Monthly Archives: October 2013

Depends what you mean by “problem”

“Slavery wasn’t a problem in the beginning.”

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson

Did he really just say that?  He did.

My mind was getting blown by Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson.  He was speaking to his hometown Rotary Club Tuesday.  I had sought an interview with him, knowing he was opposed to moving from the Georgia Capitol grounds the statue of a white supremacist named Tom Watson.  Benton suggested we rendezvous at the Rotary Club meeting, where he was delivering a speech.  His topic:  The War Between the States.

The speech was a bonus, and Benton blew my mind when he said “slavery wasn’t a problem in the beginning.”  Clearly, slavery was a problem for every human being in bondage.

It seems like every day in the news business, there’s some gaffe that gets blown up out of proportion.  Outrage criscrosses the internet.  The gaffe-maker gets chased and either backtracks or explains.  Maybe the reporter or blogger who initially uncovers the quote makes a name for himself, or gets some kind of gold star on his refrigerator — or is the one who backtracks.

But they are frequently quotes taken out of context, like Rep. John Lewis’s interview with the Guardian about NSA leaker Edward Snowden.  The Guardian’s headline said Lewis “praises Snowden’s act of civil disobedience.”  Lewis never actually praised Snowden.  But the alleged gaffe became a brief sensation.

When Rep. Benton spoke, there was not a single non-white person in the room.  The remark drew no discernible reaction — except from me, when I grabbed my Iphone and switched on the audio recorder.

My mind reeled as I played back the quote in my brainpan.  But as the minutes passed, my mind became less blown as I analyzed the context.

Benton wasn’t arguing that slavery was OK.  He was saying that the issue of slavery didn’t present significant political problems during the birth of the Republic.  Benton had been a high school history teacher.  Sure, historians might argue with him about the degree to which slavery posed a political “problem.”  But the quote was more nuanced than it sounded coming out of Benton’s mouth.

It was arguably a gaffe.  Even if reported in context, the headline might have drawn some hits to my employer’s web site.

But the rest of his remarks were standard Sons of the Confederacy rhetoric.  I kept Benton’s  quote to myself.

Benton split hairs elsewhere in his speech.  Though he appeared to acknowledge that slavery was at the heart of southern secession, he argued that the south fought for the cause of freedom, not slavery.  This is a common argument used to downplay the broad reality of slavery’s role in the Civil War.  Many in the room appeared to share his view.

Benton is a guy who likes to decry “political correctness,” even if by doing so, he disregards the sensitivities of people who aren’t white.  He argued that the Watson statue should remain because he was wildly popular in the early 20th century — disregarding, of course, the blacks and Jews and Catholics he baited in order to become popular.

Our conversation grew animated when we talked about Eugene Talmadge, arguably as wretched a racial demagogue as any in Georgia history.  His statue also graces the Capitol grounds.  “Talmadge was the hero of the common man,” Benton said.  I suggested that non-white men probably found him to be less than heroic.

“You start digging up stuff on folks, and you’re gonna find something on just about everybody that somebody doesn’t like,” Benton said during our interview.

He could have been talking about his speech an hour earlier.

Photos not allowed

ajc bill campbellThere’s undoubtedly some sound business rationale behind the AJC’s decision to eliminate nearly half of its photo staff.

Everybody and their dog is carrying a camera these days.  The most talked-about images — the ones that are “trending” — tend to be self-shot.  Or from surveillance video.  Or from paparazzi stalking celebs.

Used to be that compelling photos helped to sell newspapers.  We all know how that’s trending.

So the AJC is saying that photos don’t matter as much as they used to, which means that it’s all but giving up on an essential element of newsgathering.

When history documents events, the photos often record the emotion of the moment.  The press photographer records scenes, while writers gather information that often overlook the broader scenery — or the isolated moments within.

When the AJC’s Joey Ivansco recorded the scrum that surrounded former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell’s March 2006 conviction in the above photo — which I saved for obvious reasons — I had no clue that the side image was remotely compelling.  The photo shows energy (and maybe a bit of confusion), contrasting the almost serene image of the mayor calmly listening to an undoubtedly convoluted question from yours truly.

The AJC ran the photo across the entire front page.  This weekend, a former AJC photog told me that there’s now an edict against such prominent photo placement.

Now, the AJC can continue to rely on reporters to competently shoot photos that aren’t especially challenging.  The newspaper can do screen-grabs of WSB-TV footage.  Thank goodness WSB isn’t thinning its photographer ranks.

And there’s always the stuff submitted from readers, nearly all of whom are carrying cameras these days.

