Monthly Archives: August 2008

Dear Dick

What follows is a resignation letter written by former WAGA reporter Tom Corvin. He left Atlanta, worked in another market, then resigned. He wrote this letter afterward but never sent it. It’s rather long; LAF will publish the second half in a day or so.

He writes “this ‘letter of resignation’ is directed at no station/boss in particular, but rather at every one of them across the country.” His e-mail: thecorvins (at) hotmail.com

Mr. Richard Bossman
News Director
666 Main Street
Anywhere, USA

Dear Dick,

I’m resigning. It’s not without appreciation, however. The last two years of reporting local television news here have been wonderful. That’s why I kept a list, a documentation of thanks. Give or take a slow night, a sick day, or a few weeks of vacation, I’ve covered 437 stories in the last twenty-four months. That’s 437 opportunities to share with the community what they need to know, how they can be helped, what’s important in their lives. And that’s murder. 122 murders by my count. That’s one reporter, me, reporting 122 homicides. Include the follow-up reports, 21, and the stories on “non-life threatening” assaults, 20, that’s 161 stories on the dead and wounded, most of those gun related, 22 stabbings, six domestic. And I’m not including the two rotts shot by cops, nor the four felines poisoned by that mysterious “serial cat killer.” No, those fall among the other 69 crime stories about carjackings and liquor store capers. I’m only including the straight up slashers and trigger people, most of whom come from our “urban core,” code for ghetto, our arena for homicidal hyperbole. It’s not a safe place. And we made that clear more than 122 times, giving the safety of the suburbs another blurb, another body, to be thankful for.

My math may be a little fuzzy, but I’m totaling 212 tales of police tape, 212 community service warnings of what it’s like to be poor, disenfranchised, morally decomposed by crack, or, occasionally, fatally compromised by infidelity. All of which come with mortician memories. The dead baby in the dumpster. The mom screaming over the body of her 14-year-old boy, “On mother’s day! Why?” The grandchildren crying in the backlight of sirens, their “mee-maw” dead from a gangbanger’s bullet in the head. Good stuff, those “personal” moments of truth that always trump perspective. Like my “think piece” with the police chief, the story waylaid by the city’s 48th homicide of the year, the one where the aunt screamed, “Jimmy! It’s Jimmy? Oh, God, please, no! Not Jimmy!”

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t forget the big stuff. The families outside of the food plant, falling one by one as they find out their father, their husband, their brother, did not survive the mad man’s rampage. Or the eight dead prostitutes, the smell of their decomposed carcasses covered in cardboard and trash. I can still smell it now, still feel the flies of that hot summer hunt for a serial “ho” killer. But it’s the quiet moments I’ll cherish most. Like the time I held that baby boy so his mother could smoke, his dirty face turned to mine, smiling despite the shitty diapers of life his homicidal daddy left behind. I’ve got to admit, Dick, that time I cried.

But let’s forget about crime a minute. Let me thank you for the 164 “spot” and “generic” stories, too, some of what we pimp as “breaking news.” More dead people. 93 more dead people. 26 people dying in traffic accidents, fifteen by fire, fourteen by drowning, seven by war, six by tornado, five by plane, two by train, two by electrocution, two by falling, one by purse snatching, and one from a failed heart. I’m not including the Sri Lanka tsunami. I’m not including the earthquake in Iran. I’m not including celebrities like Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan, or John Ritter (although I enjoyed the Don Knotts “Three’s Company” interview). I’m not including the charred bodies of the ten dead horses. And I’m not including the 40 stories on those who survived, the beaten babies who didn’t die. I’m only referring to 93 bodies, two years worth, mashed, gashed and mangled, their prime time eulogies left to a stranger’s pen.

Not that I always felt like a stranger. I wasn’t always turned away at the doors of the dead when I said, “I’m sorry for your loss. Do you have a picture?” Sometimes, for whatever cathartic reason, they wanted to talk about the sweetness of a two-year-old hit by a car, the innocence of an infant badly burned. It wasn’t uncomfortable, Dick. It wasn’t humiliating. It was a true pleasure tricking these people, coming to them in the guise of a god, a helpful deity in a tie, conning them into confessing their nightmares. That’s what you wanted, right? The tears of inconceivable loss, the funeral faces of pain, the dark vicarious food bag of death we spoon feed viewers just before the safety of bed? And that we did, my friend, 93 times by this reporter’s blood count. That’s 93 more ghosts to thank for that bump in the night of numbers called “ratings,” not to mention my memories again, those sweet scenes scarring my nicotined heart.

