Category Archives: WAGA

Bullsh!t walks

Twenty years ago, I produced two stories that depicted me as a homeless guy wandering among visitors to Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics. The premise still makes me cringe. Yet, I’d do it again.

"Sir, may I help you?"

“Sir, may I help you?”

The story was rooted in abundant anecdotal evidence that authorities were aggressively rooting out downtown’s homeless folk in order to prevent them from mingling with Olympic visitors. Most of the evidence came from the homeless themselves, and their advocates. Ask the authorities, and they’d look at you like you were crazy.

In 1996, I was into my first year as a mostly self-assigned feature reporter at WAGA. Prior to the start of the Olympics, I scheduled a two-week vacation and took my kids on a road trip to Yellowstone. During that period, I grew a scraggly beard. On the way back I stopped to see my cousin, a farmer in Missouri, who gave me a well-worn trucker-hat, stained with sweat and motor oil and livestock fluids and God knows what else. In exchange, I gave him a “channel 5 eyewitness news” hat, which I don’t think he ever wore.

Wearing the hat, the beard, and some clothes that I’d gunked-up in Peachtree Creek near the TV station, I set out for the just-opened Centennial Olympic Park. The idea was hatched by the late Robert Miller, a streetwise photog who enthusiastically ditched his big-boy camera for a consumer-grade camcorder, so as to blend in with other camcorder-toting tourists. An intern tagged along as Robert’s apparent on-camera foil, while I lurked beyond her wearing a wireless mic.

At this point, let me say: Any story that’s rooted in bullshit is suspect.  Any act that compromises the honesty of a reporter is dangerous. We are constantly trying to earn the trust of the audience; when we integrate bullshit into our coverage, it undermines that.

But it’s also true that we often get better information when we don’t fully disclose our intentions. In this case, a story approached traditionally would have yielded predictable results.

My act included a wobbly walk and a fluctuating grimace that made me look a little nuts. After entering the park, it didn’t take long for a plainclothes GBI agent to stop me.  His “probable cause” was chilling: “Somebody said you was looking at little kids when you walked by. Anything to that?”

That guy gets frisked

That guy gets frisked

It was a bullshit-meets-bullshit moment. When he found my wireless mic, my act unraveled.

A day later, we returned. At the suggestion of WAGA management, I toned down the quirky mannerisms. But it was clear the cops had been briefed about my presence. They mostly steered clear.  Part two was more of the same, minus the accusatory police encounter.

This story has an off-camera sidebar.

After getting into character on the first day, I entered the TV station and immediately raised suspicion. Two strapping photogs and longtime friends saw me first: Travis Shields and Steve Zumwalt. “Sir, may I help you?” offered Travis. My attire was apparently convincing.

They began to circle toward me in an improvised pincer movement, cornering me in an engineering room. When one of them grabbed me, I ID’d myself, drawing embarrassed whoops. You’ve got to go into the newsroom! Travis said.  Great idea.

The moment I entered the newsroom, Leslie Duffield effortlessly and loudly ID’d me: Whoa, look at Doug! Cover blown but with the intrigue of my co-workers stoked, Lily Jamarillo made an evil suggestion:  Go into Budd’s office. They’re having a meeting, the newsroom secretary said.

So I burst open the door as Lily dramatically exclaimed Sir! You can’t go in there!  Budd McEntee, the news director, was with his management team, plus the station’s general manager.  There was awkward silence, followed by Sir, may I help you? from McEntee. I just stood there and breathed hard.

After a moment the general manager, Jack Sander, produced a forearm and used it to sort-of pin me against a wall. Almost simultaneously, Michael Carlin, the investigative EP, blurted dismissively: Oh. That’s Doug Richards.

Disappointment. Groans. Annoyance. I beat a hasty exit.

I somehow still had a job, despite my bullshit.

 

I hate Fridays

I love Fridays.

Friday sucks you in, a temporal destination, a goalpost, an illusory finish line of the workweek. I hate Fridays.

Friday is a destroyer, the marker by which we cheerfully advance our daily and weekly lives while wondering where the time went.

