Category Archives: WSB

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.

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.

Death star 2

I’m overdue to write something nice about WSB.

Jeff Dore's workplace ID badge

Jeff Dore’s workplace ID badge

This occurred to me as I was attending the sendoff the station threw for Jeff Dore, purportedly the first-ever WSB general assignment reporter to retire from the station. If that raises an eyebrow, that’s on you.  I’m being nice.

Here’s the biggest compliment I can give to the station against whom I’ve competed for the last 28 years:  I almost never hear its employees gripe about their workplace.  (There’s one notable exception, but it dates to 2006.)

And they could.  WSB’s dayside reporters have to run a gauntlet of hour-long newscasts at noon, 4, 5 and 6pm.  Except for the folks enterprising investigative stuff, reporters typically have to deliver material for at least two of those newscasts each day.  It has the schedule of a sweat shop.

(My favorite thing to see is when John Bachman covers a story during the day, then anchors their 4pm newscast, then gets shoved out the door in rush hour traffic to do a live shot at 6 on the story he’d covered previously.  4pm co-anchor Erin Coleman gets the same inglorious treatment.  You kids in college want to be news anchors?  Talk to those two first.)

Bachman and I cover some dreary meeting related to the new Falcons stadium, Nov. 2012

Bachman and I cover some dreary meeting related to the new Falcons stadium, Nov. 2012

Yet the affable Bachman, whose daddy is a recently-retired longtime anchor at WHO-TV in Des Moines Iowa, is the embodiment of a WSB employee who has no gripes.

The station’s esprit de corps was evident at Dore’s function.  The event’s energy emanated from the troops, not the station’s management (which had sprung for the tab and food at Uncle Julio’s on Peachtree Rd.)

From my view across the proverbial street (a viewpoint from which I am committed to the righteous cause of strengthening WXIA and crushing WSB), here are some notes on my grudging admiration for my doomed competitor.

Although they work their field hands pretty hard, there’s no ambivalence about their expectations.  You’ll produce pieces for two or more newscasts each day. You will be in a live truck.  And you won’t let one of those other Atlanta TV stations yapping at your heels beat you on a story.

Even if you’re sent on some meaningless “breaking news,” you’ll sell it as such because it is happening now.  You’d best get those flashing lights and / or crime scene tape behind you in your live shot.

Your photogs will take their cameras off their tripods during live shots, and you will gesture emphatically toward whatever building or other mise en scene is behind you.  Or you’ll display a piece of paper held in your hand or some other prop.

In return, you’ll be the best-compensated local news crews in town.  You’ll have ample benefits and vacation time.

You’ll have an abundance of competent backup in a newsroom that has mostly retained the type of employees downsized from other newsrooms.

You’ll use gear that is well-maintained and will never fail you due to neglect or budgetary issues.  As a result, you will rarely waste time wrestling with issues that aren’t related to covering news.

You’ll not be saddled with gimmickry or efforts to re-invent your craft.  You’ll use video, words, audio and graphics to efficiently and clearly tell your stories, same as you always have.

If there are updates in technology, you’ll have them before anybody else. (Except for HD video in the field.  But while HD looks better on TV, the standard def video you’ve been using is easier to work with, uses less hard drive space and is faster to process.  So your delay was worker-friendly.  And your vast audience never really noticed nor cared that the other stations used HD first.)

Mike Dreadan

Mike Dreadan

You’ll work for managers you respect.  Your news director, Mike Dreaden, is a guy who came up through the ranks.  When I’ve heard WSB personnel utter his name in the field, it has always been in respectful tones.  The evidence indicates he possesses a functioning human heart.

And you’ll do all this for an audience that seemingly can’t get enough of your product.

I’ve written a thing or two that have challenged my friends at WSB, mostly about their attitude and their priorities.  I stand by it.  But their work is solid.  And as local TV stations go, it appears to be a quality place of employment.

They’ll miss Dore.  He was unfailingly great to be around in the field.  He was a graceful and humorous storyteller in a shop that tends to be very nuts-and-bolts.  But they’ve managed to succeed in Monica’s absence.  Dore would be the first to tell you that they’ll do OK without him.

So here’s my slow hand-clap for WSB.  You guys aren’t half bad.

And we will bury you.

Holiday sampler

It’s Presidents Day.  For most of you, it marks the start of a shortened work week.  Mine will be a six-day work week.  My coworkers will experience the same thing.  This will be the second of three six-day work weeks for us.

It’s been foreordained for months.  WXIA is carrying the winter Olympics, a wildly popular TV event.  Our news operation gets a spike in viewership whenever the Olympics airs.  Erego, our staff is asked to bust its hump to show these viewers what we can do.

