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.

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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 GoFundMe.com 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Combating Cliches in Television News

As one who teaches young people to enter the profession of broadcast journalism, I find interesting and often puzzling the things I have to do differently than I did 25 years ago.

For one, I struggle more and more to slow the pace of my students’ speech. I have no idea what happened a decade ago but, year by year, they talk faster and faster and faster.

They don’t just do it on the air. That’s the pace they address each other in conversation. I call it machine gun speech because they rattle out their words just about as fast.

I try to explain it this way: the viewer has one shot at hearing your delivery. They typically do not DVR newscasts. If you are delivering your copy as if you are in a hurry to get home, they will never grasp your information.

In years past, I often cringed or turned the channel when Jen Carfagno started at The Weather Channel. The young woman is popular enough now to be part of the early morning “AMHQ” team. I am sure she is a delightful person. When she began, she discussed cold fronts and high pressure systems as if she were racing a contender at the Kentucky Derby. How many times did I yell at the screen: “SLOW DOWN!” Someone must have worked with Carfagno. I can actually comprehend her detail now because her rate of speech has seriously declined from seven words per second.

A couple of weekends ago, I was watching the same network’s Saturday remote from an outdoor festival. Reagan Medgie, a correspondent for TWC, is engaging and pleasant. I am certain I would like her if I met her. However, she has a case of the Carfagnos from past years. When she tossed the segment back to Maria LaRosa and Paul Goodloe, so help me, I had no idea what she said, where she was or who she was because she was speaking at the speed of a hurricane.

Interestingly, some of my students give me pushback. “Well, that’s the way I normally talk,” I have heard more than one complain. That is when we go into the control room and look at their tape. Occasionally, I will bring in a colleague who will verify my assessment. Most pay attention, though begrudgingly at times. A few are just insistent that their high school flash-and-dash conversational rate of speech is acceptable.

The other challenge we face is to eliminate terrible use of the language, some of which the TV news industry has sadly adopted. Twitter has two identities, @tiredtvterms and @producerprobs. Both are dedicated to people like me who gripe about worn out clichés and bad phrases, even if we sound like old men in a rocking chair in front of a senior citizens’ center.

My biggest pet peeve is one I have been harping on for five years. When, oh when, are anchors and reporters going to stop using the ridiculous and incorrect phrase “went missing?”

Somehow, around the start of this decade, broadcast news adopted that phrase. Here’s how it typically is presented: “Thirty-two-year-old Brenda Kaddidlehopper went missing three days ago. Law enforcement authorities are asking for your help in finding her.”

To say one “went missing” or “has gone missing” is to suggest an active or planned intent by an individual to be missing. A person can be “reported missing” to authorities. You can say that same person “is missing.” Went missing or gone missing? Don’t ever say that in my presence. Yet, I will wager you will hear it on your local newscast in a matter of days.

On a similar note, I heard a new one last week. On the local news in the city where I live, an anchor received a press release from an area police department. I was emailed the same release. The anchor reported, “Police are searching for the whereabouts of 14-year-old ____________.”

Were police not searching for the girl? That is absolutely the first time I have ever heard a reporter state that officers were “searching for the whereabouts.”

I continue to cringe when I hear a reporter say, “Some 30,000 people marched in protest today.” I scream at my TV screen: “Which 30,000 people?”

More than 40 years ago, my major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, confronted “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick at a seminar about the inexplicable use of the word “some.” I’m paraphrasing but Kilpatrick said, in effect, “I don’t really know why we do it. I think we think it sounds good, so we do it.”

Here’s another irritant. I nearly come unglued if I watch morning television and the anchors switch to a reporter for a live segment on a murder, shooting or some other tragedy. The reporter in the field will, without fail, say: “Good morning, Jan and Richard.” Good morning?? When you are about to report on death or violence? Could we all agree to drop the happy greeting on the scene of disaster?

As for clichés, sportscasters are the absolute worst and I was one for 25 years. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose “Mike and Mike in the Morning” will soon end on ESPN2 after 18 years, are arguably the worst practitioners.

