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Defining “news”

“Why is this news?”

That’s always a reasonable question. Answering it isn’t always easy.

In this instance, the questioner was Steven Maples, attorney for Tex McIver.  We were outside the Fulton County jail just before Christmas.  McIver, charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his wife Diane, was about to post bond and exit the jail.  A gaggle of photographers was waiting, plus one reporter.

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Tex McIver (left) exits the Fulton County jail with his attorney Steven Maples

I had met Maples earlier in the week. As attorneys go, he seemed humble and humorous.  My presence in his life at that moment might be viewed by many, under similar circumstances, as an affront.  He didn’t.

While waiting for McIver to get out of the lockup and into the lobby, after a few minutes of amiable smalltalk, Maples pointedly posed the question.  

“Why is this news?”

I rarely cover mayhem at WXIA, and I’m grateful for that.  The McIver story was never my cup of tea.  But news folk often get stuck on stories they might not prefer.  As professionals, we have to embrace — and sometimes even defend — such assignments.

The circumstances, and the people involved, make it newsworthy, I answered.

The circumstances raise reasonable questions of Mr. McIver’s intent.  The investigation raises questions of whether Mr. McIver was getting special treatment from the police.

Maples snorted. He also seemed to appreciate an honest answer.

I also felt he deserved a bit of insight into the unscientific decision making of our business.

The truth is, our audience becomes more engaged in stories like this when those involved are — shall we say — people of means.  That was my diplomatic way of saying: When it’s rich folks involved, it’s more sensational.  (I personally avoid the word “sensational” because it’s a term used to undermine the motivations of the news media, though I can’t argue with its accuracy.)

People are idiots, Maples answered in frustration.  If they knew all the details, they would realize this shooting was a terrible tragedy.

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Maples amiably allowed me to “ambush” interview him two days earlier

I wasn’t going to argue about the intelligence of our audience.  There’s a lot of hard evidence out there, especially on the internet, that supports his observation.

That led to a confession.

When I first started in this business, folks in newsrooms had to use their judgment and their smarts to decide what was newsworthy,  I told him. Except for Nielsen ratings and circulation data for newspapers, there was no “science.”  Many stories are obvious.  Some are more subjective. We made judgment calls based on our experience and our instincts and our unscientific knowledge of what we thought the audience wanted and needed to know. We still make those judgment calls.

But nowadays, there’s actual science added to the soup: We can measure which stories have traction on the internet.  The internet provides data measuring actual eyeballs, the type of which we used to only imagine. 

Now that we can count those eyeballs, we use that data to help us decide what stories we should follow. The McIver story, I told him, has a measurable following that we cannot ignore.

People are idiots, Maples said again.

Unfortunately, the internet — with all its awesome measurability — is part of a problem that has gradually eroded the credibility of traditional, commercial news media. We have propped up material on social media as newsworthy. Clickbait sites that traffic in unsubstantiated (or “fake”) news have large followings.

People are also unable to discern the difference between news and editorial.  Opinion pieces and pundit commentary gets lumped together with the product of those of us whose job it is to gather and evenhandedly present factual material.  That’s not just an internet problem, but the stew of “news” on the internet rarely lists the ingredients.

As a result, news is becoming messy and a bit ugly  — unless one actually takes a moment to define it.

Mr. Maples asked a question that ought to get asked more often.

The lemon

Here’s what a lemon looks like:  It’s my KitchenAid dual oven gas range, purchased in 2012 for a princely sum.

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It was an appealing purchase at the time.  Two ovens are cool and handy.  Gas stoves are easier to control, and evoke my grandmother’s kitchen.

Grandma’s gas range worked great.  Mine doesn’t.

The problem is technology, a blessing and a curse in the 21st century.  When it works great, yay.  When it fails, it is complicated and costly to fix.

My grandmother’s stove didn’t have a motherboard.  Mine does.  Two years ago, it went completely haywire.  Pushing buttons to turn on the oven would instead change the time on the clock.  Adjusting the temperature upward would sometimes shut the whole thing down.

