Monthly Archives: December 2009

Skullduggery in the rectory

The critic within: Northside UMC

Surely you’ve got better stories to cover than this.”

Thus spake a voice from an intercom at a locked doorway guarding the offices of Northside United Methodist Church.  That suggestion had followed a “we have no comment” and a polite yet firm admonishment that we leave the church property immediately.

I wanted to debate the disembodied voice on its analysis of the story that had brought us to her church.  The most obvious comeback was this:  Lady, it’s the Monday after Christmas.  How much news do you think is actually going on?  For the previous two hours, I’d been making fruitless phone calls to public servants (on another story) who were still neck-deep in holiday vacationland.   I could barely get human beings to answer the “press zero for the operator” switchboards.

“Sorry, ma’am.  But this story is looking pretty good from where I sit three days after Christmas.  Ma’am?  Hello?”

The second argument would have been just as fruitless.  I was at the door of the church because Atlanta police had just told reporters that the church had been burglarized.  And not just burglarized.

1)  The safe had been hauled out overnight, likely by two or more guys.  The safe contained  “a very large amount of currency” accumulated from collection plates passed during seven church services dating back to Christmas Eve.

2)  Police suspected it was an inside job, because there was no sign of forced entry.

Not persuasive on a slow news day

It helped that the church wasn’t some clapboard storefront with “Apostle James Richards” on the shingle.  This was a big ol’ fancy church in Buckhead.

“Ma’am, I realize this may not sway you.  But as news stories go, we’re not going to find much better today than a fancy church getting its safe heisted by some people who are likely on your staff or in your congregation.  Hello?  Ma’am?”

I never actually got to the point where I could argue the merits of the senior pastor giving us a TV interview:  “Hey, a little publicity might actually prod folks to look for clues (like an unemployed fellow church member suddenly purchasing, say, tickets to Monte Carlo) and possibly help solve the case.”

“Surely you’ve got better stories to cover than this.” Click.

Everybody’s a critic.

I wouldn’t presume to tell the disembodied voice of a church lady how best to run the salvation business.  But she’s got every right to tell me what news to cover.

Everybody else does it.

“Skullduggery in the rectory” was a phrase uttered by WXIA photog Steve Flood during our coverage.  I’d intended to steal it for the TV story, but it slipped my mind until – now.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “church video“, posted with vodpod

10 Atlanta media moments, 2009

In no particular order…

10.  WGCL’s drumbeat of “tough questions” over the Atlanta Water Department’s bizarro billing, and WGCL’s rise as an enterprising / investigative news organization.

9.  The AJC’s contraction, redesign and announced relocation to Dunwoody.

8.  Layoffs and pay cuts at WAGA and WXIA; furloughs at Gannett; and the combining of photog and helicopter resources.

7.  The AJC’s forced exile of Cynthia Tucker, its Pulitzer-winning columnist and editorial director, and its rightward editorial tilt.

6.  The local ascent of Twitter, especially during gasoline and flood crises.

5.  The sudden closing of Southern Voice, the bankruptcy throes of Creative Loafing, and the improbable continued success of Stomp and Stammer.

4.  Peach Pundit’s publication of a tell-all post about state pols that wouldn’t pass fact-checking muster in any mainstream media (and cries out for a libel suit or two, except that apparently nobody has chosen to challenge its veracity in court, so far…).

3.  WSB’s live truck accident, and Cox Inc.’s decision to pretend it’s not news.

2.  WXIA’s news director Ellen Crooke, defending her hypothesis that “TV news stinks” while consciously making WXIA  less reliant on traditional garden-variety non-news breaking “news.”

1.  Dale Russell’s seismic interview with Susan Richardson, which shook state government and toppled some of its leadership.


Here’s a not-so-heartwarming story for the holidays.

Dan Reilly cues tape to show to an accident investigator. (That's not "the" black Honda behind him.)