I wish I had $10 for every time either one has said “throw him under the bus” when a coach blames a player for a loss. I perhaps could retire before 2021.

As for another, I am convinced Golic invented the term “it is what it is,” an absolutely meaningless phrase he uses to describe something otherwise inexplicable.

When a team attempts to rebound after an off year, count on Mike or Mike to say, “They’re coming in with a chip on their shoulders.”

Once Greenberg or Golic establish a phrase enough times, count on the rest of the sports talk fraternity to adopt the same clichés ad nauseum.

News is not off the hook. During my first year in television news, I cannot count the number of times reporters would lead off stories depicting commemorative dates or events with, “It’s that time of year again.” I vowed never to use those six words in a news story. I never have.

I tell my student reporters if any of them send me a script that ends with “only time will tell,” that script will be sent right back until they come up with something original. That happened to me in the tenth grade when my English teacher Hazel Mancil returned a paper to me which ended with that very phrase.

I am also a curmudgeon about sentences that begin with the word “there,” such as “There are new tax proposals on the table from City Council.” I go back to one of the great English professors in history, Dr. Marvin Evans. He would toss back any paper that had sentences beginning with the word “there,” except in a direct quote. “There” is an existential. “There” is never a subject of a sentence, but always requires a verb.

Recently, I was watching a midday newscast on NewsON from the Southwest. A reporter actually said, “Police used firearms to shoot the suspect.” I had no idea an alternative form of ballistics had been developed.

Next time a hurricane begins making its way up the Florida coast, count how many times meteorologists or anchors will say, “Hurricane Otto is really packing a punch.” I never knew punches were packed. They are usually thrown in boxing matches or pier six brawls. I’d like to ask such people, “Did Otto pack his punch in American Tourister luggage (does that still exist?).

Thank goodness most news producers sent emails to their reporters last week after the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. The journalists were told not to say, “The Juice is loose.” Note that I said “most” news producers. Before the hearing, I saw this graphic on a local newscast: “Will the Juice get loose?”

In a few other choice examples of tired TV terms (and these are offered by interviewees as well as reporters), try these:

  • At the end of the day
  • It has a lot of moving parts
  • There, you see it (a favorite of sportscasters when a graphic appears)
  • Gave chase (to whom was the chase presented?)
  • Using -gate at the end of a term to depict every major scandal. Forty-five years ago, Watergate sent us on this long path. Most producers or young reporters have no idea that Watergate is an apartment complex.

Here is one more for your consideration. I would like to send a year’s supply of sour milk to the person who decided the proper way to begin a response to a question is with the word “so.” I see this happening largely when younger people are interviewed on midday newscasts. I am also seeing this creep into reporters’ answers to anchor questions during a remote. So help me, in scanning newscasts last week, I saw an anchor ask, “When do you expect the next briefing from the police?” Said the reporter: “Soooooo, we think that will probably happen in the next hour and a half to two hours.”

Every once in a while, though, phrases can be a bit original and creative. The one depicted in the accompanying picture was developed for a story involving a robbery in Jackson, Tn.  Police ultimately discovered the culprit hiding in an abandoned home.  The official police report indicated that the man charged showed officers where he had hidden the $432 taken from a convenience store—-in a toilet.

A rather inventive graphic headline writer offered the phrase:  Johnny Cash? Robbery Money Found in Toilet.

When I saw that, I was reminded of the year Tennessee Ernie Ford hosted the Country Music Association Awards. He said, “When I was young, I dated a girl who was so dumb she thought Johnny Cash was money you found in the commode.”

Television news and sports often rely far too much on worn out clichés. Despite this cry from the wildnerness, those stale phrases will continue.

During the 40-plus years since I joined the television news fraternity, I have read many interviews with news directors who are newly-hired. At least six of them included the quote, “We’re going to tighten up on the writing.” Did that mean the writing was loose?  Was a rope to be used to make the writing improve?

Sooooooo, such is life in the TV newsroom.  Time for me to retire to my rocking chair in front of the Ralston Hotel in Columbus, Ga.  I will take one “Johnny Cash?” graphic for 100 “only time will tell” endings—-any time.

