For one brief, exciting moment last week, I was a walk-on member of the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.
It was exhilarating. It was awkward.
I needed to talk to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about the Peachtree Road Race. My station, WXIA, had gotten results Monday morning from a scientific poll which asked, among other things, about the public’s desire to see increased security at the Peachtree.
Reed has a 10:30 meeting with the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, somebody said. Off I went with Mike Zakel.
Neither of us was a member of the AABJ. Though both of us may be categorized as “journalist,” and we both gather news in Atlanta, we appeared to lack the third key qualification of membership.
We arrived in the lobby of the mayor’s office. The receptionist pointed to a door off the lobby. “They’re in there,” she said.
“Is Kasim in there?” I asked. She answered affirmatively. It was 10:33 am. Reed is famously punctual, unlike me.
I opened the door. The first person I identified was Mo Diggs, the WAGA reporter who has spent decades rattling cages around city hall. Scanning the conference room table, I recognized at least two AJC reporters. The mayor was at the head of the table, speaking informally. There were no notebooks on the table. It was clearly an off-the-record chat.
There were about a dozen people in the room. All of them appeared to have the key AABJ qualification that I lacked.
I closed the door behind me and sat at a chair along a wall behind the table. If Mo Diggs was in the room, then by gosh, I was gonna be there too.
My eyes met with those of Sonji Jacobs Dade, Reed’s communications director. She was seated next to the mayor. Sonji has a lovely smile, and she directed it toward me. But the smile and the gaze lingered. I could detect wheels turning in her head.
I sat and listened. Act like you belong there is a rule that often guides me in the news biz.
It took about three minutes for Sonji to rise from her seat. She and Eric Sturgis, the workhorse AJC reporter and president of the AABJ, walked toward me. They led me out of the conference room.
This is a members-only event for the AABJ, Sonji started. The mayor’s office put this together at their request. It’s a private meeting. This isn’t a press conference. Though she wasn’t kicking me out, she appeared to be laying the factual groundwork to convince me that I belonged outside.
“So you’ve checked the membership credentials of everybody in the room?” I asked.
I’m pretty sure everybody in there is a member, she answered.
“How do you know I’m not a member?” I asked. There was an awkward pause.
Sonji regrouped. Here’s the deal. There are ground rules. The first part of the meeting is off-the-record. Midway into the meeting, we’ll open it up for on-the-record questions. I just want to make sure you’re aware of the ground rules and that you’ll abide by them.
“Works for me,” I said. We returned to the room. I took my seat against the wall. I also took the opportunity to imagine myself in the shoes of Sonji and Sturgis. Reed has private meetings all day long. This was, admittedly, a gray area. On one hand, they were generous for allowing me to crash their private meeting. On the other hand, I’d kind of backed them into an uncomfortable corner.
That afternoon, I sent Sonji an email acknowledging the awkwardness of the encounter, and thanking her for handling it as well as one could have hoped.
Later in the week, I saw Mo Diggs at another story. When I worked at WAGA, Diggs’ cubicle was two seats from mine. “I need you to sponsor my membership in the AABJ,” I told him.
He laughed. “Oh, I’m not a member either.”