Dan Reilly and I were driving up I-85 Wednesday.  We’re en route to Lawrenceville.  We’re doing a story on a trial balloon floated by Butch Conway, the High Sheriff of Gwinnett County:  Because he can’t get funding for deputies to staff housing units in his new jail wing, Conway is considering filling the empty jail space with stray dogs and cats.

We drive past Beaver Ruin Rd.  A black Honda Accord zips around us at an inappropriately high rate of speed.  “Idiot,” one of us says to the other.  We’re in the left lane; the Honda has driven past us in the HOV lane, then back into the left lane.

We see the Honda cross multiple lanes to pass traffic ahead of us.  The Honda is driving dangerously.  Traffic is heavy, but moving at the speed limit and beyond.

Tagged: The black Honda

Within twenty seconds we see a puff of smoke and dust.  There’s tumult to the right of us.  We see a white mini-bus careen to the right, flipping upward, then down again.  Brakes light up.  Traffic grinds to a crawl.

“I bet the black Honda did that,” says Reilly.  We pull past traffic to the right shoulder.  Additional vehicles have already begun to pull over.  One car has pulled into the left emergency lane.  The driver exits the vehicle, and hoofs it across the interstate.  It’s a dangerous move.

By the time we get to the right emergency lane, we see an ugly tear in the side of the bus, which appears to have flipped but is now upright.  There are bodies on the pavement, ejected through the hole torn through the bus.

“That’s the Honda,” says Dan.  We pull in behind it.  Dan identifies the Honda because he’d made note of a round sticker on the back glass that says “South Carolina.”  We get out.  Dan goes for his gear.

I walk toward the Honda, which has a woman inside.  She’s young, with dark hair scrunched into a thick ponytail.  I produce a notebook and pen and write down the license number.

I walk to the side of the car.  She starts to drive.  “Where the hell are you going?” I holler.  She smiles and waves, as if she’s not really leaving.

Driver of the year: Joy Wilson, 32

She takes off down the highway,  then stops about 200 yards away.  Dan shoots video of the Honda.  The driver pauses.  Then we watch her drive off.

We turn our attention to the accident scene.  A half dozen victims are prone on the pavement.  Many are yelling and bleeding.  A small army of bystanders has come to their aid.   Dan keeps a respectful distance and starts to shoot video.  I walk toward the victims.  All of them are getting attention from bystanders.  All of them appear to be conscious.  I determine that I’d best stay out of the way.

I begin to converse with witnesses.  They confirm that the black Honda had clipped the bus and caused the accident.

One of them chatted with the driver of the Honda.  Turns out she pulled over, got out of the car, and checked on the victims.   She also confessed that she’d caused the accident, and was appropriately horrified.   I mention that I’d gotten the license number.  I assumed others had gotten the license number as well.  Apparently I was mistaken.

Gwinnett police and rescue crews began to show up very quickly.   They shut down the interstate.  Thankfully, we’d parked just ahead of the wreck.

News helicopters seemed to take an eternity to show up, however.  The helicopter shared by WAGA and WXIA showed up well ahead of the others.  I’d already called the desk once to tell them we were on scene and likely to be questioned by police.  When I saw the news helicopter, I looked at my watch and realized that WXIA’s noon news was on.  I called again and asked if they wanted a phoner.  I report that it’s a hit and run accident involving a bus loaded with developmentally-disabled adults.  A cop interrupts me a couple of times with questions, not realizing (or caring, perhaps) that I was doing a live report.

Police start to question us about the driver of the Honda.  They hand Reilly and me a clipboard and ask us to write out a statement.

The whole time, I’m thinking:  I sure hope I still get to do the story about the dogs and cats at the jail, because I really like that story and no other media has it.  Turns out, the managers at WXIA had read my mind.  I was told to get Reilly’s video to Matt Pearl, who would produce the piece on the wreck.

Although I shot video of police talking with Reilly, and Reilly shot some of them talking with me, Pearl’s piece showed admirable restraint regarding our role in ratting out the driver of the Honda.  She was in police custody within a couple of hours, charged with DUI (at 11:45am!) and other offenses.

