Monthly Archives: August 2008

The one that got away

Reporters waste a lot of time. It drives them crazy. It’s also part of the job. You get a hot tip. You start asking questions. A story emerges. You start committing time and resources.

This is especially true for investigative reporters. Their stories require more digging. Their sources probably have axes to grind, requiring extra caution. Sometimes, the stories crash and burn in the end. In one case, the crash is rather amusing. Dale Russell writes about it in his blog.

The WAGA investigative reporter thought he’d found a story: The VA provided a widow a flag for the casket of her military-veteran husband. But upon receiving the flag, the family saw a “Made in China” tag. This riled the family, who contacted Russell.

This resulted in several days worth of phone calls, FOIA requests, footage and interviews. Russell was about to fly to Ohio to shoot pictures of the flag and the “Made in China” tag. Then this:

She says “you didn’t get my message.” Feel the bottom of my stomach open up; heartburn soon to follow.

“No.” Widow informs me that the night before, she unfolded the flag for her family, and couldn’t find the tag. But, she did find a “Made in America” tag. In fact, made in Alabama by disabled workers.

Stomach unleashes torrent; TUMS soon to follow.

Oops. Russell had found a law that says the VA must provide American-made flags for deceased veterans. No doubt, many flag-waving Americans would have been horrified to learn our government had provided a Chinese-made copy of Old Glory for a dead veteran.

To us, the whole premise sounded a little weak to begin with. But we can’t deny it may have been a crowd-pleaser.

But it’s instructive. It helps explain why WAGA’s I-Team reporters make such infrequent appearances on TV. The stories they produce take a bunch of legwork. And they chase occasional phantoms like this one.

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Dear Dick pt 2

This post is a continuation from the previous one entitled “Dear Dick.” It’s the second half of a resignation letter written but never sent by a former Atlanta TV reporter after leaving a station in another market.

by Tom Corvin

But we had our lighter moments, too, didn’t we? The student who deliberately vomited thirteen personal pan sized pizzas on his Spanish teacher. The hate crime “victim” who attacked himself with a red hot butter knife by burning “G A F” on his forehead. The hillbilly vigilante who tracked down the hillbilly who stole his hillbilly van. The cheeseburger eating chimpanzee left “unattended” in the semi-tractor trailer and the man who cried, “Coco’s a human being just like you and me.” The hotel clerk who cooperated with the robber because he didn’t want to end up “in the mortgage.” The “Dishonest Abe” bank robber who looked more Amish than Reconstructionist. The schizophrenic slave labor victims forced to wash dishes and vacuum in the nude. The mayor too drunk to talk about his drunk driving arrest. Funny stuff, Dick, if not a little condescending. But if we can’t laugh at the victims who can we laugh at, right? At least they’re still alive and kicking. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a little public humiliation in the ass.

That’s why I appreciate the rapes and perverts, the 24 stories of relief, the two dozen donuts of scum. Granted, folks need to know when a flasher is flashing and a rapist is raping. That is a community service. Especially when the safety of school children’s involved. But we both know it’s the freak factor that draws them in. “Tonight at ten, a senior citizen’s caught holding something in the check-out line. And it’s not a discount coupon!” It’s genius marketing, Dick, turning the sick into a punchline. Like the dancing man in the gold lamee thong, the 45-year-old pushing his package at the “jazzercising” middle-class mothers in their leotards. “He was a little man,” one mom said, “if you know what I mean.” Or the heavy set man in the lacy lingerie, lurking for a looker, snapping his panty strap and cupping his black brassiere when he finds one. “The victim describes the man as having man breasts,” the officer said. We all laughed at that one, all of them. I’m laughing right now. Considering the deathly alternatives, it was a joy reporting on jack-offs. At least the jack-offs who didn’t hurt anybody. It’s like safe sex, right? We all get off but no one gets hurt. Unless you’re that sick sucker brooding at home, stewing on how you’ll do it again and again until your sin isn’t so funny anymore. Which cycles back to the fear and loathing we love so much, the pedophiles and pud pullers, the secret sex offenders “on the run,” “on the loose,” “out there somewhere tonight.” And that’s almost as good, pitching that palpable danger of someone in silhouette, of some boogieman out to snatch a child, a coed, a wife. It’s not funny. But it sells. And packaged sex may not beat a good baseball bat attack, but it delivers. And it’s on those nights I feel most proud, Dick. Not unlike a ten dollar whore with an empty bottle of mouthwash. The customer’s satisfied AND I got paid in single bills, no change.