April 1987, in which your boy chalks up one more Friday

April 1987, in which your boy chalks up one more Friday

On June 1, 1986 I began work in TV news in Atlanta.  Over those nearly 30 years, I’ve celebrated 1552 Fridays.

Most of them were sweet, blessed benchmarks of a workweek successfully concluded. Even the Fridays that led to Saturday workdays and more still had that “Friday” taste.

(One standout exception was Friday March 12, 1993.  A day shift routinely vectored toward quitting time — and then I learned I had to spend Friday night in north Georgia because “snow” was expected.  I vividly remember my annoyance while riding to Pickens County.  The snow turned into an epic weekend-long blizzard, and a remarkable experience.)

Accumulate enough Fridays, and next thing you know they’ll call you “veteran reporter.”  It’ll happen in what seems like the wink of an eye.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Thirty years ago at WAGA, I was assigned a desk, a typewriter and one of those telephones with a bunch of buttons that lit up.  If I’d asked, they would have also assigned me an ashtray.

My first workday, a Monday, I covered a truck accident on I-285 at ML King Jr. Drive.  The photog versed me in the vernacular; 285 was “the perimeter.”  One could shorten the other street to “MLK.”

The live truck operator climbed onto the roof of the vehicle and manually pointed a parabolic dish toward a microwave receiving tower.  We fed raw video, shot on 3/4″ tape that rolled through a Bible-sized cassette, through the microwave link.

That Monday, I felt very unsteady learning the circuitry of my new big-market job. But that inaugural Friday undoubtedly came with a sense of triumph.

In the ensuing years, I observed the arrival and departure of hundreds of coworkers and competitors.  I have to suppress a snort whenever I meet a newcomer; instead, I try to empathize by remembering the vertigo that accompanies a new TV news job in a new town.  I move through town now with confidence and experience, though experience can also lead to inertia.  Bossfolk are always on the lookout for that.

Newcomers can do some amazing things.  Three years into his stint at WXIA, Jeremy Campbell (with Matt Livingston, Erin Gutierrez and Lauren Rudeseal) has produced a very watchable, episodic and eye-opening web-only series about heroin abuse in Atlanta’s upper-income suburbs.

I wish I’d done it.  It never occurred to me to even try.

The workweeks fly by in a series of checklists:

  • Get up early, brew coffee
  • Run four / five miles
  • Sort out story ideas while running
  • Solve life’s problems while running
  • Shower and such
  • Fight traffic
  • Attend an editorial meeting
  • Make phone calls / contacts / appointments to gather material
  • Be fair. Keep perspective. Yet make the story sing
  • Meet social media obligations
  • Eyeball the deadline and arrange logistics accordingly
  • Log video, write for TV
  • Make homemade / web-based graphics for TV
  • Read into a microphoneuntitled-1
  • (Edit, if you’re a one-man-band, which I’m not. But I do edit occasionally)
  • Write material in the TV rundown
  • Make the deadline
  • Write material on the web template (and respect the fact that this should be higher on the checklist whenever possible)
  • Get the story right
  • Make contacts for upcoming stories / try to learn stuff nobody else knows
  • Deliver a clean, compelling live shot
  • Shut down computer and go home

Somewhere on the checklist should be “come up with that amazing episodic webcast.”  Even without that, it’s no surprise the Fridays come in rapid succession.

In recent years, I’ve begun to address my conflicts about Friday.  Cheery coworkers would say “thank God it’s Friday.” I would cheerily respond: “Yes. Another week closer to death.”  I got some strange looks.  I mostly don’t say that anymore.

One can update skills and contacts; buy a new wardrobe; stay well-groomed; stay reasonably current on news and culture. But time ruthlessly claims us all, disdaining our weekly triumphs embodied in our short-term celebration of Friday.  Before you know it, thirty years have come and gone.

TGIF.

I hate Fridays.

The general’s kid

Update:  Last month, this woman donated a kidney to a stranger.

My brother in law spotted Beth Galvin in a Decatur pub and got all giddy. Who could blame him? Galvin is an talented, humble, good-humored and lovely WAGA reporter who has owned that station’s medical beat for the last fifteen years.

