Category Archives: saltzman wendy

Disinformation officer

Hand delivery: Sheila Edwards, DeKalb PIO

See update below.

It’s easy to underappreciate the Public Information Officer.   When they do their jobs well, they make their bosses look good and draw no attention to themselves.  But when a PIO screws up, it’s like when a surgeon screws up.  Somebody gets hurt, and a lot of people notice.

PIOs inherently have the desire to control access and information.  Yet the release of info and the granting of access isn’t always subject to the posted schedule, the timetable, the boss’s lunch hour or meeting schedule.  Especially when the boss is an elected official running one of Georgia’s largest counties.

Sheila Edwards is the PIO for DeKalb Co. CEO Burrel Ellis.  Thursday she provided a stark lesson on how to make her boss look foolish.

It started with an embarrassing question that Ellis apparently wasn’t jumping up-and-down wanting to answer:  Why is DeKalb County on the brink of furloughing rank-and-file employees, while Ellis and other government higher-ups aren’t taking furloughs?

It’s a reasonable question.  If you’re Ellis, or his PIO, there’s a legalistic answer that the public or media may have trouble swallowing.

But Ellis is a grown man and a skilled politician.  He’s making tough budgetary decisions.  He’s smart enough and quick enough to give an answer on the fly.

It appears Wendy Saltzman posed the question to Edwards a day earlier and requested an interview.  Based on their exchange on the raw tape, it sounds like Edwards stalled with an answer.  (Saltzman reports she made three interview requests.)  Saltzman and photog AJ Willen showed up at a DeKalb County employees event and ambushed Ellis.  This irritated Ellis a little, but it irritated his PIO a lot.  Here’s the raw video:

Update: Dekalb Officers Speak uploaded the video to Youtube and is also blogging about this incident.  Check it out for the comments alone.  Lenslinger has also blogged about it.

Make fun of WGCL’s “tough questions” all you want — and we all do — but this was a reasonable question on Saltzman’s part, and it demanded a timely answer.  If she gave Ellis a day’s grace to provide an answer, she cut him more than enough slack.

Foot in the door, head in the lens

The ambush itself was classic.  Saltzman stepped between Ellis and the door through which he’d intended to escape.  She blocked the door with her shoe, and politely yet firmly asked Ellis the day-old question.

And Ellis answered.  But as Ellis was answering the question, the PIO was throwing a fit in front of the camera lens — blocking it with her hand, blocking it with her face, blocking it with her hair.  Later on, she blocked it with a piece of cloth.  Ellis’s answer — that state law required that elected officials take no furloughs  — became the audio background for the on-camera tomfoolery of his public information officer.  Oops.

And who gets the last word on this stuff?  Maybe the TV station.  Maybe the CEO, when he realizes his PIO made him look like a chump.

But probably not the PIO, whose job is to anonymously facilitate the flow of information.  Not block it with a cloth, or a hand, in front of a rolling camera — thereby hand-delivering an absurd story about government stonewalling, when a timely, honest answer would have served her boss much better.

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Tough universe

wendy saltzman 11.11.09

Face time: Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

By Russ Jamieson

Whew.  That’ll teach me to doze off during CSI:NY.

I’ve lived in Atlanta forever.  I’m an ex-WAGA reporter, ex-CNN freelance correspondent.  I’ve learned to expect certain things from my local news.

I woke up from my nap to see WGCL’s 11pm newscast… which I probably hadn’t watched in years.  It felt as if I’d awakened in a parallel universe.

Dagmar opened the show… lotsa rain. Weather. Then a live shot remote local story on its impact… then back to the set and I saw that Lou Dobbs was on the exit ramp… fine. Ok. Then I think they went to a break… and they came back with the Wendy Saltzman Show.

Wendy Saltzman B-Block:  They take their truck (laden with 3 hidden cameras) to 10 local auto shops/oil change businesses. Funny business ensues. Wendy harasses various owners, mechanics… asking the “Tough Questions.”  They have their own mechanic expert… and he says most of the stuff done was either done badly or needlessly. Five stations ripped them off… 5 stations did ok.  Decent story, but low hanging “investigative” fruit.

