Monthly Archives: December 2013

The collaborator

One of Atlanta’s best TV reporters covered the funeral of Nelson Mandela — yet never once appeared on-air as part of his station’s coverage.

That’s one way to look at Jon Shirek’s trip to South Africa this month.

The other way to view it, as photographer Stephen Boissy related over lunch Christmas Eve (we shared the ridiculous beef rib at Fox Bros. BBQ) is that Shirek played a role in WXIA’s coverage that went beyond “essential.”

“Couldn’t have done it without him,” Boissy kept saying.

Shirek and Boissy are the two guys in the back.

Derek McGinty of WUSA is on the left.  Brenda Wiood of WXIA is next to him.  Shirek is behind Wood.  Boissy is next to Shirek, wearing sunglasses.  WUSA photog Kevin King is in sunglasses on the far right.  The other men are South African drivers hired to work with the crews..

Shirek has been a clever and elegant on-air presence at WXIA since the Carter administration. He “volunteered” to become a one-man-band / multimedia journalist sometime in 2008.

When WXIA decided to cover Mandela’s funeral, Shirek got a phone call asking if his passport was current — and could he leave the next day?  From the get-go, Shirek says his role was “coordinating producer,” which meant he was a logistics and editorial wrangler for anchor / photog teams from Gannett properties WXIA and WUSA, Washington DC.

Both stations expected to do extensive live coverage in newscasts around the clock.  “I wanted a coordinating producer who understands news crews travel issues, can shoot and edit and can write,” Ellen Crooke, our boss, wrote me in an email.

Who better than a smart, experienced one-man-band?

Shirek not only had the hands-on skills to handle those issues, but he’s also one of the calmest individuals in the western hemisphere.  I’m convinced the man’s pulse never gets above 50 bpm.

It became Shirek’s business to solve equations:  How to cover events, at times that often overlapped with live shots (11:30am to 2pm in Pretoria equals 4:30am to 7am in Atlanta); sorting the elements gathered by three photogs (including Shirek); and figuring out how to fold them into both stations’ coverage.

And– how to get credentials; where can they do live shots; how will they get around in an unfamiliar city; and what’s the deadline exit strategy for covering thick crowds of mourners?

“Brenda (Wood) and Stephen and Ellen suggested during that week that I do my own stories, too, if possible, and I would have,” Shirek wrote me in an email.  “But I could see that the ‘fifth person’ role was working out well for our enterprise, and it was all-consuming; and, again, I was glad I got to be part of it.”

The role clearly demanded journalistic smarts, plus the technical skills of a photog / editor.  For an on-camera guy like Shirek, it also demanded an uncommon selflessness.  Throw a microphone in the air, and many TV reporters would leap like Bill Russell to grab it.  Shirek is not one of those guys.

“Finding important stories and telling them well — on or off camera, by yourself or as part of a team — is always the mission, the goal,” Shirek wrote.

Shirek stresses that all five of them carried their own weight and then some, handling editorial and logistics issues, while largely setting aside issues like proper meals and a decent night’s sleep.   It sounds like they experienced an extraordinary and exhausting news adventure. 

One-man-bands became vogue in some big TV markets because of their cost savings.  In this instance, Shirek ably expanded the definition — and was probably the most qualified guy in the building to do what he did.

Economy with words

In this post, the aging blogger begins with a well-worn 80s-era nostalgia trip, when newsrooms rattled with teletypes, teams of production people ripped and sorted ten-pack script paper, and reporters like Paul Yates pounded cigarettes in the cubicle adjacent to yours. 1510602_10201164375574681_819312756_n

When the late Jack Frazier bought me a plane ticket in 1986 to visit Atlanta and give his TV station a look-see, I spent an hour of my first day in the city in a hotel room, watching the 6pm news.

To a kid somewhat fresh out of Omaha, the newscast was a big market thing of beauty, brimming with solid content.  At the time, Frazier’s station was more-or-less in a dogfight with WSB and WXIA as Supreme Leader of the Nielsen and (then) Arbitron ratings in Atlanta news.

I distinctly remember seeing a piece by a reporter named Paul Yates.  He had the booming broadcast-y pipes of a network guy.  I don’t remember the subject matter, but I do remember the writing.  It had clarity and brevity and I was kind of awestruck.  If these people hire me, I remember thinking, I’m gonna have to up my writing game to keep up with this guy.

Ypaul_yatesates wasn’t the only reporter at WAGA that impressed me, but he (and Mo Diggs and Lisa Clark) were the ones I remember noting during that initial viewing.  (Diggs had done a piece on some kind of breaking-news fire or other mishap, and folded it expertly into a city hall story.  Clark delivered a smart and well-written entertainment segment.)

Yates capped a 40 year career at WAGA last week.  He exited college in 1973, got a job at WAGA and stayed 40 years.  15 or so years into his career there, management decided to make the building smoke free.  Yates gave up cigarettes and never wavered afterward.