Paul Crawley and a sheet of ice

Paul Crawley and a sheet of ice

The timing of this particular six-day work week is noteworthy (actually, “brutal” is the correct word), given the workload of the previous week.  For most of last week, much of our staff worked 12-18 hour days and never went home because of the round-the-clock coverage we gave to the ice storm that struck north Georgia.  I spent two nights away from the family and sweet-talked my way out of a third.

It really struck me when I turned on the TV Sunday and saw Paul Crawley covering some sort of mayhem.  Crawley was an animal during our 24 hour coverage; it seemed like he was on TV constantly, describing ad infinitum the snow and ice he encountered in Cobb County on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Crawley got a one-day weekend after that, like the rest of us.

So here’s why I’m not complaining.

My workplace is in a dogfight to remain competitive and relevant and to win the hearts and minds of viewers and web users as news consumption habits change.

This is further aggravated by the fact that one Atlanta TV station, WSB, has been wildly successful at all-but cornering the market and hoarding the ratings.  To its credit, WSB appears to have plowed its profits back into its news operation.  They’ve hired talented staff.  They pay them well.  They have lots of up-to-date gear, and they keep it in good working order.  Despite some hubris that comes with being at the top of the heap, they do good work and are a formidable presence.

During the Olympics, many of their viewers keep their TVs somewhat locked on WXIA.  When our newscast shows up following Olympic coverage, our job is to keep those viewers’ brains from firing the synapses required to pick up their clickers and switch the channel or shut down the TV set.

The overnight ratings show that we are somewhat successful in this venture.  The goal is to seduce those viewers into enjoying a fulfilling, long-term relationship with our news operation.

We’ve tried this previously.  We had the same ratings spikes during the 2012 summer Olympics.  When the games ended, our gains were largely temporary.

So why do it again?  Because we can’t afford not to.  Plus, our product is worth showcasing.  There’s no better newsman in town than Paul Crawley.  It’s high time some of those habitual WSB viewers, watching WXIA on a Sunday, noticed that.

The dogfight to which I referred earlier is quite real.   Behind WSB, there are three other stations clumped together, stepping on each other’s heads to try to become the most viable alternative.  The one that fails most could become the first local news operation in town to just go away completely.

Crawley's "storm chaser" is the one on the right.

WXIA’s “storm chaser” is the one on the right.

My boss, Ellen Crooke, has been struggling for six years to make WXIA the top alternative to WSB.  She is sharp, energetic and creative and can be a little off-the-wall.  She is pursuing this goal with one hand tied behind her back; her budget is a fraction of WSB’s, and she can’t do a damned thing about that.

Yet she doesn’t give up — which would be easy to do, given the stubbornness of Atlanta news viewers to stick with WSB.

So when there are fresh eyeballs glued to WXIA, and she asks me to work a bit harder, my response is:  Yes ma’am.  It’s not just because I need to stay in her good graces.  It’s because I want my employer to survive.  If it could also thrive, that would be a nice bonus.

Here’s hoping you’re enjoying your Presidents Day holiday, and WXIA’s Olympics coverage.  And here’s hoping you’ll stick around for the A-block of our newscast.  You might actually like what you see.  And change your viewing habits, already!  Geez.

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.

Sources

Geary, left, and James

Geary, left, and James

Thursday a local district attorney outed a couple of his former employees as the sources of leaks during a couple of high-profile investigations.  The DA was under oath, testifying in a pretrial hearing in one of those cases.

The DA was Robert James of DeKalb County.  The employees, he said, were his former chief assistant DA Don Geary, and John Melvin, who worked closely with Geary.  The testimony explained some WSB-TV scoops that puzzled the rest of the market and perplexed some in the legal community.

First, the scoops were great.  Amazing, actually.  In August 2012, on the same day Andrea Sneiderman was indicted for murder, investigators went to her parents’ home on Lake Oconee and arrested her.  Somebody tipped off WSB – not only to the pending indictment, but also to the arrest.  WSB (and the cojoined AJC) had the correct address of the lake house, and a photographer was positioned to shoot video of Mrs. Sneiderman getting taken into custody.

The Sneiderman arrest. AJC photo

The Sneiderman arrest. AJC photo

The presence of “the media” at Mrs. Sneiderman’s arrest became a rallying cry for her defense team.  It showed, they said, that the prosecution was vindictive – and overreaching (the DA dropped the murder charge on the eve of Mrs. Sneiderman’s trial).  Defense attorneys said they had pleaded with the DA to allow them to arrange a low-key surrender of Mrs. Sneiderman in the event of an indictment.  Instead, the DA went for what turned out to be a flashy arrest.