They go to the break…

duck-cover

Old-school rock: Saltzman in Springtime

Wendy Saltzman C-Block: Wendy again… and they are throwin’ around the “Tough Questions” shtick in all the lead-ins (tiresome). Wendy finds the Fulton Co. School board has been paying a lot more than the general public on a multi-million dollar contract for all sorts of stuff…paper, crayons, printers. The funny stuff here was Wendy chasing down the boardmembers and them dodging her. Amusing… Ok, semi-amusing.

Afterward it dawned on me… hadn’t I seen this before?  Turns out I’d read about it on this very site… in June!  WGCL had foisted on its viewers a five-month-old investigation.  At least the episode of CSI:NY wasn’t a re-run.

Wendy Saltzman D-Block: Wendy…. Again?? Where is everybody?? This time (more Tough Questions… even more tiresome) Grady Hospital has bad and broken down ambulances. Ok, serious stuff… life and death… maybe. But this is less of a story and more of a pitch for folo-up stories. More to come.

Then it’s the End of The Show!!
Letterman!!

I checked back on my Tivo… from 11:13 ’till 11:33 it was All Wendy… All the Time? Did a bomb go off in the newsroom?? I know they are outsourcing Sports… but none… no Sports, nothing… no other reporters.

Bamm… Letterman.

It was the strangest newscast I have seen since I left Topeka, Kansas (1980).

Adding to the intrigue…  I’d known WXIA had been experimenting with reformatting its 11pm news, devoting the back-half of a newscast to one concept.  Interesting… WXIA had one of those newscasts last night at 11.  Like WGCL, WXIA had devoted the last 15 or 20 minutes to one concept.  WXIA had been promoting it since late last week.

Coincidence?  I’d say WGCL is counterprogramming WXIA.  If I worked at WXIA, I think I’d be flattered.  If I worked at WGCL, I might ask:  If my name isn’t Wendy Saltzman (or Dagmar), can I still get on TV, please… with a fresher story produced sometime since Independence Day?

Jamieson is honcho / founder at Broadcast Solutions.

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.

Shallow dip

Show of hands:  How many of you know somebody who served twenty years in the military and is collecting the pension s/he earned?

Now, how many of those military folk are earning a paycheck at another job, while collecting the military pension?

Question:  Is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

saltzman2 7.20.09If you’re WGCL, it’s a bad thing.  The TV station is in the throes of producing a six-part (and counting) series of reports on Fulton County employees “accused” of double-dipping.

“Double-dipping” means that the employees have worked a respectable career for the county, have earned retirement benefits, yet have returned to the payroll for “temporary” work.

Or as Wendy Saltzman put it in part one:  They’re paid “their lucrative county pension, and a second plush paycheck on top of that.”

Saltzman’s series focuses on the fact that Fulton County policy restricts double-dipping.  The restriction makes sense.  Some employees game the system, with the assistance of friendly managers who allow them to retire, collect benefits, then return to the payroll for cushy jobs.

Likewise, Saltzman has delivered a clean hit on the procedure violation.  “Temporary” employees with pensions are only supposed to work six months.  She found some who’d worked four years.

What’s mostly overlooked in the WGCL series is this inconvenient fact:  If those folks didn’t return to the payroll, somebody else probably would.  Maybe full-time, with benefits.  (As temporary employees, the double-dippers typically collect no additional benefits).

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

In part two, Fulton County police assistant chief Gary Stiles told Saltzman that he’s re-hiring retirees because he can’t get enough qualified people willing to work.  “Bring them to me.  We’ll hire them today,” Stiles tells Saltzman.

In part five of her series, Saltzman attended a pension board hearing.  There, a county manager pointed out that the re-hired retirees actually save the county $700,000 per year — because they don’t receive benefits.

Both of these explanations make perfect sense.  But WGCL aggressively and shamelessly backs the concept of “advocacy journalism.”  It’s a good audience-grabber:  Find wrongdoing, and bust chops on the story until somebody does something to fix it.  WGCL has all-but owned the scandalous Atlanta water bills story with this approach.

