’s assistant, calls from the station to update our flight info.

2am– Leslie calls from the station, informs me that an explosion is being reported “at the Sheraton.” Fox and CNN are geeked about it– what do I know?

I’m asleep in the Sheraton.  There’s no evidence of an explosion.  Find out, she says.  I switch on the tube. She’s right.  Fox and CNN are fully geeked.  Sure enough, the lower-third graphic says “explosion near Sheraton in Kuwait City.” Leslie calls again– do a phoner in five minutes (6p eastern).  I put on clothes, go downstairs, talk to the bellman, talk to a cop, hear sirens and do a phoner of some sort.  She calls again– we want another phoner.

I go upstairs to wake Eddie. Leslie already awakened him.  We get a cab. We head to the mall, two miles away, where an apparent Iraqi missile struck.  We get there almost– they want another phoner.  I’m not there yet– a protest ignored.  I do another phone report while exiting a taxicab.

We walk to the scene. Seems they want another phoner. I see mobs of folks heading to site.  I get there, almost– they want the phoner now.  I’m not there yet– oh,whatever.  I do another phoner as I’m walking up to the scene for the first time. No clue what’s going on.  I say something like “as crime scenes go, this one is unremarkable.”

Vickie, the managing editor, calls to give me an ass-chewing for playing down the importance of the big story.  Valid criticism,  but phone goes dead in mid-chewing.  Regrettable.

Now I’m up to stay.  They want another phoner and an actual live shot at 6am / 10pm.  I realize I haven’t shaved in a week, two and a half hours to kill.  We return to room.  I fill the jacuzzi in the french suite, settle in for a bath and a shave at 4am.  We cab to live shot location at the Kuwait City Fox bureau.

Sleep deprived in Kuwait City

Sleep deprived in Kuwait City

At this point, the Fox News Channel was just beginning to cement its reputation as — quoting somebody at the Fox bureau — “the Al Jazeera of the US.”  But the bureau is a news bureau and seems mostly uninfluenced by Roger Ailes.  I put on an earpiece.  I hear the voice of associate producer Mark Hannah.  “Great to see you, Doug” he says with more emotion than I’d expect from a voice in an earpiece.  “You look a bit thin.”  Mark eventually left the news biz to become a Christian missionary.

Live shot complete, we scram to the airport.

Kuwait Airways has a “little problem” with our ticket.  It takes them 30 minutes to decide that we’ve each underpaid $250 for our tickets (we haven’t paid anything- the station paid it all up front last night).  They tell us they can work it out if we want to wait 24 hours.

It smells like a shakedown.  We agree to pay $250. They check again– twenty more minutes.  Oh, wait. You only owe us 12KD ($30) each.  Cash only.  Between us, Eddie and I have only eleven and a half KD.  Good enough, they say.

An Emirates airlines flight crew.

An Emirates airlines flight crew.

The plane is almost empty, yet they’ve wedged Eddie and me into two seats in the last row.

We fly out.  Nobody shoots at the plane.  We land in Dubai for our twelve-hour layover.  Yves told us the airport is like Disneyland.  I’d say it’s more like Perimeter Mall.  But guess what–?

It has a hotel.

Uncle Rupert buys us a room.  I’d grown so accustomed to Eddie’s snoring that we agree to share one room.

Eddie and I find a bar.  We toast our departure with brown liquor, chased by beer.  We retire to the room.  I nearly oversleep.  Eddie drags my semi-comatose ass to the gate, where we get on an Emirates Air flight to London.  In London, we change to Delta and go direct to Atlanta.  I’ll be home in time for my wedding anniversary.

I get home, shower and step on a scale.  I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds in a month.

The statehouse photog

I’m on TV, in short bursts on the evening news.  Because I’m on TV, talking in a manner that conveys knowledge of the subject matter, people often assume I have a measure of expertise.  Sometimes, there’s truth to that.  Oftentimes, I’m merely a quick study on a story where my expertise is limited to the 90 seconds of information I’m conveying.

If you want to find the real experts on local news, find the photographers.

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Photographers tend to have greater staying power in a local market.  They lack the ladder-climbing ambition that reporters and anchors frequently have.  They’re also more under-the-radar, less vulnerable to the whims of regime change in newsrooms.  And regimes, old and new, tend to value their technical and journalistic expertise.  Or at least, they should.

This brings us to a guy named Ira Spradlin, the WAGA photographer who has covered the Georgia legislature longer than any of the other reporters or photographers in the press room.

The first time I got thrown into legislative coverage– an intimidating assignment, where the process of lawmaking is byzantine, and the players are numerous and often cagey — the assignment editor told me I needn’t worry.  I’d be working with Ira.

Ira didn’t schmooze legislators.  But he was around them so much, over a career that spanned four decades, that he became as familiar to them as the doormen to the House and Senate chambers.

It doesn’t hurt that Ira, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Meriwether County (just north of Warm Springs), has a soft rural Georgia accent that can easily disarm the uninitiated.  He sounds like the good ol’ boys who often still dominate the legislature.  They were comfortable around him.

Like those old timey pols, Ira is easy to underestimate.  Under that southern accent, he can be as fierce as any photographer in town.

He’d be the first to tell you he’s not an artsy NPPA type photographer.  Ira’s value is his knowledge and his work ethic.  Nobody worked harder, or shot more video on a story.  I’m pretty sure Ira never missed a key shot in his life.

I’ll take that gristly newsman anytime.

This year, Ira Spradlin retires.  The legislature honored him this week, and I’m sure Ira took it with a grain of salt.  But I wish I’d been there.  He deserved the applause.