Category Archives: i-team

Same story, different day

Some jaws undoubtedly dropped at WGCL late last month when WAGA’s I-Team produced an investigation on a used car dealership that sold cars with histories of accidents.  Dana Fowle’s two-parter showed that the dealership failed to disclose to customers the fact that its used cars had sustained significant damage in accidents.

The jaws dropped because WGCL’s Wendy Saltzman had done the same story three months earlier.

The dealerships weren’t the same, but the storylines were almost identical:

  • Dealership buys the used car at auction;
  • auction house discloses to the dealer that the car has damage;
  • yet Carfax fails to note the damage;
  • dealer sees Carfax report and purchases the car at auction, despite warning of damage;
  • dealer shows the Carfax report to potential customers and falsely claims the vehicle has no damage;
  • Customer purchases car, then later has nightmarish auto issues relating to earlier damage.
Ahead of her time:  Wendy Saltzman WGCL (with Roswell's finest)

Ahead of her time: Wendy Saltzman WGCL (with Roswell’s finest)

Saltzman presented her piece in an April prime-time special on WGCL.  Fowle delivered hers on the 6pm news.  Both pieces were hard-hitting.  Saltzman’s piece was excellent, though Fowle’s breezier storytelling style is refreshing and lacks Saltzman’s emphatic “we’re on a crusade here!” sensibility.

Saltzman was tougher on Carfax, an entity that inexplicably fails to get vital info from auction houses about accident histories, yet sells itself as the authority on such stuff.  Saltzman also managed to make herself enough of a pain in the ass at a Roswell dealership that the dealer called the cops.  Fowle, whose mobility is limited these days due to her pregnancy, skipped the crowd-pleasing theatrics.

Give WAGA credit for declining to promote the story as an exclusive.  Some stations might have done that anyway.

“Well this was a real eye opener for me,” Russ Spencer told Fowle following her set tag.  Spencer is among the legions of TV viewers who might overlook the groundbreaking work going on in WGCL’s investigative unit.

Shading the truth

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

In 2003, Gwinnett County prosecutors tried to send a 16 year old boy to prison for life for killing a child he was babysitting.  The trial got lots of media attention.  Prosecutors claimed the victim died from Shaken Baby Syndrome.

But defense attorneys had a different story:  The baby had died from a brain hemorrhage that had begun more than a week prior to her death.  Their expert witness was Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s state medical examiner.  Sperry’s testimony refuted the testimony of the local forensic pathologist, and torpedoed the prosecution’s case.  When the jury acquitted the 16-year-old, nobody in the press room was surprised.  The surprise was that the Gwinnett District Attorney’s office, one of the state’s best, had brought such a weak case to trial in the first place.

Sperry’s testimony openly angered prosecutors.  They fumed that because Sperry works for the state, he should only testify on behalf of prosecutors.   Asked about it on the witness stand, Sperry’s answer was perfectly sensible:  Why should I shade the truth for anybody?

Since then, Sperry’s bosses at the GBI have reined him in.  Sperry is allowed to run a side business as an expert medical examiner.  But his contract won’t allow him to provide testimony that undermines prosecutions.  Yet Sperry has apparently done it anyway, in violation of his contract.   WAGA’s I-Team has concluded a two-part exposé on it.

Dale Russell, WAGA

Dale Russell, WAGA

Dale Russell’s investigation apparently has Sperry cold on the issue of violating his contract.  Russell visited locales in Mississippi and Tennessee where Sperry testified on behalf of murder defendants.  Sperry’s boss, Vernon Keenan, tells Russell that Sperry isn’t supposed to do that.

But most of Russell’s storylines explored the “conflict of interest” angle, and it ill-serves Russell’s investigation.  Russell seems to buy into the notion that Sperry has a conflict of interest when he testifies against the prosecution.  It makes no sense, unless the “interest” is something other than a full, honest exploration of the evidence.

(A separate issue goes unexplored:  Should the state medical examiner have a side business at all?  Judges and prosecutors can’t do it.  Police officers can.   Ideally, the state would pay its people well enough to keep this from being an issue.)

Unfortunately, Sperry didn’t talk to Russell  — probably because a) he knows he’s violating his contract and b) he knows his boss is annoyed with him.  But if Sperry had talked, he might have said the same thing he told that courtroom in Gwinnett County in 2003:  It’s not my job to shade the truth for either the prosecution or the defense.  My job is to present the evidence, draw my conclusions as a forensic pathologist, and let the jury decide the truth.

Instead of exploring the conflict of interest angle, Russell’s investigation might have asked this question:  Why is the GBI gagging the state’s chief medical examiner, arguably one of the top pathologists in the country?  Sperry’s testimony saved the life of a wrongly-accused 16-year old in 2003 (a kid who’s now finishing college on a scholarship, we’re told).  Sperry’s contract would prevent him from doing that now.