Should Pounds Matter When Hiring Broadcast Journalists?

Tell the truth:  if you are a member of LinkedIn, why are you there?  Do you participate just so people can say you have more than 1,000 connections?  

I actually read intelligent LinkedIn posts from quality professionals who help me learn something in a given day.  Holly MacTaggart is a human resources executive. I was glued to one of her recent offerings because she made me introspective about the hiring process in broadcast journalism.20160730_205819-1

Here is an excerpt from Holly’s post:

Today, I was disappointed in my profession. I received a call from an HR professional whom I mentor….She told me that she had been pursued for a new role. She had several phone interviews and was asked if she could set up a very short Skype for a few “tactical” questions before going in for onsite interviews with the client. She rearranged her schedule, took the call from her home office and when the screen went live she saw the two recruiters look at each other, and slightly shake their head. Within 10 minutes, they said they had enough information. A few days later, they wrote and told her the position was on hold and thanked her. She said, “I think they didn’t like how I looked.”  Now, I don’t know what happened. I do know, she isn’t model thin … but what is in this woman’s head is amazing and she would be a tremendous benefit to any company. I explained that she needed to focus on the role she had, realize she “got off lucky” and continue to work her craft. Then I wondered … did the company even know what happened? Are we a culture of “how good you look” vs what knowledge and skills you bring to the table?

Holly’s last rhetorical question made me pause to think:  if we are truly honest, how would the television news industry as a whole answer?  

Before you start throwing brickbats and saying, “You, of all people, who used to supervise newsrooms should know appearance is one of the necessities of our business,” I simply want you to think.  How many people have news directors turned away over the years because they were overweight?  I will strike a little more terror into your hearts:  are most of those who were eliminated because of their weight female?

Let’s consider several givens:  I recognize viewers can be more incisive about the appearance of on-air journalists than a surgeon’s knife.  Without the benefit of empirical research, my experience during my news director years was that women viewers are far more critical of the look of women anchors and reporters than are men on men.  My first day in the news director’s chair in 1983 brought me this call from a woman who had no idea who I was:  “When are y’all gonna do somethin’ about them big swingin’ earrings that Catherine _________ wears?  I get dizzy just watchin’ them things swing.”  That’s no joke.  I suppose I could have told her, “If her earrings bother you that much, you can always change the channel,” but as a newcomer to town who wanted to encourage viewers to turn to us, I eschewed my initial inclination to respond with a smart aleck answer.

I am acutely aware that weight clauses exist in some anchor and reporter contracts, particularly in larger markets.  That is no different from the entertainment industry.  However, I ponder whether those continue because of the tradition of television news or because of the perceived expectation of viewers.

Further, news executives find no joy in their days having to field a call such as I did on my initial day on the job.  Add to that, they find even less joy taking a call from the general manager who says, “I’m getting more and more calls about ______________’s weight.”  Unspoken (or sometimes spoken) is the question:  “What are you going to do about it?”

An additional given is what should be a primary concern for anyone, regardless of their profession.  Excessive weight makes one vulnerable to health issues.  

Let me give you an example from my quarter century as a broadcast media professor.  For our purposes, I will refer to the young woman in question as “Janet.”  She entered our university as an enthusiastic, energetic 18-year-old with a goal.  Her heart and soul were focused on a career in TV news.  

When she arrived, she was—by society’s and the culture’s conventional standards—the picture of a future on-air personality in appearance.  She demonstrated maturity well beyond her years in her curiosity and performance.  However, in her first year, she tacked on the stereotypical “freshman 15” pounds.  By the end of the following year, that had become the “sophomore 60.”  One day, when I happened by the cafeteria, I passed by Janet and some of her friends.  I stopped to speak but privately was stunned.  Janet’s plate resembled the size of “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  A second casual visit revealed the same result.

Toward the end of Janet’s sophomore year, her mother called me.  Unlike typical helicopter parents of today, this was a very nice, concerned woman with a serious concern about her daughter.  “She has never been like this before in her life.  We are concerned, because she can’t push away from the table,” her mother said.  “What I want to know is this:  is she eating her way out of a chance to work in television?”