Because it was under warranty, KitchenAid replaced the motherboard.

Last week, it failed again.  This time, the oven won’t heat beyond 170 degrees.

The oven heats, but not enough.  The technology is screwing it up, according to the appliance guy who visited this week.  He offered to install a new motherboard for $450.

KitchenAid is offering to install a new one for $300, with a one year warranty.

At this rate, I’ll be installing new $300 motherboards every two years into a range that is obviously a lemon.  Nice business model, KitchenAid.

Why does a stove / range need a motherboard?   Instead of twisting a knob to activate the oven or set the temperature (grandma’s stove), mine has digital readouts and buttons (that aren’t really buttons) that are embedded next to the readouts.  Its looks very sleek, very 21st century.

When it works, it works great — but not as great as grandma’s did.

In my business, technology has changed a lot in the last twenty years.  We used to edit video on tape machines.  Now we do it in computers, and videotape only exists in archives.  When video machines failed, a guy with a toot belt would open them up and fix them.  When our computers fail, a guy (or two or three) will poke around, scratch their heads and try to decode the problem.  They’ve wiped my computer more times than I can count.  Each time, I lose all the stuff I’ve stored and all the memory that helps me work faster.  (And I can’t count how many failed external hard drives I’ve got in my desk, hoping they’ll reanimate one day.)

I get why TV news technology has advanced.  When it works, it’s lighter and faster and more mobile.

But a kitchen appliance doesn’t need to be mobile or faster or lighter.  The range needs to get hot when I want it to, without the interference of a very flawed KitchenAid computer motherboard that seems completely superfluous to cooking.

I’ve got a KitchenAid guy coming next week to to replace the motherboard — again — for $300.  Maybe I’m behind the times.  But it seems a bit outrageous.

The teammate

For weeks, I’d been asking to interview Brian Kemp.  He’s Georgia’s Secretary of State, the guy who has accepted responsibility — in statements released by his press office — for the leak of the personal data of six million Georgia voters.

The answer — when I’d get an answer at all — was always “no.”

I asked again.  The SOS was about to release an internal investigative report on the leak.  This time, the answer was a modification of no:  We’re already scheduled to talk to one of your colleagues.

Grey haired guys with purple ties

Grey haired guys with purple ties. The guy in the back is winning.

Jon Shirek?  I asked.

Yes.

Shirek!  The visual could be my contorted face gazing upward, fist shaking.  Shirek! Once again, I’d been bested by a superior reporter.

Instead, I responded with:  “Great!  Thanks.”  Click.

Brian Kemp had already talked to Shirek a week previously — while disregarding my concurrent interview requests.  On Monday November 30, his chief of staff told me Kemp “is not doing any interviews” on the data leak issue.  I urged him to reconsider, darkly suggesting that somebody — not me, necessarily, but an ambitious TV news goon of some stripe — would likely ambush Kemp in a hallway when he least expected it.  A sit-down would be more civilized, I reasoned.

Have fun with that, came the answer.  He didn’t actually say that, but that was what he communicated, loud and clear.

Kemp talks, Shirek wins

Kemp talks, Shirek wins

Two days later, Kemp scheduled an interview with Shirek.  To my knowledge, Shirek’s interviews with Kemp are the only TV chats Kemp has granted on this topic.

And really — who could blame Kemp?

Shirek is perhaps the most admired reporter in our building.  He’s timely, enterprising, legendarily thorough, and one of the two best writers in our shop.  (Fortunately, the other one tends not to request the same interviews I do.)

He’s also much nicer than I am.  In fact, there is no more personable TV reporter in town.  When I competed against Shirek, his was the competitive company I wanted to keep.

Same now.  He actually watches TV.  He stays reasonably aware of what his coworkers are doing.  He heaps praise on them, and me occasionally, when he finds our efforts laudable.

If I was a public official going through a rough patch, I’d call Shirek too.  Especially if yours truly was my other best option.  My MO is awkward politeness, with carefully and respectfully phrased questions that can be a bit uncomfortable.  “You are the world’s worst!” Gov. Nathan Deal once said to me, in an unguarded moment aboard a campaign plane, when talking about reporters trying to get newsmakers to say things they don’t want to say.  He was smiling when he said it. I took it as a compliment.