Sperry has screwed up, and Russell’s got the goods on Sperry’s contract.  But the whole “conflict of interest” issue fails to pass the stink test.  Grade:  C+

One gem, three oddities

Four stories jumped out at us from WGCL’s website.  All had an odd quality to them. (None was the “Restaurant Report Card,” which we’re unofficially ignoring these days…)

Mike Moore, WGCL

Mike Moore, WGCL

Mike Moore delivered a piece the site calls “bad news takes stressful toll on Atlantans.”  Predictably, WGCL took no credit for any of that “bad news.”  Moore did man-on-the-street interviews with three men who were losing jobs or afraid of losing jobs.  It led us to expect some sort of unemployment-malaise-mindset think piece.  But the three vignettes developed into no real storyline.  The most interesting thing about it was Moore’s stylish striped overcoat, which caused an audible buzz in his intro.

(Why would a striped coat cause a buzz?  Andy Funk explains:  “Sharp, vertical transitions between white and black — such as from striped clothing — lead to the greatest amount of high-frequencies in a video signal. Due to the way live shots are sent back to the station (microwave signal with the video FM-modulated and the audio as a subcarrier, often at 4.83 MHz), video with a lot of high-frequency content can encroach upon the audio subcarrier and be heard as an objectionable buzz.”  Thanks for that, Andy.)

An engineer at WGCL got the word to Moore, who shed the coat by the time he delivered his live tag, eliminating the buzz.  Grade:  C

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

The peculiarly-titled “Missing Couple Talks to CBS 46” was the work of Harry Samler. WGCL gave it the “we ask the tough questions” treatment, but Samler correctly treated the elderly couple with kid gloves.  “Just tell us what happened,” Samler said in the only moment approaching a tough question.  “You tell me,” answered the no-longer-missing Sam Hewatt good-naturedly.  He and his wife left a Waffle House in Loganville and ended up in Hoover Alabama.  “Next time, someone else will be driving” said Samler in his live shot.   No other station talked to the couple, probably because they recognized it as an odd personal embarrassment rather than a news story.  Still, Samler’s Grade is B-.

Sarah Parker, WGCL

Sarah Parker, WGCL

WGCL now re-broadcasts vignettes from Sarah Parker’s live shots from the station’s “Better Mornings” program.  Good thing, a) since Better Mornings frequently shows up as an asterisk in the ratings, Parker’s work gets some actual eyeballs and b) her squirrelly antics, shown later, may open some of those eyeballs for the 5 – 7am show.  In this vignette, Parker dons Tom Waits-style eyewear and a bikini top over a t-shirt, then does a cannonball into a pool, nearly clobbering some training Navy Seals.  Since Better Mornings professes not to be a newscast, we have to evaluate Parker’s performance and style, with a resounding grade of B+.

Harry Samler, WGCL

Harry Samler, WGCL

Saving the best for last, here’s Samler again.  We wish we’d seen this story before we declared the death of whimsy.  This is borderline brilliant, almost Corvinesque but without the darkness.  Samler produced a breezy, funny yet informative story about Decatur’s new parking meters.  The writing is cute and chatty.  The nat sound hits are splendid (especially the meter cops laughing about the fines).  Samler’s standup enhances the tone and bridges the storyline.   And the piece concludes with an amusing two-line punchline, a nice example of giving the viewer something unexpected at the end of the piece.  Great success. Check it out.  Grade:  A-

The dog ate it

Last week, WAGA’s I-Team produced a solid story on a Gwinnett Hindu temple leader with a taste for wealth and alleged fraud.  It had almost all the classic elements of investigative TV reporting:  Records indicating trouble, damning undercover video and a disgruntled finger-pointing former insider.

But it lacked one important element.

The story’s main allegation:  That the temple leader, a Swami who calls himself “Doctor Commander,” routinely added thousands of dollars to credit card transactions made with his faithful followers.  One complainant received a response from the Temple:  the Hindu faith doesn’t allow refunds.  No wonder this stuff raised an eyebrow or two.

Randy Travis reported that the Swami declined interview requests.  Glaringly absent was the on-camera confrontation with the Swami, the signature element that typically shows investigative targets trying to elude the mic-wielding reporter and his/her photog.

Turns out, Randy Travis had this material with the Swami.  He and his photog shot it in a parking lot following a court hearing.  The Swami mutely made a beeline for his vehicle as Travis tried to pepper him with questions.  But it never aired.

Shot on a P-2 card, I-Team staff uploaded the video into WAGA’s hard drive.  Word is somebody hit a “delete” button, believing the file was a duplicate.  It made the entire “interview” go away.  Because P-2 cards are absurdly expensive (compared to videotape, which has been eliminated), the I-Team photog had already recycled his card, readying it for the next story.

