Monthly Archives: April 2017

One lousy word

I can’t remember ever using the n-word in text or conversation with a newsmaker.  But more times than I can count, I’ve done what my colleague Valerie Hoff did earlier this month. Unfortunately, Valerie tiptoed across a line of acceptable language, and it cost her the job she’d had at WXIA for 18 years.

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Valerie Hoff

Valerie was trying to make contact with a man who’d shot a newsworthy video that had gone viral.  The man had a Twitter handle, and Valerie private messaged him. It was a competitive situation — other news organizations were trying to do the same thing — and Valerie didn’t want to see it anywhere else before she had it.

The African American man had tweeted something about “news n—-z” trying to reach him.  Valerie, a white woman, tried to humorously use the same language in an effort to pitch an interview.  Instead of finding it funny, the man chose to re-tweet and further racialize her text.  Valerie resigned Friday.

Valerie is easy to underestimate: blonde, fit, well-dressed and disarming, it’s a facade concealing a tenacious competitor.  When I worked at WAGA, Valerie was the 11Alive field reporter I feared most. I still smart from the bruising she gave me on the “mansion madame” story in the mid aughts. When I competed with her on a story, I knew I had to be very thorough or I’d end up hearing about a story element she had that I lacked.

When I started work at WXIA in 2009, she was assigned to a franchise called “Ways to Save,” and was anchoring weekends. It sounds like a dream assignment for a reporter coasting toward retirement; yet she worked her tail off producing fresh consumer material that seemed to air seven days a week.  When that gig ended, as all such gigs seem to do, she re-engaged general assignment reporting with her old fervor.  Her stories were often weeks ahead of our competitors. She was a mainstay in the A-block of our newscasts.  And she did it while undergoing a public struggle with breast cancer.

Every reporter tries to find ways to get a potential newsmaker to play ball. If the newsmaker is a civilian new to our world, then the reporter wants to seem likable and trustworthy.  Your competitors are doing the same thing.

Valerie did that better than most of the rest of us.  Knowing her 18 years, I’m absolutely sure there’s not a racially insensitive bone in her body.  I know she regrets using the language in that particular pitch. It turns out quoting back somebody else’s use of a variation of the n-word is perilous territory.

I frequently attempt to use humor or empathy to pitch interviews with perfect strangers under such circumstances.  I also try to be mindful, especially in written messages, that such stuff can surface publicly.  Sometimes I hit “send” too quickly, because typically, time’s a-wastin’. There’s a deadline a few hours away, and there’s a competitor or three breathing down my neck.

So far, it’s never come back to haunt me.

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Twinsies

“Indistinguishable,” thy name is two old white guys.

In the news business — one dominated by youthful folk with hair abundant and appealingly tinted — old white guys populate the space reserved for colorless throwbacks.  It’s a space I know well.

Ergo, there’s a certain amount of confusion.  I am constantly called “Richard” or “Dale” or “Clark” or any number of names not mine, but belonging to other old white guys in the Atlanta TV market.

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Richard Elliott is the gent on the left

Yet the proverbial light bulb finally went off over my head when I saw the above photo of myself and Richard Elliot, a reporter at WSB-TV.  The bulb light blinked a message:  No wonder they’re confused!

Mr. Elliott and I covered the legislative session this year.  I’d plotted the photo after a moment of misunderstanding early in the proceedings.

One morning, I’d cornered Rep. Betty Price in the House anteroom and asked her for an interview.  Rep. Price is the wife of Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services.  He’d resigned from Congress.  His 6th district seat was up for grabs in a special election.  Rumor was that Betty Price was among those considering a run for the seat.

Rep. Price politely yet firmly declined my interview request, then did a double take and asked:  Didn’t we already have this conversation?  No ma’am, I assured her.  I stalked off to the press room, where I spotted Mr. Elliott.

Did you ask Betty Price for an interview this morning?  I asked him, adding that I had just done so.  I sure did, Mr. Elliott answered.  Just a few minutes ago. She turned me down, too.

Thus began a 40-day joke (Georgia’s legislature meets for 40 days) about mistaken identity.

Mr. Elliott is one of the hardest working general assignment reporters in the Atlanta market, seemingly WSB’s go-to on everything from mayhem to natural disasters to jurisprudence.  When Lori Geary, WSB’s longtime political reporter, was absent in previous years, the station sent Mr. Elliott.  When she fled WSB to start her own business in December 2016, he replaced her at the Capitol. lori

Had the blonde coiffed Ms. Geary stayed, there might have ensued another type of confusion altogether.  This year, WGCL regularly sent Atlanta newcomer Giovanna Drpic to cover the legislature.  She joined WAGA’s Claire Sims, who made Capitol appearances on those special occasions when she had successfully sweet-talked the station out of assigning her to stories about mistreated house pets or disrespectful treatment of Old Glory.

In fact, when I got Ms Drpic and Ms Sims to pose for the below photo, the former — speaking of Mr. Elliott and me — whispered Yes! I thought it was strange how similar you two looked.

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Giovanna Drpic WGCL and Claire Sims, WAGA

I’m quite sure Mr. Elliott, who also happens to be the nicest guy in the whole friggin’ world, is a decade or so younger than me.  He has always told me that I look like his father.

So there’s that.