Category Archives: WGCL

Highlights from an election season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

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

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

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

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

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

 

News that’s not news

Something awful happened to my industry on September 11, 2001.  On that date, we stopped using our news judgment.  Not all of it, of course.  But in many important ways, we allowed pranksters to start running our lives, deciding how we would use our resources and what we would cover.

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

In the first twenty years of what passes for my career in the news biz, we would mostly ignore bomb threats and suspicious package calls.

Sure, a bomb threat would mean evacuating hundreds of people from a courthouse or school.  It would mean the presence of lights-flashing cop cars and “bomb disposal unit” trucks, accompanied by cops with bomb gear and trained dogs and maybe a remote-controlled robot on wheels.  The visuals were compelling.  The false drama of will there or won’t there be a mushroom cloud at any moment would be somewhat compelling.

But we all but ignored it.  And it was the right thing to do.

We ignored it — Lord help us, did we really do this? — because we felt a sense of responsibility to discourage copycats.  (Certainly, part of our motivation to discourage copycats was rooted in our desire to minimize devotion of news resources to such stuff.)

And there was never a debate.   It was a given.  TV shops might send a photog to a bomb threat, just to be there in the unlikely event of an actual mushroom cloud; if they had a photog available.

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol.  AJC photo

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol. AJC photo

But a live truck?  Not likely.  A reporter?  They were, hopefully, too busy covering actual news generated by non-pranksters.  Covering events that were, 9999 times out of 10,000 likely to be hoaxes was considered a waste of resources and a breach of our responsibility to the community.  It sounds so quaint now.

Then starting in September 2001, all bomb threats instantly had the whiff of Al Qaeda behind them.  Never mind that real terrorists probably had bigger fish to fry than local courthouses and schools in Georgia. At that point, defending “the homeland” became a national fixation.  Cable news began running bottom-of-the-screen crawls to lend greater urgency to everything.  Local news struggled to contribute something relevant to the national story.

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

So we bowed to the pranksters who called in bogus bomb threats.  Add to that the kids who drop notes threatening to do harm inside school buildings.  During one two-day period last week, at least seven public schools in Georgia went on lockdown.  In one of them, a kid brought a gun to school but harmed nobody.  The others were hoaxes.

Now, off we go.  We send helicopters.  We dispatch crews in live trucks, interviewing evacuees or worried parents, reporting the inevitable hoax yet still passing it off as news.  More than a dozen years after 9/11, we still do it.

Our newsrooms are now staffed with people whose careers didn’t blossom until after 9/11.  They don’t even realize that there was a time when newsrooms exercised actual discretion in such matters.

These same folks are also plugged into social media, which is a tremendous resource for raw intel.  If it’s getting tweeted, then the word is getting out.  If “the word” is confirmed by news professionals, shouldn’t we report it too?   Can we let Twitter beat us on stories of bomb threats and such?

Hell yes we can.

Let social media have the scoop on bomb threats.  The word will still get out.  Y’all don’t need us for that.

Meantime, let the pros devote their resources to the stories that the social media amateurs don’t learn until they see it in the commercial news media.

We get our resources and our credibility back.  We regain some of the sense of responsibility we willingly gave up more than twelve years ago.

Pranksters will continue to try to manipulate police and government by creating hoaxes.  Sadly, they lack the discretion to ignore their pranks.

But the news media has that discretion.  We used to call it “news judgment.”  We ought to start using it again.

Hecklers

Last week, a crowd heckled me at a press event.  It was a crowd of 40-50 people, in tow with Michelle Nunn.  The Democrat was at the state Capitol, filing to make her run for US Senate official.

Michelle Nunn

Michelle Nunn

Nunn is a political newcomer who has rarely appeared at press events around Atlanta.  She also appears to be very disciplined with her rhetoric, sticking to the talking points that drive her message.

I approached the story about her appearance at the Capitol last week with a series of questions that I thought anybody might want asked of a candidate who presumes to step from relative obscurity to one of America’s most prestigious political offices.  The questions were mostly about her experience.  They were challenging.  They were also quite predictable.  (I asked many of the same questions of Jason Carter during his first sit-down with us after announcing his run for Governor.)