Beth Galvin, WAGA

Beth Galvin, WAGA

“What should I say to her?” he texted me, looking for some inside-ball conversation-starter. In this case, I actually had an answer.

“Tell her you’re a Cold War buff.  Ask her if she’s Gen. John Galvin’s daughter. ”

Who? asked the BIL, a man who is many things– but not a Cold War buff.

Gen. Galvin, I explained via text, was a four-star Army general who became the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, among other resume highlights.  When he retired in 1992, the Washington Post described him as “without peer among living generals.”

Beth has her own claims to local-news fame. But I’m pretty sure she would say that none exceeds that of being daddy’s little girl.

Gen. Galvin (left) from Life Magazine

Gen. Galvin (left) from Life Magazine

She grew up an Army brat in far-flung posts across the globe, ranging from Belgium and Germany to Panama and Hinesville GA, where she graduated from high school. And wherever she went, she was the bossman’s kid. Her Army brat life was a lot different than most. She was the red carpet brat.

“Talk about opening doors,” says Mike Zakel, the WXIA photog who worked with Galvin for a bunch of years before she jumped ship from WXIA to WAGA in 1997 or so. Zakel and Galvin covered stories together at Ft. Stewart. Guess which general commanded the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) from 1981 to ’83 at Fort Stewart?

Gen. Galvin’s daughter is no ordinary local TV news chica whenever she darkens the gates at Ft. Stewart.

“I never minded the ribbing about being the General’s daughter because I knew I’d hit the Dad Lottery.  He is a great, funny, loving father,” Beth writes.  “In the military, he was respected, but he was also loved.  Which is rare in a world in which a lot of people lead by fear – or bravado.  He spoke quietly.”  Somewhere in Massachusetts, there’s a school named after Beth’s dad.

Beth describes her dad as her career’s biggest cheerleader.

Retired Gen. John Galvin

Retired Gen. John Galvin

Today, Gen. Galvin is retired. He has written a book about his life as a Cold Warrior. Posting the info on social media, Gen. Galvin’s kid couldn’t be prouder.

Following our texts, my brother in law stalked Beth Galvin’s table, introduced himself and deadpanned the Cold War inquiry about the General. He says Beth’s face brightened, surprised by the recognition, in a civilian setting, of her pre-TV claim to fame.

Beth writes: “He totally HAD me.  100% played.  I bow to him,”

“Filming”

Rest in peace, Dan Keever.  You were a smart, gentle soul– and a great, steadying presence in a rough business.  You’re gone too soon.

Is this where y’all film the news?

When I worked, as a poodle-headed youth, at my first TV news job in Mississippi, I’d hear that question.  It would come from folks touring WTVA-TV.  They would ask it upon entering the station’s airy studio, a familiar sight for viewers of Tupelo’s only TV station.

Photo by Bill Birdsong, official photographer for Gov. Lester Maddox

Photo by Bill Birdsong, official photographer for Gov. Lester Maddox

Why, of course we don’t “film” the news here, I would nonverbally retort while verbally saying “yes, ma’am, and thank you for watching.”  By 1980, TV news technology had mostly discarded film as a newsgathering medium, replacing it with reusable videotape.  Tape was cheaper, lasted longer, required less guesswork / science and could be “turned” instantly — bypassing the soupy processing film required to get the nitrate images onto the film emulsion that gave us motion pictures.

Film was a terrific newsgathering medium for those skilled in its use.  Dan Keever, pictured left,  was.  I was not.

I used film while at KOMU-TV Columbia MO in 1979.  My fellow University of Missouri students and I shot my final pre-graduation project on film.  I did such a poor job of hot-splice editing it that Mackie Morris authorized me to transfer the raw material over to videotape.  That project taught me how to edit tape-to-tape.  I never attempted to edit film again.

Despite the shift in technology, “film” never went away, at least as a verb to describe what one does with a mobile TV camera.   People would see us reloading videotape into our “minicams” (or, back in the early 80s, the clunky tape decks that attached by cable to minicams), and still talk about us filming the news.

Even today, I talk to young adults who grew up shooting video on Iphones — and they still use the word “film” to describe what they’re doing.

