I’ll admit it.  I was a bit nervous after the grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict the Ferguson MO police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  That night, violence had erupted in Ferguson.  Protestors in Atlanta had already planned events for the following day.

As the grand jury report was unveiled, somebody named Thomas Gibbons sent me an unsettling tweet.  It had a humorous touch, but the sender’s profile pic also showed a young man pointing a pistol.  I retweeted it, just because I was impressed that he was familiar enough with my bio to reference events 22 years previous.

retweetI was a bit sullen during the morning editorial meeting the following day.  My colleagues pitched a lot of pretty great ideas that related the Ferguson story to the Atlanta market.  I was not so clever.  At the end of the meeting, the managing editor asked what people thought might happen that day.  I ended up blurting out what, in hindsight, was a rather alarmist speech.

I’m expecting the worst. I  hope I’m wrong.  But we should all expect to be targets. It only takes a few hotheads to make it turn ugly.

Whatever happens today won’t just be about Ferguson.  It’ll be about a lifetime of frustration, experienced by people in metro Atlanta who genuinely believe they — or their friends or family or neighbors —  have been mistreated by police and by the justice system.  Most of us at this table don’t understand that frustration first-hand.  Today will provide an opportunity for such folks to gather and make an emphatic statement..

This will be a target-poor environment .  Government buildings will be well protected.  Police will be armed.   News crews will be unprotected.  Like it or not, people with cameras and microphones will represent “the man” in the eyes of folks looking to lash out.  We need to be very careful.

The editorial meeting ended with a bit of a chill.  I found myself shaking as I retreated to my desk.

Fortunately, the protests were much more like Occupy Atlanta than they were like Rodney King.  Police gave the protestors a pretty wide berth, up until the point that they decided to march on the I-75/85 Downtown Connector.

Who knew that, at that point, a few hotheads in law enforcement would become the problem.

(Oh, wait — that was kind of the whole point of the protest…)

When the protestors ventured down the ramp to the interstate highway, news crews followed.  The protestors blocked traffic.  Police who’d followed told photogs to stay on the shoulder.

In custody: 11Alive photog Tyson Paul

In custody: WXIA photog Tyson Paul

11Alive photog Tyson Paul was among them.  There came a moment when he watched some cops physically remove some protestors from a lane of traffic and put them in a paddy wagon.  Tyson turned to shoot it.  Then he felt a cop grab his wrist.  His camera lurched to the left.  His voice is heard on the video saying “I’m with channel eleven.”  The cop orders him to put his camera down.  He was taken to Turner Field, where he was processed into the city jail along with a couple dozen arrested protestors.

It’s unclear why the cops singled out Tyson — and Creative Loafing freelancer John Ruch.  Ruch was arrested on a sidewalk outside APD’s Zone 5 precinct on Spring St.  Here’s the last photo he took before the cops cuffed him.  (If Ruch has published a first-hand account of his experience, I can’t find it.)

Photo by John Ruch, Creative Loafing

Photo by John Ruch, Creative Loafing

I have always heard that it’s illegal to just take a stroll on an interstate highway — even in the emergency lane.  Obviously, if your car is disabled, that’s one thing; but many interstate highways have signs that say “no pedestrians.”  It’s quite likely that by following the protestors onto the highway, the news crews broke a law.

But Tyson is a pretty fearless photog.  He followed his instinct to follow the story.

When they got onto the highway, Tyson says cops actually advised him to confine himself to the shoulder in order to avoid running afoul of law enforcement. The young Atlanta cop who cuffed him apparently wasn’t part of that conversation.

He spent the night in jail.  The next morning, a municipal court judge dropped the charge against Tyson.  When Tyson went to court, he had his first face-to-face encounter with Jennifer Rigby, 11Alive’s new news director.  She started work last week, and made a point of attending the early morning court hearing.

Thankfully, I was wrong about the protests.  The police, however, surprised me.  As somebody said– it only takes a few hotheads to make it turn ugly.

Friday, the Atlanta Police public affairs unit is hosting one of its regular “get to know us” sessions for the news media.  This one may be worth attending.






Rushing the rope line

In a moment of admitted self-indulgence, the blogger interviews himself.

