Carlton Gary: After 41 Years….The End….But No Real Closure

Carlton Gary 4Serial killers were supposed to do their evil in Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago.  Columbus, Ga., was Colonel Chick, Katie the Cow, Miss Patsy, Wednesday night wrestling, Rozell Fabiani, Wells Dairies, Weracoba Park and the Water Wiz.

During a phone conversation with a long-time friend Thursday night, the light bulb went off in my mind.  “Do you realize I was 23 when Carlton Gary started his reign of terror?” I rhetorically asked.

Carlton Gary (a/k/a The Stocking Strangler) was executed by lethal injection Thursday night in Jackson, Ga.  Thus ends one of the longest stays on death row in the history of the Peach State.  Gary’s demise may mean the final chapter of a grievous story.   Yet, for those of us who lived through his months as a domestic terrorist, the story will never depart our minds.

Forty-one years ago, I was in my sophomore year as a Columbus anchor and reporter.  Only three weeks earlier, I moved from WRBL to WTVM.

As a little boy who lived between 1956 and 1961 in the parsonage of Sherwood Methodist Church on 35th Street, the idea of one man striking terror into our city was unthinkable.  People kept their doors unlocked in the daytime.  Men left toolboxes in their yards without fear of theft.  Kids walked or rode bikes to school.

When a police monitor blared out a suspicious call on a Friday afternoon in September 1977, none of us on the Action 9 News team had a clue we were about to experience the first chapter of a real life murder mystery.

Because most of us were editing other stories for the 7 o’clock newscast, Mitzi Oxford—who had just moved into the role as WTVM’s lead weathercaster—went to the scene.

Ferne Jackson, sister-in-law of the former state senator and future Columbus mayor Harry Jackson, was found dead—-strangled to death with a nylon stocking.  Ms. Jackson was 60.  A debate ensued in our newsroom and with other media in town as to whether the word “elderly” should be used as a descriptive adverb for Ms. Jackson.

At the time, we did not have a weekend newscast on WTVM but general manager Lynn Avery was concerned enough that he made a rare appearance onto our set during a commercial break.

Carlton Gary 5Addressing my co-anchor and news director Kathy Pepino, Avery asked:  “Are you going to commission people to be on call in case something else happens?”  Kathy assured him she had things under control.  Avery was oblivious to the fact that he was still talking to us on live television, back turned to the camera, when the break ended.

I checked in Saturday morning. Kathy gave me the okay to go on to Auburn with my buddy John Hamilton.  We saw the Tigers take one on the chin against Southern Mississippi 24-13.  We talked a bit about Ferne Jackson’s murder on the drive back to Columbus.  Mostly, John griped about Auburn coach Doug Barfield’s playcalling.

Eight days later, I was called early on Sunday morning.  The fear was a second woman had been strangled to death.  A production videographer met me near Cross Country Plaza in front of the home of 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein.  Neighbors nervously walked around their yards amidst a plethora of police cars.

Realtor Charlie Morgan’s wife agreed to talk on camera.  She said, “What’s going on in our town?  We’re all scared to death.”  As much as I was glad to have the comment for my story, I questioned Ms. Morgan’s wisdom in offering it.

I talked to a couple of police officers.  They were reluctant to say anything.  One, however, told me Ms. Dimenstein’s murder fit the same pattern as did Ms. Jackson’s.

Eventually, I was sent to four of the crime scenes.  With each passing one, I became more emotionally nauseous.  Every time we heard certain codes on that police monitor, we questioned if this would be another murder.  Five more times, it was.

Over the next several months, I saw the best and worst of journalism in Columbus.  I also saw and heard the best and worst in our community.

The strong suit in Columbus media during those horrific months was relentlessness.  Police Chief Curtis McClung, a man I genuinely respected, was old school when it came to answering reporters’ questions about the murders.  He favored saying nothing.

Ultimately, the leadership of the Columbus Press Club—-which was headed by Ledger-Enquirer reporter David Everett at the time—-forced the hand of Chief McClung.  David Hopkins, a former WRBL reporter with law enforcement experience, was hired as public information officer for the Columbus Police Department.

Prayer vigils for the community and Sunday sermons addressing the rampant fear were on the rise.  As one who was a pastor’s son and understood the devout religious life in Columbus, I convinced Kathy that we needed to do a series of reports on the role of the church in helping the community through the crisis.  One of the first of the citywide services of unity was at nearby Wynnton United Methodist Church.  Little did those in attendance realize one of that church’s own would eventually be a victim.

Carlton Gary 3Religion reporting is one of the most glaring deficits in local television newsrooms across the nation.  In 1978, the first of my 13 Associated Press awards for reporting was for that series on the church as a solace in a time of community crisis.

At times, we were sent on assignments that made us uncomfortable.  My videographer Lee Davis and I were sent to cover the burial service of one of the victims.  While we stayed at a considerable distance from the tent to shoot our footage, we could not escape the wrath of mourners who were aghast at our presence.

One woman, intent on giving me a piece of her mind, railed.  “You news people have no heart, no concern, no compassion for these people,” she said.  “The very idea of you showing up with a camera when this family is grieving.  I want you to know how I feel.”

As we drove away, Lee and I both expressed our misgivings.  “You know, a funeral service and a burial are a private thing,” Lee said.  “Aren’t you supposed to ask for permission to shoot video at something like that?”  I agreed.

“I didn’t like the way that lady chewed us out,” I said, “but I don’t blame her for being upset.  We just showed up.”

When we returned to the newsroom, we made the request not to be sent to any more funeral services or internments unless the victim’s family had given us permission.  I made that a policy several years later when I became a news director, even if every one of my colleagues disagreed with that decision.

At one point after the fourth strangling, I encountered my friend and former WRBL colleague David Eisen at a pizza restaurant.  We discussed having been mutually warned by police to examine the inside of our cars at night before entering them.

“I don’t unlock my door until I check the back seat and the passenger’s side up front,” David told me.

I followed the same procedure.  Concerns had been shared with us by some authorities that this serial killer might try to go after a journalist.  Reason existed to believe that he fit the profile of one who would watch news coverage of his exploits.  If he became angered at the reports, he could take his ire out on a newscaster.

Carlton Gary 1Another debate ensued in the community and within newsrooms after the third murder over use of the label “The Stocking Strangler.”  Many callers were upset at the reference.  One scoured me about it on the phone.

“We don’t need to be compared with The Boston Strangler in Columbus, Georgia,” he said.  “All you’re doing is giving him more spotlight.  Don’t you have anything better to do than that?”  That was one of the nicer calls.

For a while, we compromised on a reference to “The Columbus Strangler,” but national media outlets, especially ABC News, solidified the name “Stocking Strangler” to our unknown villain.

The worst of our community erupted after retired teacher Martha Thurmond’s murder.  To a degree, the people who participated in a semi-witch hunt might have been forgiven because the entire city was desperate for an arrest.

One evening, between our 7 and 11 o’clock newscasts, we fielded approximately 600 calls in the WTVM newsroom.  A rumor spread like wildfire that led to people fingering a young man as the strangler and accusations toward journalists that we were protecting him.  The scuttlebutt followed a predictable pattern.  People knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the young man was the killer because he once was treated for emotional illness.

One of many calls I took went something like this:  “Y’all all know who did it.  Every last one of y’all know who did it but y’all are just covering up for him because his Daddy was a big name.”  Daddy, in this case, was a recently deceased Columbus television executive.

Many amateur armchair detectives put two and two together.  Their equation added up to an answer of eight but for about a month, a significantly vocal element in Columbus were certain the man’s son was the killer.  No rational or reasoned argument would convince them otherwise.  Even a man in my church insisted we were covering up the strangler’s identity.

Thank goodness social media did not exist 41 years ago.  The new generation of conspiracy theorists have raised the same name again online in recent weeks.

One of our women reporters, whom I considered to be a tough cookie and still do, took a call one night from a most irrational viewer who accused her and our entire news team of creating unnecessary hysteria.  The caller, a woman, called our reporter an unprintable name and engaged in a personal attack.  I never saw my colleague emotionally break down before or after that night but she exploded in tears.

Carlton Gary 2We were all accused of attempting to use the story of the Stocking Strangler to further our personal careers.  One man let me know in no uncertain terms at a school Halloween carnival where I was judging costumes.

“You’re just sensationalizing everything so you can go to New York,” the man, who never introduced himself, said.  “I don’t know how I could live with myself the way you go on and on about these murders every night.”

I offered an edited number of those reactions for a column in 2004 in Electronic Media magazine titled, “The Viewers Don’t Always Get It Right.”

Not only were we not looking to go to New York, more than one of us pondered whether we might consider an alternate career.  The emotional toll was enormous on all but the most emotionless of journalists.  I often entered the newsroom at WTVM at 2:30 in the afternoon dreading the prospect of having to inform viewers of yet another murder.  In that day, no one considered the novel idea of employing mental health counselors to help reporters decompress.  We could have hugely benefited from their therapy in 1978.