I think they may be onto something.

For most of my adult life, I would painstakingly make the distinction:  No, we are not “filming.”  But we are “videotaping,” which is the same thing minus the film canisters, the film processing and the quaint hot-splice editing.

But we no longer use videotape.  We use chips, or “cards,” which encode video into what is essentially a portable hard drive.  What’s the right verb / gerund for that?

“Shooting” is accurate, but it has other meanings and fails to convey that there’s a recording process underway.

“Videoing” is a gnarly word I can’t bring myself to use.  “Encoding” is a word that would require an explanation.

“Documenting” is cute, but has other meanings and sounds a bit pretentious, especially for a guy or gal standing at a string of crime scene tape.  You might-could use that word if you do it with an ironic smirk.

I could continue to say “videotaping,” but that would make us sound anachronistic.  That’s not a good thing at a time when local TV news is struggling to stay relevant to young people.

So aside from the absence of film, “filming” works.  It doesn’t require an explanation.  It’s universally understood and, despite the disappearance of film, remains widely used.  Plus, it’s part of the kids’ jargon.  So it’s a thing.

So yeah.  I’m now part of a film crew.

Y’all filming the news?  Why, yes ma’am.  And we’re damn glad you still know what “the news” is.

 

News cycle, recycled

The Cronut

The Cronut

We think we’re so smart.  Here we are, finger-poppin,’ pixel-packin’ 21st century multiplatform news media delivery entities, all fresh and hot like a doughnut-shaped croissant.

And yet — try as we might to innovate, to update our technology and our storytelling conventions, one truth emerges:  TV news is wedded to images, interviews, sound and narration.

Lonnie Holley 2014

Lonnie Holley 2014

Last year, WXIA’s Jaye Watson produced a story about Lonnie Holley, an eccentric folk artist who has an eye-catching art habitat southwest of Turner Field.  Watson’s story told Holley’s story, showed his turf and did so with a dazzling array of sound and video that brought life to the art and the befuddling artist.  The piece won photog / editor Nick Moròn a first-place NPPA mention in its third quarter clip contest.

Lonnie Holley 1998-ish

Lonnie Holley 1998-ish

Now rewind 15 years, or so.  Yours truly visited the same artist at his previous habitat in Birmingham, AL.  The stories are remarkably similar, except Moròn and Watson used shorter and more frequent nat sound pops.  Watson’s writing is a bit crisper and cleverer. Mine had the editorial benefit of a conflict between Holley and the neighboring airport.  Mine was ably shot by Rodney Hall and edited by Andi Larner.  We let Holley’s rambling descriptions of his art play out in slightly longer bursts. We didn’t win diddly squat.  I don’t remember entering it in any contests.

How much of a difference does 17 years make?  Not much, it turns out.  In 1998, Hall and Larner and I produced a piece looking at the 50th anniversary of a killing in Coweta County that became the subject of a book and movie.

I wrote a kind-of throwaway line at the end of the piece, speculating about whether the road named after the killer was “the only road in America named for a man executed for murder.”  That line became the premise of a story Steve Flood and I produced this month, which also looked back at the killing and the why folks on John Wallace’s home turf still cling to the legend of the executed killer.

I hadn’t re-watched the 1998 piece prior to shooting the 2015 piece with Flood.  Instead, we independently had the stroke of genius to shoot a jittery / grainy re-enactment sequence of the 1948 highway chase that led to the killing.

Exactly like the 1998 piece, it turned out.  Innovative?  OK, not really.  But watchable?  Arguably, yes.  It used sound and pictures and interviews and narration, our familiar tools.

The biggest difference:  The reporter’s mom jeans, conspicuous in the late 90s Holley piece, had thankfully disappeared by 2015.

Punchline

Two years ago, the Little Five Points Halloween parade included a very amusing “Murder Kroger” float.  Staffed by people carrying toy weapons and dressed as bloody murder victims, the float paid comic homage to a grocery store on Ponce de Leon Ave. whose nickname has been, for years, a dark civic punchline.BnyxKqL

That punchline drove a story I produced on a slow Friday in November. I’d spotted a blog that said that the renovated “Murder Kroger” was scheduling a grand re-opening under a new name, the “Beltline Kroger.”