But it doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.

Doughy Bowie

With Mrs. "Thin White Duke" LAF

With Mrs. “Thin White Duke” LAF

Suit from D&K warehouse, Memorial Drive.  Two for $100! (Eight years ago…)

Sax from daughter who yearned to play — until she actually had to learn how to do it.

Wife from DeKalb County, Georgia — who improv’d that hair color her ownself!.

The aged, not-so-thin white duke

One cold night in 1974, my mother and I made a point of watching the Dick Cavett show.  I watched because I was a borderline obsessive fan of the guest, David Bowie.  Mom watched because she was up late and wanted to try to understand the guy behind the music that continually blasted from my stereo in the basement of our house.

David+Bowie+BowiiieeeMom had learned to dislike the repetitious blues riff that characterized “Jean Genie,” arguably the signature song of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album.  But more than anything, she was amused that her mostly-normal teenage boy was drawn to this androgynous British weirdo.  So we settled in and watched.  It was the first extended interview I’d ever seen Bowie do.

To my surprise, Bowie had temporarily ditched rock n roll and had morphed into a coke-addled Philly soul singer, pushing a record he was about to release called Young Americans.   His fidgety, semi-responsive answers to Cavett’s questions were mostly puzzling and not the genius I’d expected.  He was a bit horrifying.  Mom found him utterly laughable.

And I thought:  When I’m in my fifties, I’m gonna march in a parade dressed as that guy.

Clark as Angus

Clark as Angus

Fast forward to October 19, 2013.  If you’re among the thousands of folks watching Atlanta’s most amusing annual parade, you’ll see this reporter in the Little 5 Points Halloween parade.  I’ll be dressed as David Bowie.  To the extent that the readership of this blog intersects with those attending the L5P Halloween festival, this is your heads up to come heckle me.

The hope is that you won’t be able to ID me, because I’ll be among an entire contingent of Bowies marching in the Stomp and Stammer float.  If you don’t know, Stomp and Stammer is the resilient local music magazine published and distributed monthly by Jeff Clark.  While the AJC and Creative Loafing have had issues that threatened their survival, S&S has kept delivering its modest, free monthly with no bankruptcy (to my knowledge) or layoffs (it’s Clark and some freelancers, best I can tell) or any moaning about how the internet has undermined print.  Despite the fact that I’ve never heard of most of the acts described in S&S, I read it every month just because it’s so damned amusing — and relentlessly upbeat and local.

Even when he’s clobbering an artist, Clark finds a bright side:

  • Wesley Cook must rank among the most unappetizing wussboy singer-songwriters I’ve heard in a while, like some diabolical combination of every college town frat bar scruffy-but-cute-dude-with-acoustic-guitar cliché on the planet. Heavy is the guy’s new six-song CD, and if you have a nice 19-year-old niece that’s outgrown the boy bands but finds actual rock ‘n’ roll too icky and unpleasant, here’s her fall semester orientation kit. He’s soooo deep and dreamy…but sensitive and approachable, too!

Whipping it

Whipping it

Another reason to love Stomp and Stammer:  For the past six years or so, Clark has assembled a float of his friends and other hangers-on to participate in the parade, more-or-less identically dressed.  First, it was the Ramones.  One year, it was Devo.  Another year, it was Angus Young, the shorts-and-tie wearing guitarist for AC/DC.

This year, Clark put out a call for a team of Bowies.

Bowie had many personae.  It would make sense, of course, for me to dress as the elderly 66-year old Bowie, but that wouldn’t be any fun.  The Labyrinth Bowie, I suspect will be a popular choice.  I’ll be a classic red-mullet glam Bowie — doughy and jowly, of course, which I’m carefully building into the costume for comic effect.M_DavidBowie_071613

Nearly forty years since that Dick Cavett interview, and I still listen to Bowie.  (I’m married to a woman who maintains that he actually produced relevant music since his Scary Monsters record in 1980.  She too will march Saturday.)  Mom still makes fun of Bowie — and who can blame her?  It’s easy to do.

See you Saturday.  Unless it’s raining, then forget it.  I’m too old for that shit.

The booming voice

It was fun competing against Ron Sailor, the TV reporter – turned – preacher who died last week at age 61. Sailor and I worked nightside, which meant we frequently ended up crowding around the same story. Sailor was always the loudest guy in the vicinity — not because he was a loudmouth. He just had a booming, bass voice that I heard nightly for years.