On a weekend trip home to Kingsland, Ga., I discussed the prospect of getting out of TV news with my father.  He gave me his usual wise advice.  “If you want to do that, just be sure it’s not because you’re running from it,” he said.  “But you’re going to find it’s not easy in any other job you do, even in the church.”

My father, Rev. F.J. Beverly Jr., knew of which he spoke.  He dealt with at least a couple of troublesome congregations in his years as a pastor.

We had one brief moment of celebration during those eight exasperating months.  On a Saturday morning in February 1978, I was called to a home in the same radius where six of the seven murders occurred.  Ruth Schwob was a prominent resident of Columbus.  In her late seventies, Ms. Schwob did not even stand five feet tall.  Physically, she was as fit as any woman her age.  That fact saved her life.

At approximately 3 a.m., Ms. Schwob heard a noise outside her bedroom.  In the darkness, she sensed a figure approaching.  At the moment the intruder would likely have wrapped a nylon stocking around her throat, she took a desperation swing and popped her invader in the jaw.  That gave her a split second to hit a bedside button that triggered a loud burglar alarm.  Carlton Gary ran.

One sensed the 200,000 residents of Columbus collectively standing as one to applaud Ruth Schwob.  At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Ms. Schwob spoke with me briefly.  She managed a smile and thankfulness that she escaped a fatal attack.

WTVM still did not have a weekend newscast.  Television in markets such as Columbus was still a few years away from live remote units.  Lynn Avery opted to open up three minutes at 7 p.m. for a special report on Ruth Schwob’s survival.  I taped an open and close and narrated video of the police presence and gathering of people around Ms. Schwob’s home, inserting her brief comments.  I have no idea how Lynn arrived at a decision on adjusting commercial content in “Gunsmoke,” which we aired from 7 to 8 p.m.

Our sudden joy was about to turn sour.  The next afternoon, we were startled to learn that yet another victim had been claimed by The Stocking Strangler.  Only two blocks down the street from Ruth Schwob’s home, another woman in her late seventies—Mildred Borom—was found dead.  Police were certain the strangler went to Ms. Borom’s home immediately after he was scared away from Ms. Schwob’s.  The coroner placed time of death at approximately 3:45 a.m. the previous morning.

One visitor we saw frequently in Columbus was Bob Sirkin, the Atlanta correspondent for ABC News.  At one point, he was almost adopted as a member of Action 9 News when he came to town to file reports on the strangler.  One day, Bob showed us his technique of doing standups in his reports.  He recorded his transition on a small cassette recorder, attached an earphone inside his right ear and repeated what he heard himself saying on tape when he reported on camera.  I tried it twice and gave it up.  Saying what I was just saying on a recording created a distracting echo effect for me.  Nonetheless, Bob was a generous guy and once told us, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you people to be doing this night after night with the whole city up in arms.”

At one point in 1978, I faced an encounter with my general manager which grew testy.  An old friend from college, Nadine Stewart—who later went on to work for NBC News and CNN—called me from Jacksonville.  Calling on behalf of her news director, Nadine asked if it were possible for me to do a story for WJXT on the effect of the stranglings on the city of Columbus.  My new boss Dave Richardson okayed it with the caveat that I not neglect my work for our newscasts.  I used a lot of file tape and soundbites from interviews which I had saved.  I shot one fresh standup closer.  I edited the piece in about an hour one evening after my workday was over.

The story aired on the Saturday night edition of Eyewitness News on WJXT, which Nadine anchored.  A little more than a week later, I was blindsided by Lynn Avery when I came into the building at WTVM for work.

“Do you have any explanation for this?” Lynn asked.

He immediately presented me with an envelope addressed to me on a WJXT mailing label.  “How many more of these am I going to expect to see?  How many more stations are you applying to?  Do you dislike it so much here that you’re trying to get out?” he questioned.

I was utterly stunned.  To be candid, WJXT was a station I grew up watching from the third grade through college.  Had I ever been offered an opportunity to work there, I would have seriously considered it.  I had no offer.  I had sought no job.  I loved WTVM and Columbus because the city was one of my two hometowns.  The envelope contained the tape on which I had done the story on the Stocking Strangler as a favor to Nadine.

“Why don’t we go in Dave’s office and I think you’ll have proof that this was not an audition tape?” I told Lynn with a combination of irritation and trepidation.  Our boss had largely treated me well but he also had a reputation for a quick trigger on employees.  Lynn was also paranoid about the job section in Broadcasting magazine.  For a period, he ripped out the employment pages before he released the publication for station consumption.

Dave Richardson confirmed that he had cleared me to do the story for WJXT and that, to his knowledge, I was not looking for another job.  Lynn left but exited with a mild warning that he never wanted to see another tape with another station’s mailing label addressed to me.

When Janet (Cindy) Cofer became the final victim of The Stocking Strangler in the spring of 1978, we had no way of knowing she was the last.  For months, we continued to work as if we had a perpetual police radio going off in our ears.

Reporters came and went over the next three years at WTVM.  Gradually, our attention drifted to other community issues.  In 1980, my colleague Andy Still and I collaborated on a documentary on political interference in public safety in Columbus.  A fire captain named Jeff Amerson became the central figure in the controversy.  Fire department whistleblower Frankie Fussell dramatically revealed in sworn testimony the demands of a mysterious orthopedic surgeon who ordered that the fire chief and several senior fire supervisors “have got to go.”  Andy and I were nominated for a DuPont-Columbia Award for that 90-minute documentary.

Eventually, I made a difficult decision to leave Columbus in late 1981.  Over the next two years, I made stops in Mississippi, in Spartanburg, S.C. (as assistant news director at WSPA) and Savannah, Ga.

In May 1984, I was in my first week as news director of WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  My phone rang shortly before noon.

“Are you sitting down?” the voice asked.  I knew immediately the caller was Andy Still, who was now anchor at WSAV in Savannah.

“They’re having a police convention here and I went out to have coffee with (then Columbus police chief) Jim Wetherington,” Andy said.  “He was called to the phone.  When he came back, he said, ‘Looks like I’m going to have to leave early.  That call was about an arrest in Albany.  They think this may be the strangler.’ ”

For once, a name could be attached to the most infamous individual crime wave in Columbus history.  Carlton Gary would be extradited to Columbus.  Two years later, he stood trial and was convicted of the murders of three of the women he was suspected of killing.

I finally left daily television news in 1992 to become a college professor of broadcast journalism.  My parents retired to their native city of Waycross, Ga.

As the years rolled on, the conversation during visits to Columbus or Waycross would periodically revert to Carlton Gary.  At times, adjectives such as “despicable” and “vile” would be among the kinder ones to refer to the convicted Stocking Strangler.

As the years evolved into decades, residents in Columbus who had lived through the nightmare became weary with the legal system.  Appeal after appeal, motion after motion for a new trial, and attempts to challenge evidence from the original trial dragged on five, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 years after his convictions.  Twice over those years, I was asked to be a contributor to local news retrospectives on the stranglings and Gary.

Sure, people with adamant views against capital punishment held to their stand that even the most heinous of murders should not be punished with death.  Yet, when I returned for visits to Columbus to see family, friends or old colleagues, the prevailing view was of frustration that Carlton Gary was still alive.

Today, I supervise a daily newscast produced and anchored by my students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.  Many times, when the situation is appropriate, I have woven stories for them about the odyssey of The Stocking Strangler.  Usually, those tales are in answer to the question of what was the most difficult story I ever reported.

Many people in the television audience have the misguided perception that journalists thrive on violence and death.  In their minds, a serial killer is fodder for a career to skyrocket and for ratings to soar.  Success at the hands of murder is the perception of some segments of the audience to journalists and television news.

My answer to that is for anyone to try measuring the many, many nights we left WTVM after the 11 o’clock news, arrived at our individual homes or apartments and could not sleep well.  Our worries were the same as the community’s as a whole.  I was a member of a church that had a number of senior-aged women who could easily have been targets.

Thursday night, as I watched the live reports from Jackson on both WTVM and WRBL on my Roku television set, I was struck by a stark notion.  None of the reporters assigned to cover the execution of Carlton Gary were even born when his rampage began.  They know what they have researched or been told about his dark mark on Columbus history.  Yet, they didn’t live it.  Emotionally, they have no idea what those months were like.

Carlton Gary VictimsThe word “closure” is almost becoming a reporting cliche.  I may add it to Twitter’s @TiredTVTerms.  I counted at least twelve times on Columbus stations Thursday night that reporters used sentences to the effect, “The execution of Carlton Gary will finally bring closure for the families and close friends of the victims.”  At one point, I said, “Will it?”  The popular perception today is that a conviction or an execution brings an end to the story.  Contemporary media perpetuates that idea.  With something as despicable as Carlton Gary’s mindless acts, the story may end for those writing the book.  Emotionally, closure never comes for people who lived through the fear and torment.

Two generations have passed since Carlton Gary first struck terror on a Friday afternoon in 1977.  All of the victims would now be more than 100 years old were they still alive.  A number of the seven women’s children have left us.  The grandchildren and great grandchildren no longer have to live with the worry of whether their ancestor’s killer will live or die.  Many of those who were the absolute closest to the victims left this earth without having any closure.

