Monthly Archives: February 2009

It’s all about me vol. 4

The life of a general assignment TV reporter can rewarding.  It can also be nasty, brutish and unpredictable.  There are several ways to avoid its perils.  You can become an anchor.  You can take a pay cut and find a smaller market.  You can find another line of work.  Or you can get a gig.  The gig, or franchise, gives the reporter a specialty:  Health reporter, investigative reporter, political reporter.  Those gigs all have their own perils and pressures, but they take the assignment desk somewhat out of the equation.  That’s always a good thing.

For five years, I had the best job in the world.  Feature reporters are rare cats.  News directors are loathe to devote resources to features when research shows that audiences want hard news. But for awhile, my boss overlooked his loathing and let it happen anyway.   With photographers Rodney Hall and Mike Daly, and editor / producer Andi Larner, I got to dredge up and produce whatever features I could find.  The whackier, the better.

One day I walked into the news director’s office and was told that the feature gig was toast; report back to the assignment desk.  It was ugly.  I never regained my footing, though I dragged out my career as a TV reporter for another seven years.

At WXIA, Marc Pickard has gone through something similar.  He no longer exclusively does “Earthwatch” stories.  He now also answers to the desk as a very capable, very skilled general assignment reporter.  If the transition has pained him, it hasn’t shown on the air.   Meantime, backpack reporter Julie Wolfe has begun a feature gig of sorts for WXIA’s morning shows.  Her stories aren’t whacky.  She’s more into poignance.  It puts her on a high-wire, though.  Don’t get too used to it, kid.

This post has been updated to correct information about Marc Pickard’s Earthwatch franchise.

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It’s all about me, vol. 3

St. Patrick's Day 1992

Lawsuit free: St. Patrick's Day 1992

Five weird career moments as a TV newsman, 1980 – 1994.

1.  The only time I tried to do weather, 1981, WTVA Tupelo Mississippi.  I had a weather map with magnetic pieces stuck to it, indicating weather images I’d made up based on AP copy.  I was absurdly nervous.  I used a pointer, and dislodged magnets when I nervously whacked the weather map.  It got worse when the studio camera operator, who liked to smoke the weed prior to newscasts, began laughing uncontrollably as I tried to retain control of my spiel.  FAIL.  Regrettably, it wasn’t recorded.

2.  My hiring at WAGA, April 1986.  News director Jack Frazier invited me to the newsroom at 9am, then ignored me the rest of the day.  I stood around awkwardly while newsroom personnel tried not to stare.  I found a sympathetic editor, Joanne Malis, and sweet-talked my way into her booth so I could hide.  At lunch, the assistant news director took me to Atkins Park, and I broke a bottle of ketchup.  That night, Frazier took me to a bar called PJ Haley’s.  He consumed three beers in twenty minutes, and offered me a three-year contract starting at $45,000 per year.

3.  In 1991, WAGA was sued three times because of stories I’d done.  One alleged I’d libeled a dead person, which was immediately dismissed.  Another claimed I’d libeled a schizophrenic.  The young man filed the suit himself and acted as his own attorney.  The judge allowed him to question me under oath in a deposition before dismissing the suit.  If you haven’t been cross-examined by a schizophrenic, you haven’t been cross-examined.  The third alleged that I’d failed to conceal the identity of folks whose identity I’d promised to conceal.  Word to the wise:  If your interviewee’s friends and neighbors can identify the “anonymous” interviewee, he’s not anonymous.

4.  Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992.    Photog Helen Lester and I got to Miami just as the storm was coming ashore, and slept in the lobby of the Miami Federal Reserve Bank.  The CBS station from which we worked had generator power only and no A/C.  The nearest hotel room was in Ft. Pierce.  Our cell phone was the size of a shoe box and worked intermittently.  We stayed a week.  I learned to edit under fire that week, as Helen left to do one-man-band coverage for our 11pm news while I edited for six.

5.  In 1994, I pitched a story on professional baseball in Japan. The pitch was a hail-mary, a joke.  But WAGA bought it.  They sent me and Steve Zumwalt to Tokyo and Kobe to follow a team called the Orix Blue Wave, which employed former Atlanta Brave  Francisco Cabrera.  The Blue Wave’s leadoff hitter was a rookie named Ichiro Suzuki, who hit .390 that year. I had to take a week of vacation in advance of the trip in order to do the legwork to make the trip happen.  The series aired shortly before Major League Baseball went on strike that year, cancelling the World Series.

(post is updated to correct the date of Hurricane Andrew.)

It’s all about me, vol 2

"A day in the life of an embedded," April 18, 2003

"A day in the life of an embedded," April 18, 2003

This week, we indulge the writer of this blog as he marks his one-year anniversary of his first LAF post.