My first thought was:  how do I sensitively handle this with Janet’s mother and yet be honest.  In the next few minutes, I confided that Janet is still every bit the excellent potential journalist she was when she first entered college.  I explained to her mother that while as a college professor I can counsel with her and straightforwardly give Janet the facts of life about the profession, the industry is going to look the other way if she doesn’t begin to melt down some pounds.

Janet’s family and I both had sensitively-handled but direct conversations with her about the expectations of appearance in television news.  She received our advice affirmatively and constructively.  Sadly, she could not manage a way to drop even half of those extra 60 pounds.  Ultimately, she opted to switch her major to social work and has enjoyed a successful career in reaching out to people who are sometimes in difficult situations.

In the months after Janet graduated, I had one of those paradoxical moments of reflection.  Janet’s abilities and potential as a journalist did not deteriorate because of her weight.  I remember saying to a colleague, “I wonder what a TV news department is missing by not having her on staff, because she definitely had the tools.”  At the same time, I am confident Janet would have experienced the same as the woman in Holly MacTaggart’s example once a news director or station management would have seen that she was not model-thin.  I also asked rhetorically, “Is this really right?  What does it say about our industry?”

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of NewsON and frequently sample newscasts from around the country.  I have begun to see a miniscule increase in on-air anchors or reporters who, by the culture’s standards, would be considered overweight.  Each one of them had a pristine delivery and I could tell no difference in their communication skills than those who weighed 20 to 50 pounds less.  Likewise, each one was well-dressed and neatly groomed.  The only contrast to others on their staffs was the sizes of their clothes were larger.  In no way was I compelled to turn to another city’s newscast because of the sizes of these young men and women.

This is one of these “just asking” propositions:  does the local television news industry maintain a double standard when it comes to size?  In the last four years, we have seen lemon juice-vaccinated gripeboxes on Facebook and Twitter throwing cruel darts at pregnant women meteorologists who continue to work after their soon-to-become loved ones become significantly evident onscreen.  Some of these women have had the guts to strike back online.  In at least three instances in the last year, news directors have been quick to come to their defense and rightfully so.  I have personally emailed those three and, in so many words, let them know, “We’ve got your back.”

So here’s the opposite side of that question:  if we justifiably stand up for an expectant on-air employee who is increasing in size because she is about to experience one of the happy additions of life, are we being ambiguous if we close the door to a well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken reporter applicant because he or she happens to be overweight?  I imagine a number of people in hiring or decision-making capacities either don’t want to face the answer to that question or will dismiss it altogether with “TVnewsexecspeak.”

Holly MacTaggart’s true scenario that rekindled my thinking on this subject was of a woman who sensed immediately that she was being rejected for a job because of her weight.  No matter her ability or talents, which Holly could verify, those executives on Skype just shook their heads.

If lawsuits or job discrimination assertions are filed by people in taxpayer-paid, public positions because of weight issues, local TV news departments would be likely to pounce on that as a story.  Proving that someone is rejected for on-air employment because of weight is relative and on the burden of the prospect.  Yet, people who make such a decision know exactly if they are making that call because of pounds.  They really do.

I am convinced that “Janet” could have worked with competence and creativity as a journalist in any television news department.  She just happened to be 50 to 60 pounds over society’s (and television’s) expectation of appropriate weight.  

Given that she had talent, ability and may have broken stories that would have gained attention for your news team, just consider one question.  Would you have hired Janet?  Just asking.

 

 

When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.

 

 

 

Another TV Journalist Joins the Battle to Stamp Out Stigma of Emotional Illness

If you’re old enough to remember the assorted series produced by Quinn Martin from the 1960s through the ’80s, you may well remember two distinct trademarks.  Each segment was labeled Act I, Act II…..until the final three-to-four minute climax to wrap the evening’s story.  In the lower right corner of the screen was the word “Epilog.”

This is one of what may be many epilogs to our four-part series on depression and other emotional illnesses within television newsrooms.  Amidst the live shots, multiple deadlines, middle-of-the-night wakeup calls, and demands to be “on” for community service is a genuine vulnerability to depression.

