WSB goes to a state web site listing delinquent taxpayers. WSB cherry-picks a few names. It sends John Bachman to a few addresses. Bachman and a camera-rolling photog demand to know why the taxpayer is delinquent. The taxpayer stammers on camera. The Revenue commissioner clucks on-camera that these folks ought to know better.
The reporter wraps it into a by-the-numbers TV package (culled from the Restaurant Report Card handbook of investigative journalism), then directs the viewer to the station website, and calls it a news story.
It must be a great idea, because Bachman tells the viewer that WSB has done this story before. “Last year, we looked at individuals owing taxes. This year, we’re taking on businesses,” Bachman says in his intro. The list of delinquent taxpayers has 50,000 entries. The story cries out for the “shooting fish in a barrel” cliche.
Meantime at WXIA, the website’s home page asks: “Did your lawmaker pay taxes? Click here to find out.” It appears WXIA’s furlough-diminished news staff has spent many hours making phone calls to some 94 state representatives and state senators, simply asking: Are your taxes paid up? The vast majority of the lawmakers on the site answer “yes,” and WXIA is publishing the answers with no follow-up. (The station appears to be waiting for additional lawmakers’ names to turn up on a state list of deadbeat taxpayers. The idea seems to be: If you’re lying, we’ll expose you eventually.)
One state senator refused to answer, citing the Georgia Code that keeps tax matters private. Sen. Valencia Seay wrote in a news release that WXIA libeled her by using her photo in a story about tax deadbeats. Seay demanded a retraction. (WXIA says it merely reported that Seay declined to answer.)
“Undaunted by their ignorance of the facts, 11 Alive News showed their willingness to take a refusal to disclose personal information as license to imply the worst. For the record, I have NO tax delinquencies – federal, state or local. 11 Alive should go back to doing what they do best – empty reporting on celebrity drug addiction and car crashes,” the freshman Democrat from Riverdale wrote.
“11 Alive is taking action for you,” the station writes, justifying its devotion to this story. It’s staggering to imagine all the manpower being used to gather zero independent, verifiable information.
The story does provide something tangible for WXIA’s website, always one of the best TV websites in town. It gives the site an ongoing “story” to which the TV version can repeatedly refer. As the web supplants traditional media, the strategy is understandable. It’s regrettable the story is so hollow.
“We here at 11Alive feel that you have a right to know which lawmakers are breaking the law…. We’re taking them at their word for now,” the station writes on its web site, with no apparent irony.
At least WXIA isn’t calling it an “investigation.” That’s an admirable show of restraint.