Monthly Archives: March 2010

Trust me

When I was teaching at Georgia State University last Spring, I asked a local elected official to speak to my journalism class about media relations.  The official showed up, then took me by surprise:  He launched into a bitter rant about “so-called investigative reporters” who, he said, twist facts to suit a preconceived storyline.

I was surprised because the official enjoys a pretty squeaky-clean reputation and has good relations with the media.  (He asked me not to name him in this post).  Although I challenged him by suggesting that investigative reporters serve an important function in a free society, he stuck to his guns.

After a while, he finally admitted he was actually referring to only one investigative reporter:  Dale Cardwell, the former WSB investigative guy turned US Senate hopeful, now the entrepreneur behind “Trust Dale.”

I enjoyed competing with Cardwell when we both worked in the news biz.  He was friendly and gracious in the field.  He did a lot of good work at WSB.  When his stuff appeared on TV, the volume was cranked up on TV sets in competing newsrooms.

Cardwell was also probably the most polarizing reporter I’ve ever known.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve spoken with politicians or bureaucrats with squeaky-clean records who’ve ranted about Cardwell — and like the guy in my class, strongly believed they’d been burned unfairly, years after the fact.

Now Cardwell sells Trust Dale, which recommends businesses who’ve paid Cardwell for the privilege and carry the imprimateur of Cardwell’s investigative approval.  If there’s a conflict in those two criteria, Cardwell dismisses it in an interview with WXIA’s Valerie Hoff.

As a guy who once left the news biz to become an entrepreneur, I’m disinclined to judge Cardwell.  He deserves credit for apparently building a successful business at a time when the economy is punishing such folk.

I also give him credit for finding the uniquest of niches.  While many TV news expats try to parlay their journalism backgrounds (or celebrity status, such as it might be) into non-Fourth Estate careers, few do it as explicitly and as publicly as Cardwell.

A video on Cardwell’s site describes him as “channel two’s Emmy award winning lead story investigative reporter,” and a page shows an impressive list of investigative stories he produced.

The site goes on to intertwine, seemingly as much as possible, Cardwell the former investigative reporter with Cardwell the businessman.  The site includes a sizable list of clients, all of whom apparently get a custom video showing a flag-lapel-pin-wearing Cardwell endorsing the product or service.

I will now admit that I once bought a piece of jewelry at Solomon Brothers because I’d repeatedly heard the name on commercials voiced by radio host Neal Boortz.  Cardwell is basically doing the same thing, except he would tell you his endorsement carries investigative heft.

And yet, I know an elected official or two who would probably disagree very strongly.

“Put the camera on me.”

Careful what you ask for.

When I figured out that the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department regularly used a video camera to document its encounters with unruly inmates, it was a “eureka” moment.

"I bet your mother's proud of you."

When the same department told me it had retained the video of more than 400 such encounters in 2009 alone, it sounded like an Open Records Act moment.  The sheriff’s department agreeably set up a time and put me in a conference room with more than 400 DVDs.  I brought my own DVD viewing equipment.  I also brought my son, Bill Richards, who was home on break from UGA.

Thus began the first of two entire days viewing DVDs.  Daughter Leigh Richards, also home from college, provided the second set of eyes on day two. Together, we watched hours and hours of human behavior at its not-so-finest.  As you might imagine, these were great family bonding moments.

Many of the DVDs showed inmates acting a fool in their cells, or simply refusing the cooperate with jailers.  The procedure grew numbingly familiar:  Inmate acts out; deputies respond with overwhelming manpower; inmate is subdued.

And then we ran into a video featuring this guy.  If coarse language offends you, don’t play it.

Dantrell Mitchell was arrested “for taking a number two,” as he put it toward the end of the video, in a Waffle House men’s room.  The restaurant called Norcross Police after he allegedly locked himself into the restroom for two hours.

Mitchell was combative with deputies.  But mostly, he was hilarious.  He told the cop who arrested him needed to “get in the weight room.”  He provided droll narration as the deputies subdued him on the floor, picked him up, then restrained him in a chair.  “You gotta love this.  You would think I’m Jeffrey Dahmer up in this motherfμ¢Ξ®,” he cracked at one point.  “I’m not going to eat you.  I promise.”

Clearly, Mitchell overreacted to his arrest.  He taunted cops who were simply doing their jobs, but he settled into something approaching straight comedy after he appeared to realize that his combativeness wasn’t helping matters.  My favorite moment is when he says “Ten four.  Roger.  Thanks for picking me up.”

I had to cut ninety seconds from the original piece I edited for WXIA, partly  because I used too much of  Mitchell’s material.  That’s one of the perils of having an abundance of video.

