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.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Defending “amateur journalism”

  1. Mitch

    It was a story about someone who did nothing wrong, illegal, unethical or even close to being any of the three. It was clearly a news station who lost its only decent political reporter trying to be relevant — and failing. While I pay more attention to the news than the average viewer, I cant imagine anyone watching that story and not thinking, “so, what exactly was the news?” And if folks are asking that about your lead story on your most watched newscast, well, that’s not so good.

  2. Pingback: Defending “amateur journalism” — Peach Pundit

  3. griftdrift

    A question, Doug. This is the second time (third?) that I’ve heard a professional journalist call Peach Pundit a “must read”. Many times over the past three years, I’ve had to listen to journalists tell me over and over that blogs are worthless because all they do is spew unverified garbage. Now, one that not only prints rumor, but proudly does so, and makes no pretense at giving a damn is called a “must read” by an AJC reporter and a Channel 11 reporter?

    Did something change or am I just missing something?

  4. manfromatlanta

    I find Peach Pundit worth reading, and not only because it is where I learned the phrase “nuttier than squirrel farts.”

  5. Swede

    How about finding a hobby or even a life.
    Golf is good, so is woodworking or buy a metal detector for the beach.
    Here is a guy who couldn’t make it the way the rest of us did.
    Now he stands on the speaker’s box at Hyde Park with the others.
    I’ll pass on his “insight.”
    Merry Christmas,

  6. Wrong

    Doug, while I appreciate your defense, this story is a perfect example of what’s wrong with television news.

    Did you realize when you did the story, or do you realize now, how easy it is to incorporate a company in Georgia? There are firms in Georgia that do it for $150. How can they do it that cheap? Paralegals do all the work, a lawyer glances over it and signs the bottom.

    Two questions for you.

    First, assume legislator John Doe owned a lawn care company. Lobbyist Jane Smith used the lawn care company at her house. Would that have warrented a story? There would actually be far more money changing hands in this example.

    Second, if you had gotten this information last June would it have warrented a story? And, if you say yes, would your assignment editor have laughed you out of the office? The ONLY reason this story ever made it air was that it souned just “scandalous” enough and there were other reporters out there doing legitimate stories about unethical behavior. WSB and WAGA had broken legitimate stories of unethical behavior, and WXIA rushed to put some sort of “exclusive” on the air.

    Want a good way to tell what people thought of this story: it led the news at 7, and didn’t even make the 11:00 news. I can only assume that someone with some common sense at WXIA, finally, figured out there was no “there” there.


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