By midafternoon, Reilly and I had finished shooting our dogs-in-jail story.  A law enforcement type from Gwinnett phoned me at 2:30, while I was getting a QT hot dog for lunch:  “I hear you got the tag!”

Word spreads fast.

Franklin gothic

Nothing to say: Shirley Franklin

The news media got it right when they described as “bizarre” Mayor Shirley Franklin’s last / don’t-presume-this-is-my-last news conference December 17.   WGCL has posted the unedited news conference.  Followers of Franklin, and those intrigued by the give-and-take between a skilled politician and the media will be amused to watch it.

Most of the reporting on Franklin’s newser sidestepped this fact:  Franklin’s contentiousness was clearly rooted in her antipathy toward WGCL and, apparently, Wendy Saltzman in particular.  Saltzman started the questioning by asking Franklin about the “perception” of high crime, despite statistics to the contrary.  Franklin mostly ignored the question.

Morse Diggs of WAGA followed with a question about an expensive party the Water Department threw for its employees.  Franklin answered it, but not happily.  By the time John Bachman of WSB asked the third question, an unchallenging query about about her legacy, Franklin was clearly fed up and began her weird evasions of almost everything asked.

WGCL has done a lot of good work covering the final years of Franklin’s administration.  WGCL more or less owned the story about the city’s whackadoodle water billing.  Franklin blew off a reasonable question from Saltzman about that.  (Watch Saltzman’s edited Q&A here.)

Final answer? Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

I don’t mind admitting that I’m an admirer of Shirley Franklin.  I suspect history will treat her kindly because of some tough and unpopular decisions she had to make (and because crime dropped sharply during her eight years).  I’ve always liked her style, and the fact that her only foray into elective politics was her successful run for mayor.  Early in her administration, she treated the media / politician relationship with maturity and humor.

But this was a low moment for Franklin, who gave the news conference an unwelcome Nixonian edge.  She accused Saltzman of being rude, but Franklin was ruder.  The Mayor cut off questions before they were even asked.  She was inconsistent and evasive.

On one hand, Franklin deserves props for declining the “legacy” questions.  They posed easy opportunities for her to give self-serving answers.  “I didn’t run for office to be popular,” she said instead.  It was self-deprecating and anti-politics, adding to her charm.

On the other hand, Franklin is accountable as long as she holds office.  There were some serious problems under her administration.  She may dislike WGCL’s in-your-face-with-the-tough-questions style (and new “tough questions” mic flags to match.  Too bad the real flags aren’t as cool as the graphic representation on the left).  But a mayor who has made tough decisions ought to be willing and able to answer challenging questions.

She knew the “tough questions” were coming; she should have answered them gracefully.  She’d have probably knocked ’em out of the park.

Defending “amateur journalism”

Erick Erickson, Peach Pundit maestro

Erick Erickson is a Macon man who administers a popular and rather authoritative political blog called Peach Pundit. If you’re into Georgia politics, it’s a must-read.

Erickson is also a Republican political operative (he supports Karen Handel for Governor).  As he emphatically told the AJC in a feature story last Sunday, he is not a journalist.

Erickson was clearly buddy-buddy with House Speaker Glenn Richardson.  When Dale Russell torpedoed Richardson’s career with  ex-wife Susan Richardson’s tell-all, Erickson remarkably dismissed the story saying it “sounds like somebody wants attention and it ain’t the speaker.”

His post went on to describe an absence of “conjugal relations” between the Speaker and the ex-, hinting that this was Susan Richardson’s fault because, of course, who wouldn’t find Glenn Richardson to be a desirable guy?    Erickson has written many worthy and insightful posts on Peach Pundit.  This was not his finest hour.

So when Erickson wrote a post describing my story Wednesday on WXIA as “a bit of dirty pool or amateur journalism,” I didn’t take it personally.  (And while it’s offensive to describe a reporter’s work as “amateur journalism,” Erickson seemed to use the phrase casually and made no effort to critique the reporting.  Bloggers take liberties sometimes.)