Hey, Doug!  Did you irritate some PR people last week?!?

It’s kind of the story of my life.

Which ones?

Rosalyn, Jason, Kate and Jimmy Carter

Rosalyn, Jason, Kate and Jimmy Carter

The publicists / handlers for Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, the Democrats running for Governor and US Senate in Georgia.

What’d you do?

In both instances, I was trying to access and interview ex-presidents who had attended and spoke at events on behalf of their candidates.  The publicists didn’t want me to do that.

So what happened?

In Columbus GA, Jason Carter held a public rally with his grandfather Jimmy Carter.  After we arrived, the candidate’s PR guy, Bryan Thomas, said President Carter wouldn’t be doing any interviews.

But you tried anyway?

Well– yeah! After their speeches, President Carter worked a rope line in front of the stage, shaking hands with folks.  Photog Mike Zakel and I went to the rope line.  President Carter was right in front of us.  I asked him a couple of questions.  He kind of answered, kinda didn’t.

And that angered the campaign guy?

Afterward, Thomas snarled that I was “out of line.” Some other reporters were griping to him that they didn’t get the chance to question Carter that I did.

Was it worth it?

President Carter, on the rope line

President Carter, on the rope line

Yes and no.  The material was barely usable.  Carter, at age 90, is still sharper than I will ever be, but he’s very softspoken.  There was music thumping in the background, so the audio wasn’t clean.  After my piece aired, a manager told me that I looked like I was ambushing an elderly man, suggesting it was not a very attractive moment for me.

So why do it?

There’s a principle involved.  An ex-president is a public person.  He was at an event open to the public.  Jimmy Carter has answered very few questions about his grandson’s campaign, mostly with newspaper folk.  Carter is smart and experienced. If he wanted to talk to a local TV news goon at a rope line, he would have.  And Carter knows how to say “no.”  But it was his decision, not the campaign’s.

And then you did it again?

The Carter event was Monday.  Friday, Bill Clinton stumped on behalf of Michelle Nunn.

And they didn’t want you to interview Clinton?

Before the event started, Nunn’s communications guy Nathan Click said Clinton wasn’t doing any interviews.

I wonder why a campaign wouldn’t want an ex-president to do any interviews?

Clinton and Nunn

Clinton and Nunn

Campaigns are all about controlling their message.  They seem to mostly view the news media as an uncontrollable presence capable of getting unflattering stories spread online.  Frequently, Nunn’s campaign held events this year that got little to no advance notice, keeping the media away so that the campaign could control the message.

So, same scenario as Carter?

Kind of.  A rope line formed at the front, near the podium, as the room filled up.  There was a riser in the back, overcrowded with photographers.  An hour before the event started, I went to the rope line.  I saw some people there I knew.  I also had a wireless mic with me.  Zakel stayed on the riser with his camera.

Seems pretty harmless so far.

Nunn had a bunch of handlers there.  One of them picked me out of the crowd and ordered me back to the riser.  Since the event hadn’t started, I persuaded her to let me chat with my acquaintances, one of whom was an old WAGA coworker.  The handler allowed me to chat with her for a few more minutes and stood there the whole time.

Did you stay at the rope line?

The corner of the room where I wanted to chat with Clinton, as viewed from the riser.

The distant corner of the room where I wanted to chat with Clinton, as viewed from the riser.

I probably would have if the Nunn people hadn’t been so adamant about my departure.  I had nothing to gain by stalking an empty podium, so I figured I would go back to the riser and try the rope line again after the speechmaking ended.

So the public was allowed to wander the room, but you weren’t?

Yes.  As is often the case nowadays, having a press pass actually gives the holder less access than the general public has.  It’s BS.  Out of principle, it must be resisted.

You sound mighty high-minded there with your “principle.” A lot of news media haters would view that as an oxymoron.

Not my fault some people give my business a bad name.  The principle is the news media is merely an extension of the general public, except that we write about / document events.  It  means that because the general public can take pictures, shoot video and write whatever they want, those of us in the professional media must insist on the same kind of access the general public has.  Or more.  But never less.

Plus, one can argue that any political campaign that talks about the value of transparency in the public arena is being a bit inconsistent when it curbs media access at events that are open to the public.

