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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

A So-Called Viewer of WALB Who Should Be Shamed and Ashamed, Whether He Realizes It

My long-time friend Al Fleming, a multiple Emmy-winner, won one of his statuettes with a commentary which began:  “In the news business, it’s been said to never, ever, ever answer your critics.”

Al explained he was inclined to let the issue pass but that he was about to take on the United States Army.  He did.  In one of the most powerful perspective pieces in any city in America, Al took off the gloves as if he were in a rematch with Ali vs. Frazier.

I am about to take on a single television viewer.  However, this one individual is a reflection of one of the sickest elements in social media since its invention.  Trust me, plenty more are out there like him.

Emileigh 5Emileigh Forrester is a young weekend anchor and reporter at WALB in Albany, Ga.  I have a fondness for that station.  WALB is located about halfway between the two hometowns in which I grew up in the fifties through the seventies.  At one point, before all of the nutsy battles over compensation from cable companies, WALB was seen in almost every city in deep South Georgia.

WALB is one of those markets that for more than 60 years has been the lifeblood of local news for many rural areas of lower Georgia.  People in cities such as Sylvester, Tifton, Hahira, Valdosta, Ashburn, Nashville, Enigma, Fitzgerald and Hazlehurst have looked to Channel 10, the long-time NBC affiliate, for news and information.  No doubt, that has been exceptionally true during the past weekend with the threat of Hurricane Irma to WALB’s coverage area.

Emileigh is like hundreds of young men and women in television newsrooms across America.  Except during a couple of weeks of vacation during the year, her weekends are spent in a place that is far quieter than it is during an average weekday.  She has to fill two half-hours of news on Saturday and Sunday.  Emileigh has what has historically been known as a “skeleton staff” to help find enough local, regional and national news to deliver those newscasts to viewers who expect it, even if the content is largely softer than the Monday-through-Friday output.

If she is like many weekend anchors in small markets, she is reporter, videographer, producer, and editor.  Emileigh is in that professional period in which jobs like hers are part of the pay your dues years.  One with a solid work ethic agrees to such a role in the hope one can vault someday to a better-paying and more prestigious role either in the same station or one in another city.

Since my purchase of two Roku smart TVs more than a year ago, the NewsON app—one of the greatest inventions for a former news director—has allowed me to reacquaint myself with WALB, as well as a number of other stations across the country.  I watch the station’s newscasts a few times each month in order to reconnect with what is happening in the region of my roots.  Jim Wallace, an old college classmate from the unofficially labeled Bill Martin School of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Georgia, is WALB’s senior news anchor.

Emileigh 9Occasionally on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon after football season ends, I click NewsOn over to WALB to catch one of Emileigh’s weekend newscasts.  I have always found her pleasant, engaging, personable and authoritative in her presentation.  One afternoon, I sent her a thumbs up message on Twitter as I periodically do with a number of young reporters and anchors across the country.  As a former professional in the field, I feel a calling to offer encouragement to the next generation of reporters and anchors.  I did so several times Sunday afternoon with reporters from WINK in Fort Myers, Fla., who were exemplary during their coverage of Irma.

The weekend just past was a rare one for the WALB newsroom and staff members such as Emileigh.  Hurricanes, or threats of them, rarely reach as far as Southwest Georgia.  Remnants, tropical depressions, maybe even the leftover tropical storm may show up.  This time, the path of a powerful storm had people who live in those many rural communities surrounding Albany on pins and needles and depending on the long-reliable news staff of WALB to provide accurate, frequent and consistent weather and safety information.

As I write this, I am watching WALB News 10‘s late Sunday evening newscast after the Cowboys-Giants NFL game on NBC.  In the first 12 minutes, I counted crucial emergency information for 11 different counties in the WALB coverage area.  That is exactly what viewers expect and deserve in a weather crisis.  Emileigh, as usual, carried the ball solo until she handed off to weekend meteorologist Andrew Gorton.

Emileigh 2So, you ask, why all of this about one young woman among many in newsrooms in hundreds of cities toiling with a limited number of colleagues in order to keep people informed on Saturday and Sunday evenings?  A few times a week one of the jackal pack of dunderheads (I borrowed that term from Al Fleming’s award-winning commentary in 1979) demonstrates utter ignorance as well as abuse of the privilege of social media use.  Just read what was posted on Twitter by someone calling himself @Tblake762:

Emileigh Tweet 2

Well, well, well, Mr. @TBlake762, your brilliance and articulation are overwhelming.  If we had a Mount Rushmore for insolence and cruelty, you would be carved on it.

People like this have been out there well before social media was created.  They used to use an item called a landline telephone.  Just as on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, they would either often lie about their names or refuse to reveal their identity.

This guy, who claims to be a Marine, has exhibited enough mental skills to make Gomer Pyle appear to be a Rhodes Scholar.  What he did only energized the troops.  Look at some of the responses:

Emileigh Tweet 4

I am equally heartened by the WALB web producer.  Most of the time, difficult as it is, colleagues will just turn the other cheek.  In most instances, that is the right thing to do.  However, in this situation, I appreciated the retaliation:

Emileigh Tweet 3

As for Emileigh, she took the high road.  Trust me, even if you have been raised with the Biblical principle of turning the other cheek—as have I, the toughest thing to do when you are hit with a cruel slap in the face is to respond with salt and light.  Here is how Emileigh handled it—-and her web producer chimed in with another appropriate salvo:

Emileigh Tweet 1

I have never forgotten what happened shortly after I hired a young woman named Natasha as a reporter in 1991.  This was her first job out of college.  She had a great education and interviewed well.  I was glad to get her.

