Category Archives: farmer justin

Actual, non-factual

justin farmer 5.20.09There he goes again.  Justin Farmer is blowing the whistle on wasteful government spending.  Just like last time, the story is designed to make the viewer angry at the stupidity of government.  When Farmer clobbered UGA for sending some of its professors overseas for “academic enrichment,” UGA challenged Farmer’s methodology.  This time, his methodology is even more suspect.

First off, Farmer bases his report on interviews with two members of Congress.  One is Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia of Roswell.  The other is Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma.  It appears both men were interviewed in their Congressional offices by somebody other than Farmer.  Their remarks are boilerplate, and unchallenged.  They could have come straight from a Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee feed, though we’d like to believe that an actual reporter was somewhere in the room when the interviews took place.

Farmer begins on what appears to be pretty solid ground, with a line about government subsidies for dead farmers.  Sure it’s outrageous.  It was also reported by the Washington Post in July 2007.  But it’s news to Farmer, and Rep. Coburn gets an opportunity to decry its wastefulness on WSB.

Farmer then reports that Sen. Coburn “was able to convince Congress to stop funding a stress reduction center here at the CDC, once it was revealed that nearly $400,000 was spent on zero gravity chairs, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas for CDC employees to relax.”  Farmer recites this line in a slick standup with post-produced graphics.

Sounds awful.  It’s also wrong.

justin farmer2 5.20.09Yes, the CDC bought a stress reduction center (or fitness center if you prefer, with exercise machines and such).  Yes, the whole thing cost nearly 400k.  But the evidence is that the lights, chairs and saunas cost about $35,000.  Coburn stopped that, apparently.  And sure, you could say it’s silly.  But it ain’t “nearly $400,000” as Farmer reported.

And curiously, Farmer probably knew this.  Following the erroneous standup, he reported “the CDC says Senator Coburn is wrong.”  But Coburn didn’t get it wrong — Farmer did.  Farmer interviewed a CDC spokesman who corrected the information.  So WSB didn’t completely mislead its audience — much. But if you know the information is wrong, why put it on TV to begin with?

(Might it be because he’d already shot a damn fine standup — with graphics and everything — and didn’t want to re-do it?  What other excuse could there be?)

Farmer concludes the piece on familiar ground:  Bashing academic research.  “This one may take the cake,” Farmer tells his audience.  He reports on a government grant for “a Detroit professor to study drinking and AIDS among prostitutes in China.”   It’s a one-line dismissal, presuming that there’s no value in this kind of research.

With the UGA piece, Farmer mostly explored a few issues and made an effort to give the piece balance.  Here, the only balance is on the CDC spending — the only local reporting he apparently did.  And he managed to get it wrong.

The news business is more forgiving than you’d think.  You don’t have to get it right all the time.  But you do have make a good faith effort to get the facts right, and sincerely believe that what you’re reporting is correct.

Even if it means shooting the standup again.  Grade:  F+

Expense report

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

WSB has a strong and peculiar history of attacking the spending of colleges.   It plays into the hands of demagogue politicians who find seemingly-absurd instances of government-funded scientific research (“volcano monitoring,” say), then decry the waste of money.

Justin Farmer tapped into that journalistic / audience-pandering lineage with a report on March 5.  Farmer documented overseas travel by professors at Georgia State and the University of Georgia “to play the trumpet in Italy or study films in France.”  UGA objected, but not very strongly.   The script is very carefully written.  At first blush, it appears to be a clean hit on ridiculous college spending.

UGA’s protests got louder this week in a detailed story in the Red and Black.

In particular, the student newspaper reports that the two France-and-Italy professors were never contacted by WSB.  The trumpet-playing professor says a music festival in Italy paid his entire travel bill.  The film professor says he raised the travel money through endowments.  Both say they used no tax money for those trips.

Farmer’s story notes that much of the travel occurred in years past, and that UGA has significantly tightened its travel budget in light of the sour economy.  But then Farmer tries to have it both ways.  He uses Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as his main  mouthpiece– a guy with gubernatorial ambitions and who won’t hesitate to talk on TV about seemingly-extravagent state spending.  Cagle happily takes Farmer’s bait, decrying specific trips in 2006 / 2007, and doing so in light of recent layoffs — disingenuously overlooking the fact that the trips and the layoffs occurred in different time periods.

And then in his script, Farmer reports that “all this travel comes as families are asked to pay more, students face new fees, possible tuition hikes and core class restrictions.”  UGA told Farmer that it had cut its travel by more than thirty percent.  This leads Farmer to tag his story thusly:  “We’ve confirmed that 69 percent of the travel budget it still intact.”  At this point, Farmer is implying that all academic travel is wasteful.

Though he didn’t talk with the professors involved, he spoke with their supervisors.   UGA wouldn’t release more recent records.  It’s legitimate to scrutinize all areas of state spending, including universities.  But Farmer’s piece carefully uses the facts he finds, and shapes them to suit his storyline.

Farmer’s sleight-of-hand combined past travel, current economic conditions and never-fully-explained sources of funding for specific, seemingly-outrageous trips.  It’s the type of story that makes educated people suspicious of TV news.  It’s also the type of story that draws cries of “huzzah!” from the cheap seats.  WSB knows its audience.

Farmer implied that the trips to Italy and France were state-funded.  Casey Cagle squawked about them as state-funded trips.  If they weren’t state funded, then Farmer has some ‘splaining to do.

It’s worth noting that WSB has removed the piece from its web site.  The Red and Black reports that Farmer told the newspaper the story disappeared because of “corporate policy.”  Perhaps WSB has a policy to remove pieces that are having trouble withstanding scrutiny.  The Red and Black found a copy and uploaded it to Youtube.

One can only imagine the kind of academic travel Casey Cagle would approve in advance:  None.  It’s worth noting that WSB’s main critic of “elite” academic spending never graduated from college.   Nothing wrong with that — but Cagle is spouting as an expert on academic spending.

Cagle probably watches local TV news every night.

The second coming

Justin Farmer, WSB

Justin Farmer, WSB

WSB’s buildup of its newest reporter / anchor Justin Farmer is truly harrowing.  The station announced his hiring in January— months before his contract with a Dallas station had expired in August.  He’s already made the AJC’s Peach Buzz a couple of times, once for his coverage of Skip Caray’s funeral.  Now, the new kid is covering the Republican National Convention alongside John Pruitt.

Is this guy that special?  His journalistic skills seem adequate.  His TV presence seems pleasant, an attractive enough cross between Huey Lewis and Howdy Doody.

His pedigree seems to be the clincher:  He’s the offspring of Don Farmer, a guy who helped launch CNN and became a nighttime anchor at WSB.  From 1990:

Justin Farmer may know Georgia well enough to distinguish Hahira from Hepzibah.  He went to high school here before striking out into the world as a TV guy.  His first job was in Albany GA.  He’s paid some dues.

Yet of the Georgia reporters covering the RNC, Farmer had to have the least familiarity with the folks seated in the state delegation.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  WSB’s coverage has kept pace with and occasionally exceeded that of veteran political reporter Paul Yates of WAGA.  At one point, Pruitt and a photog apparently stumbled into Bob Barr outside a St. Paul restaurant.  Pruitt’s report on Barr’s Libertarian candidacy (and Newt Gingrich’s advice:  “Get out”) was the best piece we’ve seen from the St. Paul conclave.

Farmer’s mile-high profile points to the likelihood that WSB is grooming him to replace Pruitt eventually.  When that happens— and Jovita Moore joins him— we’d like to see WSB make this leap into the 21st century:  Quit calling it “Action News.”