I wish I could have spoken to Mitchell, but I couldn’t reach him based on the police report info.  The guy seems to have genuine comedic talent.  Perhaps this Youtube video will get him out of the Waffle House bathroom and into the limelight, for the right reasons.

Hey, it could happen.  My kids and I are rooting for him.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

‘I look good without a shirt’

“Well, this is just great.  You go to Suwanee.  You’re producing a TV story on the unveiling of an $80,000 piece of public art.  You know that elsewhere, cities and counties are laying off schoolteachers and cutting government services.  You go looking for somebody who might question the wisdom of such a government purchase in these economic times.

“And this guy is the best you can come up with?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with this guy, a roofer named Dwayne Boss. He was sunbathing in a camping chair on the vast green space outside of Suwanee’s City Hall.

Mr. Boss was bright.  He was articulate.  He wasn’t mouth-foaming outraged.  He just questioned the timing, in these economic times and all.

Most importantly, Mr. Boss was agreeable.  When approached by a TV reporter who’d exhausted his other possibilities, he allowed a lav mic to be clipped to his wooden-necklace-thingie, and shared his thoughts about public art.  As the mouthpiece for those skeptical, Mr. Boss became a shining knight, in a manner of speaking.

But he wasn’t exactly dressed for TV.

With that, here’s another attempt at the Friday Open Thread. In these economic times, threads are important.  Make yours count.  And if you use them for abdominal coverage, all the better.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Local news queen

I don’t know the identity of the blogger who calls herself Local News Queen, nor do I want to know.  If you or I find out, I’m afraid she’ll stop writing.  She needs to keep writing, anonymously and frequently.

I don't know her ID, either

LNQ writes what I can’t write — the kind of dead-honest insider stuff that hilariously describes the not-so-glamorous minutiae of the overworked and underpaid local TV reporter.  I don’t know which market she works in.  I’m not even completely convinced she’s a “she” in the strictly anatomical sense (versus, say, the Bowie-esque sense).  It doesn’t matter.  She is everyman / woman.

She can write stuff like “The town we were in had one stoplight and apparently no dentists.”  I can’t write stuff like that about the Rockwellian small towns of Georgia, even when it’s true.

She can describe her station’s fleet of news vehicles thusly:  “That’s how we roll, bitches!… Each news car smells the same. It’s as if an obese man ate a basket of garlic toast and died in the backseat.”  I wouldn’t dare  describe WXIA’s pristine, lilac-scented vehicles with anything approaching such language.  Even if it was true, which it isn’t.

Here she writes about a reporter having to work a second job in an amusement park to make ends meet.

Here she writes about her secret loathing of stories about Haiti fundraisers.

Here she writes about having an embarrassing “emergency” in an out-of-order public restroom, only to have a viewer spot her as she emerged.

She only started writing it this month.  She appears to be writing new material most days.  She needs all the encouragement she can get.  Feel free to sidestep LAF for a few days and click on Local News Queen instead.  And please don’t try to rat her out, especially you investigative hotshots.  Back off.  Let the Queen do her work.

Local News Queen is now in the blogroll to the right under “Media Sites.”

A night in jail

Two summers ago, following a game in our 35-and-up baseball league, I posed the following question to my teammates:  Anybody been to jail?

Almost every hand went up.  Mine was among two or three that didn’t.

One guy had been locked up on domestic violence charges (he told us he was innocent, by the way, despite the 30 days he’d spent in the Cobb Co. jail).  Several had DUIs or public drunk charges that dated back to college.  One mild-mannered outfielder had actually gotten caught stealing a car as a kid, which kind of blew us all away.

My team wasn’t exactly composed of miscreants.  The coach was an engineer.  Two pitchers were medical professionals.  We had some high-salary salesman types.  We had blue collar workers.  All of them seemed stable and mature.  Most had families.

Typically, when we produce TV stories about folks who land in jail, the accused is depicted as an irredeemable screwup at best, a psychopath at worst.

When I met Kevin Fidler in the Gwinnett County Jail during a shoot one evening, I found that I had an unaccustomed measure of sympathy for his plight.    He’d been charged with DUI.  Police told me he blew a .08 in a roadside test, the bare minimum for drunk driving.  The 55-year old said he’d gone to dinner with his wife, had a couple of beers, and drove home.   A Snellville cop intercepted him.  Fidler said he’d never been to jail before, and his story checked out.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Fidler’s story became the thread for a WXIA piece that I produced (and shot and edited) on the intake / booking area at the Gwinnett County Jail.  It was a Friday night, and the place was pretty jumpin.’