Wish I’d gotten the tip.  I’d have done the same thing.

The same day, WSB reporter Jodie Fleischer reported details of the indictment during a noon live shot.  The indictment hadn’t yet been officially filed in the Superior Court clerk’s office, which makes it public record.  Somebody leaked it to Fleischer.

The rest of us knew the indictment was pending but didn’t have a copy.  During his testimony last week, James said he deduced that Fleischer got the leaked indictment info from Melvin, because the copy she had was identical to a copy Melvin had before the indictment was revised.  (In the courthouse media room last week, Fleischer disputed that, saying she had a copy of the revised indictment, identical to the one certified in the clerk’s office.)

Fleischer - from her Twitter page

Fleischer – from her Twitter page

Fleischer’s name came up several times during James’ testimony.  James said Melvin and Geary had “a relationship” with the WSB reporter.  That may sound like more than it really is.  Reporters develop relationships with sources and they’re based mostly on mutual trust.

James also talked about the indictment of Ellis, and the fact that a WSB photographer was waiting at Ellis’s house when the DA’s office executed a search warrant there.  When he realized “the media” had been tipped off, James testified that he tried unsuccessfully to warn Ellis and postpone the search.

James said he confronted Melvin and Geary about the leaks.  James said both men denied being Fleischer’s source.

Both men quit the DA’s office in 2012.  After they quit, James said, “the leaks stopped.”

I didn’t ask Fleischer if the story James told under oath was correct.  I wouldn’t have answered such a question and I wouldn’t have expected her too, either.

It’s worth noting that prosecutors didn’t question Geary and Melvin about it while they were under oath.  Good call.

Scoops get noticed inside newsrooms but rarely outside them.  The moment of triumph that accompanies them rarely last much longer than a moment.  But these were different — especially the Sneiderman indictment, because the info came from inside a “secret” grand jury proceeding.

Sources depend on reporters to keep their names under wraps — and Fleischer undoubtedly upheld her end of the deal.  But here’s a tip for those inclined to discreetly help their friends in the media:  Try to be a little less obvious than Geary and / or Melvin might have been.

And call me next time!

This post has been updated to correct the description of Fleischer’s noon live shot, which did not include actual paperwork from the indictment.

Extracurricular

anchorman-2-poster-will-ferrell-ron-burgundyThe biggest cinema event in Atlanta TV news will premiere some time next month.  I’m anticipating Anchorman 2 with a mixture of anticipation and dread.  On one hand, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was the most important movie ever made about local TV news.  Based on that alone, the sequel is worth anticipating.  On the other hand, there will inevitably be recycled jokes.  The Hangover 2 was a godawful sequel to a fine lowbrow comedy.  Anchorman 2 has potential for similar wretchedness.

But  — it was filmed in Atlanta.  One suspects there will be cameo appearances by local news folk.  I’ve heard no scuttlebutt of any appearances from any personnel from my station; I’m rooting for the other non-WSB stations to have some placement in the movie.  If there’s going to be anybody in it from WSB, I’m rooting, of course, for Mark Winne in a trench coat.

The producers of the movie did not call me, unfortunately (and I failed to make any effort to reach out them).  My appearances in Squidbillies should have had them hot on my heels.  Apparently, my ability to churn other peoples’ comedic material in cartoon voiceover never got on their radar.

Early Cuyler

Early Cuyler

Next week I’m due to do a voiceover for my fourth Squidbillies episode.  This appears to be making me into a bona fide recurring role.  In each episode, I’ve played “Doug Richards,” a reporter appearing on TV within a graphics package that looks remarkably like WXIA’s.

My acting skills are clearly limited.  I suspect they feel they’re kinda stuck with me though, given that they’ve already got a template for my caricature.  Plus, they work with my wife.

120816123554_doug_20on_20squids_0My character is a plot device.  So far, he’s been called upon to

  • report on a crime spree by the main character;
  • report on a north Georgia cave that seemed to alter the theory of evolution;
  • report on the Atlanta Pride parade (mistaken by the main character, Early Cuyler, as a parade devoted to country music legend Charley Pride);
  • report on (fill in the blank.  They haven’t sent me the script for next week’s taping yet.)

So I won’t be in Anchorman 2.  But I will be in Squidbillies, season nine, episode TBD — assuming my boss OKs the script, and I make the episode’s final edit.

As an aside, can we get the guy who does the voice of Dan Halen to cut some news promos on some Atlanta station please?

In other news, an Atlanta radio show sampled a story I produced last week and put it in a song.  I didn’t even know those guys were still on the radio.

Meantime — one of my coworkers shows up in a ten-frame Daily Show cameo, and the flicker of hope remains kindled for yours truly.