Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rascally rabbits

What follows is some thinking-out-loud handwringing over how to approach a key portion of an actual ongoing TV story.  You, the reader, are invited to weigh in, as always.

Classic scoundrels: Rocky and Mugsy

The story is about an entity that purports to do good work but, I’m told, is doing things that are whacky and craven and borderline abusive.  I’m gathering evidence of this behavior, mostly through interviews with folks who have had first-hand experience.  The story is a project that will probably air in a couple of weeks.

To a lot of folks, this is garden-variety investigative reporting.  I like to say that all reporters are investigative reporters, because we all have to research stories.  But this story has an element of exposing the alleged bad behavior of people who probably don’t want to get caught (or who may not realize their behavior is aberrant) .   This is the stock in trade of some reporters for whom I have much admiration.  I do it rarely.

I’m aching to talk to the perpetrators of this allegedly bad behavior, though I can’t until I’ve gathered my evidence.  Once that happens, I need a strategy. On the one hand, I need to give them a civilized opportunity to discuss their issues and offer their viewpoint.  On the other hand, I need to maximize my ability to question them and to document their facility, which operates on private property but has a public presence.

What’s the best way to approach them?  I have several options.

Write them.   “We’d like to visit your facility,”  an email could begin.  It probably wouldn’t say much more than that, though they’d undoubtedly ask why and I’d have to tell them.

An email would probably give them their fullest opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of allowing a TV crew on the property and telling their side of the story.  Email would also allow them to share their potential dilemma with advisers.  Given the widespread distrust of the news media, this would most likely result in a “thanks but no thanks.” Email is also very easy to ignore.

Call them.  “We’d like to visit your facility.”  A friendly-sounding human voice might flatter them into agreement.  Nuances of conversation can be shaped to soothe concerns, while still being as truthful as I need to be about my intent (and by that I mean:  Fully truthful, but without necessarily exposing every detail of my evidence during an initial phone conversation).

Yet asking permission in advance — by phone or by email — runs the risk of them admonishing us to stay off the property.

Classic scoundrel: Elphaba

Visit them.  We pull into the parking lot.  I visit the office while a photog waits in the car.  Or does the photog start shooting outdoors before we get kicked off?  A visit might make them feel cornered.

Confront them.  Pretty sure I wouldn’t do camera-rolling visit without taking a more civilized approach first.  But it’s an option if they decline  or ignore my initial queries.

Bait and switch. Enlist a coworker to make an innocent-sounding pitch for a visit, implying that the coverage will be bland or flattering.  After they agree to allow it, show up and give ’em hell.

This last option is certainly tempting, and would give me instant access to the alleged scoundrels.  Though I don’t know this, I suspect it’s done by TV reporters with some regularity, justified with it’s the best way to expose the truth.  Yet it’s fundamentally dishonest.  If I did it in this instance, it would make me a hypocrite. So it’s ruled out (and is submitted here merely as food for thought).

Frequently, the on-camera explanations / evasions of alleged scoundrels are as enlightening and as interesting as the airing of the allegations against them.  In this instance, I suspect that the folks I want to interview would have enough hubris to try to justify what they do.  Or perhaps they’d try to set me straight, and portray my eyewitnesses as liars and sheisters.

So far I’ve only heard one side of this story, and it’s kind of harrowing.  I won’t know the other side until I ask.

Who’s out of line?! Round two

Who’s out of line?! is the wildly unpopular game started in this space earlier this week!  In it, we examine actual moments of confrontation between competing Atlanta news crews, based on this blogger’s second-hand knowledge.  If you missed the first round of Who’s Out of Line?!, you overlooked an exciting judgment made in this space that, based on the subsequent comments of a participant, may very well have been flawed.  You can find Round One here.

Because these events are poorly researched and the blogger doesn’t know what he’s really talking about anyway, the names and TV stations have been omitted!  Unless the principals decide to out themselves in the comments section!

Let’s press on with round two!

