Monthly Archives: September 2008

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.

Winne Watch 9.16.08

Secret Squirrel

Secret Squirrel

“Take a look at this necklace.  And, with it, this earring.  Or perhaps, a piece of an earring.  We understand it was found along with the human remains belonging to a woman who may have looked like this, found in 1993.”

-WSB’s Mark Winne Tuesday Sept. 16 at 6pm.  Winne performed the live shot in front of a forensic sculptor’s reconstruction of the heads of three people found murdered in the 80s and 90s.  The cases remain unsolved.

Drama points:  √√√√ (out of possible five.)

We dislike Ike

Rebekka Schramm, WGCL

Here’s a topic for your next journalism class:  How do you handle the gasoline shortage story?

The question is worth asking because the news media contributes to the mindset that causes panic, hence shortages.  Is there any way to avoid that?  The story has been out there since Friday, when Hurricane Ike hit Texas.  Gas stations started hiking prices and motorists flocked to pumps to top off.

Since then, TV has done numerous live shots at the tank farm in Doraville, and at metro gas stations.

Darryl Carver, WAGA

Darryl Carver, WAGA

On Monday, WAGA all-but ignored the gasoline shortage story.  Darryl Carver’s pieces at 5 and 6 dwelt on wildly fluctuating prices.  The shots of dry pumps were cursory.  WXIA’s Duffie Dixon produced a piece at 11 that explained QuickTrip’s strategy of spreading gasoline inventories among geographic areas.  Dixon’s piece indicated a method behind the madness of closed-down gas stations. At 4pm on WGCL, Rebekka Schramm reported on why stations reliant on the spot market pay higher wholesale prices for fuel.  WGCL handled the shortage with an anchor vo/sot.

Ross Cavitt, WSB

Ross Cavitt, WSB

But on Monday, WSB was all about the gasoline shortage.  It led its 6pm news with the story, putting Lori Geary live at the tank farm.  Geary interviewed a jobber who explained that shortages are manageable as long as the public doesn’t panic.  WSB followed with John Bachman, live at a gas station, with more on shortages and high prices.

At 5pm, Ross Cavitt was live at a gas station, reporting entirely on shortages.

WSB’s stories were level-headed and responsible.  But here’s the question, class:  Does the mere fact that WSB (or any other station) trumpets the gasoline shortage contribute to the panic that causes the shortage?  If so, does the station have a responsibility to rein in its coverage?  In the age of the internet, does journalistic restraint matter anymore?

Yes, WSB is covering news.  It’s not creating news.  The shortages are legit, as is motorist anger over prices.

But TV has been covering the story since Friday.  Monday, it appeared that somebody at WAGA decided:  Let’s give the shortage story a rest today.  It appeared WGCL made somewhat the same decision.  We say, good call.

Pants on fire

It’s time to call BS on WGCL’s claim of producing the “top stories and tomorrow’s forecast in the first five minutes” on its nightly 11 o’clock news.  On Friday, the forecast didn’t appear until six minutes and ten seconds into the newscast.  On Thursday, it was at five minutes and fifteen seconds.

This is nitpicking, yes.  But the promotion is very specific.  It doesn’t say “in roughly the first five minutes.”  The promotion is objectionable for three reasons:  It’s not true.  It’s unnecessary.  And WGCL insists on displaying its “first 5 minutes” graphic almost non-stop during the first five (or six or whatever) minutes of its 11pm newscast.   This makes it a very long-winded untruth.

Plus, the graphic is obnoxious.  It’s too large and too opaque.  On Friday, during a package on Hurricane Ike, a CBS feed reporter showed waves hitting “this seventeen foot sea wall.”  But the graphic almost completely covered the video of the wall.

Americans have a certain amount of tolerance for little white lies.  The USA will likely give Sarah Palin a pass for her repeated “I said thanks but no thanks to that bridge to nowhere” dissembling.  But we kinda feel like news organizations have an obligation to at least try to be truthful.  If it looks like that “first five minutes” thing isn’t going to happen, then WGCL should get rid of the graphic on that night.  Or, change it to “the first seven minutes.”

Best advice:  Get rid of the promotion completely.  TV newscasts need flexibility.  If WGCL had stuck the forecast into its first five minutes Friday, it would have awkwardly broken up its coverage of Ike and the resultant gasoline price spikes.

