Monthly Archives: August 2013

The 16 month story

“We’d like to see you do some investigative reporting.”

I heard those words, in various forms from various higher-ups in my newsroom several times in early 2012.

Sandy Reed shows us around Bethany Place

Sandy Reed shows us around Bethany Place

Around that time, I’d gotten a tip about a privately run women’s shelter in Cherokee County called Bethany Place.  The tipster put me in touch with a former resident who’d recently “escaped” with her daughter.  The former resident described the shelter as a cult-like labor camp.  She said its residents, desperate from lives wracked by substance abuse or domestic abuse, were unable to escape the shelter once they moved in.  The place was run by a strong-willed woman who claimed to have the authority of God himself.

The story was unlike any I’d ever done and few I’d seen or read.  This may help explain why it took me sixteen frustrating months to get it on the air.

In May 2012, I interviewed two former residents on camera.  Both of them had to call 911 in order to leave the shelter, escorted out by Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies.

One of the whistleblowers was depicted on the shelter’s web site as a Bethany Place success story.  The other had stayed there eight years and had become a trusted insider.  Both had a lot of credibility.

I also interviewed the founder and director of the shelter, a fiery woman named Sandy Reed.  While she claimed the former residents were liars, she admitted to much of the substance of what they said.  Yes, the residents work hard to maintain the shelter; yes, their mail and phone calls are monitored, to keep them away from the toxic influences that put them in the shelter in the first place; yes, we take whatever cash they have.  Why shouldn’t the residents help pay the shelter’s expenses?  We’re a non-profit.

And no, we don’t give the residents an exit strategy.  That’s their business.  They’re grown women.  They can figure it out.

And yes, God lives inside of me.  I speak to the residents with His authority.  You got a problem with that?

Five former residents of Bethany Place

Five former residents of Bethany Place

Between May and October 2012, I talked by phone or on camera with more than a dozen former residents.  Their stories were virtually in lockstep, describing Reed as a bully and her shelter as a house of horrors.  Yet most had entered voluntarily.  And as Reed said many times, there was no razor wire or fences surrounding the facility.  Any resident could walk away from the rural facility– though they’d have no cash, no vehicle and no place else to go.

I’d interviewed Reed twice.  She was a compelling on-camera presence.

But so were the women who’d lived in her shelter under her rules.  By summer, I’d gathered five of them on a Sunday afternoon in a hotel conference room and interviewed them as a group.

It became a story with two distinct and credible viewpoints.  Reed’s side had the backing of Cherokee County’s retiring District Attorney, Gary Moss.  He was a board member.  Former residents said Reed would cite Moss’s presence on the board, and the backing of Sheriff Roger Garrison, to keep them in line.

The former residents’ viewpoint had sheer numbers and consistent themes:  This place isn’t the benevolent, loving institution that its 25 year reputation suggests.

Between October 2012 and August 2013, when it finally aired, the story stalled.  It got reviewed, again and again, by Gannett’s legal team and by my superiors.  It probably didn’t help that the first drafts of my script would have filled twenty minutes of TV time.  I rewrote it at least a half dozen times.

The story lacked some classic investigative-reporting elements.  There was no misspent government money.  There was almost no paper trail at all — except for the police reports of the 911 calls.

In the meantime, my whistleblowing former residents were all why’s it taking you so long to get this story on TV? It was a reasonable question.  I never had a good answer.  It was becoming the most frustrating journalistic experience of my career.

I broke the logjam after getting Jaye Watson to analyze my script.  One morning, she spent an hour rewriting it by restructuring the existing story and flipping some of the elements.  My boss, who understandably loves Watson’s writing, suddenly liked my script much better.

After months in the hopper, and one last legal run-through, the station scheduled it to run on a Friday night.  The piece was six minutes long.  It concluded with some speculation about where the former residents, and yours truly, might end up in the afterlife.

Now the question is whether I can produce a follow-up that takes less than 16 months to produce.

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I was fired by a legend

That's my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

That’s my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

Item:  WAGA reporter Justin Gray is leaving the station to work for Cox’s Washington DC bureau.  What follows is a cold war-era cautionary tale about my sad experience in DC.

It was the mid-80s.  Back then, media companies big and small had DC bureaus for their local TV news operations across America:  Jefferson Pilot, Gannett, Hearst, Storer, Cox.  Most of them were located in offices at 400 North Capitol, across from Union Station and overlooking the dome itself.

Gannett hired me, then fired me within six months.  It was a head spinning adventure.

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The guy who hired and fired me was the nicest guy in the world.  Jack Hurley had been a news director at WXIA.  His most recent work made him a respected honcho at the Newseum.  “You got fired by a legend at Gannett!” I heard as I re-told the story when WXIA hired me.

When he ran Gannett’s DC bureau, Hurley had parlayed it into an outfit that traveled the world to cover stories, then spent time between trips covering the minutiae of Washington.  Whenever the Minneapolis congressman, James Oberstar, held a hearing of his transportation subcommittee, we covered it for KARE.  Whenever Sen. Gary Hart belched, we covered it for KUSA.  We went to all of Sam Nunn’s pressers for WXIA.

Anyway — I found it a bit stifling and predictable.  At age 27, I thought I had a better idea.  Can we enterprise some stories, please?  Maybe do some investigative stuff?  Hurley let me stomp around the Capitol a wee bit but kept the leash very, very short.  Whatever I came back with failed to impress, apparently.