Shirek is Julio Jones to my Roddy White.  During this year’s NFL season, as Jones eclipsed White, White made believable-yet-not-believable comments to the press about how he didn’t care who catches footballs.  He cared only about the team winning.

Yeah.

So here’s yet another tiresome post praising Jon Shirek.  He’s not exactly kicking my ass, inasmuch as we play for the same team.  But he’s taking care of business that I seem to be unable to handle my ownself.  I only care about the team winning.  I really do.

Shirek!

 

The officiant

Behind Manuel’s Tavern, there are prime parking spaces reserved for clergy.  I may be able to use one now.

I say so because I officiated a wedding Saturday.  I did so by virtue of my ability to click through an internet site, and find the “get ordained” button, which I clicked.  A page popped up congratulating me on my new status as a minister of an internet church.

The same site also had a state-by-state summary of laws describing whether a person ordained by clicking a button on the internet could legally officiate a wedding.

Behind Manuel's Tavern, Atlanta

Behind Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta

States have a public safety interest in who can become police officers, lawyers and dental hygienists. There are boards which regulate them.

But it appears most states have virtually nonexistent laws regulating preachers. This is as it should be, of course — just as there is a scarcity of laws regulating journalists.  Both jobs have implied “hands off, big gub’mint” protection in the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Any bozo with a blog and a willingness to use it can legitimately describe him / herself as a journalist. It tends to confuse things, sometimes, when folks want to interact only with news media they view as legitimate or “credentialed.”  Yet it turns out plenty of bloggers are credentialed at Georgia’s state capitol, one of the few places in Atlanta that actually scrutinizes the “legitimacy” of journalists.

But who should decide that I, an internet “clergyman,” isn’t fit to perform a marriage?

Denise, Josiah, their attendants and the "clergyman."

Denise, Josiah, their attendants and the “clergyman.”

The happy couple, that’s who.  And Saturday, Denise and Josiah viewed me as sufficient.

They had a legit marriage license.  That’s the document the state of Georgia does require and may occasionally even scrutinize — but apparently not for the bona fides of the officiant who pronounces them husband and wife.

About the wedding, which took place on the lawn behind the hotel at Chateau Elan:

I pulled the ceremony from the internet and lightly rewrote it.  I trod very lightly in religious language, but strengthened material that lectured the happy couple on how to maintain a long-term relationship.  I felt I was a legitimate purveyor of such counseling.

Because Denise is a native of Germany with family in the audience, I asked the internet — and the German woman who cares for Mrs LAF and my preschoolers — to help me come up with German translations for two key phrases:

  • In this ceremony, we will witness the joining of Denise and Josiah in marriage.   Freunde, wir haben uns in Anwesenheit dieser Zeugen hier versammelt, um Denise und Josiah in der Ehe zu vereinen.
  • I now pronounce you husband and wife. Hiermit erkläre ich Sie zu Mann und Frau.

I practiced reading those lines out loud a lot.

Also eliminated the line that says “by the power vested in me…” substituting the TV news phrase “with that…”  The line about “power” seemed a presumptuous word to use for a guy who surfed the web to get it.

Clint holds his own against his sister.

Clint holds his own against his younger sister.

Our three year old, Yvonne, was the flower girl.  She did a nice job of tossing rose petals.  She also dragged it out a bit.  She knows she’s cute.  She seemed to believe the attendees were gathered to see her.

The ceremony was not flawless.  I realized that my text had the groom saying twice the “I Josiah take you Denise” line, failing to flip the line to the bride. I also spotted some duplication immediately after.  I had to sort that out during what the wedding party (said they) thought was simply a well-timed dramatic pause.  The wife, on the other hand, knew something had slipped up.

Yes, I had practiced the ceremony. But apparently I failed to fully proof-read my copy.  I should have had a second set of eyes on it.