DeKalb DA Robert James announces police indictments

The situation:  Atlanta TV stations are at the DeKalb County courthouse, covering a news conference announcing the indictment of three police officers.  TV crews are parked directly in front of the courthouse, accessing the main entrance of the building to cover the story.

The scenario:  Following the news conference, a reporter at Station B conducts an interview on a sidewalk outside the courthouse.  The interviewee had nothing to do with the news conference.  Observing this, a reporter from Station L walks within earshot of the interview to listen in, presumably to discern whether he too should interview this particular individual.

The confrontation:  The reporter from Station B, who had apparently arranged the interview with the unknown individual, accuses the reporter from Station L of “stalking” her, and sternly invites the Station L reporter to take a hike.

The call:  Like the reporter at Station B, I might have resented the intrusion of the reporter from Station L.  Had the Station L reporter interrupted my interview, I would have barked.  However, Station B‘s reporter should have chosen another location to conduct a “secret” or “exclusive” interview, when she knew that her competitors were on the property covering the same event.

DeKalb County Courthouse

Station L‘s reporter walked on public property to overhear a conversation taking place in full view of the public and assembled news media.  Had I been the Station L reporter, I likely would have done the exact same thing.

Perhaps Station B‘s reporter knew she was being silly by accusing her competitor of “stalking” her– figuring it wouldn’t hurt to try to chase him away.  But “stalking” is a loaded allegation.  And given the fact that “stalking” is kind of part of the job description of TV reporters, the characterization was pretty laughable.  Given the location, she should have kept it to herself.

Who’s out of line?  The reporter at Station B blew up for no valid reason.  Next time, don’t do a “secret” interview within eyeshot of your competition.

Thanks for playing!

Who’s out of line?

Good news!  Today, this blog launches a service called Who’s Out of Line?  It’s a service nobody wants, and does no good whatsoever, designed to resolve the occasional disputes that arise in the field among competing TV news crews.  Because most TV news crews in the Atlanta market behave professionally and get along reasonably well, this service will appear irregularly at best.

Last week, there were a couple of unusual conflicts among competing TV crews in the Atlanta market.  I will mediate them ex post facto in this post, and another post tomorrow.   

Disclaimer:  My knowledge of these disputes is second-hand.  I’m leaving out names and TV stations.  Do I really know what I’m talking about?  Absolutely not!  Ready?  Let’s play!

Aimee Copeland

The situation:  TV stations are covering a meditation / prayer vigil in Carrollton on behalf of Aimee Copeland, a young woman who is fighting a life-threatening flesh-eating bacteria.  The vigil is indoors in a too-small room, and begins about 5pm — shortly before each station’s 6pm newscast.  The attendees arrive at the appointed hour, immediately take their positions and begin a semi-structured, mostly-silent vigil.  TV crews are awkwardly maneuvering in the tiny room, documenting the event.

The scenario:  A reporter for one station — Station X, we’ll call it — awkwardly requests an interview with one of the principals.  He whispers the request, pointing out that he is bumping up against a 6pm deadline.  It has the effect of interrupting the vigil, and is exacerbated by the principal loudly a) agreeing to the request, but b) proclaiming that “the media” is ruining the vigil.  Irritated, he invites the TV crews to immediately complete their interviews, so the group can resume the vigil uninterrupted.

The confrontation:   A reporter for another station — Station A, we’ll call it–  loudly admonishes the reporter at Station X in front of the group.  The reporter at Station A is working nightside, and has no 6pm obligation.  The reporter at Station A then follows the Station X reporter to his live truck, berating him for interrupting the vigil (which resumed following the interviews).

The call:   Unfortunately, TV folk routinely have to insert themselves into ongoing events in order to gather deadline information and other elements for their stories.  Usually, the events are big enough that the interruption of one participant doesn’t scotch the entire event.  In this case, the organizers of the event invited the news media to cover it.  The request for an interview shouldn’t have surprised the organizers.  The request, and the overreaction by the participant, made the interruption a bigger deal than it should have been.  The reporter at Station X had to do his job.