The story explored state Rep. Larry O’Neal’s (R-Bonaire) relationship with MMV Consulting, a registered lobbying firm founded by Richardson’s former chief of staff.

O’Neal  was a frontrunner to succeed Richardson as Speaker.  A friend of Gov. Sonny Perdue, he was considered the “establishment” candidate.  Peach Pundit published many posts touting his candidacy.  In Thursday’s Republican caucus election, O’Neal finished second to Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Bonaire

My story was pretty simple:  Online paperwork showed that O’Neil had filed incorporation papers on behalf of MMV Consulting.  The story was relevant because the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists had become a forefront issue in the chatter about replacing Richardson.

I phoned a Republican lawmaker.  An attorney, he said that yes, his firm does the same thing.  But he said he never personally touches any business involving lobbyists.  He leaves that for his partners.

I asked the acting director of the Ethics Commission about it.  He said there was nothing illegal about it (which I included in my report).  He said he’d heard rumors of such relationships, but this was the first time he’d seen it documented.

I phoned a state Representative with clout in the Republican leadership.  He said this wasn’t a huge story, but he also said this is the kind of thing that needs to get cleaned up at the Capitol.

It smelled like news to us.  The story was solid.  I called Larry O’Neal’s office a half dozen times to ask him about it.  I couldn’t get him on the phone and didn’t hear back from him.  (I saw him a day later at the Capitol following the Speaker election.  I identified myself and asked if he’d stop for a question.  He said “no,” walked into an office, and shut the door).

One more point:  The story more or less fell into my lap.  My tipster was a politically connected friend who didn’t give a flying flip about Larry O’Neal or the Speaker race, except as a spectator.

I agreed with the guy from the Republican leadership:  This story wasn’t huge (though WXIA led with it at 7pm).  It was inside baseball, somewhat.  It wasn’t “great TV,” either.  I had no sound.  It was basically an extended reader.

But it raised an issue that was easily understood by anybody watching TV news:  How much hand-holding should there be between lawmakers and those lobbying for special interests?

Erick Erickson’s position, apparently, is that this stuff happens all the time and there’s nothing fishy about it.  It’s a valid viewpoint; even members of the legislature have to make a living.

But so is this: If a lawmaker is incorporating a lobbying firm, then the lobbyist is probably putting money into the lawmaker’s pocket.  That money isn’t disclosed, except to the IRS.  Maybe the lobbyist is happily paying the “premium” rate for the lawmaker’s services, which endears the lawmaker to the lobbyist.  Maybe it’s a way for the lobbyist to buy a little clout.

For all its excesses, I still love Peach Pundit.  Thanks for the shout-out, Erick.  I’m looking forward to seeing you on Colbert in January.  Don’t let him do to you what he did to your buddy Lynn Westmoreland.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Applying Murphy’s law

"I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the human trafficking allegation. Let's chat..."

A reporter at WXIA raised a question that I’d asked myself while driving home Monday night.

“You went into — the lobby?  Camera rolling?  Did you — ?”

Did I call the WXIA lawyer first?  Actually, no.  It went like this:

We were at a DeKalb County day care center.  The administrator had been indicted by a federal grand jury for human trafficking.  I wanted to talk to her.  I suspected she might not want to chat with a TV reporter.

From outside, I called the facility.  A woman answered, and stammered “who’s this?  She’s not here” when I asked for the suspect.  It had the whiff of BS, confirmed when a parent told us “oh yeah — she’s in there.”  Most parents hadn’t heard about the allegation until they saw us.

Photog Tyson Paul and I pondered our options.  There’s weren’t many.  The center was a brick building.  The administrator / human trafficking suspect wasn’t coming out.

“We could just go in, roll on it and see what happens.”