For those of us who lived, worked, reported, and feared those eight horrific months in 1977 and 1978, we can never truly close the door.  No, closure is not an accurate word.  Too many of us still want to ask the one question that will forever stump us about Carlton Gary:  why?  That answer now goes with him to his grave.


Keaton Jones: Well After the Buzz

Keaton Jones 1I saw the first story break about 13-year-old Keaton Jones online December 11.  National mainstream media outlets and local stations scrambled faster than the rush for the latest President Trump tweet to paint the picture of a middle school student as a symbol of bullying.

As I watched the hoopla unfold on all the major networks, I told a couple of my students and a former colleague that the story had a life of about three to four days.  My old friend agreed.  The students asked why.

My response, paraphrasing, went something along these lines:  “It’s another opportunity to chase what we used to call a ‘water cooler story.’  You have the perfect setup:  a kid who has just become a teen in one of the most awkward ages of life, he says he’s being ganged up on by peers and he’s elected to tell his story via social media.”  I went on to explain that television and online journalists are attracted to any story that “goes viral.”  In today’s move-on-to-the-next story culture, and with schools about to adjourn for Christmas break, I had no faith that we would see serious, probing reporting on a critical issue that confronts children and teens daily.

However, I added that something did not feel right about this story.  Had Keaton Jones taken a phone camera and posted what was on his heart as a bullying victim with no assistance, that would be one thing.  In this case, his mother was offscreen acting in the role of a quasi-interviewer and, at times, asking what an attorney would call leading questions in a courtroom.

Yet, virtually every media outlet and online presence in America chased after this video.  Regardless of what journalists say, they collectively made Keaton Jones an instant media star and just as quickly abandoned him.  This was a class example of what Rick Neuheisel describes as “playing the hits,” the practice of cable sports networks zeroing in on stars almost to excess because focus group research indicates such standouts “move the needle.”  Keaton definitely moved the needle.

Bullying 2On my Roku set, I skimmed newscasts from 11 different local stations during the three-day period after Keaton’s video went viral.  Every single one prominently featured a story on his being bullied in either the first or second block of an early or late evening newscast.  Only in two I viewed was a remote effort made to localize the story and probe further the extent of bullying in that station’s market and whether anti-bullying policies are genuinely being enforced.

Instead, as a whole, journalism was more concerned with the instant celebrity symbol of anti-bullying attached to Keaton Jones.  Little consideration was given to the potential emotional aftermath for the teen or whether this entire confession online was his idea.  I had one colleague suggest to me, “He and his mother put him in that position, so the consequences aren’t our responsibility.”  Really?

Producers and editors became far more enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, college and pro athletes and even politicians from Tennessee offering emotional support and showering attention on Keaton.  Even a account was established to create a college fund for the youngster.

Only in a matter of days were questions raised about the legitimacy of Keaton’s video, past online posts by his parents that suggested racism, and whether the mother was egging on the entire hoopla as an attempted money grab.  Within five days, Keaton Jones was dropped as a central media figure.  The GoFundMe effort was canned.  Whatever serious focus journalism could have placed on the issue of bullying fizzled quicker than Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.

Four years ago, my university hosted a Saturday seminar for young teens.  The focus was on an essay contest that provided the eventual winner a trip to Washington, D.C.  A local attorney and city councilman sponsors the event.  An entire session, including a documentary film, stressed the consequences of bullying for victims.  The attorney and I had a private conversation after one of the sessions.  We shared that both of us had been bullied in either junior high or high school.

Bullying 5I remember my own experience as horrendously as if it were yesterday.  In an afternoon junior high physical education class, we were doing the 600-yard run-walk, one of six elements of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness challenge.  I did not come from an athletic family.  I never struggled in the classroom but I was a hopeless mess on a playing field.  I usually finished in the final four or five in any running test in the class of 36 guys.  On a particular afternoon, I reached the 400-yard mark—huffing as usual—when I was cornered by two in the class who had already finished.  One was a noted bully.  The other stunned me because I always had a reasonable relationship with him.  He was a full head taller than I was.  The bully-by-reputation was a half-head taller.  The bigger guy grabbed me behind the back.  The other one had his fist clenched.  The one I thought was a friend said, “Look up.”  Certainly that must have been one of the courageous acts of his life to hold someone six inches smaller for another boy to cold cock in the chin.  Call it an act of God or whatever you wish but I did not obey his command to look up.  As I braced myself to be smacked in the teeth, two things happened.  Coach Joe Mercer, who was near the 600-yard finish line, miraculously spotted what was about to happen.  He sped toward my attackers and said something to the effect, “What’s going on here?”  At the same time, a white dog who was in a yard across the street from the junior high athletic field, came running to investigate (and I was privately hoping he would take a bite out of the bully).

Coach Mercer pursued his question.  The two guys, who had all of the grace of pro wrestling villains, suggested, “We were just kidding around.”  Oh yeah?  They both knew they were lying.  I was such an emotional wreck at the close call that I erupted in tears, a no-no in front of a peer group of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys.  So what?  I could not hold back.  The coach, who was not born the day before, immediately accompanied me inside and asked me to go with him to the principal’s office.  I was questioned about what happened.  Naturally, the experience left me in a quandary.  To unload the entire story would brand me as a tattletale, which was emotional suicide.  To not speak would potentially allow the behavior to continue, either against me or someone else (the bully had popped a friend in the jaw in the locker room three weeks earlier).

What shocked me was the principal’s overall approach.  I was quizzed thoroughly about anything I might have done to provoke the attack.  At one point in frustration, I said to the principal, “Do you actually think I would be responsible for being ganged up on two-on-one?”  He acknowledged such, but said, “We have to be thorough to get to the bottom of these things.”  I have some emotional sympathy with recent victims of sexual assaults who feel they are put on trial when reporting their attacks.  That is exactly what I felt in the principal’s office.

Rather than reassure me that the two guys who were ready to take a chunk out of my face would be disciplined (I never knew if they were), the principal left me even more confused.  He presented me with a final thought that I needed to build myself physically so I could defend myself against a bully.  As I later learned, that was the general consensus among fathers of athletes or accused bullies of the day:  if a kid is bullied, it’s mostly his fault because he isn’t skilled enough to fight back.

Scarred for life?  That probably is a stretch.  However, I went through an entire summer looking over my shoulder every time I walked alone or rode my bicycle, concerned if I would encounter one or both of the bullies.  Even as an older adult, I had periodic pockets where the memory of that May afternoon would flash through my mind.  The pain never eased, nor did the disgust of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the principal.

Bullying 1I go into that kind of detail about my own experience because 50 years ago, this was not an issue journalism ever explored.  Episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” touched on bullying more than television news.  Even then, bullying was depicted as a routine rite of passage of a young male’s life.

In 2002, I was in the class of Faculty Fellows from what was then called the Radio-Television News Directors Association.  The group of 24 fellows were past TV news professionals who returned to newsrooms across the nation for a full month as an educational refresher for our students.  We were all provided a DVD with a collection of first-class stories from markets across America that all posed ethical questions.  That became a great teaching tool for me.

One of the best pieces of investigative journalism in the entire set was from a station in Baltimore.  A reporter and videographer stationed themselves in a van with a hidden camera and captured multiple random and calculated acts of bullying on an elementary school playground.  The physical attacks included kicks to the head of one helpless child.  In several instances, teachers or playground monitors had their backs turned to the melees.  None of them came to the aid of a child suffering from incessant brutality.  When shown to a school district administrator, his first response was, “On the surface, this makes us look bad.”

Since that time, most states—including Tennessee where I teach broadcast journalism—have enacted anti-bullying laws for school districts or have directed school boards to develop specific anti-bullying policies.  However, much of the action has now moved online.  Despite Hawaii becoming one of the last states in the country to enact anti-bullying legislation, KGMB reported that cyberbullying affects one out of every two teens in the Hawaiian islands.

Bullying 3

The National Crime Prevention Council reports similar totals nationwide:

  • Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.
  • Well over half of those who have been victims of cyberbullying do not tell their parents.
  • Girls are “somewhat” more likely than boys to be involved in cyberbullying.

My key question:  when was the last time television news departments seriously explored the issue of bullying with in-depth reporting?  If you are one of those who is constantly under the gun to “generate content,” as is the popular contemporary term, I am handing you a freebie.  Here are several pertinent questions I suggest should be explored by reporters in every city in America:

—-What are the specific anti-bullying policies for each school district?

—-What are the enforcement procedures for discipline?  Who administers punishment and what are the specific penalties?  What happens on first offense, second offense and beyond?

—-What kind of anti-bullying education programs are conducted within your local school district and at what age?  If it occurs at the middle school level, what kind of followup education is offered at the high school level?

—–What type of mental health counseling or referrals are available for victims of any type of bullying?  Going further, what kind of mental health counseling is directed for those who commit acts of bullying?  Those who are serial bullies may well need therapy as much or more as the victims, because no well-adjusted human being engages in this kind of mental as well as physical intimidation to another.

—–At what point does law enforcement step in to intervene with those who commit repeated acts of bullying, or engage in cyberbullying?

