The early exit, and the “ambush”

I have spent years refraining from getting into public spats with the publicists of politicians and government entities.  They can be extraordinarily petty, unhelpful, deceptive or just useless.  A few aren’t. They are professional and even-tempered, even under trying circumstances.  I don’t bash the bad ones because I have a naive hope they can flip into joining the ranks of the good ones.

So I have hope for Nadgey Louis-Charles, the publicist for US Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia).  According to her Facebook page, she’s a 2014 grad of the University of Georgia. Perhaps her experience with me last week will add something useful to her experience in a job I know can be challenging.

Friday, Nadgey Louis-Charles wrote a piece attacking me and a story I produced Thursday.  She posted it to Hice’s Facebook page late Friday.  (Find it here.) She helpfully tagged me, so I saw it more-or-less immediately.

I wrote a quick response on Hice’s page, but am moved to tell the full story here.  It’s a cautionary tale of dealing with the hyper-sensitive youngsters who surround Members of Congress, who are apparently schooled to “push back” whenever words appear in news stories that may be out of sync with the press releases they send out with deadening regularity.

A producer in our newsroom, Ric Garni, had been researching the public activities of Members of Congress during their recent recess.  Such open-to-the-public events are few and far between, although the press secretaries of congressmen will insist that they meet with the public all the time — just not in public settings.

Such public settings can expose GOP congressmen to a room full of left-leaning folks angry about President Trump and the repeal of Obamacare.

Ric spotted a bona-fide public appearance  on the website of Rep. Hice.  It was in Warren County, not quite two hours east of Atlanta.  It wasn’t a “town hall.” It was billed as “coffee and conversation” with Rep. Hice, with an emphasis on health care and Alzheimer’s.

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Screen grab from Rep. Hice’s website

The site indicated it was open to the public and that “registration is not required.” We decided the night before to check it out and observe his interactions with the public. Hice had voted the previous week to replace Obamacare with a Republican substitute. Though Warren County had voted solidly for Hillary Clinton in November, we’d had no inkling any troublemakers had planned to attend.

After I posted my story about the event online, I got a voice mail and text from Nadgey Louis-Charles.

She wasn’t at the Warrenton event, but two other Hice staffers were there in addition to the Congressman.  They seemed surprised to see me. Because the event was open to the public, I’d made no pre-arrangements.

In the voicemail, Louis-Charles said she wanted to discuss “the headline you ran and the story which was completely deceptive and false.” She went on the describe my interaction with Hice as “kind of an ambush.”

Here’s what actually happened.

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Rep. Jody Hice works a room, wears our mic

Upon arrival, I had spotted Hice working a cafeteria-sized room at a place described as a senior center.  I approached sans camera — photog Dan Reilly was still in the parking lot  — and I said hello.  Hice, who I first interviewed in 2012, has always been agreeable and pleasant. I asked him if I could chat with him on camera after the event.  He said yes, of course.

I also asked him if he would wear a lapel mic during his remarks to the room.  He agreed.

That was the “ambush.”  (I’m not above “ambushing” reluctant newsmakers in public settings. But it didn’t happen here.)

Hice had spoken with folks individually before the program started.  Using a PA system, a staffer introduced Hice.  Hice spoke for a few minutes about Alzheimer’s, which had killed his mother 18 months prior (and my dad more than a decade ago).  He spoke briefly about the health care bill the House passed.  He took no questions, and passed the mic to a woman with the Alzheimers Association.

Hice had told me he would be hurrying to another event afterward. I’d promised to keep my post-event questioning brief.

Warrenton is a town that has seen better days. Except for the Warren County Courthouse and a restaurant across the street, most of its downtown buildings appear to be vacant. Attendees seemed mostly flattered to have the attention of their local congressman, and treated him gently.  There were about fifty people in the room. Most of them were elderly.

Hice sat and listened.  As the woman with the Alzheimers Association spoke, a staffer approached him. I watched them exit a side door into another room. I assumed he was coming back. The program was ten minutes away from the conclusion time posted on his web site.

As he stayed gone, I walked toward the main exit.  I spotted Hice and a staffer outside.  He stopped for the agreed-upon interview.  While Reilly set up, a woman poked her head out the door. “You’re not going to take any questions?” she asked. She was slightly incredulous but not angry. It was a moment we did not record on camera. Hice answered by saying it wasn’t “that kind of an event.”  The disappointed woman, who had driven there from Athens, walked back into the building, and Hice answered my questions in an interview.

After Hice had driven out of the parking lot, I looked at the time again. It was 11:30.