My story started with one line acknowledging a 1991 killing that begat the nickname.  It used a music video by a local band that had done a song called “Murder Kroger,” adding evidence to the name’s presence in the culture.  It was capped with an amusing moment while interviewing a longtime shopper, who both acknowledged the enduring nickname, while touting the store’s low prices and manager’s specials.

“Bargains to die for” I rejoined, and he chuckled in agreement.

Ha ha.

A few days later, a woman contacted DeMarco Morgan, one of 11Alive’s news anchors.  Without rancor, she quietly identified herself as the sister of the victim in the 1991 murder case.  DeMarco passed the info to reporter Jeremy Campbell.  Jeremy had actually produced a “Murder Kroger” story nearly a year earlier, which noted that the store had begun a renovation with an eye on upgrading its reputation.

Jeremy talked to the woman by phone.  She sent him her sister’s funeral brochure.  She also sent him a VHS cassette with TV coverage of the original case.

Jeremy hunted down a VHS machine and popped in the tape.  He saw a fuzzy-headed youngster named Doug Richards doing a live shot outside the Kroger store one evening, tossing to a piece that showed police at the crime scene.  It also had some sound with Danny Agan, the homicide detective who often spoke to news folk outside the old “homicide task force” building on Somerset Dr., just a couple blocks east of the Masquerade off North Ave.

Cynthia Prioleau

Cynthia Prioleau

25 year old Cynthia Prioleau was attacked as she tried to walk into the Kroger store to buy some groceries on April 1, 1991.  Jeremy  reported that the murder is still unsolved.

In the 1991 live shot, that youthful TV news goon had memorized a detailed narrative of the confrontation leading to Prioleau’s death.  There was a lateral 90 degree walk that more-or-less showed the dark parking lot, revealing the lighted facade of the grocery store.  There was an abundance of gestures, occasionally revealing a handful of cables that attached the reporter’s earpiece to the phone line delivering the broadcast audio and control room cues.  There was ample sincerity and dark curly hair.

The story, in hindsight, was clearly told — conveying the horror of the crime without stepping into sensationalistic turf.  Yet there was also a bit of mangled syntax, some misplaced words that mistakenly told the audience that the confrontation happened “as she was walking through the grocery store” after I’d already established that the crime took place in the parking lot.  My train of thought has always been an unsteady, derailment-prone vehicle.

Needless to say, latter-day Doug had completely forgotten that he had covered this particular bit of violence 23 years earlier.

The VHS tape also had coverage from WSB and WXIA, their anchors narrating similar video.  WAGA’s coverage, however, including two more packages — one dayside followup by Morse Diggs, and another nightside folo by yours truly.  My second story included a silhouette interview with the victim’s grieving sister– the same woman who contacted DeMarco Morgan more than two decades later–  and a parking lot standup where I’m holding a canister of pepper spray.  So the evidence shows I covered the “murder Kroger” story on two consecutive days.

How could I forget?

Richard Hyde - Fulton Daily Report photo

Richard Hyde – Fulton Daily Report photo

In 1991, working nightside, crime was a staple of my work at WAGA.  It seemed to be what the viewers wanted.  My bossfolk wanted it.  Our nightside assignment editor, Richard Hyde, was an ex-cop who reveled in catching police scanner tidbits and gleefully sending me out into the fray.  Because he was good at it, it made me look good as a breaking news guy.  I was a big fan of Hyde and embraced the role we played together.  (Hyde was also an outstanding contact for disgruntled cops who wanted to sic the news media on APD’s management, run at that time by the colorful Chief Eldrin Bell.)

Hyde is still stirring the pot, getting judges fired for misconduct in his role with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.  He also lent the investigative chops to the crew appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to investigate the APS cheating scandal.  I’m still his biggest fan.

Point being:  I covered a lot of crime.  Lots of yellow tape.  Lots of morgue hearses.  Lots of soundbites with Sgt / Lt. Agan on Somerset Dr.