—–What do local psychologists or psychology professors suggest are the reasons people become bullies?  To what degree do we still have male parents who take a passive view of bullying by suggesting victims are at fault for not building themselves physically to defend themselves?  What do psychologists say are potential answers from a mental health perspective?

—–How safe are smaller children on a crowded school playground during recess periods?  How adequately are they supervised?

—–To what degree does emotional scarring carry over for bullying victims into adult life?  How much long-term or short-term depression or anxiety results?

—–How can bullying extend into adult life in a workplace situation?

—–What are the numbers in each state for suicide attempts or actual suicides that occur from acts of bullying?

We have to move past this obsession in journalism that just because something or an individual “goes viral” online is a reason for everyone to chase that post or person with top-of-the-broadcast furor.  When the subject is a juvenile, exceeding caution should be exhibited to thoroughly investigate the circumstances.

In the case of Keaton Jones, British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson offers some salient perspective.  “The fact that the mother uploaded the video should have perhaps raised some flags,” she wrote two days after the Keaton Jones story broke.  “But more so, reporting that she had made racist comments on an Instagram account, which has since been proved fake, should have been checked. It was also reported that Keaton made an apology on behalf of his mother – except that Instagram account was fake too.”

This should serve as an insBullying 6tructional lesson in the fallacies of rushing to publish social media events.  Keaton Jones was made a poster boy for anti-bullying in one day.  Four days later, he was dropped faster than Brad Keselowski drives around Daytona International Speedway.  Media all over the nation and the world share in the responsibility, as badly as we hate to admit mistakes.

In the process, we missed a huge opportunity to explore one of the most emotionally-threatening issues for children and adolescents in the entire nation.  Bullying exists in every single city, large and small, in America.  Reporters need to be asking serious questions in their local communities about how to combat bullies without finding a social media star to serve as the catalyst.










Keith Jackson: And So It Is Done

“And so it is done.  I say goodbye to all of you.  God bless and good night.”

The 1999 national championship game between Tennessee and Florida State was supposed to be Keith Jackson’s final game.  He had announced his retirement at the outset of the 1998 football season.  Millions of his loyal fans pondered how Saturdays would be the same without the distinctive Georgia accent describing off-tackle breakaways and screen passes.

That one sentence stuck with me on his final signoff:  “And so it is done.”  The final chapter was written in a storybook sportscasting career.  My thoughts were “And So It Is Done” would be a perfect title for a Keith Jackson autobiography.

Little did we know we still had Keith Jackson 1seven more years of “retirement” from Jackson.  After a series of negotiations, he agreed to an easier schedule of Pac-10 games with Dan Fouts that required less of a commute from his Pacific Northwest home.

Keith Jackson was indeed Mr. College Football before columnist Tony Barnhart acquired that title.  Yet, his association with Army-Navy, Alabama-Auburn and Georgia-Clemson left a later generation without an appreciation of the broad expanse of his experience.

The former Marine sergeant covered cliff diving, demolition derbies in Islip, N.Y., auto racing, Olympics, NBA basketball, the World Series, The Superstars and was the original play-by-play commentator of NFL Monday Night Football.  Jackson was in that Mt. Rushmore category of versatility encompassing Lindsey Nelson, Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel, and Vin Scully.

I will not recap the same litany you will read in the many tributes and obituaries.  I will share a few personal memories of telecasts and legends attached to Keith Jackson.

Keith jackson 2The assorted recaps of Jackson’s career have inserted the headline “whoa, Nellie” as his trademark line in a football telecast.  That may be the most exaggerated urban legend on his roster.  He did use the phrase in a commercial during the tail end of his career.  However, he once asserted that he never said “whoa, Nellie” while calling a game; the connection came largely from impersonations of Jackson by comedian/sports interviewer Roy Firestone.  Jackson was none too impressed by Firestone’s mimicry.  One of his routines went something like this:  “And it’s another eight-yard gain by Leroy Mullis from WAY-cross, Georgia….he motored around right tackle like a four-wheel drive….whoa, Nellie!”  Jackson may have used the term at some point but I challenge you to filter through the ABC Sports tape library and find an outing where he did.  In the frequent legendary games on ESPN Classic, “whoa, Nellie” is never there.

One of my fondest memories is of something uncharacteristic in Jackson’s impeccable delivery.  He prided himself on strong preparation and an ability to maintain professionalism under any circumstances.  The New Year’s Day 1981 national championship game between Georgia and Notre Dame may have been one exception.  Jackson was setting up the match, indicating that the Bulldogs had never been so far since the days of Charley Trippi.  The producers opted to insert a tape of a short, elderly fellow in a bright red sweater.  Jackson said:  “Here’s just a sample of how the fever had hit Bulldog fans.”  The gentlemen flashed a big grin and yelled:  “HEYYYYYYYY…..HOW ‘BOUT THEM DOGS!!!!  Hum baby, hum baby, hum baby, hum baby, hum baby, hum baby, hum…..”  When the director cut back to the press box, Jackson was in hysterics.  He had three or four keys to the game remaining.  As he attempted to start each one, he could not avoid breaking into more laughter.  I don’t know if Jackson ever met the man but the little fellow went down in history as the only civilian to ever break up Keith Jackson during a broadcast.

In the mid-1990s, I lived in the country where one required a satellite dish to receive acceptable television reception.  I had one of those huge C-band dishes in the days where you could find interesting byplay between sports announcers on the “backhaul” feeds that were not available to over-the-air viewers.  Apparently communications in Jackson’s headphones were faltering.  He was letting the production crew know it.  “All I’m hearing is loud ringing in these things!  It’s so loud, I can’t hear anything you’re saying or anything anybody else is saying.  You better get this thing cleared up or I’m taking these things off and throwing ’em right out the window.”  One assumes the headphone issue was summarily resolved.  I never heard Keith complain about them for the rest of the telecast.

Jackson BroylesThe ABC college football season opener in 1983 was Georgia vs. UCLA in Athens.  For years, Jackson was paired with former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles in the booth.  This was the game in which Rick Neuheisel was in his senior season and started at quarterback for the Bruins.  At least three times during the telecast, Broyles told Jackson how impressed he was with “this Rickheisel.”  Jackson, who enjoyed Broyles, was amused every time.  However, late in the game, with UCLA driving for what would have been a winning touchdown, Neuheisel called a time out deep in Bulldog territory.  Then, before running a play, Neuheisel called another time out.  “He cain’t DO that, Keith!  He cain’t call two time outs in a row!” shouted Broyles.  Jackson said:  “I don’t know if he can or not but if Frank Broyles is that adamant about it, I would suggest he’s about to be penalized.”  UCLA was penalized.  Georgia won.  The Bulldogs eventually backed out of the return game in the Rose Bowl the next year.

Only TV sports historians and devotees remember that first season of NFL Monday Night Football when Jackson was the first play-by-play commentator for an innovative experiment.  ABC was given 13 weeks of prime time pro football for the bargain price of $9.3 million.  That figure is correct.  CBS had failed twice with Monday night games, including once with the Green Bay Packers and another with the Dallas Cowboys.

ABC Sports President Roone Arledge’s plan to give nighttime football an opportunity for success was to turn it into sports entertainment.  Jackson, whose biggest fame was from calling USAC races with Chris Economacki, was given a huge career boost in the role as play-by-play commentator.  The pairing of retired Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and outspoken Howard Cosell was considered the counterpoint to sell the package as something different from the Xs-and-Os tradition of Sunday afternoon.

Keith Jackson 3I was a senior in high school when Monday Night Football began in 1970.  Bedtime prevented me from seeing the finish of most of the games except on the eve of one teacher in-service day.  While many viewers were either entertained or agitated at the jousting between Meredith and Cosell, the latter of whom actually had been a commentator in the 1950s when ABC had a package of Saturday night NFL games, one line stayed with me well after the season.  After every extra point kick, before pitching to a commercial break, Jackson would say:  “NFL Monnnnnn-day Night Football…..a great way to spend an autumn evening.”  The next year, when I commuted home to do public address announcing at my alma mater’s games, I admittedly stole the line.  After every Bulldog extra point, I said, “Waycross High Friiiiiiii-day Night Football…..a great way to spend a summer/autumn evening.”  The home fans were amused.  The visitors usually were not.

If you rent or buy the made-for-cable movie Monday Night Mayhem, you will see a reasonably accurate account of those early years of Monday Night Football.  Jackson was on the package for only one season, though he was given a parachute with NBA basketball (bumping pioneer sportscaster Chris Schenkel, whom Jackson later replaced as the lead voice on college football).  He found out he was being replaced by Frank Gifford on the prime time NFL games by reading about it in the trade papers.  He made call after call to Arledge, who was notorious for not returning phone calls to his staff.  Arledge never answered.  In a dramatic scene in the film, Jackson enters Arledge’s office with that jut-jaw Marine personality at its firmness.  He asked why Arledge wasn’t man enough to tell him to his face about losing Monday Night Football.  Arledge said:  “I was going to, Keith, but I never heard from you.”  Jackson proceeded to pull out logs detailing every call he made to Arledge’s office after learning of the news.  Arledge had no answer.

