Monthly Archives: February 2014

Meaningless

mean·ing·less

[mee-ning-lis] adjective

1. without meaning, significance, purpose, or value; purposeless; insignificant: a meaningless reply; a meaningless existence.

2. some other definition because of rampant misuse.

I heard this come out of a TV during local coverage of this month’s Georgia ice storm:  The crews were literally a Godsend for those who’ve been without power.

Which meant one of two things:  Either this reporter buried the lead, and had literally found proof of the existence of God (and perhaps overlooked an opportunity for a rare, on-the-record interview with the Big Guy); or he had misused the word “literally.”head-explode

Pondering both possibilities, my head literally exploded.

Except — it hadn’t.  Because it turns out that according to Google, Merriam-Webster and Macmillian dictionaries, “literally” no longer literally means “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy”  The word now includes the “informal” definition so often misused by TV reporters and anchors and children of all ages.

Dictionary.com  includes a “usage note” in its definition, explaining how the word is “widely used as an intensifier” that “contradicts the earlier meaning.”  In that spirit, it adds the crowd-pleasing “informal” definition: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.”

Which means that there is no longer a word in English that literally means “literally.”  Except for the word that has a definition that literally contradicts itself.

Certainly, English has its quirks.  Why does the word “invaluable” exist, with the same meaning as its linguistic sibling “valuable”?

But “literally” isn’t a quirk, it’s a cause.  Its misuse / overuse has been the subject of parodies and overbearing, opinionated Bud Veazey usage memos.  It new definition is linguistic capitulation, a Chamberlainesque concession to the higher power of the babble and hyperbole of the masses to which we now bow down and call “trending.”

I want to continue to insist on the correct usage of a word for which there is literally no synonym.  The fact that there are now four or more references to which the misuser can point — and correctly tell me that I’m the one who’s wrong — is upsetting from my perch, literally atop a very high horse.

I want to be able to snicker when I hear, as I did during the anointment of Pope Francis, that “Catholics were literally glued to their TVs.”  I did more than snicker when I heard that from an Atlanta TV reporter.  My head literally exploded.

But then, I literally reassembled it.  Turns out that an exploding head isn’t literally the end of the world.

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Holiday sampler

It’s Presidents Day.  For most of you, it marks the start of a shortened work week.  Mine will be a six-day work week.  My coworkers will experience the same thing.  This will be the second of three six-day work weeks for us.

It’s been foreordained for months.  WXIA is carrying the winter Olympics, a wildly popular TV event.  Our news operation gets a spike in viewership whenever the Olympics airs.  Erego, our staff is asked to bust its hump to show these viewers what we can do.

Paul Crawley and a sheet of ice

Paul Crawley and a sheet of ice

The timing of this particular six-day work week is noteworthy (actually, “brutal” is the correct word), given the workload of the previous week.  For most of last week, much of our staff worked 12-18 hour days and never went home because of the round-the-clock coverage we gave to the ice storm that struck north Georgia.  I spent two nights away from the family and sweet-talked my way out of a third.

It really struck me when I turned on the TV Sunday and saw Paul Crawley covering some sort of mayhem.  Crawley was an animal during our 24 hour coverage; it seemed like he was on TV constantly, describing ad infinitum the snow and ice he encountered in Cobb County on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Crawley got a one-day weekend after that, like the rest of us.

So here’s why I’m not complaining.

My workplace is in a dogfight to remain competitive and relevant and to win the hearts and minds of viewers and web users as news consumption habits change.

This is further aggravated by the fact that one Atlanta TV station, WSB, has been wildly successful at all-but cornering the market and hoarding the ratings.  To its credit, WSB appears to have plowed its profits back into its news operation.  They’ve hired talented staff.  They pay them well.  They have lots of up-to-date gear, and they keep it in good working order.  Despite some hubris that comes with being at the top of the heap, they do good work and are a formidable presence.

During the Olympics, many of their viewers keep their TVs somewhat locked on WXIA.  When our newscast shows up following Olympic coverage, our job is to keep those viewers’ brains from firing the synapses required to pick up their clickers and switch the channel or shut down the TV set.

The overnight ratings show that we are somewhat successful in this venture.  The goal is to seduce those viewers into enjoying a fulfilling, long-term relationship with our news operation.

We’ve tried this previously.  We had the same ratings spikes during the 2012 summer Olympics.  When the games ended, our gains were largely temporary.

So why do it again?  Because we can’t afford not to.  Plus, our product is worth showcasing.  There’s no better newsman in town than Paul Crawley.  It’s high time some of those habitual WSB viewers, watching WXIA on a Sunday, noticed that.

The dogfight to which I referred earlier is quite real.   Behind WSB, there are three other stations clumped together, stepping on each other’s heads to try to become the most viable alternative.  The one that fails most could become the first local news operation in town to just go away completely.

Crawley's "storm chaser" is the one on the right.

WXIA’s “storm chaser” is the one on the right.

My boss, Ellen Crooke, has been struggling for six years to make WXIA the top alternative to WSB.  She is sharp, energetic and creative and can be a little off-the-wall.  She is pursuing this goal with one hand tied behind her back; her budget is a fraction of WSB’s, and she can’t do a damned thing about that.

Yet she doesn’t give up — which would be easy to do, given the stubbornness of Atlanta news viewers to stick with WSB.

