Monthly Archives: May 2008

It sounded like a freight train….

That sound you heard Sunday night was the tornadic fury of WGCL’s news judgment imploding. On a day when tornadoes caused states-of-emergency in a half dozen Georgia counties, WGCL led its 11pm news with a Ryan Deal “exclusive” on a Craigs list scam that misled a couple of metro families, who were too embarrassed to show their faces in Deal’s story.

There was no question the pre-dawn storms were the story of the day– likely the story of the week. Following Deal’s piece, WGCL gave the storms a too-brief mention– then moved on to Jenna Bush’s wedding. Then came another exclusive: A Wendy Saltzman “investigation” on illegal spyware that can trace cellphone calls. Saltzman’s piece wasn’t bad, though it had no victims of this threat.

Meantime, WAGA led its 10pm news with solid tornado pieces by Julia Harding, George Franco and Darryl Carver. Even WXIA/WATL was sensible with its 10pm lead by Catherine Kim, whose on-air reaction to a technical difficulty will end up in this year’s Gorilla Ball. Kim’s flub was a human mistake. WGCL’s ineptitude was premeditated.

Viewers of WGCL had to wait six minutes before the station finally threw to Christopher King, whose sole package represented WGCL’s tornado coverage. Now we’ll just pile on.

As part of the team coverage the storm deserved, King’s piece might have been acceptable. As WGCL’s sole entry, it was lame. His best interview was with a woman who wasn’t even there when the storm hit. His writing tilted dangerously close to cliche territory, with its references to the “path of devastation” and its “battering homes into piles of sticks.” Granted, tornadoes automatically bring cliches with them, like exposed nails in splintered lumber. The trick is to step around them.

(WAGA also deserves a finger wag for leading into its coverage with its “literally picking up the pieces” line and matching graphic.)

Saltzman and Deal’s stories weren’t bad. As stand-alone pieces of enterprise, they actually worked. But they weren’t more important than the storms. WGCL is apparently obsessed with the notion that it must lead each newscast with a story seen “only on CBS-46.” Sometimes, you gotta throw away the formula just to keep from embarrassing yourself. Sunday was such a day.

Emmy nods

NATAS announced its Southeastern Emmy nominations over the weekend. The list includes some eye-openers. It appears WSB got “team coverage” nominations for two stories it covered the same day– the Americus tornado, and the Bluffton University baseball team bus crash on I-75. March 2 2007 was a sick day, news-wise: Two genuinely disastrous stories broke before dawn on the same day. They spread thin the staffs of every Atlanta news organization.  WSB apparently got both stories right, at least in the eyes of the NATAS judges.

The Emmys are the awards that TV news competes most strongly for, year in and year out.  At this point, it’s worth noting what the NATAS acronym spells backwards.

We also note at least four nominations by WAGA general assignment reporter Tony Thomas. Thomas is a smart and ridiculously hard-working reporter, the kind of guy who wants to go to all the hurricanes and doesn’t object to consecutive double-shifts. He deserves some trophies. So does Chris Rosenthal, who is nominated with Thomas in three of the categories and is arguably the most gifted young photog in town.

This year’s list also shows the continuation of a trend in the Southeastern Emmys: Atlanta dominates the region. But smaller markets, mostly Greenville / Asheville / Spartanburg, are pushing aside the Atlanta stations and doing big-time stuff. WYFF (Greenville) and WLOS (Asheville) have a lock on the Feature News Report category. Two of the three nominees for News Photographer are from WYFF. WXIA has the third.

Unlike, say, Denver or the Twin Cities, Atlanta lacks a reputation as a photographer’s market. Atlanta wants little more than pictures that are a) framed decently and b) in focus while c) the photog sets a live shot and d) edits a piece at the same time. WXIA is the closest there is to an NPPA station here. And the four stations mostly don’t do feature reporting, which is considered a waste of resources that should be devoted to hard-news coverage. The smaller markets will still take a moment for Kuralt-esque examinations of humanity’s quirks.

But smaller markets are also encroaching the edgier categories. WAGA’s I-Team gets two Investigative Report nods. But two more go to WYFF and WLOX Biloxi. The Emmy awards banquet is in June. It’s always a good night to root for the little guy.

