Twenty years ago, I produced two stories that depicted me as a homeless guy wandering among visitors to Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics. The premise still makes me cringe. Yet, I’d do it again.
The story was rooted in abundant anecdotal evidence that authorities were aggressively rooting out downtown’s homeless folk in order to prevent them from mingling with Olympic visitors. Most of the evidence came from the homeless themselves, and their advocates. Ask the authorities, and they’d look at you like you were crazy.
In 1996, I was into my first year as a mostly self-assigned feature reporter at WAGA. Prior to the start of the Olympics, I scheduled a two-week vacation and took my kids on a road trip to Yellowstone. During that period, I grew a scraggly beard. On the way back I stopped to see my cousin, a farmer in Missouri, who gave me a well-worn trucker-hat, stained with sweat and motor oil and livestock fluids and God knows what else. In exchange, I gave him a “channel 5 eyewitness news” hat, which I don’t think he ever wore.
Wearing the hat, the beard, and some clothes that I’d gunked-up in Peachtree Creek near the TV station, I set out for the just-opened Centennial Olympic Park. The idea was hatched by the late Robert Miller, a streetwise photog who enthusiastically ditched his big-boy camera for a consumer-grade camcorder, so as to blend in with other camcorder-toting tourists. An intern tagged along as Robert’s apparent on-camera foil, while I lurked beyond her wearing a wireless mic.
At this point, let me say: Any story that’s rooted in bullshit is suspect. Any act that compromises the honesty of a reporter is dangerous. We are constantly trying to earn the trust of the audience; when we integrate bullshit into our coverage, it undermines that.
But it’s also true that we often get better information when we don’t fully disclose our intentions. In this case, a story approached traditionally would have yielded predictable results.
My act included a wobbly walk and a fluctuating grimace that made me look a little nuts. After entering the park, it didn’t take long for a plainclothes GBI agent to stop me. His “probable cause” was chilling: “Somebody said you was looking at little kids when you walked by. Anything to that?”
It was a bullshit-meets-bullshit moment. When he found my wireless mic, my act unraveled.
A day later, we returned. At the suggestion of WAGA management, I toned down the quirky mannerisms. But it was clear the cops had been briefed about my presence. They mostly steered clear. Part two was more of the same, minus the accusatory police encounter.
This story has an off-camera sidebar.
After getting into character on the first day, I entered the TV station and immediately raised suspicion. Two strapping photogs and longtime friends saw me first: Travis Shields and Steve Zumwalt. “Sir, may I help you?” offered Travis. My attire was apparently convincing.
They began to circle toward me in an improvised pincer movement, cornering me in an engineering room. When one of them grabbed me, I ID’d myself, drawing embarrassed whoops. You’ve got to go into the newsroom! Travis said. Great idea.
The moment I entered the newsroom, Leslie Duffield effortlessly and loudly ID’d me: Whoa, look at Doug! Cover blown but with the intrigue of my co-workers stoked, Lily Jamarillo made an evil suggestion: Go into Budd’s office. They’re having a meeting, the newsroom secretary said.
So I burst open the door as Lily dramatically exclaimed Sir! You can’t go in there! Budd McEntee, the news director, was with his management team, plus the station’s general manager. There was awkward silence, followed by Sir, may I help you? from McEntee. I just stood there and breathed hard.
After a moment the general manager, Jack Sander, produced a forearm and used it to sort-of pin me against a wall. Almost simultaneously, Michael Carlin, the investigative EP, blurted dismissively: Oh. That’s Doug Richards.
Disappointment. Groans. Annoyance. I beat a hasty exit.
I somehow still had a job, despite my bullshit.