Saturday, a reporter whose work I have viewed during crisis storm coverage in the last year opened up on Facebook about a struggle she has had and the dilemma as to whether to go public with her story.

Ashley HardingAshley Harding trudges the streets of North Florida for WJXT, the Jacksonville station I grew up watching and which influenced me to enter the field of broadcast journalism.

As background, Ashley and her husband had a child 16 months ago.  As is typical, her colleagues and the station in general celebrated the new birth.  However, Ashley began to experience the type of depression that is often only understood if one is a woman.

She, as did many of us, read of the tragic story of the suicide of Portland, Maine (WCSH) meteorologist Tom Johnston.  Before his tenure in Portland, Johnston was the morning meteorologist for Action News in Jacksonville.  On the air, Johnston was known for his lively personality and his sense of humor.  He was probably the last person most people would perceive would even fathom taking his own life.

Tom JohnstonWhat led Tom Johnston to his decision is still and may forever be unknown.  Ashley Harding was compelled to come forward with a story that had to play heavy in her own heart.  Please read her own account at the link above.  Here are some excerpts:

“For days, I had been mulling over and over in my head, asking myself…should I talk about this with the viewers? Should I share this?  I have been struggling with post-partum depression since our son was born in December 2015,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

As is the case with anyone struggling with depression, the dilemma is to accept that one needs help.  Ashley shared about the challenge of making an appointment with a psychiatrist, a difficult act that her husband finally did for her.  She then addressed personal thoughts about Tom Johnston.

“I did not know him when he worked here in Jacksonville, but this story really hit home for me. It’s time to get real about depression and mental illness. It’s okay to talk about it, and please people, get help if you need it. Reach out to those in your life who matter. Don’t wait as long as I did to try to get better. Rest in peace, Tom.”

I have communicated with Ashley via e-mail since her Facebook post went viral via TVSpy.  As I told her, she will never know whether one or 100 people are compelled to seek help because they have seen her daily on WJXT and recognize that she is not just a TV figure, but a real human who has real problems just as the rest of us do.

In her Facebook post, she details beginning the road back with low-dosage anti-depressants.  That is a common prescription for post-partum depression and for cases of clinical depression.  The key is being patient for the medication to work.  You cannot have the attitude of people who put on 15 pounds during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, hit the gym January 2 and expect those 15 to roll off in three or four days.  Any person experiencing depression may need weeks or even months to become one’s whole self again.

Ashley has taken the two most important steps—-she recognized she needed help and, with the help of her husband, she has sought it.  If she follows through on her treatment program—-and I have no doubt she will, she will get well.

Further, her courage to share her experience will be an inspiration to people in Jacksonville who may be going through the same struggles.  My personal hope is that her story will also encourage others in the television industry who need the same type of counseling and treatment to seek help.  As I have detailed previously, TV news is a profession that is a prime conduit of vulnerability to emotional illness.

One retired news director responded to my previous four-part blog with these words:  “This is a high-stress business.  Maybe people who have depression just shouldn’t be in it.”  That was a 1975-type answer.  

No, the time has come for the broadcast journalism industry and its managerial leaders to recognize that many talented people who work for them have their limits.  Depression can occur even to people in a low-stress profession.  Further, it is time for every broadcasting chain in America to require its senior managers and mid-level managers to undergo specific and disciplined training to understand the warning signs of depression and the sensitivity to be encouraging and patient with staff members who experience emotional illness.  Those who are dealing with depression could be some of those managers themselves.

As for Ashley Harding, she is taking the first steps on the road to a full recovery.  She is not alone.  She has a vast audience of people, many of whom she has never met, who are in her corner.  No doubt, her co-workers at WJXT are rooting for her.  So is The Old TV News Coach.

By telling her story, Ashley will have a positive influence on helping people she does not even know to take that first step of seeking help.  Likewise, she is helping to stamp out the stigma of ignorance and callousness concerning emotional illness.  What do we have to lose by talking about it?  We may save another life.

Photos courtesy wcsh6.com and news4jax.com

It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.