That said, the reporter at Station A was given a golden opportunity to do a bit of grandstanding, and he took advantage of it.  His competitor’s clunky behavior in a sensitive situation probably annoyed most of the participants.  The Station A reporter took an opportunity to appear to be sensitive, caring and respectful, a rare thing in local TV news.  His absence of an immediate deadline made that possible.  Yet, had the Station A reporter faced a 6pm deadline, he probably would have done the exact same thing the Station X reporter did.

I too might have been unable to resist the opportunity to grandstand. But I would have made the point, then stayed on the high road (and probably winked at the Station X reporter, because I would have respected the fact that his awkward situation could have easily been mine instead).  I certainly wouldn’t have followed the station X reporter to his truck, berating him while he was trying to make his deadline.

Who’s out of line?  The reporter from Station A should have kept his grandstanding down to a dull roar, then shut up and let it go.

Join us later in the week — maybe tomorrow — for another edition of Who’s Out of Line?!

Navelgazing into the future

Whenever I want a reality check about the future of my industry, local TV news, I’ll ask young people how they get their information.  Even the youngsters touring our newsroom or applying for internships will admit they rarely watch, and typically turn to the internet for their dose of current events.

But we ain’t dead yet.  And the writer of this piece — a twentysomething who became the number two manager in the newsroom at WXIA– thinks reports of our demise may be exaggerated.  I hope he’s right.

By Ben Mayer

A friend of mine often asks me, “What’s new with the water skiing squirrel? Did he rob a bank?” This is as cynical as it is naive, of course. Squirrels don’t have opposable thumbs. This is the ninth biggest news market in the country, not Medina, Ohio. Even if they did, they would probably have to hold a SWAT team at bay for a few hours before surrendering peacefully at 5:05 to make an evening rundown. Or maybe not.

But when I ask him how he found out about the Hemy Neuman case or the new Falcons stadium, he shrugs, “I just heard about it.” This is bad news for news barons. It is even worse for advertisers.

Doug Richards asked me to think aloud about the state of Atlanta news. It’s not like I haven’t before. I lay in bed at night wondering when I’m 65 and have a prostate the size of a squash ball will there still be a job for me? But it’s hard to think about your passion, your profession without sounding equal parts jaded, sanctimonious, and these days, fatalistic.

Five thoughts about local news:

1. We really need local news. Outlets are only as powerful as politicians and bureaucrats who consume them. We are only as relevant as the communities that watch us, read us, share us, tweet us. Traditional media outlets (which I extend to their new media arms) hold all the cards right now in Atlanta, with two notable exceptions. This will not always be the case.

2. The intertubes didn’t kill TV news. If you don’t believe me, ask 60 minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, Nightline, and MSNBC. They are all growing. They are all doing it without gas card giveaways and TV parlor tricks. As we say in the business, content is king.

3.  What makes you turn on a TV? What makes you turn on a PC? What makes you check your phone? If the answer to number 1 could be replaced by 2 and 3 it’s time to rethink news strategy. People pay $1,500 for televisions. They pay $200 for iPhones. They expect quality on the bigger screen and convenience on the smaller one.

4. Local news has to start giving people something worth watching. Every time someone changes the channel an anchorman gets his wings, hanging up a shabby blue blazer muttering, “this business has changed too much.” TMZ has justified their seat at the MSM dinner table with big breaks on Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson. What has your local news station done for you lately?

5. Social media isn’t a pyrrhic victory. Every time WAGA breaks an Eddie Long story, it raises the #failwhale from Twitter’s briny depths. That’s power, eyeballs, and viewership. And Social media hasn’t replaced news. It took Twitter to break the Trayvon Martin case. It took MSM to get people to do something about it.

Mayer concluded this with “amazing ending here!” but got distracted by his move to New York and never wrote the conclusion.  I kinda don’t think it needs one.

Mayer left WXIA in April to become a segment producer on Morning Joe at MSNBC.  He departed quite the beloved figure in our newsroom, a guy who is easily bright enough to succeed in any number of moneymaking industries that aren’t on the proverbial precipice, but opted to work in news anyway.  I’m proud to have been part of his illustrious career, and I’m gonna miss his… insight.