Praising with faint damnation

Joanna Massee, WGCL

Joanna Massee, WGCL

There were a couple of good things about Joanna Massee’s lead story on WGCL Tuesday at 11.  The story, billed as a “CBS-46 investigation,” was a worthwhile bit of enterprise:  Check the records of complaints against Atlanta’s 911 center, and see if the center has badly botched any calls.  It’s newsworthy in light of the recent firing of a Fulton Co. 911  operator whose dispatch miscue resulted in a woman’s death.

The problem was, Massee’s case-in-point was pretty weak.  She found a woman who’d called 911 from I-285, hysterical because she thought the driver of a tanker truck was stalking her.  Ultimately, both vehicles pulled over (why’d the victim pull over on the interstate?) and the tanker truck driver drove off.  The operator, who repeatedly said she couldn’t understand the caller, never dispatched a cop to the scene.  The woman filed a complaint and griped on camera to Massee.  Massee reported the operator was “disciplined.”

In other words, it was pretty thin gruel.  If this was the worst case Massee could find, one could conclude that Atlanta’s 911 center is doing a pretty good job.

But there was good stuff here.  The best part of Massee’s piece came during her closing live shot.  She showed the records on camera, and told viewers that it took the City of Atlanta one month to produce the documents she’d requested under the Open Records Act.  That kind of foot-dragging is borderline illegal, though Massee didn’t say it.  It’s the reaction of a government agency that’s trying to hide something.  The public ought to be outraged.

But the news media has done an excellent job of making itself completely unsympathetic in the eyes of the public.  As a result, the public gets cynical when reporters demand answers and records from public agencies.  That’s unfortunate, and it plays into the hands of those who drag their feet (or cover up) when the press seeks to uncover wrongdoing.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

7 thoughts on “Praising with faint damnation

  1. State Employee

    I hate to burst your bubble, but taking a month to produce documents from an open records request isn’t necessarily illegal. The law requires a response in three work days. It does not set a firm deadline for actually producing the requested documents.

    I’m a former journalist who currently works for a state agency. We recently had a request for over 500 pages of material that had to be carefully reviewed to make sure information that we are required to protect by law was redacted. Since there is one person to handle this, it took a month. There was no foot dragging involved. It all depends on the size of the request and the type of information in the documents.

    That said, I wouldn’t put it past the City of Atlanta to purposely drag its feet on something like that.

  2. No Meat

    I agree. There was no meat in that story. The 911 dispatcher did nothing wrong, in fact, asked the driver twice what she wanted her to do? It was pointless.

    There are much better stories than that coming out of GCL these days, but rarely from the nightside duds.

  3. English major

    I don’t work for the City, but for another public agency that gets open records requests on a fairly consistent basis. The whole process is imperfect and pretty open to interpretation. We try hard to respond with the requested material in the required 3 days, but the person in charge of responding is sometimes traveling and the fulfillment job is left to people less experienced in producing the desired results.

    I would also like to point out that your assertion that “those who drag their feet (or cover up) when the press seeks to uncover wrongdoing” assumes there IS wrongdoing – not “possible” wrongdoing – when the process goes more slowly than it should. Assumptions like this contribute to the perception that news media are “out to get” someone or something. I can say that of all the ORRs I have ever dealt with, only 2 or 3 ever contained information (and it was non-damaging) that actually appeared in a news report. Most of the time its pretty innocuous stuff that never sees the light of day once the reporter gets it. Face it, lots of ORRs are not filed to get evidence of “wrongdoing” – they are filed to get a scoop on a story before another news outlet does. Also, some ORRs are filed by prospective vendors who didn’t get a contract and just want to know why.

    A final point I’d like to make is that despite the news media’s assertion to the contrary, written requests for records can produce much more effective results than oral ones, which can be wilfully misinterpreted by anyone inclined to do so. A written request can protect the inquirer from getting mountains of expensive extraneous information to wade through and is, obviously, a written record to point to if any question arises about when the request was made. As Clark Howard would say, “Get it in writing!” It protects everyone.

  4. live apt fire Post author

    @English Major and State Employee: Thanks for the insight. Most Open Records Act requests made by the media are fishing expeditions. In my experience, most never resulted in stories. Often, the Open Records requests are made at the insistence of public officials who could turn over the paperwork on the spot with little effort. By the time the paperwork arrives three days (or more) later, the story is ‘way on the back burner.

    That said, I have some appreciation for those of you in government who have to field and process these requests. They can be voluminous and complex. And the paper often ends up in the recycling.

  5. mem

    come on. It was legit.

    A woman calls 911 and is fearful of a road rage trucker. The woman tells the dispatcher almost a dozen times where she’s located and still more than several minutes later the dispatcher is still asking for the address.

    I guess it would have been a better story if the woman was killd by the trucker while talking to 911.

  6. Flipper

    Do you even watch the news?
    That angle is so old and CH2 aired countless better examples weeks ago”

    Yeah… and viewers flip around, like the rest of us, and actually KNOW Ch. 2 did the story… no….


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