The gas price piece, by Christopher King, was a fine bit of news wizardry.  In King’s live shot, he stood before an Ingles store which had jacked up the price of a gallon of gas to $5.25 Friday.  “That’s not to suggest they were gouging,” King said, in a line that probably made WGCL’s lawyers breathe easier.  Then King’s report clearly suggested otherwise.  It was an excellent case of allowing the facts to speak for themselves and letting the viewer decide.

And it deserved its spot ahead of “tomorrow’s forecast.”  Honestly, we can wait for the forecast.  Stick to the facts, as King did.  And stick to the truth.

That’s not to suggest WGCL is lying with its “first five minutes” promotion…

This performance of “Liar Liar” by the Castaways appears in 1967’s “It’s a Bikini World,” which will play in December on Turner Classic Movies.  Our source at TCM says this movie really swings, daddy-o.

Bunker mentality

Fred Kalil, WXIA

Not shouting: Fred Kalil, WXIA

Sports reporting is supposed to be fun, right?  Of course it is. Unless you happen to be the Georgia Tech  Sports Information department.  In that case, you view sports reporters as the enemy.

It’s been that way for years.  And it’s a sharp contrast to the University of Georgia’s sports information folks.  At UGA, they’ve figured out that sports reporters show up largely to publicize (and to a great degree, glorify) the sports programs of that particular institution.  At North Avenue, the goal seems to be to restrict and deny access.

WXIA’s Fred Kalil posted this in his blog prior to Tech’s first game.  (Kalil doesn’t seem to grasp that in the blogosphere, ALL CAPS equals screaming.  It’s OK.  Kalil is old-school.  Wire service teletypes used to print broadcast copy in all caps.  So did TV folks, surmising that the larger ALL CAPS letters are easier to read on scripts.)


Aside from restricting access to newsworthy players, Kalil complains that Tech won’t accomodate TV trucks, which need accessible temporary parking in order to set up live shots.

It’s unclear why Georgia Tech has adopted a routinely adversarial stance.  It may be a “familiarity breeds contempt” relationship with the Atlanta media, which has to make a 150 mile roundtrip to visit Athens.  Yet numerous metro Atlanta police departments and government agencies manage to sustain civil relations with their hometown media.

Georgia Tech is only hurting itself.  When it treats the media like the enemy, the suspicion automatically becomes mutual.  That means this:  If something controversial happens at the University of Georgia— and with frequent player arrests, it happens often— the UGA sports information folks can use a bank of accumulated good will to try to spin the story to say something other than “hang ’em high.”  Tech’s bank is always mostly empty.

Go Jackets.  Go figure.

Kill the story

What's that smell?

What's that smell?

WXIA’s Kevin Rowson is an uncommonly sensible local TV reporter.  He’s level-headed, even-handed and can smell baloney from a mile away.  When the whiff emanates from his own newsroom, and that of his Atlanta competitors, he recognizes it instantly.

Recently, WXIA sent Rowson to a Cobb County home where firefighters, police and animal control officers had gathered with unusual gusto.  TV news producers often salivate at such stuff, more so if weapons are drawn or if animals have been abused.  (TV producers love animals and humans as much as anybody.  But if it’s going down, they want it on their station first.)

Rowson arrived to find an unusual situation:  A man living in filth, apparently unable to care for himself nor the five cats whose carcasses had been removed by animal control.  From Rowson’s blog:

What they found inside was horrifying and disgusting… There were feces and fleas all over the home and they removed five dead cats. They also found the homeowner lying on a couch, in obvious need of medical attention. He was taken to Kennestone Hospital for treatment. The next day, he was released from the hospital and returned to the same disgusting home.

Police filed no charges.  Rowson and his supervisors at WXIA made the right decision and killed the story.  A few folks commenting on Rowson’s blog disagreed.  But most agreed.

Rowson told readers that a state agency called Adult Protective Services (kinda like DFCS for adults) began an investigation, as did the Cobb Co. building inspector’s office.

WXIA has greater discretion than other Atlanta stations in such cases.  The station produces only an hour of news in the early evening, half the size of the “beasts” that WSB and WAGA feed at 5 and 6pm.  It can afford to let a guy like Kevin Rowson make the right decision on a personal tragedy that, at first, smells like news.

Palin’s competitor

Miss Wasilla, 1984

Miss Wasilla, 1984

Turns out Miss Alaska 1984 lives in Smyrna.  Maryline Blackburn beat another candidate named Sarah Heath.  The also-ran ended up as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, now running for VP with John McCain.