And he never wavered from the thing that made him special:  Giving clarity to often complex stories.  As Mindy Larcom, the I-team producer, wrote on Facebook:  “Paul has an enviable economy with words.”

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Yates retired on the same day as Ira Spradlin, the WAGA photog I’ve previously lauded on this site. Spradlin was a newsman at least as much as he was “just” a photographer.  He knew Georgia and its politics better than the people riding shotgun in his live truck — Yates arguably being the notable exception.

Spradlin had announced his retirement nearly a year ago.  Yates’ finale came a bit more suddenly.  Both of them made WAGA a better place to work.

Best wishes to both men.  And thanks for making me up my game.

Alternating current

The Chamblee police department is not very happy with me right now.  Their officers made the decision to produce an arrest warrant for Kaveh Kamooneh, the guy who helped himself to an electric outlet at a public school to juice up his electric car.  Tuesday, the Chamblee PD did the right thing and agreed to an interview about the case.  A day later, the chief had apparently shut down subsequent interviews — and spent some quality time on the phone with my boss, griping about my coverage of the story.

Kaveh Kamooneh and his electric car

Kaveh Kamooneh and his electric car

The story itself dropped in my lap courtesy of the lovely Lea-Anne Jackson, the WXIA promotions chica whom I first knew in the early ’90s as a WAGA intern.  Kamooneh is her friend and neighbor.  It was one of those stories which, when pitched in the editorial meeting, drew a collective gasp from coworkers — one of my favorite noises in the world.  (My least favorite noise is the rippling murmer of “oh yeah, I heard about that too” or “we did that last night” following what you thought was a unique story pitch.)

As I stood in Kamooneh’s driveway interviewing him in front of his Nissan Leaf, I got a call-back from Sgt. Ernesto Ford of Chamblee PD.  Ford is a classic professional cop.  He made himself readily available and gave no-bullshit answers to the reasonable questions he’d undoubtedly expected on this case.  His bottom line:  The guy was a thief, and the department did the right thing getting him thrown in jail.

Ford made some points that did not get into my story, causing the blowback from his boss to my boss.

Sgt. Ernesto Ford

Sgt. Ernesto Ford

1.  Ford said Kamooneh was “uncooperative” during his initial encounter with the officer who observed Kamooneh’s Nissan Leaf plugged into the school outlet.

Kamooneh had volunteered to me that he had questioned the cop that he spotted inside his unlocked and empty car, rifling through his glove compartment.  When the cop suggested a theft charge was pending, Kamooneh told me that he strongly questioned the appropriateness of such a charge.  Kamooneh says he also demanded the cop’s name and badge number, and claimed the cop refused to cleanly explain why he entered Kamooneh’s vehicle (Kamooneh says he was fifty feet away at the tennis court when the cop drove up).

So in other words, Kamooneh sassed the cop.  Ford initially raised this as an aggravating circumstance that contributed to the decision to arrest him.  But on further questioning, Ford backed away.  The “theft” stood on its own, he said.

So I left this out of my 90 second story.  I left out Kamooneh’s allegation of police misbehavior, and the cop’s allegation that Kamooneh’s was “uncooperative.”  Such allegations often fly, on both sides, when there’s a criminal investigation.  It often makes sense for a guy like me to let them editorially cancel each other out– especially when they cloud the examination of the issue of the theft charge.

2.  Ford said Kamooneh had been previously warned by school personnel to stay off the tennis court.

When Ford mentioned this in our interview, my follow-up question was pretty simple:  How is that relevant to your decision to seek an arrest warrant and put the guy in jail for swiping a few pennies worth of electricity?  Ford’s answer was an admission that it ultimately didn’t matter.  The theft allegation stood on its own.

So I also excluded this tidbit from my 90 second story.  (Kamooneh subsequently said this “warning” was a complete fabrication.)

Apparently, Chamblee PD felt a bit of heat from its treatment of Kamooneh, who spent 15 hours in jail for stealing what Georgia Power estimated to be four cents worth of electricity.  The story became a bit of a sensation.  11Alive’s web story had 340 comments on it as of December 9.

Many of those commenting argued that a theft is a theft.  Sgt. Ford made that argument eloquently, and my story allowed him to do it — while answering reasonable questions that any person might want answered about such a case.

So my message to Chamblee PD would be:  Love you guys.  Love me some hardworking, underpaid and oft-challenged law enforcement personnel.  I’ve spent a career covering their heroics and occasional missteps.  Maybe you’ve had second thoughts about your treatment of this case; if so, say so.  But don’t blame Sgt. Ford for conducting an honest interview.  And don’t blame me for covering the story, and excluding the stuff that your own guy said was not particularly relevant to the arrest.

And when Colbert hits you up for an interview, say yes.