As Reilly drove us back toward Atlanta, I wrote the TV piece that would air at 5. The headline and story mentioned Hice’s early departure. The story also mentioned that his reception was mostly friendly, and explained that his departure was due to another event on his schedule.  It included a quote from the Athens woman, who said she “just wanted to have a civil discussion” about the health care bill.

After she left the voicemail that night, I returned Louis-Charles’s call.  She ranted about the “ambush” of Hice, which I shut down pretty quickly.  Then she complained that the headline and mention about Hice’s early exit falsified and / or distorted what actually happened.

I told her it didn’t. Thankfully, our chat was brief.

Her post appeared the following day, starting with “#fakenewsalert” and a cute reference to my employer as “11 A Lie News.” Once again, she didn’t dispute any actual facts in my piece.

I linked to it. As of Sunday, my reply within his post had 55 comments.  (Social media is the death of blogs.)

Louis-Charles was perfectly within her right to question the facts I put in the story.  She’s within her rights to gripe that I emphasized elements of the event that she wouldn’t have emphasized when writing a press release. She can even say I distorted the importance of his early departure. I disagree. It’s unquestionably part of what made the story interesting.

And she can even make it public. Given that the story was pretty evenhanded, it doesn’t take much to make a congressional publicist go off the rails.

I wouldn’t have done it.  But I’m also grateful I’m not a publicist for a congressman.

One lousy word

I can’t remember ever using the n-word in text or conversation with a newsmaker.  But more times than I can count, I’ve done what my colleague Valerie Hoff did earlier this month. Unfortunately, Valerie tiptoed across a line of acceptable language, and it cost her the job she’d had at WXIA for 18 years.

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Valerie Hoff

Valerie was trying to make contact with a man who’d shot a newsworthy video that had gone viral.  The man had a Twitter handle, and Valerie private messaged him. It was a competitive situation — other news organizations were trying to do the same thing — and Valerie didn’t want to see it anywhere else before she had it.

The African American man had tweeted something about “news n—-z” trying to reach him.  Valerie, a white woman, tried to humorously use the same language in an effort to pitch an interview.  Instead of finding it funny, the man chose to re-tweet and further racialize her text.  Valerie resigned Friday.

Valerie is easy to underestimate: blonde, fit, well-dressed and disarming, it’s a facade concealing a tenacious competitor.  When I worked at WAGA, Valerie was the 11Alive field reporter I feared most. I still smart from the bruising she gave me on the “mansion madame” story in the mid aughts. When I competed with her on a story, I knew I had to be very thorough or I’d end up hearing about a story element she had that I lacked.

When I started work at WXIA in 2009, she was assigned to a franchise called “Ways to Save,” and was anchoring weekends. It sounds like a dream assignment for a reporter coasting toward retirement; yet she worked her tail off producing fresh consumer material that seemed to air seven days a week.  When that gig ended, as all such gigs seem to do, she re-engaged general assignment reporting with her old fervor.  Her stories were often weeks ahead of our competitors. She was a mainstay in the A-block of our newscasts.  And she did it while undergoing a public struggle with breast cancer.

Every reporter tries to find ways to get a potential newsmaker to play ball. If the newsmaker is a civilian new to our world, then the reporter wants to seem likable and trustworthy.  Your competitors are doing the same thing.

Valerie did that better than most of the rest of us.  Knowing her 18 years, I’m absolutely sure there’s not a racially insensitive bone in her body.  I know she regrets using the language in that particular pitch. It turns out quoting back somebody else’s use of a variation of the n-word is perilous territory.

I frequently attempt to use humor or empathy to pitch interviews with perfect strangers under such circumstances.  I also try to be mindful, especially in written messages, that such stuff can surface publicly.  Sometimes I hit “send” too quickly, because typically, time’s a-wastin’. There’s a deadline a few hours away, and there’s a competitor or three breathing down my neck.

So far, it’s never come back to haunt me.

Twinsies

“Indistinguishable,” thy name is two old white guys.

In the news business — one dominated by youthful folk with hair abundant and appealingly tinted — old white guys populate the space reserved for colorless throwbacks.  It’s a space I know well.

Ergo, there’s a certain amount of confusion.  I am constantly called “Richard” or “Dale” or “Clark” or any number of names not mine, but belonging to other old white guys in the Atlanta TV market.

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Richard Elliott is the gent on the left

Yet the proverbial light bulb finally went off over my head when I saw the above photo of myself and Richard Elliot, a reporter at WSB-TV.  The bulb light blinked a message:  No wonder they’re confused!

Mr. Elliott and I covered the legislative session this year.  I’d plotted the photo after a moment of misunderstanding early in the proceedings.