Toothless investigations

TV news overuses the term “investigates.” WSB is especially guilty of this. It devotes an entire web page to “2 Investigates.” The site has thirty stories on it, ranging from “Harmful ingredients in your makeup?” to “Glenn Burns talks tornado impact.” In other words, it ain’t Woodward / Bernstein. It’s not even Richard Belcher or Jim Strickland, WSB’s real-life investigative reporters.

It’s drek like “Channel two goes inside the world of competitive cheerleading.” It’s a story that tries oh, so hard to look like an expose, but fails miserably. Jodie Fleischer’s story starts by touting her use of a hidden camera inside a competitive cheerleading event, producing video Fleischer says “looks more like the walking wounded.” The video: One girl on crutches, another in a cast. Seconds later, Fleischer is doing interviews at the same event, using an in-plain-view camera that could have captured the same video. The story reveals that parents spend a bunch of dough on their cheerleading daughters. It reveals that injuries have increased in the last twenty years. In other words, it falls flat as an effort to uncover closely-guarded secrets. Yet WSB touts this as an example of its investigative prowess.

The hidden camera is a useful tool when the target of your investigation may be trying to conceal something. Nothing here indicates the need for it. But the “hidden camera” line in Fleischer’s story tips the audience that they’re going to see something extraordinary. It never happens.

The story “Who Isn’t paying their taxes” sounds like vigorous investigative reporting. Instead, John Bachman got a readily-available printout of delinquent accounts from the Georgia Department of Revenue. He lists some prominent names, nearly all of which have been in the AJC. And he interviews some dude on the street (wearing a stylish leopard print baseball cap) who says “wow!” over and over as Bachman shows him the list of delinquent taxpayers.

Both stories were worthy examples of enterprise reporting. Fleischer could have legitimately told the same story without the heavy-handed effort to paint competitive cheerleading as something dark and you-won’t-believe-how dangerous. Neither was worthy of the term “investigates,” which implies that the station is about to slam-dunk uncover something the viewer hasn’t seen, or known, before.

Every reporter, by definition, is an investigative reporter. But not every TV story is an “investigative report.” By overusing the term, WSB cheapens it.

Squalor

When a phone rings in a TV newsroom, there’s a pretty fair chance it’s a tenant calling to pitch an expose on his landlord. These calls are so common that news personnel keep their guards up about stories describing “nasty” conditions at apartment complexes. Such stories rarely appear on TV as a result.

Thankfully, the situation at Maple Creek apartments made it through the filter. WSB (and the other stations) probably got calls about this place for months. When Amanda Rosseter visited the site Wednesday, she found a complex that had been essentially abandoned by its owners and turned into a trash dump. Except, Rosseter found, some forty people “including babies” still lived there. A WSB photog captured images of a looter driving off with “hot water heaters.” And Rosseter watched an Atlanta code enforcement officer turn tail and drive off when she tried to ask questions.

Used to be, TV cared about stuff like poverty and society’s inequities. Nowadays, when TV does stories about homelessness, the stories tend to focus on the nuisance factor and not the condition itself.  Judging from the video, the Maple Creek story has been ongoing for months. Had the phone calls come from a suburb (where, say, the managers of the newsoom live), the story might have gotten legs quicker. But Maple Creek is in a fierce section of NW Atlanta. It was easy for TV to find something else to do instead.

Of greater interest, perhaps, to WSB’s audience was the story Jeff Dore produced about Atlanta Fire Station 27. Located in ritzy Buckhead, Dore ably described a building that had become “a slum”– broken showers, decaying wood, daylight visible through the roof, and “an exposed air duct (that) is a rat raceway every night over (the firefighters’) heads.” His video was eye-opening, and Dore’s storytelling is always a treat.

Dore’s conclusion: The community will raise money to fix up the fire station. There was no such ending for the Maple Creek story.

WXIA’s malaise

What world does WXIA occupy, exactly? Is it the same one as the rest of us? A look at its news begs that question night after night. It promotes itself as telling “the stories that matter,” if we’re not mistaken. Translated: If it comes from a crime scene or from something scheduled, like a meeting, we’re on it. Time to rag on WXIA’s 7pm news Tuesday:

  • Meeting: Angry laid off workers at city hall, sounding off at the city council. Keith Whitney reports they are “hurt, some of them emotionally, some of them quite literally.”
  • News Conference: Gov. Perdue talks about the gun bill he hasn’t signed yet. Give Denis O’Hayer a bit of credit for fleshing this story out and making it into something decent. It’s the best piece in the show.
  • Meeting: Jennifer Leslie covers the DNR board, talking about the drought.
  • Crime Scene: Kevin Rowson at the scene of a non-fatal shooting at a DeKalb Health center.

