Monthly Archives: June 2008

Immigrant Song

Fifteen to twenty people are abducted, tied up, robbed and abandoned in a vacant house. The robbers gain control of the victims by claiming to be federal agents. Sounds like news, no?

If the victims are Hispanic, the answer is “yes, but….” No denying that it’s news. The question is whether it’ll get on TV or in the newspaper.

Local TV news craves the “get.” Get the victim. Get the next-of-kin. Get them to talk on camera about how horrified / sorrowful they are. News managers all but carry a scorecard, recording which station has the better “get.” (The pursuit of the “get” is also one of the many factors that drive audiences away from local TV news.)

But when the victims are Hispanic, the “get” is less likely. There’s the language barrier. There’s the distrust of English-speaking TV, and whether its presence is a precursor to a raid by immigration agents.

So give WGCL credit for pursuing the above story Friday night. Sarah Parker gave the story as much life as she could. Since it happened in Doraville, it benefited from the on-camera presence of John King, arguably metro Atlanta’s most engaging police chief. And it benefited from Parker’s knowledge of Spanish. She  translated the remarks of a Spanish-speaking woman who admitted on-camera that Hispanics are less inclined to seek law enforcement help when they’re victims of crime.

Parker’s story also proved why TV doesn’t rush to embrace such stories. The 15 to 20 victims were nowhere to be found.

Monday night, WAGA’s George Franco somewhat successfully told another story that benefited from Franco’s Spanish-speaking skills. Franco’s story raised questions about the killing of a day laborer by a DeKalb sheriff’s deputy. (The story mimicked a similar story by WSB’s Tom Jones Friday.) But unlike Jones, Franco’s story leaned on Spanish speaking folk to tell it, with Franco skillfully translating on the fly.

Both stories—Parker’s and Franco’s—were worthwhile pursuits. There are many more that we never hear about.

RIP

When WSB produced a report Friday about the sudden death of Tim Russert, the station unwittingly exposed a regrettable trend in local media. In WSB’s report, Lori Geary interviewed Bill Nigut about Russert. When Nigut was WSB’s political reporter from 1983-2003, he covered the legislature and local politics with good-natured bombast. And he frequently hit the road to cover presidential primaries and caucuses, where Nigut often encountered Russert. WAGA and WXIA also covered the national campaigns, though to a much lesser extent.

Geary was unable to give any first-hand impressions of Russert in her piece. Once Nigut left WSB and handed off its political reporting to Geary, WSB stopped covering national politics. Same with the other stations.

Nigut’s national contacts made him a better political reporter at home. His higher profile made him the go-to guy when local pols had something to say or something to leak. But now, no station is willing to invest the coin in robust political coverage.

Instead, local stations make due with a squad of national reporters like Jonathan Serrie. Serrie is an ex-WSB reporter who now works for Fox. But Serrie’s role is to fly around the country to big stories like the Iowa floods. He spends much of his work day standing in front of a live camera, doing the same live shot over and over again for different stations.

Serrie will probably be at the political conventions this summer. Whether the local stations send their local guys / gals to cover the political conventions will be the ultimate test of their abdication of national political coverage. They’ve always managed to do it in leap-years past. We’re betting they won’t do it this year.

But even worse is this: In 2008, the most intriguing national primary race in a generation went uncovered by the AJC. The Atlanta newspaper relied strictly on wire service and Cox bureau reporters to cover the race. Its talented local political guy, Jim Galloway, stayed home. Its other talented political guy, Tom Baxter, hit the road to work for Insider Advantage.

And the AJC has plenty of company. From a March 28 New York Times piece:

Among the newspapers that have chosen not to dispatch reporters to cover the two leading Democratic candidates on a regular basis are USA Today, the nation’s largest paper, as well as The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer (at least until the Pennsylvania primary, on April 22, began to loom large).

Yeah, we know: TV stations have to spend all their money now to keep their helicopters and live trucks fueled so they can cover apartment fires and the like. Likewise, the AJC is all “hyper-local” now and gets better bang for its buck using national resources on national stories.

We realize our nostalgia for this stuff is wistful and naive. But its disappearance from the agenda of local news editors is still regrettable. Nigut’s coverage of national politics made WSB stand out. And its disappearance from the AJC turns the local paper into a news service for the New York Times.

