Monthly Archives: August 2014

Ernie, Blayne and Ferguson

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

Blayne Alexander, WXIA

The eruption of Ferguson MO deserved the attention it got, yet covering a riot can be a bit problematic.  WXIA’s Blayne Alexander went to provide some backup for Gannett-owned KSDK and ended up spending a week in the St. Louis suburb.  She returned to Atlanta and delivered a reporter’s notebook piece on WXIA’s weekend news, viewable here.  Excerpt:

  • The anger. It was thick. You could feel it in the air. I spent my nights in the protest zone, what we came to know as ground zero. Even for reporters, every night, the threat of getting tear gassed was very real. Just before a live report one night, I had to jump away from the camera and dive into a car just go get out of the way of the gas. And i was still hit. It was a battle. It was unreal.

A kid named Ryan Schueller, freelancing for Al-Jazeera, wrote a blog post about what he viewed as the horrors of the media siege in Ferguson.  It’s got a deer-in-the-headlights quality to it, but his observations are worth a click. 

Ernie Suggs of the AJC wrote a lively / amusing / harrowing first-person piece after spending a week in Ferguson.  The entire piece is behind a paywall here, and worth the click.  I’ve lifted a few lines below.

 

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Ernie Suggs, AJC

Police lined Ferguson Street and were beginning to push the protesters down West Florissant Avenue. A loud, piercing noise filled the air, which was already thick with tear gas.

People were running full out down the street. At McDonald’s, a group of frightened workers peered out the window, as if caged. Panicked marchers banged on the doors, begging for water to soothe their stinging eyes. A man picked up a brick and threw it, fracturing the plate glass window. When it didn’t fully break, he picked up another brick to finish the job.

It was 9:15 p.m. I had been on the street less than 30 seconds. (…)

I spotted Yamiche Alcindor, the national breaking news reporter for USA Today.

“Is this what you signed up for?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

But I was scared. In all my years as a reporter, I had never been in anything like this.

Thousands of angry protesters. Hundreds of police officers. Gallons of tear gas. And countless rounds of bullets, even if they were supposed to be rubber.

(Much respect to my colleagues who cover real wars.)

I had two major concerns: Getting shot by some knucklehead and getting a direct tear gas hit.

I called Blayne Alexander, a WXIA reporter who was also in town covering events. Straight to voicemail.

Reporters were getting caught up in the crowd. The cops were like bulldozers, smashing everything in their path.

When the helicopter above us began shining a light on the crowd, tear gas followed, then gunshots. The tear gas pushed people straight back. The gunshots made people scatter.

I fell to my knees and crawled.

We made it to the residential section of West Florissant and were hit with another volley of tear gas. Then bullets.

I ran into a yard, where I was face to face with a dude with a gun. It was pointed right at my gut, although he wasn’t pointing the gun at me.

“Y’all don’t want to come down here. Y’all don’t …”

I didn’t wait for him to say it twice. Yamiche was on my heels when I turned around and pushed her away, shouting, “Gun!!!”

I kept asking myself, where are we expected to go?

 

The auteur

This post has to start with an admission:  I’m a bit of a thief.  I stole shamelessly from Tom Corvin.

When Corvin showed up as a freelancer at WAGA in the early 90s, he was a brooding, too-tall, chain smoking enigma; viewed warily as the object of a recently blown-apart relationship with a well-liked 11pm newscast producer.

Tom Corvin

Tom Corvin

Then Budd McEntee put him on the payroll as a reporter, and it kind of transformed the whole newsroom.

Corvin was a ridiculously talented writer, who packed multilayered, mindbending copy into prosaic ten or fifteen second increments, multiplied across the breadth of a 90 second or four-minute piece of TV.  At the same time, he rarely overwrote.  Some of his best pieces had no narration at all.

Corvin viewed TV news as filmmaking.  He didn’t shoot his own stories, but he was the director of photography on his shoots.  In our shop, he blazed trails on techniques widely used today as afterthoughts:  Wide angle lenses, starkly-lit interviews, using foreground objects to frame background images.  Corvin had a sharp eye for meaningful cutaways that lent texture (and often irony) to stories.

Compound the irony with his Rod Serling-esque delivery, and the copy he wrote for anchors.  You can just envision Corvin chuckling as he wrote lead-ins to his pieces, wondering if Jim Axel or Brenda Wood would actually intone the circuitous barrage of words he’d written for them.

He was also the king of the standup-as-cameo.  He was loathe to make a story about him, but understood that local news more-or-less requires the presence of the reporter as newsgatherer.  His interactions with newsmakers added Corvin’s personality to stories and enhanced the journalism at the same time.  His occasional appearances as a participant or observer were typically brief, surprising and hilarious.

In May 1993, WAGA sent Corvin out to produce a series called “Night People.”  In it, Corvin visited the legendary 24-hour gay bar Backstreet for a look at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, the nightclub’s infamous drag show.  (Years later, Backstreet was forced to shut down after WAGA’s I-team exposed its 24 hour license as a sham.)

In July 1994, Corvin produced a two-part series (!) on Romeo Cologne, the Atlanta DJ who brought back disco and continues to power funk dance parties around town.  The pieces, shot by Jeff Moore, blew my mind stylistically.  (“This is out of control,” said Mrs. LAF when I showed her the Cologne series last weekend.)

“Night People” was an apt subject for Corvin, inasmuch as he became one of them, a bit of a legend for his after-hours carousing in Little 5 Points and beyond.  I still get asked about his doings all the time, and not by people who watched local news.

He left WAGA to move to Kansas City, where he pulled a nights-and-weekends shift at a TV station, then left the business and never returned.  He wrote a rousing, fanciful resignation letter, posted on this site in 2008, that was a cri de coeur about the things that drive everybody in our business a little nuts.