So that horrifying moment in the grocery store parking lot became part of the blur of random violence delivered to an audience both enthralled and numbed by the nightly parade of yellow tape, produced by a kid who believed he was giving the people what they wanted.  And then forgot about it as quickly as possible.

My bud Jeremy Campbell has a TV news blog too!  Start your 2015 by giving it a click here!

Highlights from an election season

photo(6)Covering the 2014 election has been fulfilling and entertaining.  It’s also been very “clubby.” I can count on seeing the same reporters from WSB and the AJC at most events that I cover, with occasional visits from WABE and GPB radio.  I almost never see reporters from WAGA or WGCL.

I can understand why news managers might decide to pass on politics.  Specifically, audience research tends to show that political coverage isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser.  I suspect that TV viewers are so annoyed by political commercials that they don’t want to see another layer of their least-favorite pols taking up valuable dog-rescue space on the local news.

I’m very grateful that my two supervisors, Ellen Crooke and Matt King, have opted to interpret  that research within the framework of a TV newsroom’s traditional responsibilities to ask reasonable questions of those seeking positions of power.

My moments covering politics have included some pretty great highlights, including but not limited to

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

Mike Zakel has gotten a haircut since a GOP tracker captured this moment

  • Spotting the image of WXIA photog Mike Zakel looming ominously in an anti-Jason Carter Republican Governors Association ad;
  • Spotting my cast-covered right wrist holding a mic in another anti-Carter ad (my still-broken wrist is improving, thanks);
  • Taking my mom, who is visiting from California and took me to my first political rally as a ten-year old, to the debates at the fairgrounds in Perry.   (We watched 5-7 year olds competitively ride sheep beforehand.)
  • Abundant emails in my inbox from candidates and their surrogates that aggressively suggest stories about why the other guy sucks;
  • Suggesting (and getting) a do-over from a candidate who awkwardly walked away in the middle of a contentious Q&A;
  • Getting that candidate to subsequently vow to never again walk away in the middle of a press scrum;
  • Getting a grammatically incorrect emailed statement from a candidate’s PR person — which I ran as-is when the publicist declined my suggestion to correct the grammar;
  • Watching two lesser-known statewide candidates crash a Jason Carter press conference;

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

    Women for Deal on the left, women for Carter on the right

  • Watching “women for Michelle Nunn” and “women for Nathan Deal” events get crashed by women backing their opponents;
  • Getting accused (incorrectly) by the staff of one candidate of attending a fundraiser for that candidate’s opponent;
  • Nearly getting Rep. Jack Kingston to play on my over-45 old-guy baseball team;
  • Seeing a retired WAGA assignment editor, Tammy Lloyd Clabby, at a Women for Nunn rally, decrying salary inequality in the news business.

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

    The unforgettable Tammy Lloyd Clabby

As with much of our business, there is a sometimes tense, often amusing love-hate relationship candidates and their staff have with the news media.  Campaigns will occasionally issue press releases citing some story I’ve done (or the AJC or WSB) as proof positive of why their opponent isn’t fit to breathe the air of the Peach State, much less run for office.  Conversely, the same campaigns are quick to bust out text messages or emails squawking about a perfectly reasonable story that they wish I’d handled differently or overlooked completely.

photoThe adjacent text message exchange exemplifies it perfectly.  The text writer (we’ll call him “Brian,” the publicist for a GOP incumbent seeking re-election) had clobbered me for a story I’d done a few days earlier, then subsequently offered a hint of praise for another story.  This prompted me to ask him, tongue in cheek, to “make up your mind” about whether I was a right- or left-wing stooge.

His answer resulted in a genuine out-loud guffaw.  (He also agreed to let me post it here, knowing that you’d probably figure out who “Brian” is.)

Point being:  Those news entities that have sidestepped covering politics should maybe reconsider.  Lord knows, the campaigns are filling the coffers of their TV stations with cash from sweet, sweet political advertising.  One could argue that their viewers deserve a chance to see those people in a real-world context, answering questions posed by genuine newsm’n and women.

Plus, they’d further distract the already-overworked staffs of the candidates, perhaps divert their affection and ire, and add to an already gloriously-confused story.