But the wild card was the crowd.  They were there to cheer their candidate, not hear some blow-dried dimwit with a microphone.

When I prefaced a question with the supposition that she hadn’t “paid (her) dues” as a politician, some voices piped up in the background challenging the question.  It was an uncomfortable moment.  It was also, in many ways, a fabulous free-speech moment.  Just as I was free to raise questions in public setting, they were just as free to weigh in.

But the crowd had no idea how close they were to breaking me.  A look at the video reveals an unmistakable moment (at about 1:14) where my poker face kind of unravels in light of the heckling.  I nearly didn’t get the question out.

Sen. Jason Carter

Sen. Jason Carter

To her credit, Nunn (like Carter) handled my predictable yet not-necessarily “friendly” questions with skill and mostly without evasion.

On this site, Steve Schwaid once observed that the Atlanta press corps is sometimes too “laid back” and “reserved.”  Schwaid, the former News Director at WGCL, is accustomed to the press in Philadelphia.  Like him, I’m kind of amazed at how deferential the press frequently is around Atlanta.  One notable exception was during some recent snow “events,” when the press asked pointed questions of Governor Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed.

After some of those pressers — which the TV stations typically carried live — I got a lot of positive feedback from viewers, expressing thanks for making them answer questions that the audience wanted answered.  One stranger notably stopped his car in the middle of a street in Grant Park, jumped out and made me shake his hand.

Meantime, last week one of the my coworkers greeted me with a you were mean to Michelle Nunn.

“Did you think the questions were unfair?”  I asked her.

Not at all, she answered.  She just cheerfully admitted that asking those questions, in that setting, would have scared her shitless.

And she said her husband, who watched the piece on TV with her, was cheering me on from the safety of their living room.

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.

Parker’s plate

You might think getting fired from your on-air job in local TV news would be a career low point.  If so, then you haven’t talked to Parker Wallace.

Wallace is now thriving as an on-camera presence on WGCL’s “Better Mornings,” where she also advances her budding career as a chef.  But her years “between jobs” were more than a bit harrowing.

Sarah Parker, WGCL

2008 screen grab of Parker Wallace / Sarah Parker, WGCL

From 2006 to 2009, she worked at WGCL.  She had started as a general assignment reporter and had moved into feature reporting for “Better Mornings.”  She’d been a solid news presence and a reliably offbeat feature reporter.

But when her contact was up, the station told her it was moving in a “different direction” and fired her.  Then life got weird.

She wanted to transition out of the news business and into the food business.   But in 2009, the “great recession” was in full flower.  She and her boyfriend had moved into an old farmhouse, which they’d intended to renovate.  Both found themselves out of work.  Wallace launched a business as a personal chef — from a house with no running water in the kitchen.  “I had to wash dishes and get running water from the bathtub,” she wrote me in response to some questions.  She quickly lost her enthusiasm for it and the business tanked.

She took a job waiting tables at the Atlanta Fish Market.  She was working a shift when she ran into a familiar customer:  Steve Schwaid, the news director who’d fired her.  “Mortifiying” is the word she uses to describe that moment — though she emphasizes she has no hard feelings toward him now.

Atlanta Magazine photo of Johnny's Hideaway

Atlanta Magazine photo of Johnny’s Hideaway

But she says the real low point was this:  Getting fired from her job as a cocktail waitress at Johnny’s Hideaway, Buckhead’s famously oily singles bar for the middle-aged.  She says she was told she “wasn’t picking it up fast enough,” whatever that means.

“It was hard core and brutal for a long time during the recession,” Wallace writes.  “And once you leave TV, people stop calling you, and stop returning your calls. It’s like losing your relevance and your credibility all at once.”

But she didn’t completely lose her recognizability.  When she applied for food stamps, she says the bureaucrat at the counter asked her if she was there to do a TV story.

By the summer of 2012, she had legally changed her name.  During her first incarnation at WGCL, she’d been Sarah Parker.  She’d grown tired of the countless “you mean like Sarah Jessica Parker?” questions.  She says she’d never been a fan of her first name and had always asked her friends to call her “Parker.”  The new surname has family roots.