Winne Watch 6.13.08

“Be alert for power tool noises in the night.”

-Mark Winne on WSB Friday at 6pm. Following that line, Winne helpfully pulled the trigger on a two-foot electric saw, punctuating Winne’s live shot with a menacing buzz. Winne’s report was about thieves in Clayton County stealing catalytic converters from vehicles.

Drama points: √√√ (out of five).

Blinded

If WSB starts a story by telling viewers they’re about to expose wasted tax money– your money!— chances are, they’re going to spend the next couple of minutes bashing science.

So it was in a piece this week. Tom Regan found that Georgia Tech had gotten a federal grant to develop a robotic drum machine. The video showed a rather marvelous gizmo that actually pounded a drum. Its distinction was its ability to improvise based on rhythms created by a human being on another instrument.

But to WSB, there was nothing marvelous here. It trotted out Herman Cain, righty WSB radio talk show host, to utter predictable banalities about wasted tax dollars. WSB also found a living, breathing drummer who wanted no part of a government-funded robo-drummer.  Was the Georgia Tech researcher available?  Regan said no.  Was there anybody available to defend federal funding for scientific research?  Apparently not.

A recent piece about federal grants to study rafting in Nepal and wine service in Napa valley was a little more evenhanded. Conveniently, the UGA researcher who did the rafting study was conducting another study in Afghanistan and was unavailable. And although Amanda Rosseter interviewed a predictably outraged taxpayer-watchdog type, she went out of her way to suggest that federally funded scientific research may, indeed have value.

But earlier this year, WSB did another piece that ridiculed a federal study on walking habits. The piece never alluded to the national obesity epidemic as a possible justification.

Sure, there are legitimate questions to raise. The international space station is arguably a bottomless pit of taxpayer boondogglery, and many scientists agree. WSB’s stories would have more credibility if they had a science-based voice. But if their best critic is Herman Cain, WSB is just playing to the cheap seats.

Weathergirl

“Desperate” is not too strong a word to use to describe WGCL’s quest to find an audience. “Shameless” may or may not be too strong. Shame is for people with pride. As the fictional Marcellus Wallace said, pride only hurts and never helps.

Loosened from those bounds, WGCL has long favored promos like the one we heard Tuesday: “There’s no eleven o’clock news on channel two tonight! CBS 46 news is on time.” The promo, delivered on-camera by Dagmar Midcap, beseeches viewers to try WGCL merely because the viewer’s options are otherwise limited.

Another WGCL promo references the piece about Midcap in the AJC last week. WGCL cheerfully shows the newspaper headline: “Fresh faced forecaster gets high profile at lowly (in the ratings) channel 46.” It’s a promo beseeching viewers to overlook the station’s admittedly “lowly” status and hey, try us anyway.

We give WGCL credit for a curiously refreshing amount of honesty in both promos.

And you know what? We’re kinda rooting for Midcap. True, she’s no meteorologist. But she’s a personality, and WSB has topped the ratings for decades on the strength of one woman’s personality. Midcap has a certain amount of natural talent. She appears to be bright enough to conjure up and deliver a forecast. She appears to have a pulse. If the choice is between her and Glenn Burns— and there’s no severe weather threatening– why not Midcap?

If WGCL’s new regime can produce a smart, enterprising newscast while promoting Midcap as its “star,” we’re OK with that.

Our only gripe: Can’t WGCL promote Midcap without letting its billboard photos linger downward toward her sternum? Didn’t women like Barbara Walters, Lynn Harasin and Veronica Corningstone fight that sort of stuff decades ago? Seems like that disappeared with the concept of the “weathergirl.”

Oh, wait. Never mind.

Winne Watch 6.10.08

“Mr. Bone! Did you rob a bank? What’s your side of the story?”

-Mark Winne, on WSB’s 6pm news Monday. The alleged bank robber, Levell Bone, ignored Winne’s shouts from across a parking lot. Winne identified Bone as “the Bicycle Bandit”…. caught on our camera… and caught on a SunTrust surveillance camera.” Winne gains points for his staccato delivery and high-decibel questioning. He loses points because Bone ignored him. Drama points: √√ (out of five).