So when there are fresh eyeballs glued to WXIA, and she asks me to work a bit harder, my response is:  Yes ma’am.  It’s not just because I need to stay in her good graces.  It’s because I want my employer to survive.  If it could also thrive, that would be a nice bonus.

Here’s hoping you’re enjoying your Presidents Day holiday, and WXIA’s Olympics coverage.  And here’s hoping you’ll stick around for the A-block of our newscast.  You might actually like what you see.  And change your viewing habits, already!  Geez.

The airline publicist

Bill Liss, airline PR guy

Bill Liss, airline PR guy

Before he was a newsman, Bill Liss was a PR guy.  This is a rare thing.  Many PR folks start their careers in the news biz — then flee to (what they hope will be) the 9 to 5 world of public relations.  Liss, who has been a reporter at WXIA since 1989, got his first job at Trans World Airlines as a publicist in New York.  It was the mid 1960s.

“I got a call one day from the senior vice president for public affairs at the airline, who said, ‘We’ve got the Beatles coming to the United States. We want you to handle it. And I sort of said, ‘well why not?'” Liss recalls.

“It was an intriguing phenomenon at that point to me,” Liss says. He was a jazz fan in the 1960s.

Bill Liss, WXIA

Bill Liss, WXIA

Liss flew to London where he said he got acquainted with the pop group that had first appeared in America one year earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show. While in London, Liss said says he spent some time with the band and its manager, Brian Epstein. Then they boarded a Boeing 707 for the flight back to New York.

“We had a great time. It was all first name basis, back and forth, and just had a very nice experience,” Liss says.

“But also part of my job was to keep an eye on them and make sure that they didn’t go crazy on the plane because… it was a commercial flight. It was a regular commercial flight.” Liss says there were Beatles fans in the coach section of the aircraft, mostly women, who’d booked travel once they learned the Beatles would be on that flight.

Liss recalled his transatlantic flight with the Beatles in a story I produced Friday on 11Alive.  You can see the video or read the text here.

When they landed, a photographer recorded the Beatles deplaning at Kennedy Airport. The photo shows Liss is at the top of the ramp stairs holding a camera — documenting it from above.

“Which, at least, it’s proof that I was there,” Liss said.

I swiped much of this text from the story I posted on 11Alive.com

Liss is the guy with the camera behind the flight attendant at the top of the stairs.

Liss is the guy with the camera behind the flight attendant at the top of the stairs.

Finger pointing

AJC photo by Ben Gray

AJC photo by Ben Gray

On behalf of the Atlanta media, I’d like to thank you for not blaming us for the slow response to the Tuesday storm we’ll call Gridlockalypse 2014.  Because one could argue that you could.

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA's 4am news Tuesday

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA’s 4am news Tuesday

No, the blame rests with the government officials who failed to heed the hue and cry we raised Tuesday morning, when the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning at 3:39am.

That’s the technicality that lets us off the hook.

Here’s the reality:  The Atlanta news media — especially TV — likes nothing more than to raise a hue and cry about upcoming “weather events.”  And it doesn’t take a Winter Storm Warning to prompt it.  We get excited about Winter Weather Advisories, Winter Storm Watches, Severe Thunderstorm Watches, and Heat Advisories.  We get geeked when the temperature drops below freezing.

There’s a reason for that.  The audience actually turns on local TV news when they think the weather is getting bad.  It’s measurable.  And we are always happy to welcome our larger audience with hearty doses of the information they seek.

Whenever it happens, we are utterly truthful with the details. If the NWS has issued a Winter Storm Watch and not a warning, we’ll say that — over and over and over again, while producing  perilous-looking color schemes moving ominously across maps.

The problem, one could argue, is that we lack proportion.  We beat the weather drum with great urgency.  We put human beings — “team coverage!” — in the elements to add a measure of performance art to the story.  Residents of Carrollton are bracing for the line of thunderstorms that’s expected here any minute.  As you can see, the wind is starting to pick up and the sky is darkening…

It may not be apocalyptic, but it sure seems that way.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal

Can you blame state officials for failing to discern that the real thing was advancing upon us Tuesday?

Technically, you can.  A Winter Storm Warning means that a winter storm is “imminent or occurring.” The word “warning” is always the key when attuned to NWS information.

But what if TV and radio routinely makes it sound like the bogeyman is about to get you?  It is up to you, dear viewer, to know the difference.  Sometimes, we just give you information that merely sounds really, really urgent.  And other times, you need to react by closing schools and staying off the roads.  (But by all means, go purchase some bread and milk first, and be sure to say hi to our highly trained journalist stationed live outside your grocery store.)

Meantime, you’ve got political appointees running agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency who are supposed to discern the subtle differences between our usual weather drumbeat, and the real deal.

So yes:  An alarm should go off in GEMA whenever the NWS issues a Winter Storm Warning.  That’s a tangible signal that our routine drumbeat of weather coverage has flipped into something genuinely noteworthy, and its time to activate Georgia’s paltry fleet of salt trucks.

Likewise, it would have been unseemly for Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal to point back at the news media and say “it’d help if y’all only got excited about serious weather.  Because it’s kind of hard to tell when it’s really getting dangerous, or whether it’s just y’all trying to excite the audience and keep them tuned into your TV station.”

That would have been petty.  But it would have been an interesting conversation starter.