Despite the Monday night snafu—-and one would never agree that Gifford was ever a better announcer than Jackson—-the NFL’s loss was college football’s gift.  He made our Saturday afternoons appointment television with him for more than three decades.

Keith Jackson 4When he finally did make that final call, it was one for the ages.  Vince Young dramatically drove Texas down the field for a final touchdown with only seconds left in a spine-tingling Rose Bowl to beat Southern Cal.  Jackson, in the same mode as the great Ray Scott on NFL games for many years, backed away from the mike and let the pictures tell the story.  He was a master at it.  When he finally returned to speak, he told everything with a simple sentence:  “It’s been a game of drama, of emotions, and great plays—-and the Longhorns are gonna win it.”

ABC had a strong stable of announcers but when Keith Jackson was in Athens, in Tuscaloosa, in Jacksonville, in Pasadena, or Ann Arbor, the games seemed larger than life.  They usually were.  As a commentator and one who could paint a brilliant word picture, Keith Jackson was larger than life.

Not “Oh My!”….But Oh No!: Dick Enberg, Mt. Rushmore Broadcaster, Leaves Us

December 22, 2017

I stayed up past midnight this morning and was making one final flip through Twitter, a dubious exercise some evenings.  In the left-hand column of Trends, I saw a name that led me to one of those moments where I knew what I would see if I clicked on it.

My reaction was “oh no!”  The man who made “oh my” a cemented phrase in sportscasting, Dick Enberg, died at the age of 82.

Dick Enberg 2Without question, he was my idol in basketball broadcasting.  Though he was spectacular at the wide variety of sports he called, he made basketball come alive for me as if it were on an Imax screen.  I never even remotely came close to his talent and recognition, though I enjoyed 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II basketball commentator.  Yet, Enberg was my role model and the main influence for me to go behind the television mike.

This, however, is not going to be a recitation of all of Enberg’s accomplishments.  Plenty of obituaries and radio and television reminiscences will do that quite well.  As a game show enthusiast, I could wax forever about one of my favorites of the genre of all time, Sports Challenge.  The host was Dick Enberg.

Instead, I want to focus on a signature moment that changed the face of one sport.  Dick Enberg was a major reason why.

Nearly 50 years ago in January 1968, Enberg played a seminal role in turning college basketball into a national television sport.  That is no exaggeration.

At the time, Lyndon Johnson was facing challenges from his own party for re-election which led to his dropping out of the race.  Racial strife led to rioting and burning in the Watts district of Los Angeles and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy would both be assassinated only weeks apart.  An irreverent satirical hour labeled Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was about to become television’s number one show.  In a last hurrah, the Green Bay Packers had just won their second straight Super Bowl.  College basketball was a non-entity on network television.

In a game that was a precursor of today’s college basketball Final Four in domed stadiums, John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins were matched against the Houston Cougars of Guy Lewis (who closely resembled Al Lewis, the proverbial Grandpa on The Munsters).  The teams would square off at the three-year-old Astrodome.  If Barney Fife were describing the plans to Andy Taylor, he would say, “It’s gonna be big, Ang.”

Dick Enberg 6A 33-year-old sportscaster with Midwest roots was chosen to call the game.  He was building a name on the West Coast as the voice of UCLA basketball, as well as the radio voice of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Angels.  Dick Enberg would not only make history by broadcasting in the largest venue ever to house a basketball game, as well as the largest crowd, but his work nearly a half century ago pushed the sport to a major transition.

The game was in prime time (9:30 pm on Saturday night in the East). However, it was not on CBS, ABC or NBC, but on a small regional sports syndication network—-TVS, created by television sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn.

NBC gave a valiant six-year run to college basketball and the NBA from 1955-61. The network dropped both despite having voices such as Lindsey Nelson, Curt Gowdy and Jack Drees calling the games because the sports just did not click with audiences as an appointment attraction.  Advertisers clamored for baseball’s weekend games.  They gave support to the National Football League a half century before its multi-billion dollar contracts.  They were not even lukewarm to sponsor basketball on TV.

In 1964, Einhorn launched TVS with regional telecasts of SEC basketball and Big 8 games, later expanding to three other conferences. The C.D. Chesley Co. began a package of ACC games to stations along the Eastern seaboard.

Still, the networks were not interested in the NCAA tournament or a regular season college basketball package.  Fans had to read about the championship game in their morning or afternoon newspapers. When Bob Wiesenhahn and Paul Hoque led Cincinnati to two straight NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962 and the Bearcats lost a thriller 60-58 to Loyola of Chicago in a bid for a third in a row, television was not there.

The UCLA-Houston matchup was the first attempt of Einhorn to go in prime time. The setting of the Astrodome was enough to attract stations as well as the name recognition of UCLA’s powerhouse center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). A surprising 154 stations picked up the game, most of them network affiliates.  Media billed the showdown as the Game of the Century.  What a cliche that four-word phrase is now.

Dick Enberg 4The decision to assign Enberg, who called UCLA games on a tape delay but was not a national broadcast name, as play-by-play commentator served as an introduction to a wordsmith with the ability to lift a game into an event.  Enberg was limited exposure in about 40 TV markets with “The Perfect Match,” a “Dating Game” knockoff.  In dozens of cities, he was an unknown.

Before the first half was over, viewers knew Enberg was on a level above anyone they had ever heard call college basketball. His spectacular intonation and clarity of voice gave viewers the idea this was a night of sports history and that a possible upset was in the making.

Ironically, this was a game UCLA’s legendary coach did not want to play.  Wooden did not like his Pacific-8 conference race interrupted by an intersectional game.  He felt a non-conference game in January was a distraction to his team’s ultimate goal.

UCLA came into the game with a 47-game winning streak.  Most sports analysts predicted the Bruins would eclipse San Francisco’s 60-game streak set in the 1950s.

The Cougars had other ideas.  Houston’s Elvin Hayes, who averaged 37.7 points a game, went on a tear in the first half.  On his final basket of the first half, Enberg chanted, “ELVIN HAYES HAS 29 POINTS!” Houston led 46-43 at halftime.

Dick Enberg 5The second half was much more defensive. Hayes was held to 10 points but hit two key free throws with 1:54 remaining to put Houston up 71-69. Long before the shot clock era, UCLA worked extensively for a tying shot and possible foul. All-America guard Mike Warren made one of his rare mistakes and threw away a pass with forward Lynn Shackelford wide open.

Houston held onto the ball (this was 15 years before Jim Valvano launched the foulfest on his way to an NCAA title at North Carolina State) and pulled the two-point upset.  Enberg could not be accused of being a homer for UCLA.  He called the game right down  the middle.  He built high drama and made the game a larger-than-life experience.

I was watching the game on WJXT in Jacksonville, which pre-empted “Petticoat Junction” and “Mannix” to carry the game. I had a huge fatigue factor with UCLA, though I was a major admirer of Coach Wooden. I celebrated when anyone could knock off the Bruins. I had no doubt this was a college basketball telecast like none I had ever seen. The setting and the exuberant crowd set the tone but Enberg made that game an American classic that paved the way for a much bigger future for the sport.

The ratings were the highest ever for a college basketball game on American television, once all of the markets reported.  Advertisers began to take note that, given proper promotion and announcing talent, the college game could draw an audience.

The following year, NBC began carrying Saturday games in the NCAA tournament.  By 1969, the championship game and national consolation game became a Saturday afternoon tradition on NBC until they eventually moved to Monday nights.

In the late ’70s, after Curt Gowdy left NBC, Enberg became NBC’s senior voice. His years of pairing with Al McGuire and Billy Packer were of legend. His calls of Super Bowls and Olympics, as well as the PGA tour, placed him on the Mount Rushmore of sports broadcasters.

Study the careers of the classic sportscasters and you will often fine one signature game that propelled them into national prominence.  The great Ray Scott’s disciplined call of the Green Bay-Dallas Ice Bowl 50 years ago cemented his legacy.  Al Michaels’ “do you believe in miracles?” finish of the U.S. Olympic hockey team semifinal win over the Soviet Union in 1980 was a milestone marker.  Verne Lundquist was already a distinguished announcer but his 1986 chant of “yes sir!” when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus hold a 20-foot putt to take the lead at The Masters is on the all-time, all-star list of TV sports memories.

The night of January 20, 1968, was the key moment in Dick Enberg’s career that elevated him to the A-list of commentators.  Never again would he be regarded as a regional broadcaster.  He changed a sport’s image in the eyes of America on that Saturday night.

I learned a lot that aided my modest career as a sportscaster by watching everything Enberg did and from his autobiography, “Oh My!”  In the book, he wrote that in  basketball, many young commentators attempt to call every basket in the first half of a game as if it’s a buzzer-beater.  “You have to play it calmer early in the game,” he wrote.  “If you have a real thriller, you want to save the drama for the closing moments.”

If we are honest, many of us who have been sportscasters on a much smaller level have patterned our styles after broadcasters we admire. One has to be one’s self at the mike to be a quality communicator but in key moments of dramatic and thriller games, I did my dead level best to pump the drama like Enberg during my 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II television sportscaster. He was my absolute role model in basketball commentary.