I always enjoyed the glares, the incredulous stares of the neighbors, of the cops, the whispers of “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” or “scavengers,” as the reporting pack circled a family of five charred bodies on a smoky deck, a little boy’s tarp covered body by his crumpled bike, the corpse of a wrong-way driver still dangling from his safety belt. I almost enjoyed those glares and stares as much, the vacant eyes of the lifeless asking, “why?” as we smoked and joked about somebody giving somebody a blow job at a party. “Don’t you people have any sense of humanity?” I heard that, too, our live trucks lined up on the lawn of a couple’s home, the bodies of two toddlers just pulled from a pool. “Can’t you just leave us alone?” But I never answered. I just looked for something to write to, some symbol of insignificance: a stained shoe in the road, an empty baby seat behind cracked glass, a beaten Bible in the debris of a killer twister. Poignance, that’s what I liked to call it. It sounds better than grave digging, don’t you think, Dick?

But what threw me, what fucked me up, was that opened door kindness I was talking about. Not the stunned and manipulated. But the genuinely transcendent parent who felt their child was in a better place. Or the wife who lost a loving husband and two grown sons when one of them fell asleep at the wheel. “This must be so hard for you,” she said, hugging me. She said that to me! Or the meningitis ravaged college boy who wants to be a writer. No feet. No hands. “Life looks pretty good,” he said. Or the young mother of that ten-year-old, the boy playing on the train tracks. Life didn’t look so good. But she wanted me to hold her, to let her cry, so I did. And I hated it. I hated all of it. Because it crossed the line. It turned the table. It made me taste their trauma, touch their souls. And that’s not what this is about, is it, Dick? It’s not about reality, right? It’s about distance, the surreal safety of space, the old switcheroo, the better-you-than-me saga, so we can all feel better about our shitty lives. So I apologize for cracking, for getting a little too close now and then. But the stories didn’t suffer. We always got the grieving. Even mine, sometimes.

To be continued….

The old newsroom

In the early 1990s, WAGA produced an inside-the-newsroom piece that, to my knowledge, never aired on TV. Maybe it was screened for sponsors and other clientele. I stumbled onto it on Youtube. It’s an eye-opener for many reasons:

  • Amanda Davis, very fetching in a Sheila E fauxhawk;
  • Images of behind-the-scenes folks like Jim Heath, David Boyd, Dan Anderson, Risa Blumen, Scotty MacLaughlin and John Chastain.
  • The old newsroom. When I first got there, desks had typewriters and ashtrays;
  • Morse Diggs and Dale Russell sporting what would now be considered ironic moustaches;
  • A certain news director, thirty pounds lighter, making chicken noises;
  • Paul Ossmann, downright boyish, showing off hilariously outdated weather technology triggered by “a garage door opener. Pretty neat, huh?”

The pictures illustrate one change: Back then, it was a boys club.  Nowadays, many of those behind-the-scenes faces belong to women. Visit any journalism school, and you’ll know this demographic trend is here to stay.

Indulge me. If you didn’t work at WAGA 15 years ago, you may have trouble appreciating this. Sorry.

And in the same spirit, here’s the late Leroy Powell, narrating a brief history of WAGA. It doesn’t show here, but go ahead and say it anyway: Leroy was a genius.

Shedding

Cox Communications announced today that it’s selling newspapers in Colorado, Texas and North Carolina. Among them is the Austin American-Statesman, which has been around in some form since 1871. Cox is keeping the AJC, as well as its other larger newspapers in Dayton and West Palm Beach. It’s no surprise that the tumult within the AJC would reverberate through the Cox empire. As the clouds of doom coalesce, you gotta wonder how long WSB TV and radio will remain largely unscathed.

Amusingly, Cox also announced it will sell Valpak, an obnoxious direct-mail advertising enterprise that needs to disappear asap.

The AJC story makes a point of noting that 80 percent of Cox’s revenue comes from sources outside the troubled radio, TV and newspaper industries. Cox Cable is huge. It also owns something called Manheim, described an an automotive auction house. Apparently, it does ‘way better than its media holdings.

This may be the time to throw this out there: Recently, the AJC dismissed three of its editors. This week, Mostly Media reported that the editors were released after they dopily gathered and retained evidence of a trip to a strip club called the Pink Pony. Memo to journalists with camera-equipped company cell phones: Don’t. Just– don’t.

Wood and China

The game of covering the Olympics for TV is rigged to the gills. If you work for an NBC station, you’re among the anointed, thanks to the gazillions paid by the network for the rights to the games. If you toil for, say, an ABC station– well, good luck. You’re on the outside. It ain’t right, but the game was rigged that way many moons ago.

So when WXIA sends Brenda Wood to Beijing for the Summer Games, it knows she and her photog will have access to venues and access to athletes. And it knows that promoting Wood’s presence may entice its prime-time Olympics viewers to stay in the WXIA tent for the late news and/or drive traffic to the station’s web site. Likewise, it gives WXIA good reason to use its half-hour at 7:30pm— normally a local newscast— as an all-Olympics special leading into NBC’s prime time coverage.

