WAGA’s “Mission to China” was a distressingly colorless thirty-minute recap of Russ Spencer’s recent trip to China with Gov. Sonny Perdue. It appeared that WAGA simply re-broadcast pieces Spencer and chief photographer Fred Plummer produced on-the-fly in China and fed back. The pieces were acceptable deadline stories, but weren’t worthy of showcasing in a half-hour special.
There were upsides: Spencer gamely tried to address the issues of Tibet and China’s choking totalitarianism. Gov. Perdue evaded Spencer’s questions, laughably saying “that’s for politicians,” as if Perdue was suddenly above politics. Even worse, when asked about Tibet, Perdue answered by saying “our nation sometimes has disruptions,” as if there was a parallel between Tibet and anything happening in the US. Hopefully, John McCain will keep this guy off his long list for VP. This stuff would haunt him.
But the downside was the editing. Not once was there a bit of natural sound. We saw pictures of some Chinese shooshing away Plummer’s camera, but they were covered with sound from an interview. We saw pictures of rural Chinese stoking a fire with bamboo, but heard no crunch, no pop. There was nary a peep of Chinese language– no excited chatter at a train station or market. None, even from the cop who questioned the crew about its presence at Tianenmen Square.
Short natural sound breaks are an underutilized tool to give TV stories flavor. Spencer’s stories cried out for it, especially given the colorful locale.
Spencer was able to question exactly one English-speaking Shanghai resident on board a train (and that man blamed Tibetan protestors for unrest there). But Spencer and Plummer clearly could have used a translator. If WAGA was planning a documentary, it should have hired one. And it should have given Spencer and Plummer a few more days in China, away from the Governor’s junket. That would have given Plummer a chance to really show his stuff as a photographer. WAGA sold plenty of advertising for the half-hour. The station should have spent the coin.
The station also could have sent reporter Patty Pan instead of (or in addition to) Spencer. Just so happens, Pan is fluent in Mandarin. The station should know this– it’s in her bio on WAGA’s website.
But it didn’t. Absent that, it’s dumbfounding that the station didn’t give Plummer’s raw tapes to one of its top editors, and give Spencer an opportunity to produce the material with more polish and more color. A worldly guy and a solid newsman, Spencer has the capability. Instead, the whole thing looked like an afterthought– a local TV station trying to give its news anchor some international cachet, while giving its audience the cheapskate version of international coverage.