I periodically look at a women’s conference championship game I called 20 years ago in an electrified arena.  In overtime and in a record performance by an NAIA All-American, I screamed, “MICHELLE STREET HAS 45 POINTS!” I thought of that UCLA-Houston game at that precise moment.  That call was a tip of the cap to my idol.

That game at the Astrodome nearly 50 years ago was a major reason I wanted to be a sportscaster. Dick Enberg was the catalyst for me.

The news came early Friday morning that Enberg passed away Thursday, likely of a heart attack.  His loss leaves a gaping hole for those who appreciate the art of sports broadcasting.

Dick Enberg 3As another great commentator who is a friend, Tim Brando, frequently says when we lose legends: “We’re not replacing them with people who have half the talent.”  This morning, Brando tweeted:  “(Enberg) was just being himself, a warm human being that brought out only the best in those around him.  No one was better!”

A lot of fine broadcasters are out there today.  Many young men and women want to go into the field.  My two young successors calling NCAA Division II basketball hope they are on a ladder to eventual success.  I only wish they all could learn from Dick Enberg.  He was one of a kind.

Rushing Faster to Unsubstantiated Judgment: No Validation to Journalism

John SkipperDecember 18, 2017

ESPN President John Skipper resigned today, acknowledging a long-term substance abuse problem.  His announced departure also quickly revealed another stain on the culture of contemporary journalism.

Yes, you have the typical online soreheads who are irritated at the perceived political climate of the Worldwide Leader.  They are virtually celebrating Skipper’s exit.  Some of those people would throw a party for an animal’s death.

More disturbing is how certain media members and the Twittersphere are already rushing to judgment that something more sinister is behind Skipper’s decision.  The recent rash of sexual misconduct issues of media personalities and executives quickly led the instant opinion crowd to put two and zero together and have them equal four.

The immediate condemnation of Skipper with wagering that another story will follow in his case with no proof of such is an embarrassment to our profession.  True, journalism is a profession in which its practitioners are trained to be skeptical to a fault.  Wading through the spinners and the carefully-crafted public relations statements is part of the job.

However, drawing unsupported conclusions in the name of opinion and commentary or outright boorishness when a man’s reputation is at stake is the epitome of irresponsibility.  We seem to have an epidemic of that in today’s journalism culture.

I am not now nor have I ever been the faculty advisor to our student newspaper at Union University.  As a practicing journalist for the bulk of my adult life, I do offer consulting help on occasion.

More than a decade ago, a student-athlete was suspended from the women’s basketball team and ultimately left the university.  At the time, we were between journalism professors.  An adjunct advisor was hired for the semester.  Suspicions on the part of some students was that the student was caught with some variety of drugs.  Despite various efforts to ferret a confirmation of those conclusions, none was forthcoming.

I cringed when I saw a line iEthicsn a paragraph in the story which read:  “We contacted The Jackson Police Department but were told no arrest had been made.”  I asked to step into the once-a-week afternoon practicum of the newspaper staff.  My question was simple:  do you have any proof, written or verbal, that the athlete was suspended from school because of drugs?  After a few stammers, the admission was that no confirmation existed.  My response:  then why did you raise the issue that you contacted the Jackson Police Department and received no information of an arrest?

The editor-in-chief of the paper sheepishly grinned as he said:  “I thought it was something that needed to be addressed.”  I then posed a hypothetical to him:  if someone said to you that the president of this university was embezzling money and you could not gain confirmation of it, would you do a story on that just because you felt it needed to be addressed?  “You would find yourself more than vulnerable to a libel suit,” I told him.

If more to the story of John Skipper’s resignation exists, no doubt that will be revealed in time.  His and ESPN’s credibility would take a sharp blow.

However, if his decision to step down is, in fact, strictly because he needs help to cure a substance addiction, then unsubstantiated questions are being raised that create potentially libelous damage to the man’s reputation.

Assuming Skipper is opting to focus on fighting his addiction, he should be celebrated for acknowledging the problem and getting help.  To go public and admit his illness may indeed be a major step toward conquering the problem.

The sad truth is that in today’s media—-especially the largely-unfiltered and unedited social media, we have some elements who can’t wait to stomp with a size 14 boot on one’s head.  That’s not journalism.  That’s arrogance and vulture commentary.  That has no place in a medium designed to inform, educate and provide viewers and readers with a barometer to make better decisions.  Yet, we wonder with astonishment why the cry of “fake news” spreads faster than the California wildfires.

John Skipper photo:  ESPNMediaZone

Ethics graphics:  RTDNA

Sgt. Carter: Gomer’s Rejoining You; Remembering Jim Nabors

Jim Obit 2Ask me to rank my top 10 favorite characters in TV history.  Gomer Pyle will be in the Final Four playoff, along with Andy Taylor, Barney Fife and Beaver Cleaver.

Ask me who delivered the definitive version of “The Impossible Dream” with a voice as powerful as a riptide and I will not hesitate to answer Jim Nabors.

I was spending a recent Thursday morning doing as I was told in helping to set up and decorate our church for our daughter’s Saturday wedding.  The news came over Twitter and Facebook that Jim had left us at the age of 87.

This one was like a punch in the gut.  The news was another reminder that while characters that strike a chord in our lives through television are immortal, the people who play them are not.

I actually saw Jim Nabors perform for the first time in 1961.  My family had just moved to Waycross, Ga., then the home of what one national magazine described as one of the 15 worst cities in America for television reception.  Unless one had a prohibitively expensive high-gain antenna, the choice was WJXT in Jacksonville or nothing.  Jacksonville had two affiliates but one of those spring thin air nights to pick up the NBC station, WFGA.  Both channels cherrypicked ABC programs.

WJXT opted on Wednesday nights to snag The New Steve Allen Show, a comeback bid for The Tonight Show originator.  Steve’s show was up against television’s number one show, Wagon Train, and failed to last.  However, a young singer named Jim Nabors appeared on several shows.  He could belt out a tune with a powerful baritone.  My parents enjoyed him.  However, with the short life of Steve’s variety hour, Jim faded into the woodwork as did scores of other performers who tried to break into early sixties television.

A little more than a year later, the Christmas Eve episode of The Andy Griffith Show was entitled “The Bank Job.”  Barney Fife set out to prove that The Mayberry Bank was a crime pushover.  A local mechanic who had never been introduced, Gomer Pyle, appeared.  Gomer had a voice that sounded as if he had done a dozen lube jobs in a Jim Gomer 1day.  Bit characters came and went in Mayberry, most never again to be seen.  Somehow, Gomer grabbed our attention.  I remember my father laughing uproariously at the few lines Gomer delivered.  We thought little more about it the next day—but Andy Griffith and his producers did.

Jim had no idea the 23 episodes in which he appeared on The Andy Griffith Show would propel him into major stardom.  This is a guy who just 10 years earlier had been a camera operator, film editor and morning show host at WJBF in Augusta.

The episode of December 16, 1963, was arguably the major turning point in the 33-year-old Nabors’ career.  Directed by actor Richard Crenna, “Citizen’s Arrest” became a signature episode of The Griffith Show‘s middle years.  Frustrated after Barney wrote him a ticket for making a U-turn in the middle of the town square, Gomer catches Barney doing the same thing.  The Mayberry mechanic begins yelling, “Citizen’s array-ust!  Citizen’s array-ust!”  The next three minutes of confrontation between Gomer and Barney were sheer comic genius.  Crenna never received the full credit he deserved for staging that scene.

I knew that episode hit home.  For the next two weeks during my school’s Christmas holidays, I encountered people everywhere—-including myself—-shouting “citizen’s array-ust!”  Along with “nip it in the bud,” Floyd’s “oooooh, Annnnndy” and Barney’s classic “Juanita?  Barn….cock-a-doodle-doooooo,” Gomer’s revenge became one of the ten charismatic catchphrases in the history of the series.

Spinoffs were still fledgling elements of television in the mid-sixties.  Harry Morgan’s character of Pete Porter was spun off into Pete and Gladys, a CBS sitcom derived from fifties favorite December Bride.  The characters of Bronco Layne and Sugarfoot were introduced on ABC’s Cheyenne but not expanded into their own rotating series until Clint Walker engaged in a contract dispute with Warner Brothers over merchandising and salary from Cheyenne.  In 1956, The $64,000 Challenge was a spinoff from the megahit The $64,000 Question to exploit the popularity of winners on Question.  Andy Griffith’s own series was introduced as a one-shot pilot on The Danny Thomas Show but the ensemble characterizations had not been developed.

The evening of May 18, 1964, was the moment of truth for the character of Gomer Pyle.  Gomer enters the sheriff’s office and does a choreographed version of The Marine’s Hymn.Jim Marine  Andy watches and says, “That’s real good, Gomer.”  Quickly, Gomer tells his friend, “Andy….I’m in.”  “In” was his enlistment papers in the United States Marine Corps.