Yes, the county is violating its policy.  But “fixing” the problem won’t necessarily save taxpayers any money.  In fact, doing so could increase costs and arguably compromise public safety.

The problem is that it just sounds bad.  One employee pulling two government checks?  Your tax dollars? There’s gotta be something wrong with that — even if there really isn’t.

From WGCL's web site

From WGCL's web site

WGCL isn’t alone.  The AJC has done double-dipping stories for years.  But the AJC stories have typically gone deeper, catching double-dipping state workers who snooze on the payroll, collecting a second check from a friendly supervisor.

WGCL has made no allegation that these Fulton Co. employees aren’t earning their paychecks.  Instead, they’re merely violating policy.

WGCL has correctly exposed inconsistencies in Fulton County policy.  But to “accuse” employees of double-dipping implies they are wrongdoers when there’s nothing to suggest the employees are at fault for anything, except working past retirement age. 

This is a nuanced story, and Saltzman is capable of telling it.  She’s given “the other side” some due, but the “advocacy” drumbeat ain’t right for this story.   Grade:  B-

Duck, and cover up

Evasive maneuver:  A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Evasive maneuver: A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

There are many things to like about Wendy Saltzman’s WGCL series on wasteful spending in the Fulton County school system.

First, the money is substantial.  Saltzman convincingly reports that Fulton’s school system rigged its bidding process so that Office Depot could land a contract for school supplies.  Office Depot’s bid was nearly $1.6 million higher than the lower bidder.

Second, it passes the stink test.  Saltzman uses grade-school math to demonstrate that Office Depot is charging Fulton Co. substantially more than what the general public would pay for pencils, copiers, paper, binders and other supplies at an Office Depot store.  This is in stark contrast to other TV “investigations” into government “waste” that can’t get the math right, or don’t even try to calculate it.

No answers:  Susan Hale, Fulton School system

No answers: Susan Hale, Fulton School system

Third, there’s the astonishing hubris on the part of Fulton County Schools, whose spokeswoman laughably dodges Saltzman’s tough, yet entirely predictable questions about the contract.  The spokeswoman, whose name is Susan Hale, deserves enshrinement in the Stonewalling Hall of Fame.  She also deserves a pink slip from the school system she so poorly served.

Hale’s is a classic how-not-to for publicists and media relations personnel.  Her machinations gave Saltzman a perfectly good reason to double her output on this story, producing parts three and four on the silly Looney Tunes-style evasions of the public officials who voted for the contract.

The evasions potentially raised even more suspicions.  Saltzman didn’t say it, but this contract probably deserves the attention of a prosecutor.

Parts three and  four were pure entertainment.  In part three, Saltzman showed up at a school board meeting.  When the meeting wasn’t gaveled into session, Saltzman and her photog bum-rushed the elected officials, as any member of the public is entitled to do at a public meeting.  Saltzman showed board members embracing police officers and running to the rest room to avoid answering questions.  It was pitiful, and entirely fair game for WGCL.

They pay her to write this stuff:  Hale's e-mail

They pay her to write this stuff: Hale's e-mail

In part four,  Saltzman acquired an e-mail Hale wrote to school board members prior to that meeting.  Instead of advising school board members  how to handle the issue, she gives them tips for avoiding Saltzman and her photographer.

  • She will try to surprise you and catch you off-balance… It will be tempting to try to answer her questions — she will try to ‘bait’ you and get you riled up.
  • “…keep from saying anything on camera that could come across as flustered, nervous or guilty-looking.”

Not only did Hale fail to respond to WGCL’s questions, but she did an enormous disservice to her bosses.  By advising them to avoid Saltzman’s questions, she put the school board members in the exact position she strove to have them avoid:  Appearing flustered, nervous and guilty-looking.

What Hale failed to understand is this:  The story won’t go away just because she and her chums don’t want to talk about it.  The best way to handle bad news is with honesty and directness.  She finally figured that out Thursday, when Superintendent Cindy Loe and School Board Chairman Linda Bryant talked with Saltzman, wherein they admitted the Office Depot contract was fishy.  This gave WGCL fodder for a fifth piece in the investigation.