Butch Conway, the Sheriff of Gwinnett County, deserves praise for allowing us the access.  He told the deputy in charge to let us shoot whatever we wanted.  His PIO, Stacey Bourbonnais, took a laudable hands-off approach to managing us; she opted to stay home that night.   Conway may run one of the most accessible jails in America, media-wise.   It stands in stark contrast to other jails and state prisons whose administrators consider their facilities to be more high-security than Guantanamo.   Jails consume a boatload of tax money.  They ought to be reasonably accessible.

Fidler was among a few dozen folks charged with DUI that night.  The others I encountered were in much worse shape than he was.  A coworker said Fidler struck her as the kind of guy who would go play a round of golf with her dad, then have a couple of beers in the clubhouse afterward.

Or maybe, a guy who’d have a beer or two with the guys after killing a night on a baseball diamond.

I’m to blame for this video, shot with a camcorder with no manual focus setting.  Oh — and the Nuts need pitchers this season.  If you can throw a curve and / or a changeup for strikes and want to play weeknights, holler.

Reporter’s revenge

If this guy’s got the stones to hang out in a convention center and ask these questions to passersby, then who am I to forsake the Friday Open Thread due to mere lack of participation?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

BTW, his name is Pat Tomasulo.  He works at WGN.  I swiped this from Lenslinger, who writes, in part:

  • …this mild-mannered reporter is serving as an avenging angel of sorts for frustrated news crews the world over. See, no matter what populated spot you set your camera up in, somebody’s gonna stomp into your shot and act a fool… (Remember, they don’t call them ‘asshole magnets’ just ’cause it sounds cool.) Now, St. Pat is collecting payback.

Science, history and buildings

I don’t know of a more haunted place in the world than Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.  Picture a huge college-style campus filled with large, empty, hospital-sized  brick buildings dating back to the 19th century; stuck hard among pecan trees in a hard-to-reach part of Georgia.  Add to it a rough history that began as the “Georgia Lunatic Asylum,” and the draw becomes obvious.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Because state law protects the anonymity of patients at CSH, there’s not much to shoot there except the buildings.  Granted, the buildings are amazing.  Seeing rows of hospital-sized buildings moldering on a lovely campus is kind of breathtaking. But I didn’t want to do a story on empty buildings.

The archival photos and footage, much of it provided by CSH, helped a lot.  So did the interview with the father of a patient.  An unplanned interview with longtime Milledgeville resident Katherine Fuller became indispensable.

But ultimately, it came down to shooting buildings.  WXIA photog Mike Zakel was as drawn to the  gothic setting as I was.  Yet shooting static buildings makes for dull TV.

CSH wouldn’t allow us inside any of the numerous condemned buildings on campus (there are photos I poached from a blogger who apparently snuck inside one of them last year).    But CSH allowed us inside an empty hospital building that’s still maintained, used for patient overflow in case of an emergency or disaster elsewhere in Georgia.

I had been insistent about going inside the empty building.  Yet, once we got inside we saw — an empty building.  Empty hallways.  Empty rooms.  No people.

At this point, I freshened up an old trick I’ve used for years when confronted with dull office-type video settings.  You might call it the poor man’s jib, or the cheap truck.

I asked PIO Kari Brown to produce a wheelchair.  Curiously, there was none inside the hospital building.  I asked for the next best thing:  An office chair with wheels.  Brown found one.

Zakel sat in the chair, shouldering his camera.  I pushed.   We went up and down a hallway several times.  Zakel sat sideways shooting rooms as we passed.  On the next pass, he sat forward.  Each shot of the empty space had slow forward or lateral movement that gave it needed life.

The rolling office chair is a technique that’s especially suitable for stock brokerages, technology spaces and other indoor settings that scream “dullsville.”  It’s a step up from the photog-walking-while-rolling technique frequently seen in TV news.  The downside is:  Office chairs, with their multiple tiny wheels, often have a mind of their own, direction-wise.  Especially when laden with 200 plus pounds of photog and gear.  The reporter pushing has to be prepared to muscle up, and hope the floor surface cooperates.

The office chair jib is an offshoot of the shoot-from-a-driving-car technique employed for the exteriors on this shoot.  Photogs mostly despise it.  Their positioning is ergonomically awkward when pointing a lens out a car window.  They can’t control the framing with their accustomed precision, and they’re dependent on the driver (the reporter, typically) to maintain a smooth speed.  Zakel shot lovely video of the decaying campus from his tripod.  But the rolling shots maintained the story’s visual pace.