Wood and photog David Brooks have earned their keep. On opening day, they did it by staying away from the Opening Ceremonies, oddly enough. They found a venue full of ordinary Chinese, who stood agog in front of massive TVs and watched the spectacle. The piece Wood and Brooks produced was moving, funny and well-done.

Even better was a piece previewing the Opening Ceremonies. Wood took an idea and ran with it: Examine the number eight, a lucky number in China. It seems the Olympic organizers opted out of a cooler-weather start later in August or September, and deliberately chose to start the games on 8.08.08. Wood’s piece, again, was funny and enlightening. She also showed a nice touch in a rapidly-disappearing subgenre of feature reporting.

Feature reporting often focuses on personalities, or events, or visual oddities, or how-to. Wood took an idea fragment– a story about the number eight– and developed it into a fun-to-watch TV story. It calls for cleverness on the part of the reporter and photographer. It demands writing that makes the point without beating it to death. It’s an approach that can easily embarrass a reporter lacking a deft touch. Wood and Brooks pulled it off nicely.

And give the suits at WXIA credit for spending some coin hiring a translator for Wood and Brooks.

Wood is also doing a lot of sports reporting. She’s interviewing local athletes after they’ve won medals. There’s been a bunch. Wood’s an engaging presence in what are essentially “how do you feel” situations.

It’s worth noting that Brooks and Wood are blogging extensively about their experiences at 11alive.com. If you’re an Olympics nerd– or a Sinophile– they’re worth checking out.

Curious

WXIA is talking the best game in town. Its eye-popping news promos during the Olympics are gorgeous. Its tag line, “are you curious?” is a cool, refreshing contrast to the rat-a-tat breaking news! drumbeat employed in the promotion of WAGA and WSB. Its placement of these alt-promos during the Olympics is genius. The suits at WXIA have figured out that legions of Olympics viewers are among those who have turned their backs to local TV news, disgusted by its bottom-feeding tendencies. WXIA is trying to get those more-discerning viewers back with a smarter-sounding and -looking promo.

(Gotta say, though: When we first saw the tagline, we thought of “I Am Curious (Yellow),” a 1967 taboo-breaking Swedish art film, made famous when a journalist spotted Jackie Kennedy at a screening. But we digress….)

It’s interesting what the promos don’t say. They don’t say: “Our Brenda Wood is the only Atlanta TV reporter in China covering the Olympics!” And they don’t actually tell viewers to watch WXIA at 6 and 11. Instead, the spots promote the station’s web site. In an unsubtle industry, WXIA’s use of subtlety seems downright revolutionary.

Can it work? There’s a reason TV news produces loud, hyperkinetic promotion. It’s because they’re directed at the folks who regularly tune in to Oprah or The Price is Right or American Idol. WXIA’s campaign seems aimed at folks whose TV sets are usually switched off. And it targets those accustomed to using the web to find news. It’s very forward-thinking. We can only imagine the hand-wringing that went on when these promos were first screened at the station.

And yes, WXIA has tried this sort of thing before without leapfrogging into WSB’s ratings territory. But WXIA seems content to be a back-bencher, ratings-wise. With that in mind, it can afford a touch of subtlety, and can afford to make a run at folks who would normally turn off the TV when the local news comes on.

AJC Lite

It costs more now to print and deliver a newspaper. That’s the reason the AJC cited Sunday for announcing that it would eliminate its Sunday @Issue opinions section, starting next week. @Issue was the liveliest section of the newspaper. Yesterday’s @Issue consisted of two broadsheets folded into eight pages. We’re trying to picture how its elimination will substantially save precious money spent on newsprint and fuel.

The untold story is the one behind the scenes, nicely outlined last week in Creative Loafing. The Loaf has a long list of familiar names that will leave the newspaper in the most recent buyout upheaval. Among them: Columnists Furman Bisher (who may continue to write freelance) and Maria Saporta. From the Loaf:

According to sources who said they had direct knowledge, the familiar bylines taking the buyout include golf writer Stan Awtrey, college football editor Tony Barnhart, city and regional editor Arthur Brice, high school sports writer Curtis Bunn, real estate (and former government) reporter Julie Hairston, investigative reporter Ann Hardie, veteran reporter Bill Hendrick, news feature writer Michelle Hiskey, “Technobuddy” columnist Bill Husted, higher ed reporter Andrea Jones, film reviewer Longino, Gwinnett reporter Rebecca McCarthy, Cobb reporter Tom Opdyke, Horizon reporter David Pendered and Saporta.