WAGA went to this tape-less format in July.  It has resulted in some clunky growing pains for the station, including at least one newscast that had no video whatsoever for the first fourteen minutes.  The frustration has made some staffers long for a return to videotape.

Full disclosure would have compelled Travis to report on-air that the I-Team had asked the Swami questions in a parking lot after a court hearing.  Full disclosure would have likewise compelled WAGA to report the embarrassing truth:  Its hard drive ate the interview.

To his credit, Travis didn’t try to recoup with another confrontation in another public place.   Such treatment could have turned the Swami into a media victim, a label he clearly doesn’t deserve.  Ultimately, this glitch doesn’t diminish Travis’s story.  It seems he’s got a genuinely greedy, craven and possibly criminal bad guy on the hook.  He’ll probably have other opportunities.

The one that got away

Reporters waste a lot of time. It drives them crazy. It’s also part of the job. You get a hot tip. You start asking questions. A story emerges. You start committing time and resources.

This is especially true for investigative reporters. Their stories require more digging. Their sources probably have axes to grind, requiring extra caution. Sometimes, the stories crash and burn in the end. In one case, the crash is rather amusing. Dale Russell writes about it in his blog.

The WAGA investigative reporter thought he’d found a story: The VA provided a widow a flag for the casket of her military-veteran husband. But upon receiving the flag, the family saw a “Made in China” tag. This riled the family, who contacted Russell.

This resulted in several days worth of phone calls, FOIA requests, footage and interviews. Russell was about to fly to Ohio to shoot pictures of the flag and the “Made in China” tag. Then this:

She says “you didn’t get my message.” Feel the bottom of my stomach open up; heartburn soon to follow.

“No.” Widow informs me that the night before, she unfolded the flag for her family, and couldn’t find the tag. But, she did find a “Made in America” tag. In fact, made in Alabama by disabled workers.

Stomach unleashes torrent; TUMS soon to follow.

Oops. Russell had found a law that says the VA must provide American-made flags for deceased veterans. No doubt, many flag-waving Americans would have been horrified to learn our government had provided a Chinese-made copy of Old Glory for a dead veteran.

To us, the whole premise sounded a little weak to begin with. But we can’t deny it may have been a crowd-pleaser.

But it’s instructive. It helps explain why WAGA’s I-Team reporters make such infrequent appearances on TV. The stories they produce take a bunch of legwork. And they chase occasional phantoms like this one.

Hell hath no fury…

In light of his documented sexual exploits– the fact that DNA tests prove that he’s the real father of his nephew, for example– Earl Paulk is a remarkable dude: Megachurch founder, jowly pompadoured Lothario, libidinous egomaniac. Dale Russell of WAGA has had his number for several years now, thanks to the fact that Paulk’s ex-secretary / victim of his Holy lecherousness has talked to Russell whenever a development ensued. Apparently the octogenerian Bishop was unaware.

The secretary, Mona Brewer, sued Paulk years back. Their case has gone back and forth. Recently, Paulk apparently sent Brewer envelopes full of cash, pitching a peace conference. Guess who Brewer called?

WAGA’s I-team wired the restaurant meeting place with three cameras. They recorded audio of Paulk calling Brewer “baby” and professing his undying devotion to her. They showed the pathetic old man’s body language, solicitous and desirous of reconciliation and God help us, perhaps more. And they showed him offering a payoff and walking her to her car, where she rebuffed his obvious desire for a good-bye embrace.

Perhaps Paulk had never heard the secular William Congreve quote about a woman scorned. No doubt, Paulk remembers this one:

  • Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
    — Proverbs 16: 18-19 (KJV)

Russell’s gambit was a crapshoot: Wire a restaurant and watch what happens. Russell skill is in maintaining the confidence of the principal victim in the story. In this instance, he lucked out, and then some– almost to the point where one feels sorry for the geriatric sociopath, still thinking with his male parts at the age of eighty-plus. Russell produces a second part Tuesday at six.

“I wish I were smarter.”

Each Atlanta TV station posts short biographies of its news personnel on their web sites. The bios are usually filled with data about awards and college degrees. Some offer the occasionally-surprising nugget. We learn that WGCL’s Rebekkah Schramm has been a broadcaster since age 15. We learn that WSB’s Anissa Centers was a bone marrow donor. We learn that WSB’s Jeff Dore took out the trash at his first TV station and is the author of an unpublished novel.

Most bios are mind-numbingly similar. They tout the humble beginnings and family values of their subjects. They list resume highlights, awards and volunteer work. There are 42 of them on WSB’s site alone. We’ve perused a fraction of them.