And that was essential.  The story was about government, history, science, the mentally ill — and buildings.

Winne Watch 3.12.10

Secret Squirrel

“Fast as he was on the field, you’re saying he wasn’t on the run?” – WSB’s Mark Winne, speaking to an attorney about a former Georgia Tech football player accused of making terroristic threats.

Winne stood in light rain in front of the Cobb County jail for the opening of his live shot Friday.  He tossed to a 1:45 or so package.  When he returned for the tag, he was standing in a downpour.

This revealed a classic reporter-in-rainfall dilemma:  How do you simultaneously hold an umbrella, a hand mic, and a notebook with the mere two hands God has given you?  And flip the pages of the notebook?

And how do you do it without appearing to give the audience the finger?

As they like to say at WSB:  We’re number one!   Manual dexterity points: √ digit (out of five possible.)

“Victim”? No.

Generally speaking, police officers expect fair scrutiny from the news media.  They know there are bad apples in their ranks.  If the media helps weed them out, good cops will cheer us on.

But like the rest of us, police officers recoil from cheap shots, real or perceived.  More than anything, they get defensive very quickly when reporters question their judgment in life-or-death situations.

Fellow WAGA ex-pat Bernard Watson raised such a question in this WGCL story, and police reacted harshly.

Watson has company; a WSB-TV reporter spent years living down a similar story.  Based only on e-mails and word-of-mouth among cops, legions of them badmouthed the reporter and vowed to never speak to him (or worse).  That was before Youtube and blogs.

The DeKalb Officers Speak blog raises two points about Watson’s piece that any reporter ought to take into consideration when producing such a story.

“Victim.” Be careful who you describe as a “victim.”  If the person killed died while attacking a cop (or anybody) with a knife (or anything), he started the altercation as an “attacker.”  If his grieving relatives say he’s a “victim,” take extra care to attribute the term.  Don’t use it on your own.

Viewpoint. Despite our pretenses to objectivity, journalism frequently carries a viewpoint.  Corrupt public officials are bad, murderers are grotesque, potholes are a pain.  DeKalb Officers takes issue with Watson’s question to an eyewitness:  “Some are saying it’s not right for this man to die in his own home.”   Unfortunately, Watson’s generic attribution was insufficient.  The question sounded like the reporter’s viewpoint.

It’s legitimate for the news media to ask questions when police officers use deadly force.  But if the story appears to focus on a “victim” of police excess, then the reporter needs strong prima facie evidence.  The “victim” needs to be a 92 year old woman, or have died in seriously questionable circumstances.

And if the eyewitness tells you, essentially, that the cop was legitimately in fear for his life — then that raises a big ol’ red flag about the premise of your story.

No doubt, Watson cobbled together a last-minute script while sitting in a dark live truck with a looming deadline. Could be that an inexperienced producer was after him to tell the “victim’s” story.  But ultimately, it’s Watson who has stand by his reporting.

Last weekend, WGCL news director Steve Schwaid contacted the anonymous DeKalb Officers blog to express regret for calling the dead man a “victim.”

Used to be, your story was “out to Pluto” by the time the broadcast was over.  Now it somewhat lives forever on the web, including the ones you kinda hope nobody noticed.  Along with your contact info.

I’d bet my paycheck Bernard Watson has no “agenda against the police” as DeKalb Officers suggests.  But his inbox is probably a rough place to visit these days.

…as is the inbox of the Atlanta TV reporter that cops are now calling “Doughnut Boy.”  Which is a whole ‘nother story…

Friday open thread 3.12.10

Bill Liss, WXIA 11am 3.11.10

Welcome to the future of TV news, embodied by WXIA’s renaissance man, Bill Liss.  Liss has  embraced the multitasking reality of TV news in the 21st century.  Does Liss complain about having to produce stories for both TV and the web (and his daily business report each morning)?  Hell, no.  He just does it all at the same time.   Gannett has given him two phones; Liss reasons that it makes sense to be time-efficient and use them simultaneously.  Next, he’ll shoot and edit the story, upload it to the web, produce and anchor the newscast, then Windex the newsroom monitors.

He won’t break a sweat either.  The french cuffs, Louis Vuitton shades, and Brovelli necktie make this guy the best-dressed, multi-tasking news talent in the market.  Not to mention, the fastest-talking and possibly loudest guy in the market.  Who has time to softpedal his craft?  Not Bill Liss.  There’s a deadline lurking around every corner, and Liss will crush them all.

Consider this another attempt at the Friday open thread.  Do as Liss would do.  Keep up the chatter.  Make it learned and erudite, and keep the thread-count on the high side.