The article says that 73 AJC staffers accepted the buyout. The high number means the AJC will avoid involuntary layoffs of editorial staff. But imagine being among those left behind; this Loaf quote from an unnamed staffer says it best: “All the people who are leaving wish they were staying; all the people who are staying wish they were leaving.”

From the LAF mailbag

The writer is an old college buddy (Missouri ’79). He worked in TV news out of college. He’s now raking it in as a PR guy in Atlanta:

I find it hard to believe you’re as charitable about the industry as you make out to be on the blog. I think the TV news industry has gone to s**t in a handbag and local news is embarrassingly horrible. I can’t think of any good reason to watch…other than trying to get a traffic update just before I leave the house in the morning.

The name of your blog and the reasoning behind are both right on and sadly funny. What has happened? Before I left TV, I worked at two stations where we had policies AGAINST covering house fires and car wrecks unless they had a major impact on the area e.g. the interstate is shut down at 5pm or nuns are tossing babies from the third story while stamping out flames with dampened habits.

He’s mostly right, of course. There are a few good reasons to watch local TV news: Investigative reporting, coverage of major legitimate breaking news and weather. But there’s too little storytelling, and too much garbage to wade through before finding the gems.

And the trend has been to make it worse while pandering to viewers and cutting budgets. Will it ever turn around? Hate to answer that one.

Live mic!

You would think that a wiley media vet like Jesse Jackson would know better. While wearing a microphone, seated in a Fox News Channel studio, he famously mused about surgically turning the bullish Barack Obama into a steer. The fact that Jackson whispered it indicates that he did know better, but did it anyway. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

The folks at gawker.com have assembled this compilation of such moments.

The majority of them fall into the same category as the Jackson gaffe: Moments recorded backstage while the mic’d talent was off-air. Then, some mischief-maker from within pulled the tape, made it public and now it lives forever. Much more never even gets recorded.

Jackson’s gaffe didn’t get on the air until long after he uttered it. Sometimes, the words fly on-air instantly and irretrievably.

It happens. Cari Champion of WGCL was fired and re-hired (and has since resigned) after uttering an unkind word while wearing a mic last November (she insisted the word was “mothersucka”). Years back, a WSB reporter muttered “fucking assholes” while hooked to a live remote at WSB. He was reacting to some dopey teens who were acting a fool behind him. WSB declined to overreact, and that reporter hasn’t made the mistake since. Jesse Jackson probably won’t either.

The Evan Thomason Show

At first blush, this was just weird as hell. We found it on WGCL’s website: A 14:39 piece it calls “the Evan Thomason Show.” It’s an absurdly elaborate spoof of a TV show featuring an absurdly cute tow-headed boy of that name. There’s no explanation offered. He appears to be nine. In the piece, Thomason turns up in WGCL’s newsroom. The following hilarity ensues:

  • Meteorologist Laura Huckabee puts Thomason in front of a green screen and advises: “When you point, don’t use your pointer finger. Be as vague as possible. That way nobody can hold you to anything.”
  • The camera goes to the control room. Thomason narrates: “This is the producer. He thinks he’s in charge.”
  • Thomason, co-anchoring a “special report” with Bill Gaines (“in our matching Brooks Brothers suits”), watches video of Gaines hitting some golf shots during a charity fundraiser. “Looks like you could use a little practice, Bill,” the boy opines.
  • In a ridiculous original song commissioned by WGCL to conclude the piece, the singer lists Thomason’s many amazing attributes. Among them: he’s “smarter than the scientists that can’t get it right.”

WGCL never actually says that Thomason owes this elaborate bit of TV to WGCL’s involvement in the Make-A-Wish foundation. But there’s some obvious product placement. With that as the background, it starts to make sense.

WGCL deserves credit for poking a fair amount of fun at itself publicly.  And it deserves credit for going all-out on the production, for a “show” that probably never aired on TV.

“Peskajumba”

LAF is going on semi-hiatus for much of August. Our stand-in will be moderating the blog and adding some pre-packaged, timeless posts.

But the fun continues. Turn on the news. Grab a bottle (not before noon, please). Do a shot whenever you hear:

  • Makeshift memorial
  • Totally destroyed
  • Barely escaped with their lives
  • only on (this station)
  • our helicopter is over an accident now…
  • “he was a quiet guy, kept to himself…”
  • closure
  • the staccato voice of Mark Winne
  • Ken Cook calling Atlanta “the city of fountains.”

Do a double shot whenever you hear these horrifying cliches:

  • More questions than answers
  • Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst
  • It sounded like a freight train
  • Remains to be seen
  • Monica Pearson appearing overly sincere (limit: two per newscast).

And then, when you’re done, chase it with a beer and watch Tom Waits conduct the best news conference ever. Stay tuned for the visual punch line at the end: