Category Archives: belcher

Ratf#cked

Gena Evans

Gena Evans

Maybe Gena Abraham Evans, now Georgia’s DOT commissioner, did something wrong while head of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission.  Maybe she allowed her personal relationship with a contractor in a state construction project to cloud her judgment.  Maybe she erred by failing to disclose that relationship.  Maybe Dale Russell’s I-Team investigation into those issues hit a bulls-eye.

But we predict it won’t matter, because a) those issues are several years old and b) Gena Evans is coming off like a victim of a sanctimonious media probe into her personal life.

Dale Russell, WAGA

Dale Russell, WAGA

It’s complicated by the intriguing bi-play between WAGA’s Russell, and his ex-colleague, WSB’s Richard Belcher.  Belcher produced a story last week that touched the surface of the issues raised in Russell’s report.  Though Belcher’s story lacked the depth of Russell’s, WSB’s piece aired a full week ahead of Russell’s.  It seems fair to say now that Belcher produced that story as a classic bit of ratf#cking, a pre-emptive strike to dampen the fire of a competitor’s exclusive.

An interesting theory, floated by a commenter at the Peach Pundit is this:  That Gena Evans was behind the ratf#cking.  The commenter suggests that Evans was so annoyed with Russell’s questioning that she called Belcher, a presumably friendlier reporter.  Belcher produced a story that focused on some R-rated e-mails sent between Evans and the ex-boyfriend.  The story wasn’t a bright moment in Belcher’s distinguished career.  In it, Evans looked like a victim in game of e-mail / Open Records Act Gotcha.  Russell’s piece also had the salacious e-mails but was densely packed with more legitimate questions of impropriety.

(OK.  That theory’s interesting.  But it doesn’t give WSB enough credit.  And it gives too much to Evans.  If she was that cunning, she wouldn’t have sent those e-mails through the state system in the first place.)

Ratf#cking doesn’t happen often, but it’s not uncommon.  The AJC used to be well known for filing Open Records Act requests that simply asked for copies of Open Records Act requests filed by competing media.   It’s a lazy yet legit way to uncover news and monitor the competition. If the target of an investigation can play competing media against each other, as Evans may have done, then the target can better shape the story that’s emerging — and give the appearance that the media is ganging up on her.

It may not serve the audience.  But ultimately, the reporter’s master is his station manager.  In the run-up to the November sweeps, Belcher served WSB by taking the thunder out of WAGA’s exclusive.  And WSB can say  it had the story first.  The claim doesn’t stand up to full scrutiny.  But most folks don’t pick those kind of nits the way, say, we do.  Ultimately, a viewer may see WAGA’s promotion and say:  Exclusive?  I saw that last week on another station.  I don’t need to see it again on WAGA.  Russell’s story is better.  But Belcher goes home the winner.

Russell is producing a second part of his investigation at 6pm Wednesday.

Salacious but not scandalous

We’ll start by saying the obvious:  Richard Belcher is a better newsman in his sleep than we’ve ever been awake and fully caffeinated.  He’s the mac daddy of Atlanta investigative reporters.  He rarely missteps, but he did this week.  He should have left the Gena Abraham Evans story alone.

Evans is the DOT commissioner, known as Gena Abraham before marrying board member Mike Evans.  As a single woman, Abraham apparently had a rather normal personal life, which included a relationship with another DOT employee prior to Evans.  Abraham and that employee corresponded by e-mail, and some of their personal e-mails transacted through the state e-mail system.  This subjected them to exposure via the Open Records Act, apparently making them reason enough for an investigative report.

Belcher probably could have found personal e-mails sent by almost 100% of Georgia’s state employees.  Abraham had the misfortune of including some R-rated language in hers.  Mind you, nobody is saying that it’s scandalous to use earthy language in state e-mails.  But its inclusion certainly spices up a TV news story in the run-up to the November sweeps.  “This is the Bible belt,” Belcher reminds Abraham in their interview.  Abraham comes off more like the victim of a voyeur than a wrongdoing government employee.