No doubt, the craziest story I ever covered was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, the coverage was a combination of weird intensity and a comedy of errors.  My best souvenir is the newspaper to the right.  The photo misidentified (in French) photog Eddie Cortes and me as soldiers.  The man in the middle is Yves Eudes, whom we’d befriended and writer of the piece (but not the caption).  Six vignettes from that adventure:

1. Prior to departure, Eddie and I got our anthrax and smallpox shots at Ft. Gordon GA and shot a story on it.   Afterward, as Eddie drove back to Atlanta, I viewed the video via laptop on a newfangled program that did something called “non-linear editing.”  When I looked up 90 minutes later, I saw road signs that said “Columbia, next four exits.”  Eddie had driven the wrong way on I-20.

2. While in Kuwait, a day or two before the invasion, I caught a bug and lost my voice.  On its worst day, I wrote a nat sound package and scripted material for Eddie so he could handle live phoners. The Army medics quaintly gave me penecillin, the only antibiotic they had.  Ten tablets constituted a dose.  They didn’t help.  I subsequently did most of the phoners in a faint rasp and sounded pitiful.

3. Eddie edited our pieces on I-movie.  We sent them to Atlanta as e-mail files.  It often took our satellite phone equipment an hour or longer to send the files.  If a glitch broke the connection, as often happened, we’d have to start over from scratch.  We spent many hours watching a green light blinking, indicating our connection was good, and dreading the red light that appeared when it wasn’t.

4. At Ft. Stewart, the Army issued us chemical suits and gas masks.  They said we’d get Kevlar in Kuwait.  When we got to Kuwait, there was no Kevlar for us.  We couldn’t find any at the Army surplus stores in Kuwait City.  We rode “over the berm” in a Humvee with cloth doors, and were clearly less protected than the soldiers.  For that reason, we departed about a week after the invasion began.   When we did so, it was aboard a Chinook helicopter with a gunner seated on the open back loading door.  We sat on the floor.  Some of our fellow travelers were detainees suspected of spying.  They had seats.  The two-hour ride was so cold and windy, Eddie and I spooned to stay warm.  Neither of us had showered in a week.

5. When the Chinook dropped us at Camp Udairi in Kuwait at midnight, MPs took away the suspected spies.  We were left standing at the airstrip.  A Newsweek guy and I wandered the base looking for somebody in charge.  After finding him, that Colonel told me that he couldn’t provide a ride back to Kuwait City.  He suggested we hitchhike.  The next morning, we dragged our gear to the gate and did exactly that.  An American contractor obliged us with a lift in his SUV.

Missile attack live shot, March 28 2003

Sleep deprived: Missile attack live shot, March 28 2003

6.  After arriving at the Kuwait City Sheraton, we cleaned up and went to bed early.  An hour after I crashed — my first sleep in a real bed in nearly a month — a WAGA manager called me to tell me that my hotel was under attack.  “Turn on Fox News,” she said, and I did.  Sure enough, Fox News was reporting that a missile had exploded “near the Sheraton” in Kuwait City.  It had actually impacted at a mall a mile away, causing moderate damage and no serious injuries.  But Eddie and I stayed up the rest of the night, doing phoners and a live shot at the Kuwait city Fox studio for the 10pm news / 6am Kuwait time.  We caught a plane home at 10am.

I lost ten pounds during that story.  I re-gained my voice almost the moment I landed on US soil.  WAGA insisted I take a week off, a rare humane gesture which I still appreciate.  Eddie Cortes now works at CNN Español.  Our wives think it’s funny that we spooned in a helicopter in Iraq.

It’s all about me, vol. 1

Couldn’t help but notice that WAGA anchor Tom Haynes produced a story Monday about the burglary of his own home.  The on-camera premise, uttered during a tease,  seemed honorable enough:  We ask you to tell your stories of woe on TV, Haynes told viewers.  Now, I’m gonna tell you mine.

And then Haynes told his story, with improv’d standups / self-interviews as he gloomily looked at the damage.  Aside from an interview with a neighbor who’d suffered the same fate the same day, there wasn’t much else.  From a storytelling standpoint, that was unfortunate.  Haynes would probably agree that, while jarring to his family, his was a routine burglary.   If it hadn’t happened to a WAGA talent, it never would have gotten on TV.

Haynes’s supervisors probably strongly urged him to do the story.  The pattern would be familiar; they strongly urged self-coverage of another burglary at the home of a WAGA reporter in December 2005.  In that instance, however, the burglary-spree story had been ongoing.  The burglary of the reporter’s house yielded some arrests a few hours later.  And there was the madcap tale of the priest who called 911.

