At 6:02pm Friday, I found myself responsible for an on-air gaffe that had understandably outraged some viewers of WXIA-TV. It was an embarrassing conclusion to a day that had been rough from the get-go.
The story was about the arrest of Creflo Dollar, pastor of the World Changers megachurch. The gaffe was that my story showed an image of Bishop Eddie Long when identifying Dollar at the top of the piece. My mistake was failing to view the piece, which was edited by an experienced and trusted coworker, before it aired.
One cannot overstate the seriousness of the gaffe. Both pastors, Dollar and Long, are prominent African American megachurch preachers in metro Atlanta. Long was in the news for months for allegedly having intimate relations with young men at his church. Long was never arrested, but the scandal rocked his church. Dollar was arrested for a one-time domestic violence incident at his home, concluding a confrontation with his teenage daughter.
Transposing their images was unintentional yet unforgivable. It feeds into longstanding racial distrust, and notions that white folks have trouble distinguishing black folks from one another.
At 11 am or so Friday, WSB-TV tweeted that Dollar had been arrested on the family violence charge. Tom Jones broke the story. I’ve become an admirer of Jones’ work over the last decade or so. He’s been rattling cages in Clayton and Fayette Counties on a daily basis for years, and I’m not surprised he learned of Dollar’s arrest before anybody else. Jones works out of a live truck every day in an unglamorous but news-packed Atlanta suburb, and breaks stories in WSB’s A-block regularly.
(Jones is also a tough SOB. Following his near-death experience in a live truck, he showed up for work the next day.)
Jones and a photographer were there when Dollar exited the Fayette County jail. The raw video shows Jones respectfully but persistently questioning a mostly silent Dollar as he walked from the jail entrance to a waiting Mercedes. It was, to use an insider phrase when referring to competitive newsgathering, “a nice lick.” Nobody else had it.
About ten years ago, I remember attending an Emmy awards ceremony. I recall hearing a half-dozen or so Emmy winners thanking God and Pastor Creflo Dollar during their acceptance speeches. Dollar has his share of admirers in the news media.
Following the WSB tweet, a coworker and I headed toward Fayette County. “Would you know Creflo Dollar if he walked past you?” I asked him. We both agreed neither of us would recognize him. Later that day, I went to the World Changers web site and pulled some images of Dollar. We had also pulled some file video of a story about a federal investigation into megachurches. That video included combined images of Dollar and Bishop Long. I’m pretty sure that piece of file video was the source of our mistake.
I was standing in front of Dollar’s church, where I introduced the pretaped piece we’d produced. A few seconds after I tossed to the piece, a producer’s voice in my earpiece told me that we’d used the image of Long while referring to Dollar. (I couldn’t see the piece during my live shot.)
Her voice had a tone of disappointment and disbelief, and I was stunned. When I appeared again at the end of the piece, I said something like “the image at the top of the piece should have been an image of Pastor Dollar.” I acknowledged the error but probably should have expressed regret for it.
It certainly would have been genuine. It was a humbling day from the start, and I’d only made it worse.
It was my responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the story before it aired. The error was offensive, and I’m very sorry I made it.