Even Marc Pickard’s Earthwatch story featured a high school class that scheduled a meeting at a creek to clean up and plant stuff. “First, they will save Allen Park. Then, they will save the world!” he concludes.  We like Pickard’s wry touch. It adds a buttery coat to an all-things-green franchise that still tastes like brussel sprouts.

Meantime, in the real world: WSB’s A-block has an exclusive about alleged steroid abuse at Henry Co. PD. WAGA has an exclusive piece on “the ZZ Top Bandit,” who looks as you might expect and is super-aggressively robbing banks in west Georgia. Both stations have killer investigative stories by Jim Strickland (at WSB) and Dana Fowle (at WAGA). Even WAGA’s head-scratching lead, about wedding rings missing from a corpse, still shows more enterprise in two minutes than WXIA can muster all day.

The weird thing is this: WXIA presents fewer minutes of news each evening than any other station. Its staff, all smart folk, can barely wedge its way into its two half-hour shows (compared with two hours each for WAGA and WSB). WXIA has the resources to come up with cool, one-of-a-kind stories every night. So, why doesn’t it?

Rock video

There are things TV news can do better than any other news medium. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of knowing where to be with a camera. Last night, WGCL showed that Broad St. in downtown Atlanta is such a place. Harry Samler produced a terrific piece on drug use and drug dealing there– just blocks away from the Federal buildings, City Hall and the state Capitol.

Samler used an old-school hidden camera technique. His photog simply went into a Broad St. business, and shot video out the window. The camera captured street folks transacting drug deals, lighting one-hit pipes, even dropping rocks of crack to the ground and picking them up again. He watched a cop handcuff a guy, then release him. Best of all, Samler somehow convinced a drug dealer to empty his pockets and show him his stash– with the camera in plain sight, and the CBS-46 truck in the background.

The story would have been better if Samler had done an on-camera interview with a Zone 5 cop. But we won’t quibble. This was very nicely done, giving WGCL’s paltry viewership a good reason to keep watching.

The Neal St. Trial

The four Atlanta TV stations have sent some of their most competent and experienced reporters to cover the trial of Arthur Tesler. He’s the only Atlanta cop to contest criminal charges against him as a result of the wrongful killing-by-police of 88/92-year old Kathryn Johnston on Neal St. NW. Opening statements were Monday. Some observations:

WAGA’s Aungelique Proctor made the best use of the audio played in court of 39 gunshots, the number of shots fired at Johnston. Her photog edited the courtroom audio under file video of the October 2006 scene, making a video edit with (nearly) each “pow!” It was a powerful way to tell the prosecutor’s story. Two other stations simply played the audio under wallpaper video from the courtroom.

WSB’s Diana Davis was apparently the only reporter to incorporate Markel Hutchins into the story. Hutchins became the Johnston family spokesman, and he made himself conspicuously available in the media area across from the Fulton Co. Courthouse Monday. We came to respect Hutchins, who kept his rhetoric surprisingly cool as the incendiary Neal St. story heated. But Hutchins has the whiff of a grandstander– exacerbated by the fact that he’s now running for Congress. We’re surprised Davis used his predictable news conference material in her otherwise solid coverage.

WGCL also used Hutchins. But 46 used his material in a separate anchor reader following Rebekka Schramm’s package. That made sense.  (Someday soon, we’ll figure out how to correctly spell Ms. Schramm’s first name.)

WXIA’s Kevin Rowson chose not to use Hutchins or the gunshot audio at all. Yet he still had the most interesting piece. In a story that can get bogged down with detail, Rowson’s presentation and graphics were clean, and he clearly outlined the players and the stakes in the case. Rowson also smartly led off his 7pm piece with Tesler’s defense. The prosecution’s case against the rogue cops has been made ad nauseum in the media; the details of the defense were probably the only real news to come out of the first day of the trial.