The AJC’s Dan Chapman produced a piece on it Monday.  He reported that Sarah Heath wrote Blackburn a congratulatory note:

“Instead, the flute player from small town Wasilla — also voted Miss Congeniality — wrote Blackburn a lovely note on the back of a group photo at pageant’s end: ‘I do love you. You’re more admired than even you know. And please keep God Number One. He’s got great things for you, baby. Love, Sarah Heath.'”

WAGA sent Denise Dillon to do the TV version of the same story, catching up with Blackburn in Smyrna Monday night.  Blackburn, now a recording artist, was working on a new CD.  Dillon’s piece was breezy and fun.  Blackburn spoke admiringly of Palin’s competitive fire.  And she capped it with a word of support for Palin’s current opponent:  “It’s all about Obama, baby.”

Inexlicably, WSB waited another day before copycatting the story, sending Diana Davis to Smyrna to chat with Blackburn.  Blackburn has a performer’s personality, but Davis’s treatment was very by-the-book. WSB buried the story deep in its 5pm news Tuesday.

Blackburn had no blockbuster insight.  But her firsthand impressions of the politician as beauty queen were revelatory, as Palin’s public persona continues to gel.

This corrects an earlier version wherein LAF failed to recognize that the AJC reported the story first.

O’Reilly v. Tucker

What an odd Saturday assignment for a three-person camera crew:  Stake out the home of AJC editor Cynthia Tucker, ambush her when she arrives home from the grocery store, and confront her with questions about a recent column.  Mostly Media suggests that Tucker should have invited them in for sweet tea and pound cake.

Turns out the camera crew was doing the bidding of Fox News goon Bill O’Reilly.  It seems O’Reilly was miffed that Tucker called him a hypocrite.  On his program, O’Reilly said that the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter was a private matter.  But when Britney Spears’ teenage sister got pregnant, O’Reilly told his audience the Spears parents deserved part of the blame.

Tucker wasn’t alone calling out O’Reilly.   The Daily Show did the same thing, showing O’Reilly’s clips.

The AJC’s Jay Bookman blogged about the encounter at Tucker’s home. Apparently O’Reilly didn’t get the satisfaction he sought.  It seems the video hasn’t aired on his program.

Public Apologist

The good news:  The AJC says it is “re-thinking” its position of Public Editor, the editor responsible for corrections and sustained public gripes to the newspaper.  The other good news:  The previous Public Editor, Angela Tuck, has moved on to another editor position.  Tuck handled the job during an ugly period for the AJC, when the newspaper sharply curbed its reach and eliminated scores of editorial jobs.  Unfortunately, Tuck spent much of that time as a public apologist for the AJC’s draconian measures.  If she wanted to preserve the publisher’s good will, she probably had no choice.

The not-so-good news is that the AJC has replaced her with another longtime staffer, Matt Kempner.  Nothing against Kempner— he has done lots of good work for the newspaper’s business section.  This appears to be his first job as an editor, and he appears to be on an upwardly-mobile career track (as were Tuck and her predecessor, current columnist Mike King).  Unfortunately, it probably means that Kempner, too, will be the public mouthpiece for the ever-shrinking newspaper.

The AJC could re-think the position, and in so doing, give the newspaper some badly-needed life.  Instead of a limp public editor, it could appoint an ombudsman.  The Washington Post pioneered the position in 1970 (according to Wikipedia).  The New York Times appointed one in 2003, following the Jayson Blair scandal.  This article ably describes the Times ombudsman position.

Their ombudsmen have some teeth for this reason:  It’s a temporary job, typically filled by an outsider.  They have fixed terms of office, and once the term ends, so does their employment with the newspapers.  The arrangement prevents exactly what has happened with Tuck— an extended hand upstairs to the editors’ suite, and a pat-on-the-back for a job well done.

At the Times and the Post, the ombudsmen know their next career move will be an exit.  So they have no reason to kowtow to those who run the newspaper.

The Post’s public editor, Deborah Howell, has had some very public spats with the newspaper’s editorial folks.  Recently, she counted the number of front-page mentions and photos of Barack Obama and compared it to John McCain.  Howell wrote:  “The disparity is so wide, it doesn’t look good.”  She also took on Bob Woodward and David Broder for violating the Post’s policies on accepting speaking fees.

One doesn’t picture that happening at the AJC if the Public Editor ultimately wants to help run the newspaper.  We wish Kempner well, but we’ll keep our expectations down to a dull roar, consistent with our expectations for the ever-shrinking AJC.