Without question, the best bio we’ve seen is on Dana Fowle’s WAGA blog. Fowle writes “I’m generally disheveled and have a messy car… I also love red wine, rare steak, dark chocolate and strong coffee. I’m Type A, so of course, I wish I were smarter.” This is especially funny, given that Fowle is one of those scary-smart people.

The bio is the best part of Fowle’s blog. She hasn’t updated it in more than a month.

Dale Russell’s blog bio is a close second to that of Fowle, his I-team colleague: “My desk is a mess. I don’t smoke. I do drink. I have a politically incorrect sense of humor and a little problem with authority. (I’m working on that) And, I never get my expense reports in on time.”

Our least favorite bio belongs to WAGA’s Tom Haynes, which starts thusly: “Credibility, experience and a bit of an edge; that pretty much sums up Tom Haynes…” This is especially icky because it’s obvious Haynes wrote it himself. He goes on to tout his “journalistic expertise” and his position “front and center in FOX 5’s new, innovative and interactive newscast.” His bombast is almost Burgundyesque.

The journalistically-expert Haynes could learn a thing or two about humility from some of his colleagues.

Morgan v. Jones

Last week, WAGA’s Dale Russell did a piece that linked DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones to the DeKalb judge who awarded attorney fees to the lawyers for admitted perjurer (and prolific baby-daddy) Bishop Earl Paulk. The story showed that Jones and Judge Mark Anthony Scott are friends. Jones contributed to Scott’s campaign for Judge. Scott’s ruling let Jones off the hook from testifying in the Paulk trial, at least temporarily. A courtroom appearance in this case may have been embarrassing for Jones, who’s running for US Senate.

No doubt, Jones’s camp howled at WAGA management about the story. That’s because the only on-camera critic of the ruling was J. Tom Morgan– a former DA whose open disdain for Jones runs every bit as deep as the friendship between Jones and Scott. Morgan spoke articulately about why the ruling, and the relationship mattered. Russell is perhaps the best investigative reporter in town. But Russell had to know that Jones’s people– who famously cry and moan about any unfavorable coverage– would raise a stink about this. Likewise, casual observers familiar with DeKalb politics might watch this story and say: Oh well– that’s J. Tom beating up on Vernon again.

The story was about political ties tainting a judicial proceeding. No doubt, the judge (and Jones) deserved the scrutiny. But political ties— Morgan v. Jones– tainted Russell’s story too. If the issue was so troubling, Russell should have been able to strengthen his story by finding a critic other than a longtime enemy of Vernon Jones. Maybe he’s saving it for the follow-up.

Downtown tornado

  • TV stations love to overreact to weather, treating every fallen tree limb as if it’s armageddon.  Last night, they got it right.  Some got it more right than others.  
  • Through 8am, it appeared WSB’s coverage was tops.  2 had interior footage of the CNN Center and Dome (as did WXIA).  Jim Strickland’s overnight package on the Fulton Mill Lofts damage was terrific.  And of all the TV reporters who were on scene at dawn, you know that Ross Cavitt was the first (and perhaps only) one to actually volunteer to be there.
  • If WAGA had the interiors that WSB had, I didn’t see them.  Tony Thomas stayed up all night downtown (and also may have volunteered) and did nice live shots, but his pictures and interviews were a bit middling– possibly because he was rarely untethered from his live camera.  It was fun to watch WAGA call in Dana Fowle, Cheryl White and Ken Cook to co-anchor the little-watched Saturday morning news.  And they called in Randy Travis to play catch-up to Strickland’s coverage in Cabbagetown.  Yet by noon, it appeared WAGA was still out to lunch on the story at the Fulton Mill Lofts, which was chock-full of residents when the tornado hit.
  • WXIA’s Jennifer Leslie, holding up a hand during a live shot to stop traffic on Butler St. while she crossed, had the Edgewood Ave. damage to herself.  Kudos to the motorist who let Jennifer and her photog cross.
  • WGCL showed cartoons in the morning.  And at noon, it showed a basketball game.

Evergreen Investigation

When the anchor guy started off with “only on CBS 46 news,” the viewer might have expected to see something he’d never seen before.  But what followed was a story as old as the hills–  a story WAGA’s I-team has revisited numerous times over a ten or fifteen year period. It’s not illegal to sell crack pipes in convenience stores; they’re sold as glass pipes that hold water for a single fresh rose. The fact that some stores package the pipes together with lighters and pieces of steel wool to facilitate their use for crack cocaine use seems a little too convenient. And yes, it’s a bit of an outrage. WGCL reporter Joanna Massee did a decent job with it, the indignation in her voice rising as she confronted a convenience store owner feigning cluelessness. But new? It’s a story so tired that Ms. Massee couldn’t find a law enforcement agency willing to talk about it. “Only on CBS 46”? Maybe 46 was the only station putting that old story out there on this particular evening.