“Let’s do it.”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done this:  Enter a public business, photog in tow, rolling tape.  But I flashed back to guidelines I’d gotten over the years.  “You have to have a legitimate news interest.  The building has to be open to the public.  You can’t go past the public area of the business.  If they tell you to leave, you must leave.  But you can leave slowly. You can ask questions as you leave.”

Then I flashed back to numerous news stories I’d observed, mostly on WAGA and WGCL.  The Restaurant Report Card flashed strongly in my mind.  “If Adam Murphy can bust into a restaurant with a health score infraction, I can go into a day care where the administrator is charged with human trafficking.”  Done.  We went in.

The administrator didn’t react well to the friendly introduction I’d uttered upon entry.  “This is private property.  Please get out.”  We backed toward the door.

“May I ask you a question first?” I said, as I backpedaled.

“Please leave now.”  Her voice got louder.

“I’d like to ask you something –” I intended to offer a conversation off-camera.  She wasn’t having it.

“Please leave NOW!” she screamed.  We exited.

We waited outside in the street for the next ninety minutes.   During that time, she told patrons of the day care that she’d been charged with a crime; it was just allegations; she was innocent.  “Wish she’d have told me that,” I told a day care customer who’d related her explanation to me outside.

By the time we returned Tuesday, the administrator was gone.  The state had ordered her to vacate.  A replacement was in her office.  I entered, sans camera.  I introduced myself.

“No.  I’m not talking you you.  Please leave now,” said the replacement.    A bit puzzled, I left immediately.  I never got the indicted woman’s story, except second-hand, through customers.

She had plenty of opportunity.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Couple Charged With Trafficking Woman…“, posted with vodpod

If you watched the story, you may notice a certain Addams Family quality to the graphics.  Although Tyson Paul had created perfectly lovely graphics in WXIA’s Avid system, he learned after they aired that they were “corrupt.”  It happens.

The best local news promo ever

This is a bit of a no-brainer.   Local news promos tend to have a one-note sense of urgency that reflects the thinking which drives the business nowadays:  Find out how this hidden killer may target your children — tomorrow at six!”

The promo is accompanied by a grave soundtrack, or the rat-a-tat rhythm mimicking the sound of a teletype, which remain a stylistic audio staple even though teletypes went the way of the rotary phone decades ago.

There are many, many good reasons, then, why this is the best local news promo ever.

The subject matter. Promo pixels tend to get hijacked by anchors and salacious content.  Promos about news photographers are very rare.

The Pythonesque music. Not just the tune, but the lyrics.  “Our coats are made of plastic / Our cables are elastic!” = priceless.

The video. Just watch.  The two photogs swerving in the car toward the camera is pretty awesome.  So is the photog supposedly dangling from the helicopter.  So is the grinning cop. So is the photog in bed with his camera.

The TK-76 cameras indicate the promo was made in the mid-80s.  (Writing that line, and thinking of the 3/4″ tape deck that accompanied it just produced a sharp twinge of phantom pain in my lower back).  NewsCenter 13 is WTHR Indianapolis.

WAGA created a photog promo in 1997.  It is spirited and interesting, but it lacks the madcap quality of its incomparable Hoosier forerunner.

Notice how Randy Travis hasn’t aged a day in the last twelve years.

I think these are called “institutional” promos, meaning they aren’t promoting a specific talent or upcoming story.

Such promos serve two purposes:  They tell the station’s story to an audience that, in all likelihood, is already quite familiar with it (but hasn’t yet seen the latest strokes-of-genius updating the brand).  And they kill time when there’s no revenue-delivering commercial cued up in the ol’ cart machine.  Or whatever passes for that gizmo these days.

Following Christmas, expect to see a lot of (updated versions of) promos like this vintage WAGA institutional.  Post-Christmas is typically a dry spell for TV advertising.  The local stations’ promotion departments are in overdrive right now, perfecting these little jewels.

And yeah, that’s yours truly interviewing the guy with the mullet.  Like I’ve got room to talk, haircut-wise….

H/T to Viewfinder Blues.