So you stayed in your little news media area like a good boy?

After the event ended, I broke free of the riser and made my way to the rope line with my wireless mic.  It took about a minute for a Nunn handler to order me away.  I resisted, arguing that I can go where the general public is allowed.  Meantime, President Clinton was working the rope line and slowly approaching my spot.

Was there a discussion?

There were several discussions with three different Nunn handlers.  I rejected the suggestion that I had agreed to stay on the riser; no such restriction was made in advance of the event.  Then they said the Secret Service didn’t want me on the rope line, which I knew to be baloney (if the Secret Service wanted me gone, I’d have been visited by a guy who talked into his wrist, not a fresh-faced campaign staffer). Then they said “New York” didn’t want me there. Turned out “New York” was the Clinton Global Initiative.  I judged that to be baloney too.

Meantime, Clinton is getting closer.  You really thought you were going to interview that guy?

I’d done it before at rope lines.  Each time, I asked a question or two and Clinton answered in far more length than I could possibly use.  The guy likes to talk and he’s good at it.  It’s the reason he was there for Nunn.

So you stayed and interviewed Clinton?

No.  I retreated back to the riser.


I began to weigh my circumstances.  Zakel’s camera was still at the riser, forty feet away.  He and the rest of the photogs stayed put when the Nunn people told them to do so.  The noise level was high; there was loud music playing as Clinton worked the rope line.  I figured my odds of getting usable material was slim, especially if the Nunn people ratcheted up their interference.

Meantime, an argument formed in my head that the Nunn people should have made, but didn’t:   This was a ticketed event. Everybody in the room had been invited by the Nunn campaign, including me.  So this wasn’t a “public” event per se.  I was there as Nunn’s guest.  I was somewhat obliged to play nice, even though no ground rules were laid out prior to my acceptance of their invitation.

So they were right and you were wrong?

No!  I was right and they were wrong.  I was doing my job by trying to interview Clinton.   I was right in attempting to access the same space accessed by the general public.  They should have allowed it, in the spirit of accessibility and transparency.  The “rope line” interview is commonplace.

I am happy to respectfully entertain contrasting opinions in the comments section below.

So you retreated in shame, and the Nunn people were still angry at you.

They never said they were.  Like most political campaigns, they’re pretty good at shaking off stuff like this.  But the whole thing was awkward, and a bit chilly afterward.

What would you have asked Clinton?

Still not sure about that, but I’m sure Clinton would have answered at length and added something interesting to the story.

Last question: Are you awesome, or what?

If only.











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.



Here’s the most surprising thing about covering news as a man with only one fully-functioning arm:  Nearly everybody sees my arm in a sling and assumes that my injury occurred during an act of physical violence with another human being.

Gov. Deal and I are chuckling about my unfortunate need to wear short sleeved dress shirts

Gov. Deal and I are chuckling about my unfortunate need to wear short sleeved dress shirts

In particular, they tend to assume that the injury came during a physical altercation with an aggrieved interviewee.

My explanation that it occurred “during a bizarre gardening accident” tends to disappoint universally.  “You need to come up with a better story” is the typical rejoinder, perhaps because people assume that I’m well-practiced in delivering stories that are rooted entirely in fantasy.

For the first few days after the injury, my workplace experiences included a fair amount of cold panic.  I learned to type at age ten.  The idea of having to look at the keyboard while hunting-and-pecking with the middle finger of my robo-hand was more than an inconvenience.  It was a mindf&ck.  An act that was second-nature — typing — had become a bothersome ordeal, upending my sense of routine and timing that had helped me retain the confidence to write stories that made sense and made deadline.

It also hurt to type.  I have to keep the right hand raised above the keyboard in order to avoid hitting stray keys with the part of the cast that covers my right palm. (On my Windows computer at work, these stray keys sometimes want to launch commands to do things like shut down the computer.)  The combination of the raised hand, the unnatural muscle movements and the broken wrist brought on pain that only added to the panic.

I didn't know it was called a "stenomask" until I googled it

I didn’t know it was called a “stenomask” until I googled it

Within a couple of weeks, the hand adapted and the pain subsided.  The mind has returned more-or-less to normal.  But it has killed my typing accuracy.  Dashing off emails and blog posts and whatnot are no fun nowadays.