A face in the crowd:  TC at Turner Field in July 2014

A face in the crowd: TC at Turner Field in July 2014

He now lives with his family in San Francisco.  Prior to a recent trip to Atlanta, I twisted his arm into bringing the Cologne pieces with him, and he obliged with an entire Beta tape filled with his now-vintage work at WAGA.

The son of a Baptist minister and a Bob Jones University graduate, he has reacquainted himself with Christianity and has evened out his life.  He ought to be a fighting off offers for TV and teaching work, but competes against kids who are now mimicking, digitally, what Corvin did in analog twenty years ago.

“Everybody’s a thief,” he texted me when I gave him a heads-up about this post.  Count me among the many who swiped from him.

 

 

Mabra: I’m amazed

Rep. Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville)

Rep. Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville)

Ronnie Mabra is my new poster child for botched media relations.  This is unfortunate.  Mabra, a Democratic state representative from Fayetteville, doesn’t appear to be a villain.  His backers say he is talented and genuinely public-spirited.  He has enough brainpower to have completed law school and passed the Georgia bar exam.

But good sense is a whole ‘nother thing, as exhibited in two similar encounters over the last year and a half.  We’ll start at the beginning.

In early 2013, Mabra was among many legislators I had approached to ask about gifts they’d gotten from lobbyists.  Disclosure forms showed Mabra had gotten Falcons playoff tickets from the Georgia World Congress Center.   The newly-elected freshman lawmaker had taken the freebies before he’d taken the oath of office.

In his state office across from the Capitol, Mabra told me he’d be happy to talk with me about it — but with this caveat:  You have to ask my caucus leader if it’s OK for me to do the interview. 

This was a first.  I have seen elected officials defer to other elected officials on issues, in order to preserve the leadership role of somebody with a pet piece of legislation.  But my question for Mabra was about his personal decision to accept valuable freebies from people who, at that time, were seeking state help to fund a new football stadium.

I told Mabra his caveat was absurd.  He stuck by it.  Later that day, I saw him outside the Capitol and ambushed him with a camera, asking about the tickets.  He looked surprised, defensive, evasive, sketchy.  It was not a good look for him, but it was good theater for my story.1406236966000-ronnie-mabra

Fast forward to this summer: Driving up Atlanta’s downtown connector, I noticed a billboard above 14th Street.  It featured Mabra’s smiling face, and text that said Lawyer and Lawmaker / State Rep. Ronnie Mabra.  It was advertising his law firm.

Over the next few days, while covering other stories, I’d asked politicos about the billboard, wherein Mabra was clearly using his public title as a way to market his private business.  Most asked:  Can he do that?  Is that legal?  The answer was yes, it’s legal and yes he can do that.

It was not a huge, breaking story, but it was worth a mention on the news.  So I approached it pretty casually. I called Mabra.  He answered.  He seemed to think the billboard was a great idea and expressed willingness to do an interview.  He remembered our previous encounter.

Our second awkward, unscheduled interview

Our second awkward, unscheduled interview

I told him I wanted to avoid another awkward, unscheduled interview.  I suggested a civilized, adult visit.  I gave him some leeway to put me on his schedule.  He said he’d get back to me.

In subsequent days, his tone changed.  He stalled.  Then he fell back into the old excuse:  I can’t talk to you unless you get permission from my caucus leader.

Seriously?! I said.  Do you not remember what happened last time?  

Rep. Mabra hadn’t used our previous encounter as a teachable moment.  Nonetheless — for reasons I can’t fully understand myself — I wanted to bend over backwards to avoid being a dick to this guy.  The story wasn’t that big a deal.  The billboard was even, arguably, defensible.  He wasn’t using his public office to promote his law practice, only his title / resume.  Legislators make crappy money passing laws.  If he could make a case for doing what he’d done, I’d have let him.

In my inexplicable spirit of generosity, I actually texted Rep. Stacy Abrams, the House Democratic caucus leader, to seek her blessing to chat with Rep. Mabra.  I didn’t hear back from her.  Days passed.  Other stories happened.  Vacation happened.

One day in late July, after another story blew apart, I pitched the billboard story and my bossfolk bought it. I set out to put it on TV that night.  I’d given Mabra ‘way more opportunities to comment than is typical.  We went to his office.  Photog Dan Reilly and I entered the lobby, and I asked to see him.  Reilly’s camera was powered up.

Within minutes, Mabra appeared in the lobby — explaining, yet again, that he wouldn’t talk to me without approval of his leadership.

Rep. Mabra adjusts his tie

Rep. Mabra adjusts his tie

“That’s like asking your mommy’s permission,” I said at one point.  “This isn’t about policy. This is about you.  You’re a grown man, and I know you’ve got a side to this story I want to hear.”  I even tried to coach him on how he would look on the news if he just stood there being evasive — for the second time.  His response:  “I look good all the time.”  He even mugged for the camera and adjusted his tie, taking it from bad to worse.

By the way, coaching an interview subject is a taboo taught in Journalism 101.  If an interviewee insists on saying or doing something unsuitable to the story, it’s not cool to direct him to say something else.  I came very close to doing this by urging him to answer my questions, recalling his previous explanation by phone, and appealing to his sense of self-image.  It didn’t work.

We argued for seven minutes.  Reilly rolled the whole time.  Had Mabra told us to leave the property, we would have been obliged to do so.  But he never did.

Instead he wore me out.  We exited the lobby, a bit exhausted, with Mabra still talking about why he couldn’t talk.  With Reilly’s camera recording his evasions, we’d gotten sufficient material to produce a watchable story.  Once again, Rep. Mabra was not at his best– despite my best efforts.

It didn’t have to be that way.