In the following 27 minutes, we had a preview of what would take over sitcom television the following season.  Gomer as a bumbling Marine only embellished his personality as the bumbling mechanic from Mayberry.  We also saw how the chemistry would build between Nabors and one of the most underrated supporting actors in sitcom history, Frank Sutton.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. could not have been possible without Jim’s talent but the series would also not have worked without the counterpoint of Sutton as the beleaguered Sergeant Vince Carter.  When the two stood nose-to-nose after Gomer’s initial faux pas, you knew a winner was on the way.

Contrary to information in some of Nabors’ obituary tributes, CBS had already decided to pick up Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as a series well before the pilot aired.  In those days, the network fall lineups were locked in as early as Washington’s birthday.  Network executives screened producer-writer Aaron Ruben’s pilot and immediately gave it the green light.  CBS intentionally saved its airing until the final Griffith episode of the 1963-64 season.

Ironically, TV Guide—in its fall forecasts—did not see great hope for Pyle.  The prediction was for a middle-of-the-pack rating.  Indeed, the time slot would be a challenge.  CBS had not experienced exceptional success with sitcoms on Friday nights through the years.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. would go in Fridays at 9:30.  The lead-in was a new but highly-touted ensemble variety hour The Entertainers starring Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and a cast of up and coming singers and comics.  The lead-out, Slattery’s People, was a high-concept drama starring Richard Crenna in his first serious role as a state legislator.

The biggest battle for Gomer would be the series’ competition.  After CBS network president Jim Aubrey abruptly canceled The Jack Benny Program after 14 years (the book CBS:  Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye quotes sources as saying Aubrey cruelly told the legend, “You’re through.”), NBC picked up Benny for the Friday at 9:30 half-hour.  Benny promised to feature younger guests (The Smothers Brothers, The Lettermen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jack Jones) as well as TV heavyweights Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns.  ABC countered with 12 O’Clock High, an hour-long war drama based on the movie of the same title.  The betting line was the Benny would be tough sledding for Gomer if his audience followed him to NBC.

Until the 1975-76 season, Nielsen ratings were based on two-week averages.  The first Gomer Pyle episode featured a solid premiere as Gomer was inept trying to navigate the obstacle course but worked extra time at night until he succeeded.  Week two fleshed out some of Gomer’s fellow recruits as a platoon member’s girlfriend managed to sneak into the barracks.  The verdict was a stunner for the handicappers.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was immediately CBS’s number one show, finishing third for the two-week period behind NBC’s Bonanza and ABC’s Bewitched.  Twelve O’Clock High was 59th but the shocker was the result for The Jack Benny Program.  Out of 100 network series, the legend from Waukegan was in 97th place.  CBS indeed appeared to be right in canceling him.

Jim Nabors TTTTin case the early ratings were a fluke, CBS sent Nabors on a promotional swing as he appeared on Art Linkletter’s House Party and the prime time version of To Tell the Truth.  Regular panelist Orson Bean was given the week off from Truth in order to bring Nabors to the popular game show’s panel October 26, 1964.  For a week in a blitz of heavy daytime promos, voiceover announcers touted the star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as joining the panel of stars (Tom Poston, Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle).  Jim was a bit nervous.  He never before had played on a game show.  Onstage with heavyweight veterans Poston, Cass and Carlisle, the Alabama native struggled to ask pertinent questions of the contestants.  Only two games were played rather than the usual three because the episode was cut to 25 minutes to accommodate a five-minute political talk for the upcoming Presidential election.

Jim Nabors TTTT3As a testament to CBS’ promotional machine and Nabors’ increasing popularity resulted in the highest rating of the 11 years of nighttime To Tell the Truth.  The episode scored a 26.4 rating and 42 percent share of audience, crushing the NBC and ABC competition.

The numbers for Gomer Pyle were no fluke.  They not only held up but increased week-to-week.  For the full 1964-65 campaign, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. averaged a 30.7 rating, finishing in a virtual tie with Bewitched (at 31.0).  For the final 14 weeks of the season, Gomer overtook Bewitched  to become number two overall.

Jim Nabors was no longer a solid supporting actor.  He was morphing into a major network television star.  His musical talents were incorporated into two episodes of the first season.  He recorded his first album for Columbia Records, Shazam!, based on the Captain America yell he comedically incorporated in Mayberry and on the Marine base.  The first recording was in Gomer’s country voice.  That was followed up with By Request, which featured Nabors doing a number of Broadway and movie standards in his operatic style.  A third LP, Jim Nabors Sings:  Cuando Calienta el Sol, went gold.

During the five years of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., more elements of Gomer’s family were expanded.  He frequently quoted from Grandma Pyle (“Sergeant Carter, Grandma Pyle says you should chew your food 12 times before you swaller it.”).  We met his cousin Bridey and his grandfather.  He dated a colonel’s daughter and two Hollywood stars (one of them Ruta Lee).  He gained a steady girlfriend in off key nightclub singer Lou Ann Poovie (played by the incomparable Elizabeth MacRae).  He gave Vince constant nightmares, including one literally in a hilarious episode during which a meal of Welsh rarebit made Gomer and Vince both dream they had switched personalities.

A favorite Gomer Pyle episode was one in which Gomer was entrusted with Vince’s car while the sergeant was dispatched to collect an AWOL Marine.  The vehicle was stolen.  Eventually, it lands on a construction site where the car is destroyed.  The outstanding character actor Ken Lynch, whose TV career went back to the days of DuMont as The Plainclothesman, played the police sergeant who felt a sense of empathy for Private Pyle.  My daughter, watching the episode in rerun as a small child, went around the house for days chanting Gomer’s lament, “Sergeant Carter’s goin’ to kill me.  He’s gonna kill me dead!”  The construction company owner agrees to replace Carter’s car.  A classic line toward the end comes when Gomer explains to Vince:  “This big ball fell on it and smashed your car to Smithereens!”  Every time I saw a similar device when my university’s library was built three years ago, I kept thinking, “This big ball’s going to fall down and smash somebody’s car to Smithereens!”

The writers looked for more openings to incorporate Jim’s vocal talents into the series.  The most memorable musical moment came in episode nine of the fourth season.  During the November rating sweeps, Gomer won a singing contest.  The prize:  a trip to sing before an elite audience at a Washington, D.C., concert.  Nabors had already sung “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of LaMancha” on The Danny Kaye Show and the premiere episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.  The arrangement in which Jim was accompanied by the U.S. Marine Corps Band was unmatched.  People have been tweeting and spreading that version on Facebook in the hours after we learned of Nabors’ death.  I don’t care how many times I hear it, Jim’s powerful delivery still gives me chills.

During its five seasons, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., never finished lower than tenth in the Nielsens (and that was in year three when CBS moved the show to Wednesday nights).  The series was invincible.  Back on Friday nights at 8:30, Gomer finished the first month of the 1968-69 season as the number two show in the Nielsens, runner-up only to NBC’s juggernaut Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  At that point, TV Guide reported that Jim was thinking out loud about doing a weekly variety hour in 1969-70.  CBS was still non-committal.  With the numbers Gomer was still pulling, the network was willing to offer a Brinks truck for Nabors to do two more years of the sitcom.

Jim had other numbers on his side.  In November 1965, The Andy Griffith Don Knotts Jim Nabors Show, a variety special, went through the roof in the Nielsens.  In 1967, American Motors sponsored Friends and Nabors, Jim’s first solo special, with guests Griffith, Tennessee Ernie Ford, opera star Marilyn Horne and Shirley Jones.  The following year in what would be a fortuitous Thursday at 8 slot, Jim hosted Girl Friends and Nabors.  As a finale, Nabors sang an old Ernest Tubb song rearranged with a big band sound, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which drew a huge audience reaction.

Gomer Pyle, USMC, had been a far bigger success than even the best of network prophets could have forecast.  Yet, Jim was tired.  Because of the interaction required, he was in virtually every scene.  Back home at night, he had to learn an additional 14 pages of dialogue.  Five years of the grind was taking a toll.

With his nightclub and recording career taking off, Nabors conferred with his manager Dick Linke.  As reported in TV Guide, Linke advised:  “Jim, with your talents, better to gamble now.”

Jim Nabors Hour 1When the fall 1969 CBS lineup was released in April, Gomer Pyle was not on the schedule.  The Jim Nabors Hour was.  The original plan was to go Fridays from 8 to 9 on the same night that Gomer had been such a huge success.  The popular Hogan’s Heroes would return for a fifth season by moving to 7:30.  However, CBS opted late in the scheduling game to go pick up the declining Get Smart from NBC for a sixth season and give a reluctant pickup to The Good Guys, a Bob Denver-Herb Edelman comedy that limped in the Nielsens in its first season.  Those comedies were penciled in at 7:30 and 8.  Hogan remained at 8:30.

CBS looked at the success of two Nabors specials on Thursdays at 8.  Further, after two CBS affiliates experienced success with Family Affair on a delayed broadcast Thursdays at 7:30 in 1968-69, the network opted to move the Brian Keith-Sebastian Cabot hit into that time slot as a lead-in for The Jim Nabors Hour.  The decision was inspired.