By making a public admission of the obvious, the Fulton County School Board may be able to avoid mobs of torch-bearing parents demanding their heads.  Loe told Saltzman that Office Depot is refunding the overage uncovered by WGCL.

Saltzman is tenacious and rather fearless.  Her output is extraordinary, wasting no time putting material on TV when it’s ready.  In part four of this series, she even employed a welcome touch of humor.  The goofy spectre of school board members running from her camera certainly deserved it.

WGCL deserves credit for a top-notch piece of investigative reporting, made even more entertaining by the boneheadedness of its target.  Grade:  A

Right story, wrong question

Note:  This was originally written last week as part of the post that became “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”  It originally praised WGCL’s Wendy Saltzman for her work on the take-home vehicles story, while quibbling with another piece she produced on Congressional travel.  We edited the post after we figured out that WXIA had also produced the take-home vehicles story.  This is the portion we deleted.

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Wendy Saltzman’s investigation into travel by members of Congress was less impressive than the take-home vehicles piece.   The premise was worthy enough:  Big business likes to entertain members of Congress, including flying them and their families to “fact-finding” destinations like the Virgin Islands and Scotland.  But WGCL had trouble deciding what, exactly, is wrong with this practice.

“The question is:  when these groups are paying for these members trips, are they also buying their votes?” Saltzman asked in her intro.  But she made no attempt to link any votes to any bills that were of interest to Georgia Power et al, who’d paid for the trips.

The anchor intro referred to the trips as a “perk,” which is probably more accurate.  And it’s a seamy perk, no doubt.  But it’s pervasive.  It’s also legal, and it’s not funded by taxpayers.

This was a legitimate story, but it was too heavy-handed.  A lighter touch would have been more effective, and probably more damning.  (Saltzman might take lighter-touch tips from her competitor at WAGA, Randy Travis.)  The bottom line is that this “perk” is something voters ought to know about.   Saltzman is sniffing around an important issue.

But if you can’t answer the “buying their votes” question, then ask another question.  Truth is, substitute “their votes” for “access,” and we probably don’t have much of a gripe.   Grade:  B-

Bigmouth strikes again

No city car for the mayor?  Wendy Saltzman with Shirley Franklin

Love your scarf: Wendy Saltzman with Shirley Franklin

Wendy Saltzman has been a busy woman.   Like most reporters in understaffed shops, she’s probably overworked.  And she solely bears the on-air burden of giving WGCL badly needed credibility in classic, research-based investigative reporting (as distinguished from, say, consumer reporting or bare-hands-on-food-in-restaurants exposés).

Sometime over the winter, it appears Saltzman began work on a story about Atlanta Water Department employees driving city cars to their homes each night.  She found they lived as far away as Macon.  She researched city policy, which showed only the biggest of city bigshots and “first responders” should take home cars.  She bum-rushed Mayor Shirley Franklin, who dodged Saltzman’s question about the cost.  Both women wore winter-wear during the encounter.

And then Saltzman apparently sat on the story.  In the interim, she produced additional unrelated kick-ass material — including an expose of an auto dealer that sold used cars which were previously crashed and listed as “totaled” by insurance.

But while Saltzman waited, the tipsters within City Hall who knew about the practice probably grew antsy.   They kept talking.

WXIA’s Jerry Carnes got wind of the story.  Carnes learned that one of the employees drove his car home to Cedartown — a few hops shy of the Alabama border.  One morning, Carnes watched the city car make the trip and got video documenting it.  That set Carnes down the same path Saltzman had already visited weeks earlier.  But Carnes got it on TV first.

Of course, very few people in TV land actually notice these scorekeeping details, nor particularly care who did what “first” or “exclusively.”  But bragging rights are important in TV newsrooms, and management cares desperately about such stuff.  And Wendy Saltzman probably cares more than a little bit, an overworked reporter managing numerous high-profile stories.  She produced a story the following day that proved she’d had the goods, minus the damning video of the Cedartown-based city employee.  Carnes’s story was excellent.  So was Saltzman’s.

A day later, Saltzman had moved on to another unrelated investigation.  Meantime, Carnes was doing solid follow-ups to the city car story.  Both deserve credit for good work.  One of them was just a day late.