I do endorse the use of Dragon.  I shouldn’t have purchased the program for my computer.  It’s a free download on the Iphone.  Instead of logging interviews via keyboard, I listen to them and repeat the noteworthy material verbally into Dragon, including time codes and punctuation (kinda like a court reporter using a Stenomask).  Dragon emails the material to me unfailingly.  I may never go back to logging interviews by keyboard.

But I do look forward to the day that I can.  And to the day I can stop wearing short-sleeved dress shirts.




Sunday, I broke my wrist.  I was doing yard work, breaking up some tree limbs, which DeKalb County’s sanitation workers had declined to fetch from an unruly curbside pile I’d made six weeks ago.

It's on the right, below that bump that sticks out on the right, leading to five or so fissures inside

It’s below that bump that sticks out on the right, leading to five or so fissures inside

I thought I found a brilliant shortcut that involved me swinging, like a baseball bat, a too-thick limb against a tree truck. Turns out, I really am an idiot.

I’m now wearing a cast, and typing this post with my left hand.  I can’t work this way.  I’m not just a TV news goon.  I’m a writer, dammit, of TV news copy, web copy and a trancriber of TV news interviews.  One who now hunts and pecks.

This tops a long list of things I can’t do with my right hand and forearm immobilized. I can’t

  • pick up heavy stuff
  • wash my hands
  • tie a necktie
  • wear a dress shirt
  • tie my shoelaces
  • wash my left armpit
  • shave, except shittily
  • sleep worth a damn

This list seems to expand by the hour.

I’ve purchased some transcription software called Dragon. If it works, I’ll be able to do my job.  I’ll be unclean, poorly dressed, have a bulgy right arm and will have sad, uneven whiskers viewable on HD.  But I’ll be able to commit acts of television– if it works.

This means my income stream will continue, allowing the option of doing something I should have done weeks or years ago:

Hire a guy to do my yard work.



Ernie, Blayne and Ferguson

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

The eruption of Ferguson MO deserved the attention it got, yet covering a riot can be a bit problematic.  WXIA’s Blayne Alexander went to provide some backup for Gannett-owned KSDK and ended up spending a week in the St. Louis suburb.  She returned to Atlanta and delivered a reporter’s notebook piece on WXIA’s weekend news, viewable here.  Excerpt:

  • The anger. It was thick. You could feel it in the air. I spent my nights in the protest zone, what we came to know as ground zero. Even for reporters, every night, the threat of getting tear gassed was very real. Just before a live report one night, I had to jump away from the camera and dive into a car just go get out of the way of the gas. And i was still hit. It was a battle. It was unreal.

A kid named Ryan Schueller, freelancing for Al-Jazeera, wrote a blog post about what he viewed as the horrors of the media siege in Ferguson.  It’s got a deer-in-the-headlights quality to it, but his observations are worth a click. 

Ernie Suggs of the AJC wrote a lively / amusing / harrowing first-person piece after spending a week in Ferguson.  The entire piece is behind a paywall here, and worth the click.  I’ve lifted a few lines below.


Ernie Suggs, AJC

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Police lined Ferguson Street and were beginning to push the protesters down West Florissant Avenue. A loud, piercing noise filled the air, which was already thick with tear gas.

People were running full out down the street. At McDonald’s, a group of frightened workers peered out the window, as if caged. Panicked marchers banged on the doors, begging for water to soothe their stinging eyes. A man picked up a brick and threw it, fracturing the plate glass window. When it didn’t fully break, he picked up another brick to finish the job.

It was 9:15 p.m. I had been on the street less than 30 seconds. (…)

I spotted Yamiche Alcindor, the national breaking news reporter for USA Today.

“Is this what you signed up for?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

But I was scared. In all my years as a reporter, I had never been in anything like this.

Thousands of angry protesters. Hundreds of police officers. Gallons of tear gas. And countless rounds of bullets, even if they were supposed to be rubber.

(Much respect to my colleagues who cover real wars.)

I had two major concerns: Getting shot by some knucklehead and getting a direct tear gas hit.

I called Blayne Alexander, a WXIA reporter who was also in town covering events. Straight to voicemail.