Comeback Kid: Parker Wallace, WGCL

Comeback Kid: Parker Wallace, WGCL

She’d also tiptoed back into the news business, working as a Georgia Public Broadcasting radio reporter.  She quietly returned to TV news freelancing for WXIA during the 2012 summer Olympics.  One evening, at the conclusion of a shift, she and I met for a nightcap.  That’s where I first heard many of these stories.

By then, Schwaid had left WGCL.  In November 2012, she’d gotten an unlikely inquiry:  Want to come back to the TV station that fired you?

When does that ever happen?

“Frankly, going through all that drama not only humbled me, it made me a much better reporter- especially while doing radio,” she writes.  “So often, we TV reporters immerse ourselves in stories of struggle, doing some ‘active’ standup to make it appear we relate…but until you ARE that person on food stamps with the electricity getting turned off, you can never really empathize.”

For the last year, she has hosted “pay to play integrated marketing segments” on “Better Mornings.”  It means she’s not in the news biz per se.

When she pitched a segment touting “What’s on Parker’s Plate,” which showcases her culinary skills and pitches to her website and cookbook,  WGCL bought it.

Props to WGCL for making this happen. Props to Wallace for keeping her sense of humor, and keeping her dream alive, despite some setbacks.

Before spring, I’m gonna try her recipe for jambalaya.

Worst press conference ever

It would be hard to find a more wretched “press availability” than the one in Atlanta Friday, which featured Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed.

Once a lengthy and quite dreary dog-and-pony show at an Atlanta  elementary school concluded,  one of the event’s handlers herded the press corps onto a stage in the school auditorium.  There, we found ourselves facing Duncan et al backed up to a curtain.  A microphone on a stand stood between us.

Duncan, Reed, Deal, Blank et al

Mic stand in the middle: Duncan, Reed, Deal, Blank et al

The microphone was connected to a mult box that didn’t work, and to a PA system that played audio into the auditorium.  So the people lingering in the auditorium kept hearing moderator Stephanie Blank’s helpful “testing one two three” reps, but photographers recording the event only heard ambient audio.

Most of us were there to talk to Reed or Deal about news that had nothing to do with education.  But the Atlanta press corps can be curiously genteel.  We wanted Duncan and anybody else to say their piece and take questions about education first.

Likewise, nobody wanted to bum-rush the participants by extending our arms toward their mouths with our logofied microphones.  It would have looked very sloppy– especially with the tantalizing presence of a mic stand and a mult box to potentially prevent it.

The “availability” stalled for nearly ten minutes while everybody looked at everybody else to solve the audio problem.  Then Sonji Jacobs Dade, Reed’s spokeswoman, broke the logjam:  Figure it out, people.  The secretary and the governor and the mayor need to move on.

Stephanie Blank handles the audio

Stephanie Blank handles the audio

The next move was a stroke of genius by WGCL’s Craig Bell.  He somehow got Mrs. Blank, the estranged wife of billionaire Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, to hold his microphone while standing next to Secretary Duncan.

That move gave the appearance of problem solved.  The participants began speaking into the stand mic, amplified into the auditorium.  True, none of the other cameras was able to get clean audio.  But this futile exercise beat the alternative — which was dragging out this standoff even longer.

As Mrs. Blank gamely held WGCL’s mic, the rest of us just kind of waited for somebody to say something worth recording.  When Duncan talked blandly about the APS scandal,  I leaned in with my logo mic, as did another TV guy.  Bell sat on the floor to avoid obstructing the view of cameras.  Unlike the audio, their shots were clean.

Little news was made, and mercifully, it ended within minutes.

As everybody departed, Deal and Reed stuck around for questions on unrelated topics.  Reed talked at length about crime in front of a semi-circle of cameras, recorded by Atlanta TV types with extended hands holding gaudy microphones.  By the time he finished, Duncan was long gone.

The event was a multi-layered cluster of bigshots from the federal, state and local governments.  Maybe it was Duncan’s event.  Maybe it was an Atlanta Public Schools event.

It seemed to be quite well organized, yet concluded as a clusterf@#k.  I blame the press corps.  We need to quit being so damned genteel.

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.