Ron Sailor - AJC photo

Ron Sailor – AJC photo

On numerous occasions, we’d find ourselves at the old APD Homicide Task Force office on Somerset  Terrace. There was plenty of room in front of the building, but photogs always liked to crowd competing reporters together into a tight space — a subtly sadistic twist exacerbated when Sailor was part of the equation. Not only was he loud, he was a man of some size. Because TV newscast producers are part of a grand media conspiracy, Sailor’s stories on WSB (and later WXIA), and mine on WAGA would frequently pop up at exactly the same time during the half-hour 11pm newscast.

This meant Sailor and I would start delivering our live reports at exactly the same time. It would take all the concentration I could muster to ignore his booming voice while I feebly attempted to make mine heard.

Once, Sailor and former mayor Andy Young spent a night or three on Atlanta’s streets, producing a report that sought to give insight into Atlanta’s homeless population. Young and Sailor donned skullies and thrift-store clothing and reported that they, too, were shunned or abused by folks downtown who’d mistaken them for homeless people.

I read about it in the AJC, and wished I’d done it. In 1996, I kinda did the same thing during the Olympics. It was a total ripoff of what Ron Sailor had done.

The last time I saw Sailor, I was knocking on his door because he’d become part of some unflattering story involving his finances; there had been allegations he had grifted some folk. We were giving Sailor celebrity treatment on a story that was otherwise really nobody’s business. I went to his door sans camera, unwilling to bum-rush the guy. He answered graciously, declined comment and we left.

Since then, I’d seen him do Wayfield Foods commercials and heard about his career as a preacher. I’d read about the issues his sons faced — one, as a disgraced former legislator, the other as a man convicted of murdering his girlfriend.

I was a green newcomer to Atlanta when I became Ron Sailor’s competitor. He was always friendly, willing to share his experience and seemed to know what he was doing. At age 61, he died too young.

Washington outsider

"Hi. I'm the guy with the box on his head."

“Hi. I’m the guy with the box on his head.”

You would think it would be easier to get members of Congress to talk to the friendly hometown TV reporter who’d made the trip to DC to see them.

As is much of my professional life, my DC trip last week was a lesson in humility.

My favorite encounters were the visits we’d made, unannounced, to Congressional offices in the Cannon and Rayburn House office buildings.

We entered the office of one Congressman, identified ourselves to the steely-eyed young man inside — and he immediately asked us to leave.

(This was much to the horror of the Rep’s press secretary, who materialized a few minutes later, invited us back in, offered us snacks and drinks and was exceedingly helpful throughout our visit.)

Steven Boissy, in the office of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA)

Stephen Boissy, in the office of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA)

Typically, our unannounced visits would yield a press secretary and a “send me an email,” something s/he’d already gotten, at least once, from our station in the previous 48 hours.  The emails would get acknowledged but almost never produced interview appointments without additional browbeating.

There were a few ambushes, a word that sounds more confrontational than it is.  Reps. Jack Kingston and David Scott ambled past us a couple of times and stopped to chat.  I stalked Rep. Rob Woodall in a Rules Committee meeting above the House chamber, after which he agreeably followed me to the camera Stephen Boissy had set up in a designated tripod zone.

Conversely, when I spotted Rep. John Barrow walking toward the Capitol, he barely acknowledged my introduction and request to stop and chat.

One of my biggest priorities was to talk to Rep. Tom Graves, a Tea Party-backed guy who’d become part of the core group leading the standoff.  Graves was busy, I’d been told.  But Boissy spotted him in a hallway just as we were trying to make deadline Wednesday.  I ran him down and asked him to talk with us the following day.  The next day, his press secretary made it happen.

A squatter finds a spot in the Cannon House office building

A squatter finds a spot in the Cannon House office building

Boissy and I had no Capitol Hill office, so we schlepped a TVU backpack (a portable live unit that uses cell phone signals to send a TV picture) and my bulky Dell laptop everywhere we went, plus camera gear and tripod.  We exploited electrical outlets found in hallways and at a camera “drop” site outside the Capitol, and edited video on the laptop wherever we could find a spot.

When we visited Graves at his office, his staff agreed to allow us to leave the laptop and TVU in his office temporarily.  We followed Graves to the Capitol, where he’d had a meeting scheduled with Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Then we talked with a couple of other Congressmen and then — Boissy and I heard gunfire.  The cops freaked.  We were ordered off the Capitol property, which went on lockdown.  The station called.  “Can you go live?”

Well — no.  We left the TVU in Tom Graves’ office, and now the congressional office buildings are on lockdown.

Another lesson learned, I guess.