In a future blogpost, we will explore the detailed two-year history of Jim’s variety hour.  With a premiere episode that featured Andy Griffith and up-and-coming singer Julie Budd (along with a cameo by Don Knotts), the first week results were impressive.  The Sept. 25, 1969, debut scored a 26.0 rating and finished fourth for the week.  Family Affair drew higher ratings than its traditional Monday night slot.Jim Nabors 3

Some guests were better draws than others.  However, The Jim Nabors Hour finished 11th for the season in the 1969-70 Nielsens.  The following season, tougher competition from NBC’s new The Flip Wilson Show weakened the ratings.  Nonetheless, the Nabors show was still 28th in 1970-71 and was primed for a third season renewal.

What has unofficially been labeled The Great Rural Purge led to what many observers believed was a premature end for The Jim Nabors Hour.  Madison Avenue advertising agencies were pressuring the networks to end a decade of rural appeal shows launched by The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962.  Ad executives wanted more dramas, more shows with urban appeal in the large population centers and more programs appealing to the 18-49 age bracket that was viewing song-and-dance hours in fewer numbers.  The Nabors show was one of the final casualties on the CBS lineup for 1971-72.

Ironically, Jim was still in demand as a guest star on the remaining CBS variety shows during the seventies.  He continued his “good luck charm” appearances on every season premiere of The Carol Burnett Show until its end in 1977-78.  He showed up on Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and the final season of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  A syndicated Nashville-based Music Hall America welcomed Jim as a host.

In 1977, Jim subbed for Dinah Shore on her daytime 90-minute talk/variety series.  So impressed were Dinah’s producers that they developed a similar one-hour format for Nabors.  In January 1978, The Jim Nabors Show premiered on 140 stations, including WCBS in New York.  Many of those stations slotted Nabors opposite the fast-rising Phil Donahue in an early morning time period.  After a strong first two weeks, Jim’s ratings began to sag.  By the end of the 14th week, his distributor announced The Jim Nabors Show would end after 26 weeks.

Jim never did another series.  In 1981, he frontlined a Christmas Jim Nabors 2special, Jim Nabors’ Christmas in Hawaii, which included him singing Silent Night at Pearl Harbor.  His most frequent annual appearances, which started in 1969, were at the Indianapolis 500 where he offered the emotional state song “Back Home in Indiana” for 36 years until a farewell in 2014.

The fact that a native of middle Alabama could be propelled into near-overnight success as a small town mechanic-turned-Marine private is one of the genuine folklore tales of television.  The day of his death, Jim Nabors’ version of “Impossible Dream” from Gomer Pyle, USMC, went viral online.  More than one person reacted in the sixties with the phrase, “That voice just doesn’t go with that face.”  Indeed, it did.

I enjoyed Gomer because I knew people like him in my hometown.  I was an unabashed fan of Jim’s music because our vocal range was similar and his versions of Broadway showstoppers and contemporary middle-of-the-road favorites of the era connected with me.  His variety hour was a weekly appointment for me because Jim was himself, not a craft of handlers or managers who wanted him to fit into a pattern.

Most of us never met him but never heard a cross word about him from those who did.  For most of the sixties when Jim Nabors appeared either in character of singing a powerful showcloser, we watched—and we wanted more.






“Nature Boy”: Compelling Storytelling at Its Best, A Tragic Tale of the Price of Fame

I have been a non-fan of pro wrestling for nearly 20 years. However, ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ “Nature Boy,” a brilliant and honest portrayal of wrestling megastar Ric Flair, was one of the most compelling documentaries of its kind because of its storytelling.

I first saw Flair in 1974 during my first weekend at the University of Georgia.  I flipped on “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” on WFBC in Greenville, S.C.  The veteran Rip Hawk and Flair had just won the Mid-Atlantic tag team championship.  At the time, I didn’t see anything special about the young upper Midwesterner.  During interviews, Hawk—a veteran heel (as villains are termed inside the wrestling industry)—did most of the talking.  Flair was a couple of years away from developing the persona that propelled him to the top of his profession in the early 1980s.

Ric FlairWhen he based his ring character on the flamboyance of earlier star “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Flair struck gold.  His work ethic was unsurpassed in his field.  Ed Capral, one of the great announcers of the era between 1955 and 1975, told me Flair was “the greatest showman I’ve ever seen in wrestling.”  Capral had seen the original Gorgeous George, the legendary Haystacks Calhoun and Andre the Giant.  In his field, Capral knew of which he spoke.

In the microcosm world of pro wrestling, Ric Flair was regarded by people who grew up well before the Hulk Hogan transformation of 1984 as the greatest performer in the genre’s history.  However, as the documentary indicated, Flair sacrificed wives, children, his health and relationships to experience the love from entertainment he obviously never found from his adoptive parents.  In the early moments of “Nature Boy,” we learned that the Fleiers were major patrons of the arts.  Their son Richard was far more interested in the theater of sport.  Behavioral conflicts resulted in him being sent away to a boarding school as an older teen.  People who only knew of Ric Flair as a master of a figure-four leglock may not have been aware of the juxtapositions of his childhood.  He had parents; yet, he conveyed his own emotions that he felt they were never “there” for him.

Flair talked of the difficult year of recovery after suffering a broken back in a plane crash on the way to a Sunday afternoon card in Wilmington, N.C., October 4, 1975.  He experienced days rethinking his presentation in the ring if, against the odds, he could physically return to wrestling.

By 1981, he was the consummate star in his profession.  He won the NWA world heavyweight championship from his consistent foe of the eighties, Dusty Rhodes.  As several of his colleagues related in “Nature Boy,” Richard Morgan Fleier began living the character of Ric Flair.  His first wife Leslie detailed how he would come home for a day, say how bored he was, and leave.  A world of women, sex, expensive clothes and alcohol to a degree few could fathom became Flair’s environment.  He detailed a period of nearly three years in which “I was never at home.” At the end of the documentary, he admitted to being anything but a model husband and father.  I was taken back to an interview with one of the late Jack Webb’s associates on “The Stu Shostak Show” a few years back.  Webb became a television legend with two successful incarnations of the police series “Dragnet” and developed a television empire.  With all that success, Webb had multiple marriages and could not escape his true marriage to television.  “Jack was a bad father,” said one of his long-time colleagues to Shostak.

“Nature Boy” revealed the heartbreak of Flair’s son Reid’s death from a drug overdose.  Ric obviously had a relationship with Reid that he never had with his own father or his older son David.  Reid emulated his father’s alter ego, only the issues with alcohol expanded into drugs.  

The documentary portrayed a man who could not leave the stage.  In sports, I remember the sadness of seeing Johnny Unitas in a San Diego Chargers uniform.  One of the all-time greats of the NFL simply did not know when to quit.  In his last year with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle could only muster a .236 batting average and took three feeble swings in a final All-Star game in which he should never have been included.  Ric Flair in his 60s is far more of a nostalgic figure that in some respects is sad to watch.

The two key lines I took away from “Nature Boy” were from one of his younger colleagues and his son David.  Said Michaels:  “Ric doesn’t know Richard Fleier. I don’t think he’s ever taken the time to get to know who he is.”  From David Fleier,  his son from his first marriage: “I don’t want my children to have the kind of life I had.”  David was referring to his perpetually absentee father.

Many of Flair’s long-time fans are probably dissecting the documentary for its omissions of some of pro wrestling history they hoped would be included. Those who are miss the point of “Nature Boy” or any other documentary.

I teach a news documentary class at Union University every spring.  For five years, students are assigned a semester-long project to develop a half-hour examination of an issue of significant community interest.  Some of them have difficulty grasping that documentaries that hit the spot are not just facts and figures, nor are they solely historical.  They are stories.  Storytelling at its most compelling is what sells a documentary to viewers.

The production of “Nature Boy” was a deep and penetrating character study that showed adulation, fame and so-called perks that go with stardom and the contradiction of the selfishness of a man who never should have married or had children. The emotional pain we saw from his first wife Leslie in her interview and from Ric’s oldest son were clearly evident.

While watching, I was reminded how we all are guilty of putting entertainment stars on pedestals because we love or obsess over how they entertain us.  Yet, life away from the stage is often a dichotomy.  Many of us paid to watch Ric Flair deliver a textbook performance in sports entertainment on multiple occasions. He always gave us our money’s worth.  His life away from the ring and the bright lights was another story. 

Ric Flair almost died three months ago.  Years of alcohol to the excess finally took a toll doctors and friends had warned him of for years.  In an interview on SiriusXM radio three weeks ago, Flair said, “It’s a miracle that I’m even here talking to you.  I’m never going to have a drop of alcohol again.”  I hope he sticks to that.  He may not have another comeback remaining.

“Nature Boy” held my interest because of its depth in a fashion that a puff piece on Flair’s career would not have.   Many of those who have showered him with adulation through the decades probably do not see the story through the same glasses as did I.  As the tale unfolded, I was reminded of the closing days of Mickey Mantle when he learned cancer was about to take him after years of alcohol abuse.  The Mick was one of my childhood heroes.  Yet, in the last interview he gave before he died, he said, “Don’t be like me.” Flair did not have to say that in “Nature Boy.” The 90-minute story did.