I always enjoyed underestimating the viewers, too, Dick. Especially when it came to weather and what folks should do when it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. I did that 31 times, 31 stories, 31 live-shots in the black ice of night, the water ban of day. Like the rapist, the community needs to know what’s coming, the big snow storm, the big twister. It’s no joke. It can save lives. But we sure had fun when it didn’t, roaming the ruins of a trailer park, laying out the lost lives of those who didn’t listen. Which always gave us the upper hand when it came to forecasts. We had something to hype, something to threaten their lives with. “It’s coming. We’re not sure how big. But it’s coming! And it could be another killer!” Which set the stage for the warnings. “If you don’t have to drive, don’t!” “Make sure you wear lots of warm clothing.” “Drink a lot of water.” “Wear light clothing.” “Cover your plants.” “Bring in the dogs.” “Buy batteries.” “Don’t water your lawn.” “Don’t get out of your car in high water.” “Take cover if you hear the sound of a train.” And if they couldn’t see how cold or hot it was, if they didn’t have the sense God gave them to look out the window, if they lived under a rock, I’d stand in the sub-zero elements to show them how to shiver and shake, picture proof, live, of what lurked on the other side of life’s looking glass: simple doom if they dared step away from the power points of our instructions, our meteorological salvation, our dumbed down lessons of survival. Milk sales never had it so good. And though I never got a cut from grocery store hysteria, it was always satisfying to see the havoc we wreaked at the check-out line, the gas pump. Pure Pavlov, baby. And we rang that bell for all it was worth, namely, the big numbers and the big advertising bucks they bring with them. There’s nothing like the wrath of inclement weather to wrap around the necks of our viewers, Dick, to choke them like retarded dogs, to make them understand their lives are in danger if they don’t swallow our vomit and follow. Fortunately, enough do. Or we think they do. And that’s why I was out there 31 times, laying down the obvious, but assuming, like you do, these people are idiots, so let’s treat them like idiots. And we did. We do.

Which is why I understand the lack of “features,” the feather soft stories on someone who isn’t a criminal, a victim, a laughingstock. Who cares otherwise? That’s a rhetorical question, Dick, because I know the answer. No one. Not you, anyway. Not according to the six I did. And I’m including the “investigative” pieces, the fluff we pawned as “important,” like illegal downloading, like uninsured drivers. I’ll even throw in the little boy beaned by the foul ball at the ball park because it had a happy ending. He survived his partial paralysis. But the sale of Charlie Parker’s Super King 20 sax? That’s about it. And that was “filler” on a slow night. But I understand. I really do. Especially now that I look at the numbers.

And the numbers don’t lie. 437 stories. 215 bodies. Sixty survivors. I’m not sure, Dick, but I think death and dying accounts for more than half of what I’ve done in the last two years here. Throw in the 24 perverts and that’s just too much fun for one reporter to handle. At least that’s what my psychoanalyst is telling me. And my wife. She tells the kids, “daddy’s just quiet because he’s tired.” But I always snap out of it after a little cry in the closet. Or the next homicide. And even though the city’s on a record pace for most murders in a year, even though we’re reporting every drug dealer’s retaliatory hit like a Labor Day telethon, and even though the state of local news is incurably diseased with the ease of death, I’m reluctantly stepping aside to let someone else enjoy the fruits of society’s failures (not to mention the darlings of Darwin). Thank you, though. Thank you for the feast of blood and guts, the meals of mayhem. And I hope you get your just desserts in return. I really do, Dick. Because if anyone deserves the rewards of running a 24-year veteran reporter out of the business, it is you, my friend. I only hope I live long enough to witness it. And now that I’m getting out, I have a good feeling that I will.

As I used to say before blacking out at the bar, “Click!”

Insincerely,

Tom Corvin

Corvin is no longer in the TV news business.  He lives in San Francisco.

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.