One morning, I’d cornered Rep. Betty Price in the House anteroom and asked her for an interview.  Rep. Price is the wife of Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services.  He’d resigned from Congress.  His 6th district seat was up for grabs in a special election.  Rumor was that Betty Price was among those considering a run for the seat.

Rep. Price politely yet firmly declined my interview request, then did a double take and asked:  Didn’t we already have this conversation?  No ma’am, I assured her.  I stalked off to the press room, where I spotted Mr. Elliott.

Did you ask Betty Price for an interview this morning?  I asked him, adding that I had just done so.  I sure did, Mr. Elliott answered.  Just a few minutes ago. She turned me down, too.

Thus began a 40-day joke (Georgia’s legislature meets for 40 days) about mistaken identity.

Mr. Elliott is one of the hardest working general assignment reporters in the Atlanta market, seemingly WSB’s go-to on everything from mayhem to natural disasters to jurisprudence.  When Lori Geary, WSB’s longtime political reporter, was absent in previous years, the station sent Mr. Elliott.  When she fled WSB to start her own business in December 2016, he replaced her at the Capitol. lori

Had the blonde coiffed Ms. Geary stayed, there might have ensued another type of confusion altogether.  This year, WGCL regularly sent Atlanta newcomer Giovanna Drpic to cover the legislature.  She joined WAGA’s Claire Sims, who made Capitol appearances on those special occasions when she had successfully sweet-talked the station out of assigning her to stories about mistreated house pets or disrespectful treatment of Old Glory.

In fact, when I got Ms Drpic and Ms Sims to pose for the below photo, the former — speaking of Mr. Elliott and me — whispered Yes! I thought it was strange how similar you two looked.

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Giovanna Drpic WGCL and Claire Sims, WAGA

I’m quite sure Mr. Elliott, who also happens to be the nicest guy in the whole friggin’ world, is a decade or so younger than me.  He has always told me that I look like his father.

So there’s that.

Watson and Wood

Some dear friends, a couple who live near me, regularly watch 11Alive News. Best I can tell, it’s mostly because they admire the work of Jaye Watson.

Jennifer "Jaye" Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson is a seventeen year reporter at 11Alive.  In her earliest days there, a news director ordered her to assume the on-air name of “Jaye.” As the years passed, she evolved into a backup anchor. Under news director Ellen Crooke, she deservedly became a storytelling specialist.  As such, she won a trove of writing and storytelling awards.

Her “moments” on TV typically involved wrenching stories of adversity / triumph of the human spirit, elegantly written and produced collaboratively with 11Alive’s best photographers.

She leaves WXIA Friday January 13th for a job at Emory University.

Our industry loses good people every day.  It’s so commonplace that I have trouble even acknowledging them, much less writing about them.

The losses this coming month are glaring. Watson will blaze a trail for the exit, followed closely by Brenda Wood, Atlanta’s best news anchor. Brenda leaves February 7.

As good and as credible as Brenda is on-air, she is, like Watson, a force majeur when writing and producing stories.  It’s a talent folks rarely get to see in Brenda.  Major market news anchors are more consumed than you might think simply anchoring the news.  Reporting and producing stories becomes secondary.

brendaIt shone when Brenda covered the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.  She also produced top-notch segments in various documentaries, including the retrospective we made last year about the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And while I’ve known Brenda since she first landed in 1989 at WAGA, Watson has been my day-to-day cubicle buddy — and family friend —  for the last seven years.

Although she’s brilliant and gifted, Watson is also endearingly abrupt and unpredictable, a well-coiffed, walking non-sequitor in sensible shoes. She’s almost laughably warmhearted, passionate about politics, and has a lovely twisted streak. We are dissimilar enough to make the friendship very interesting.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

She’s also extraordinarily humble. She has zero awards displayed at her house, though she and her husband Kenny Hamilton, WXIA’s former chief photographer, have probably won fifty Emmys between them, maybe more. When she wins an Emmy, she often gives the statue to the subject of the story.

Weirdly, some of my proudest professional moments have been when Watson has erupted in her cubicle, agitated and searching for a word or phrase in a story she’s writing, and insists upon my help.  On a handful of occasions, she’s sent me a script she didn’t quite like, and asked me to fix it.  Whenever it happened, and I could actually help, I found myself endlessly flattered.  But to be clear: She very rarely needed my help.

Before I got to know her, during my 2008 TV news hiatus, I wrote a piece in this blog about Watson’s writing skills, putting side-by-side her coverage of some garden-variety mayhem against the earnest yet underwhelming coverage of a former WGCL reporter.  The comparison showed there was no comparison.

I probably won’t see her this week.  I’ll be ensconced at the Capitol. She will be, undoubtedly, receiving well-deserved accolades at work — just as Brenda will as February 7 nears. Although Watson is expected to retain an occasional on-air storytelling presence at WXIA, they will be irregular at best.

I could write a whole ‘nother post about how on-air women navigating middle age justifiably fear for their futures in TV news, regardless of their talent.  As a greybeard TV news male, I’m keenly aware of a double standard. The recent abrupt exits of talented, veteran female anchors at a competing local station are all the evidence you need. To its credit, WXIA tried to keep Watson and Wood.

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

January 13 will be a rough day.  Watson leaves, and so does promotions chica Lea-Anne Jackson, whom I’ve known since she was an 80s-era intern at WAGA. She is one of the most quick-witted people in the building; she memorably and adorably photobombed a live shot I did on St. Patrick’s Day a generation ago. One of my greatest pleasures in alighting at WXIA in 2009 was unexpectedly seeing Lea-Anne in a hallway and resuming our friendship.  She is also pals with Watson; their hushed tete-a-tetes at Watson’s adjacent cube frequently led to imagined conspiracies against me.

There may be a public sendoff.  Perhaps I’ll tip off my friends in the neighborhood.

To see Jennifer Watson’s take on her departure, click here.

Defining “news”

“Why is this news?”

That’s always a reasonable question. Answering it isn’t always easy.

In this instance, the questioner was Steven Maples, attorney for Tex McIver.  We were outside the Fulton County jail just before Christmas.  McIver, charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his wife Diane, was about to post bond and exit the jail.  A gaggle of photographers was waiting, plus one reporter.

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Tex McIver (left) exits the Fulton County jail with his attorney Steven Maples

I had met Maples earlier in the week. As attorneys go, he seemed humble and humorous.  My presence in his life at that moment might be viewed by many, under similar circumstances, as an affront.  He didn’t.

While waiting for McIver to get out of the lockup and into the lobby, after a few minutes of amiable smalltalk, Maples pointedly posed the question.  

“Why is this news?”

I rarely cover mayhem at WXIA, and I’m grateful for that.  The McIver story was never my cup of tea.  But news folk often get stuck on stories they might not prefer.  As professionals, we have to embrace — and sometimes even defend — such assignments.

The circumstances, and the people involved, make it newsworthy, I answered.

The circumstances raise reasonable questions of Mr. McIver’s intent.  The investigation raises questions of whether Mr. McIver was getting special treatment from the police.

Maples snorted. He also seemed to appreciate an honest answer.

I also felt he deserved a bit of insight into the unscientific decision making of our business.

The truth is, our audience becomes more engaged in stories like this when those involved are — shall we say — people of means.  That was my diplomatic way of saying: When it’s rich folks involved, it’s more sensational.  (I personally avoid the word “sensational” because it’s a term used to undermine the motivations of the news media, though I can’t argue with its accuracy.)

People are idiots, Maples answered in frustration.  If they knew all the details, they would realize this shooting was a terrible tragedy.

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Maples amiably allowed me to “ambush” interview him two days earlier

I wasn’t going to argue about the intelligence of our audience.  There’s a lot of hard evidence out there, especially on the internet, that supports his observation.

That led to a confession.

When I first started in this business, folks in newsrooms had to use their judgment and their smarts to decide what was newsworthy,  I told him. Except for Nielsen ratings and circulation data for newspapers, there was no “science.”  Many stories are obvious.  Some are more subjective. We made judgment calls based on our experience and our instincts and our unscientific knowledge of what we thought the audience wanted and needed to know. We still make those judgment calls.

But nowadays, there’s actual science added to the soup: We can measure which stories have traction on the internet.  The internet provides data measuring actual eyeballs, the type of which we used to only imagine. 

Now that we can count those eyeballs, we use that data to help us decide what stories we should follow. The McIver story, I told him, has a measurable following that we cannot ignore.

People are idiots, Maples said again.

Unfortunately, the internet — with all its awesome measurability — is part of a problem that has gradually eroded the credibility of traditional, commercial news media. We have propped up material on social media as newsworthy. Clickbait sites that traffic in unsubstantiated (or “fake”) news have large followings.

People are also unable to discern the difference between news and editorial.  Opinion pieces and pundit commentary gets lumped together with the product of those of us whose job it is to gather and evenhandedly present factual material.  That’s not just an internet problem, but the stew of “news” on the internet rarely lists the ingredients.

As a result, news is becoming messy and a bit ugly  — unless one actually takes a moment to define it.

Mr. Maples asked a question that ought to get asked more often.

One reason we have Trump

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I’m going to stick my neck out and say most folks in my business didn’t.img_1839

But I did predict his victory, documented in an election-eve text with my friend Matt.  I started calling it for Trump about a week before the election, as numerous polls showed Trump entering into a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton.

Much of the media spun that into a sure Electoral College victory for Clinton. Some had even begun writing post-Trump analyses of the GOP’s next steps after the impending election disaster.

I kept seeing flashbacks to 1980, when the chattering classes viewed Reagan as a madman incapable / undeserving of the reins of government, and the polls showed Carter winning.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan at their only debate

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan at their only debate

And while I didn’t vote for Trump, I have many friends and family members who did.  Their argument always started with their discomfort with “political correctness.”

I view political correctness as a pejorative term that really describes the Biblical Golden Rule — treat people the way they want to be treated.

That means adding a Q to LGBT.  It means embracing new bathroom and marriage rules. It means using the term “people of color” and not “colored people.”  It means understanding the finer points of #blacklivesmatter.

The fact that white Trump voters are exhausted by political correctness doesn’t make them racist.  Yes, plenty of racists supported Trump, just as there are plenty of idiots in my industry. It doesn’t make us all idiots, nor does it make me responsible for their behavior.

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In particular, Black Lives Matter confuses many whites.  When they trot out #alllivesmatter, it’s because they don’t understand the fact that average African Americans routinely have unnerving experiences with police.

Plus, if they would just obey cops, they wouldn’t get shot so much.

So to white Trump voters, it makes sense that all lives matter.

Yet they’re reviled as racist for saying it. So they’re drawn to Trump. He stood up against political correctness. He got clobbered for it.  He didn’t retreat.

Within that framework, all of his excesses could be excused because he didn’t back away from his many flaws.  “Build the wall” was politically incorrect.  Banning Muslims was politically incorrect.  Even if the details of those promises were problematic, his willingness to make them and stick to them made him singularly appealing.

So now we’ve got Trump. His first act was to banish a traveling press pool, which likely would be composed mostly of people who didn’t vote for him.

Very politically incorrect.

The lemon

Here’s what a lemon looks like:  It’s my KitchenAid dual oven gas range, purchased in 2012 for a princely sum.

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It was an appealing purchase at the time.  Two ovens are cool and handy.  Gas stoves are easier to control, and evoke my grandmother’s kitchen.

Grandma’s gas range worked great.  Mine doesn’t.

The problem is technology, a blessing and a curse in the 21st century.  When it works great, yay.  When it fails, it is complicated and costly to fix.

My grandmother’s stove didn’t have a motherboard.  Mine does.  Two years ago, it went completely haywire.  Pushing buttons to turn on the oven would instead change the time on the clock.  Adjusting the temperature upward would sometimes shut the whole thing down.

Because it was under warranty, KitchenAid replaced the motherboard.

Last week, it failed again.  This time, the oven won’t heat beyond 170 degrees.

The oven heats, but not enough.  The technology is screwing it up, according to the appliance guy who visited this week.  He offered to install a new motherboard for $450.

KitchenAid is offering to install a new one for $300, with a one year warranty.

At this rate, I’ll be installing new $300 motherboards every two years into a range that is obviously a lemon.  Nice business model, KitchenAid.

Why does a stove / range need a motherboard?   Instead of twisting a knob to activate the oven or set the temperature (grandma’s stove), mine has digital readouts and buttons (that aren’t really buttons) that are embedded next to the readouts.  Its looks very sleek, very 21st century.

When it works, it works great — but not as great as grandma’s did.

In my business, technology has changed a lot in the last twenty years.  We used to edit video on tape machines.  Now we do it in computers, and videotape only exists in archives.  When video machines failed, a guy with a toot belt would open them up and fix them.  When our computers fail, a guy (or two or three) will poke around, scratch their heads and try to decode the problem.  They’ve wiped my computer more times than I can count.  Each time, I lose all the stuff I’ve stored and all the memory that helps me work faster.  (And I can’t count how many failed external hard drives I’ve got in my desk, hoping they’ll reanimate one day.)

I get why TV news technology has advanced.  When it works, it’s lighter and faster and more mobile.

But a kitchen appliance doesn’t need to be mobile or faster or lighter.  The range needs to get hot when I want it to, without the interference of a very flawed KitchenAid computer motherboard that seems completely superfluous to cooking.

I’ve got a KitchenAid guy coming next week to to replace the motherboard — again — for $300.  Maybe I’m behind the times.  But it seems a bit outrageous.