Reporters were getting caught up in the crowd. The cops were like bulldozers, smashing everything in their path.

When the helicopter above us began shining a light on the crowd, tear gas followed, then gunshots. The tear gas pushed people straight back. The gunshots made people scatter.

I fell to my knees and crawled.

We made it to the residential section of West Florissant and were hit with another volley of tear gas. Then bullets.

I ran into a yard, where I was face to face with a dude with a gun. It was pointed right at my gut, although he wasn’t pointing the gun at me.

“Y’all don’t want to come down here. Y’all don’t …”

I didn’t wait for him to say it twice. Yamiche was on my heels when I turned around and pushed her away, shouting, “Gun!!!”

I kept asking myself, where are we expected to go?


The auteur

This post has to start with an admission:  I’m a bit of a thief.  I stole shamelessly from Tom Corvin.

When Corvin showed up as a freelancer at WAGA in the early 90s, he was a brooding, too-tall, chain smoking enigma; viewed warily as the object of a recently blown-apart relationship with a well-liked 11pm newscast producer.

Tom Corvin

Tom Corvin

Then Budd McEntee put him on the payroll as a reporter, and it kind of transformed the whole newsroom.

Corvin was a ridiculously talented writer, who packed multilayered, mindbending copy into prosaic ten or fifteen second increments, multiplied across the breadth of a 90 second or four-minute piece of TV.  At the same time, he rarely overwrote.  Some of his best pieces had no narration at all.

Corvin viewed TV news as filmmaking.  He didn’t shoot his own stories, but he was the director of photography on his shoots.  In our shop, he blazed trails on techniques widely used today as afterthoughts:  Wide angle lenses, starkly-lit interviews, using foreground objects to frame background images.  Corvin had a sharp eye for meaningful cutaways that lent texture (and often irony) to stories.

Compound the irony with his Rod Serling-esque delivery, and the copy he wrote for anchors.  You can just envision Corvin chuckling as he wrote lead-ins to his pieces, wondering if Jim Axel or Brenda Wood would actually intone the circuitous barrage of words he’d written for them.

He was also the king of the standup-as-cameo.  He was loathe to make a story about him, but understood that local news more-or-less requires the presence of the reporter as newsgatherer.  His interactions with newsmakers added Corvin’s personality to stories and enhanced the journalism at the same time.  His occasional appearances as a participant or observer were typically brief, surprising and hilarious.

In May 1993, WAGA sent Corvin out to produce a series called “Night People.”  In it, Corvin visited the legendary 24-hour gay bar Backstreet for a look at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, the nightclub’s infamous drag show.  (Years later, Backstreet was forced to shut down after WAGA’s I-team exposed its 24 hour license as a sham.)

In July 1994, Corvin produced a two-part series (!) on Romeo Cologne, the Atlanta DJ who brought back disco and continues to power funk dance parties around town.  The pieces, shot by Jeff Moore, blew my mind stylistically.  (“This is out of control,” said Mrs. LAF when I showed her the Cologne series last weekend.)

“Night People” was an apt subject for Corvin, inasmuch as he became one of them, a bit of a legend for his after-hours carousing in Little 5 Points and beyond.  I still get asked about his doings all the time, and not by people who watched local news.

He left WAGA to move to Kansas City, where he pulled a nights-and-weekends shift at a TV station, then left the business and never returned.  He wrote a rousing, fanciful resignation letter, posted on this site in 2008, that was a cri de coeur about the things that drive everybody in our business a little nuts.

A face in the crowd:  TC at Turner Field in July 2014

A face in the crowd: TC at Turner Field in July 2014

He now lives with his family in San Francisco.  Prior to a recent trip to Atlanta, I twisted his arm into bringing the Cologne pieces with him, and he obliged with an entire Beta tape filled with his now-vintage work at WAGA.

The son of a Baptist minister and a Bob Jones University graduate, he has reacquainted himself with Christianity and has evened out his life.  He ought to be a fighting off offers for TV and teaching work, but competes against kids who are now mimicking, digitally, what Corvin did in analog twenty years ago.

“Everybody’s a thief,” he texted me when I gave him a heads-up about this post.  Count me among the many who swiped from him.