The voyeur who pulled the e-mails is George Anderson.  Anderson has an almost obsessive interest in government ethics.  It makes him a bit of a gadfly.  But Anderson also plays a useful citizen role as a government watchdog.  In Belcher’s story, Anderson sniffs that it’s Abraham’s use of her on-the-clock time and state resources that troubles him about the e-mails.  Anderson sees the world of government in very black-and-white terms.   Often, he nitpicks out of a strict adherence to by-the-book principle that fails to account for the human element.  That’s what’s happening here.

Belcher bolsters the story somewhat by asking Abraham about the propriety of her relationships with other DOT employees.  But she answers credibly that there was nothing improper, and Belcher doesn’t challenge her response.

Nobody is seriously contending that government employees cannot use their state computers to send personal e-mails.  Aside from George Anderson’s complaint, why is this an issue?  It shouldn’t be.  Yes, maybe another news organization would have taken the same bait.  We wish Belcher would have been the one to say “thanks, but no thanks” to this.

Free Lunch

The dean of Atlanta’s investigative reporters delivered a clean, solid hit to an odd, costly practice by the Forsyth County Tax Commissioner. It seems commissioner Matthew Ledbetter habitually buys meals for his staff, spending taxpayer dollars to do so. It was so conspicuous that somebody finally tipped WSB’s Richard Belcher, who delivered a report on it last week.

Belcher’s work was a lovely example of why it’s important to keep politicians from weakening Georgia’s Open Records Act. The evidence was readily available in the Tax Commissioner’s credit card receipts. Belcher found that he’d billed taxpayers for more than $14,000 worth of chow, much of it the cuisine of a “burgers and chicken wings kind of place” in Cumming called Roosters.

The commissioner didn’t dispute the expenditure. In a statement, he defended the practice. Apparently morale is quite high in the tax commissioner’s office, and “customer service” is exemplary. Although it was a “gotcha” type story, Belcher’s treatment was evenhanded. It gave viewers plenty of leeway to make up their own minds about whether the commissioner had misused his expense account.

WSB also delivered a helpful, informative piece warning consumers about off-brand flat-panel TV sets. Tom Regan interviewed a repair shop guy who said “you can find Jimmy Hoffa’s body before you can find parts” needed to fix certain brands of flat-panel sets. The $500 – 1100 sets, Regan reported, are considered “disposable,” where the repairs are more expensive that a new set.

Our only complaint: WSB’s insistence on calling this an “investigation.” It was solid, useful consumer reporting. But calling Regan’s story “investigative” cheapens a term rightfully applied to pieces like the one done by Belcher.

Sneaky

In a column Saturday, the AJC admitted that the Jeremiah Wright story “did sneak up on us.” Supporters of Barack Obama are worried that Wright’s pulpit pronouncements could derail Obama’s campaign. The AJC’s decision to downplay this significant development at its inception fuels conspiracy theorists who see “the media” as a liberal monolith.

The controversy provided an opportunity for local news to view it through the prism of Atlanta’s rich culture of black churches. Only WAGA used that opportunity. But Darryl Carver’s think-piece on the issue came off as a bit one-sided, using much material from the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, who defended Wright. Carver’s a good reporter. The story at least needed to show Carver asking Rev. Raphael Warnock some tough questions about why it might be appropriate for Rev. Wright to say “God damn America” from the pulpit. And the story ended with a “huh?” as Carver added a useless soundbite from Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth, apparently pulled from a feed. My guess is somebody told Carver to stick it on there.

(By the way– it may seem gratuitous and grandstanding for a reporter to be shown on-camera asking questions. But it serves a purpose. It balances a story that may feel one-sided.  And it shows the audience that the right questions were asked– even if they don’t like the answers. Richard Belcher at WSB is a master at this.)

What’s amazing is that Carver’s piece aired at all. With two late-night shootings, WAGA’s newsroom normally wouldn’t have hesitated to drop-kick the Wright piece so that Carver could stand in front of a crime scene with a “breaking news” banner under his chin.