Otherwise, the performance felt solid. The attendees seemed to like it. The couple beamed. Some German speaking people in the audience said my attempt at uttering phrases in their language wasn’t too awful.  The experience was very gratifying.

Afterward, one of the attendees asked me if I was Jeff Dore.  Of course.

If Jeff, as a retired newsman, isn’t conducting weddings by now, he should be.

Then he and I could vie for those coveted “clergy” spots behind Manuel’s tavern.

Doughy Bowie

With Mrs. "Thin White Duke" LAF

With Mrs. “Thin White Duke” LAF

Suit from D&K warehouse, Memorial Drive.  Two for $100! (Eight years ago…)

Sax from daughter who yearned to play — until she actually had to learn how to do it.

Wife from DeKalb County, Georgia — who improv’d that hair color her ownself!.

Circle the Jackwagon

Jackwagon’s energetic new self-titled CD showcases a band that’s getting it right.  The three-piece has produced a refreshing record rooted in traditional blues-based rock–  strung together with a  crisp, buzzing guitar and catchy songwriting.  It’s a kicky sonic assault that’ll lodge into the fun part of your brain and linger… long past the moment you stop asking yourself whatever the hell a “jackwagon” is.

Eddie plays bass.

I have no record reviewing skills, which may explain why CNN Español guy (and former WAGA photog) Eddie Cortes asked me to review his latest aural output.  It’s a self-titled record from the band he decided to call “Jackwagon.” He knows I’m a sucker for all things Eddie; our invasion-of-Iraq experience in 2003 cemented that.

While driving to Augusta Friday  — where we spent some quality time with GOP congressional candidate Lee Anderson — Dan Reilly and I listened to Jackwagon.  The good news:  When the CD finished, and returned to song one, neither of us reached for the “eject” button.

It was a fine record for 300 mile round-trip drive.  Each song is uptempo.  The guitarist, Robert Blondeau, is inventive yet firmly rooted in a Slash / Van Halenesque comfort zone.  His riffs make the record, though the maniacal work of drummer Patrick O’Connor seasons it nicely.

Among his friends, the longstanding joke about Eddie’s various rock bands is that Eddie ends up singing.  He’s a fearless vocalist, despite a range that can generously be described as “limited.”  The new record has some surprises; in a song called “Battle Heart,” Eddie’s vocals are expressive and help keep the song interesting.

The record is much better than I’d hoped.  The songwriting actually is solid, for the most part.  The record is well produced; Eddie says the band paid for studio space and had it engineered by a guy who actually knows what he’s doing, and it shows.

“He ought to be singing about live shots,” Dan started to say after I revealed that Eddie was behind the record.  At that point, the song “Carolyn Day” came on.  Eddie wrote that song a decade ago, in a moment of obsession over an appealing WAGA reporter named Carolyn Day.  Carolyn left the news biz shortly thereafter to work at a B&B in southern California. She now works with a production company there. Jackwagon has remade the song longer and louder; the song wasn’t particularly good to begin with except as an inside novelty, and this doesn’t improve it. I’m pretty sure the lovely Mrs. Cortes still rolls her eyes whenever she watches Eddie’s band perform it.

The real head-scratcher, though, is the band’s name.  “Jackwagon” brings to mind a gnarly fur bus filled with paunchy former frat guys who’ve removed their wedding rings for an evening of stoopidity.  Recently, an 11Alive photographer suggested, incorrectly, that the Butthole Surfers is the worst band name ever.  I countered with Jackwagon.  Although I’ve offered to consult with Eddie about band names, he has declined my generosity on this issue.

Should you buy the record?  The download is $9.99.  Have you ever pissed away ten bucks on two beers at a bar?  Or given a Hamilton to a guy who “just needs money for gas to get home”?  Of course you should buy the record.  Or at least like their Facebook page.

Even if you aren’t embarking on a 300 mile round trip to meet a guy running for Congress.

Jackwagon is having a CD release party thing at Famous Pub at Toco Hill on October 13.  I’ll probably miss it.  Go hug Eddie for me!

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