This story delivered another unexpected surprise:  A follow-up two days later, on Christmas. That fact alone indicates how hard-up TV is for news on Christmas Day. I actually like Mark Hyman’s “poor Richards” version better, mostly because he gave me a rare opportunity to make fun of WAGA’s management:

All this leads to the title of this post:  This blog will mark the one-year anniversary of its first post this week.  I’ve tried to avoid too many self-referencing comparisons, the “back in my day, we got screwed over by management this waytype of stuff that would get awfully tiresome awfully fast.  This week, we may self-indulge.  Feel free to return for more later in the week, or wait for less self-absorbed posts next week.

Water, water everywhere

Adam Murphy, WGCL

Callling BS on the commish: Adam Murphy, WGCL

We’re overdue to deliver a slow but sincere one-man round of applause for Adam Murphy.  The WGCL reporter has taken more than his share of abuse on this site for the still-unfortunate Restaurant Report Card.  But maybe that franchise, and Murphy’s tough-guy role in it, has steeled him for the worthy work he’s done in the last few weeks on the Atlanta Water Department follies.

Investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman has been equally tenacious.  Saltzman and Murphy tag-teamed a Water Department news conference last week, wherein commissioner Rob Hunter tried to explain that the city’s bizarre overbilling of residential customers raises “complicated issues.”  Maybe for him, yeah.  WGCL has documented extraordinarily large water bills that have suddenly and inexplicably arrived in the mailboxes of Atlanta residents.

“Let me make it clear.  Commissioner Hunter called that news conference because of our persistence on this story,” Murphy began a live shot.  “In fact, Commissioner Rob Hunter said I was rude when I tried to ask him a tough question.”

Murphy’s package began with Hunter triumphantly telling the news conference about flaws in a list of complaining water customers delivered the previous day by WGCL.  Hunter said the list didn’t include street addresses and phone numbers.  WGCL sent a second photog to the newser.   When Murphy pounced, it was on-camera.

“You mentioned six people were unreachable.  You realize… they all have e-mail addresses.  They are reachable, first of all.  Second of all, are you saying that every one of the people who has contacted us is making this up and lying?” Score a bulls-eye for Murphy.

“Absolutely not saying that.  And I don’t know how you would reach that conclusion,” Hunter stammered.  We’d like to know if that’s the exchange the brought the allegation that Murphy was “rude.”  Murphy never gives the details, unfortunately.

Murphy has been following the story almost daily in his role as WGCL’s consumer reporter.  It’s a story that’s rife with ongoing trouble, made worse by Rob Hunter’s efforts to dodge WGCL’s questions and failure to fix the problem.  WGCL has found and stayed after an absurd and inexplicable story that deserves exposure and affects real people.  If the trade-off is that we must tolerate the Restaurant Report Card, we’re OK with that.

Stuff journalists like

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Reporters who are serious about following their industry, technology and how it all meshes in a shrinking business climate will want to follow a blog called Advancing the Story. It’s written by ex-CBS and CNN reporter Deborah Potter.  It’s serious-minded, broad based and worth checking regularly.

A blog called “Stuff Journalists Like” will mostly evoke knowing grunts from its readers in the news biz.  Its posts may make some journalists squirm a bit.  That’s OK, given the fact that journalists wake up every morning knowing they’ll make other people squirm.  Some samples:

Press Passes:  “…journalists really like displaying their passes on lanyards. It allows journalists to show they belong where they are and allows them to be snobby without digging in their wallets for their press pass. Some even like keeping a collection of current and expired press passes on these lanyards.

Coffee:  “It’s the Gatorade of journalists.”

Awards:  “The quench for awards is so much at times that journalists find themselves putting off potential award-winning work to focus on submitting awards entries.”

Cluttered desks:  “Journalists have a lot of reputations. Watchdogs. Seekers of the truth. Defenders of the fourth estate. And completely disgusting slobs.”

Dating other journalists.

And yet, ain’t none of it as amusing as a post in Viewfinder Blues last week called “As Seen on TV.”   This is but an excerpt.  Read the whole post here:

YOU THERE, lounging in that office chair, how’d you like to work off those winter pounds without ever stepping foot in a smelly health club? Care to crisscross the globe – or at least the six closest counties? Wanna be a first responder, but not really help anybody? Have I got a job for you! TV News – that fleeting discipline known to millions and loved by dozens could be your ticket out of that comfortable cubicle farm! Who needs coffee breaks when you could dine daily on fresh tragedy, an endless buffet of broadcast clichés and enough live truck generator fumes to fool you into thinking you’re making a difference in the community. Not only that, you’ll fatten your closet with garish logowear, build up those apathy callouses and slim down that pesky wallet! But wait – THERE’S MORE!

Yeah, we’re unduly obsessive about this guy’s blog.  There’s none more entertaining, nor pointed.  Viewfinder Blues, Stuff Journalists Like and Advancing the Story are all in our blogroll to the right.

H/T to Mostly Media.