Good, bad, ugly

The Good: Jon Shirek’s 6pm piece on WXIA on gas-crunch changes in auto sales. Shirek spoke with a dealer who no longer takes SUVs on trade-ins. He also revealed that hybrids may be less cost-effective than an old fashioned four-cyclinder buggy. As always, Shirek’s piece was thoughtful and well-written.

The Bad: WXIA’s new and unclever slogan: “Your gas station station.”

The Ugly: On WXIA / WATL’s 10pm news, management ordered the station to play an extended promotion for a new entertainment web site in the middle of the newscast. The promo was fronted by a chatty radio DJ, and seemed to go on forever. When the camera finally cut back to Brenda Wood and Ted Hall, they couldn’t conceal their embarrassment.

Dumpster Diving

John Bachman couldn’t have been happy about his assignment Thursday. Seems WSB’s news desk got a phone call from a construction worker at the West Paces Shopping Center in NW Atlanta. The construction worker told the desk about a dumpster on the property. Inside the dumpster were boxes of paper. The paper appeared to have been discarded from a law firm and contained “sensitive information.”

The desk sent Bachman to investigate the dumpster. We wonder if there wasn’t just the smallest whiff of schadenfreude amongst the WSB desk jockeys as they sent their young, square-jawed weekend anchor to explore a pile of trash. We wonder if Bachman did any career soul-searching during the drive.

At 5:06pm, Bachman found himself doing a live shot next to the dumpster. The camera peered in, where the paper was visible. Bachman’s thankfully-brief package identified a tax form, legal documents containing social security numbers and other stuff that clearly belonged in a shredder, not intact in a dumpster.

If Bachman actually reached (or climbed) into the dumpster to retrieve paper, he had the good sense to not show himself on camera doing so.  Likewise, he declined to interview passers-by about how they felt about the dumpster and its contents.

But he did get hold of some of the paper. His photog shot a closeup of some letterhead, identifying the law firm that apparently discarded the paper. We saw Bachman standing next to the dumpster, on a cell phone, trying to reach the law firm.

Bachman reached an attorney.  Bachman told viewers the attorney admitted he was “embarrassed.” Bet the attorney wasn’t the only one.

Yes, there’s a serious issue here about identity theft. And maybe a generous soul could give WSB credit for doing a (thankfully brief) expose on a law firm’s sloppy disposal of some sensitive paper. But we’re not feeling generous here. We’re feeling a little sad for John Bachman, who had to do a live shot next to a dumpster. Thursday will not be noted as one of his career highlights.

Execution

It’s rare for two Atlanta reporters to witness an execution. It apparently happened Wednesday, when the state executed Curtis Osborne for a 1990 double murder in Spalding County. Sarah Parker of WGCL phoned in a brief and rather bland account of the execution for the station’s 11pm news Wednesday. But Rhonda Cook of the AJC was much more vivid.

Jackson —- Executioners struggled for 35 minutes to find a vein before Curtis Osborne died by lethal injection Wednesday for a 1990 Spalding County double murder.

Osborne, 37, was pronounced dead at 9:05 p.m., 14 minutes after his executioners injected the first of three fatal drugs. He was the second man Georgia has executed in a month. He also was the fourth person in the country to die by lethal injection since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the method was constitutional.

Even after a 55-minute delay while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed his final appeal, the execution that was to have occurred at 7 p.m. was delayed even longer while prison medical staff tried to find acceptable veins in both arms.

Osborne said nothing while the IVs were inserted.

Cook’s article is here. In it, she never actually says that she was an eyewitness. But she makes it clear she’s writing a first-person account without ever using the first person. Her work remains on the ever-shrinking list of reasons to subscribe to the AJC.

The Department of Corrections tries to have at least one media witness to every execution. There’s a print reporter from middle Georgia who witnessed dozens of them. It seems a distasteful assignment. We once saw an AJC reporter leave the Jackson prison grounds in tears after witnessing an execution.

It’s also an important assignment (in spite of increasing media disinterest– WAGA covered the execution with a 25 second reader). The blunt-instrument power of government is on no greater display than when it puts a human being to death. Eyewitness accounts ultimately led to the demise of the electric chair. Pieces like the one written by Cook will keep lethal injection under legitimate scrutiny as well.