It didn’t help that I was, at that stage of my career, a poor performer in live shots.  It took me many more years to get somewhat comfortable delivering live utterances on TV.  And in that job, I was constantly concluding the day with a 7:15 pm live shot to a midwestern station– usually about a hearing or a presser that had bored me to death.

So I became a liability.  Hurley warned me I was in a tailspin.  I couldn’t pull out.  With the blessing of his corporate VP, he fired me.  It was the only time I’d been fired from a job, unless you count the time Morrisville, PA pizza legend Spike Maruca fired me from his restaurant for allegedly smoking weed out back with the cook.  (At age 15, the accused denied the allegation.)

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest awards the “fuquewad of the week” on the white board

It took me three months to land another job, and the new job at a freelance bureau– also at 400 North Capitol — paid me 40 percent less than the Gannett job.  Fortunately, my boss there was amazing.  Aside from my current boss, the lovely Ellen Crooke, Ken Vest remains my favorite boss ever.

And when I told Vest four months later that WAGA had offered me work in Atlanta, he said:  For the love of God, son, get out of DC while you still can!

I don’t regret working in DC.  I lived in a great city.  I had a handful of cool experiences.  Before my situation there soured, Gannett’s DC bureau sent me to Europe to produce three stories over a languid ten day period.

But I was in over my head and it nearly killed my career.

I made a point of disclosing my Gannett work history before WXIA hired me.  I never fully understood why Hurley fired me, and had hoped the company’s personnel records would shed some light.  But the records are in paper form in a warehouse somewhere, apparently.  The company, to its credit, made no heroic effort to find them.  My skeletons stayed closeted.

I hear Cox’s DC bureau is more about enterprise / investigative work, and less about covering hearings and pressers.  So I wish my friend Justin lots o’ luck.  I hope DC bureau work is a lot different now.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House.  My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House. My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.

Trending on Twitter

For centuries, the news business largely made editorial decisions based on the instincts of the professionals who ran news organizations.  This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds.  Stories that were topical and / or interesting and / or impactful made it into the newspaper or on TV.  The instinct was:  If it smells like news, run it.

Often, we barely knew which stories actually touched people.  We just kinda had to guess.

Fig. 1: Broccoli

Fig. 1: Broccoli

We don’t have to do that anymore.  Each hour, we can analyze the internet for topics that are “trending.”   We can analyze our web sites — and those of our competitors, I suppose, though I don’t know if anyone actually does that — for stories that are “most viewed” or “most popular.”  We can read comments on web sites and try to use them to gauge how deeply the stories touch viewers.

It’s a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing, I suppose, for sites like Buzzfeed.  It panders to the audience / gives the readers what they want with an endless menu of lists and coverage of Nicki Minaj, whose name seems to constantly appear whenever I hear somebody describe what words or phrases are “trending” on the web.

TV stations are also highly inclined to give viewers what they want, especially given the erosion of viewership over the last decade.

Fig. 2: Minaj

Fig. 2: Minaj

The question is whether viewers want their TV stations to pander to them by juicing up coverage of sugary stories that get the most clicks — or whether viewers want their news diet to include broccoli and spinach and other non-sweets.  Traditionally, the answer — based on instinct and no small amount of audience research — is both.  Audiences will tell researchers they want to tune in to see the broad spectrum of news items.  But a prime-time tease — the ten-second spot run during “The Voice” or “American Idol” promoting the upcoming newscast — will likely select a topic more sugar-based and less broccoli-based, to keep viewers from clicking elsewhere.

I’m an old guy who has grown accustomed to these web-based sources of instant feedback.  If a story I’ve done is on the “most popular” list on our site, I will find a dark place in the newsroom and contort myself to deliver ample pats on mine own back.  Conversely, if my story doesn’t make the list — which is far more frequently the case — I will take comfort in knowing that I’m not pandering to the viewers.

Meanwhile — here’s an experiment.  On the day I posted “Tell it to the Judge” a week ago, this site got a modest 367 hits.  As I post this Monday morning, the counter to the right (scroll to the bottom where it says “blog stats”) says this blog has had 769,780 hits since its 2008 inception.

Now that the phrase “nicki minaj” appears in this post (twice!), let’s see how that number spikes today.

Tell it to the judge

Judge Gregory Adams is bored by WXIA's Doug Richards and WSB photographer Tony Light.

Judge Gregory Adams is bored by WXIA’s Doug Richards and WSB photographer Tony Light.

“I’d like to see the representatives of the news media at the bench now.” The reporter from WXIA and the photog from WSB marched forward.  “You’re going to jail!” whispered one of the lawyers as we passed the defense table.

“Why are you treating the perjury trial of Andrea Sneiderman like it’s the trial of the century?”

Judge Gregory Adams didn’t actually ask this question.  But it’s more interesting than the one he actually asked.  Here are four answers.  As if you didn’t already know.

The love triangle.  Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t.  But the admitted killer, Hemy Neuman, was clearly sweet on his victim’s wife.  She’s now accused of covering up for him.

The defendant’s testimony.  Her testimony in Neuman’s trial was remarkable.  She may be a grieving widow, victimized by an obsessed coworker.  But her account of events was contradicted just enough to raise questions.  This trial will be viewed through the prism of that testimony.  Her attorneys won’t let her anywhere near the witness stand again.

The dropped murder charges.  The prosecution lost its nerve, dropping the biggest charge against the defendant at the last minute.  How strong is the remaining case?   As sheer spectacle, the DA is now as much under the spotlight as the defendant.

It’s August.  It’s usually a slow month in the news biz.  But not this August.  Thank you, Judge Adams, for your scheduling — and for not sending T. Light and me to the lockup.