Admittedly, Natasha struggled in her first few weeks.  She had difficulty with speed and with editing skills.  I saw huge potential in her, so even though her early work was not up to snuff, I decided patience was the appropriate posture.

At the end of the third week, a call came after the 6:00 newscast from a viewer.  He called himself Charlie, though I doubt seriously if that was his name.  Twenty-six years later, I am paraphrasing this conversation but Charlie said something to the effect of:  “How come you can’t do any better than that new girl you have on there?”  In the next five minutes, Charlie proceeded to provide every generic reason why he did not like Natasha.  Then came the payoff.  Charlie had to throw in the firebomb that he didn’t understand why we had to have so many people who had the color of skin as Natasha.

I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts before I responded.  Again, paraphrasing, I said:  “That, sir, is something to which you and I could never agree.  You have just demonstrated the fallacy and insolence of your entire argument.  Since this is the direction you have taken it, this conversation is now over.”

I wonder what he thought over the next year when Natasha blossomed into an outstanding reporter with more and more confidence.  She overcame the speed issues and the editing deficiencies.  She broke some significant political stories, some of which had statewide impact.  She went on to a larger market and stayed in touch with me for several years.

Emileigh 7I equally ponder what the @TBlake762s of the world will think when Emileigh’s career blossoms even more than the way it already is at WALB.  Then, again, he had his one evening in the Twitter moonlight.  That is probably all he cared about at the time.  Next time you look in the dictionary, see if he isn’t listed as one of the definitions of the word “cruel.”

What this guy does not realize—probably among many things—is that a large fraternity and sorority of journalists, both active and retired, will not sit back and allow a colleague be unfairly and unreasonably assailed.  The troops are on the warpath and we have Emileigh’s back.  

I retired from being an active news director 25 years ago and went into broadcast journalism education.  Yet, for the last nine years I have been a quasi-news director because I supervise a daily cable newscast on local television produced, reported and anchored by my students.  I will unequivocally say that I would have been proud to have had Emileigh Forrester as a student or on any of my news staffs when I was still in the daily TV news profession.  Further, I will at any time be equally pleased to useEmleigh 3 Emileigh’s work as a role model for my graduates who want to follow her into the field.

Emileigh, hold your head high, just as high as the road you took with @TBlake762.  What is gross?  Anyone who would take to Twitter to invoke such a despicable post fits the description.

As for people like him, remember the famous words of my good friend and homespun humorist Don Hudlow, who said:  “There are a lot of naysayers in this world…..and they’ve all been vaccinated with lemon juice.”

 

A Story in Courage and Perseverance: Dave Jordan Returns to Work at WITN

Only two weeks earlier on Tuesday, August 22, Dave’s boss suddenly died.  She was not only his boss, she was his wife.  Stephanie Shoop, at the tender age of 46, was news director of WITN where Dave Jordan is the prime time co-anchor.  One day, she was wife, mother of two, and a respected leader of a television newsroom.  The next day, with no warning, Stephanie slipped away.

 

Dave’s co-anchor Lynnette Taylor told viewers of the loss in an emotional moment at the end of the August 22 early evening newscast.

In a previous blogpost, I wrote of how sadness can pervade a newsroom in a fashion that critics of journalism can never believe. It happens in moments when the unthinkable happens. The constant buzz that is usually the hallmark of a television news operation suddenly becomes as quiet as a public library.  What brings on the uncommon calm typically is in that rare instance when someone whose face and personality are as familiar as a member of one’s family is suddenly gone.  The stark reality strikes that the someone in question will never return.

My father was a minister for 65 of his 87 years.  Often, he told me that the most difficult times were when he had to reach out to a family who just experienced a sudden and unexpected loss.  

Stephanie Ann Shoop was a native Pennsylvanian.  In 1995, she married a man named David Giordano who grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Sheffield.  Dave made his way to Eastern North Carolina 20 years ago after a brief stop in a small West Virginia market.  In 1998, Stephanie joined WITN as a newscast producer—a job that is frequently rewarding because the producer shapes a half-hour of news much as a sculptor does a bust.  Three years later, she became news director; in reality, her promotion made Stephanie her husband’s professional superior.

Husband-wife pairs can be an emotional boon or a periodic headache for management.  Some corporations have specific policies against spouses working for the same television station, or at least in the same department with the same boss.

In the mid-1980’s in Wilmington, N.C., I had two couples who worked for me at WWAY.  They could not have been more pleasant or more professional.  One husband was my chief photographer.  His wife was in production.  The other couple were my 11 o’clock anchors.  Richard and Jill Rogers were an immediate hit when I hired them away from WSAV in Savannah, Ga.  Richard also did the 6:00 news.  They were equally gracious off the air.  Jill did not stay in news over the long haul.  Richard is still active as the lead anchor at WRDW in Augusta, Ga.

On the other hand, I had another spouse combo in another city which I will not name.  They were not difficult people.  Yet, I often came away with a stomach ache in dealing with them.  They never grasped that their performance evaluations were as individuals, not as a couple.  One of the twosome was a reasonably good journalist.  The other spouse should have either been on PM Magazine or in an allied field.  I will leave my comments at that.  Regardless, had I cause to call the weaker performer of the two in for a conference, I knew the other would be appearing at my office door shortly after.  At least a half-dozen times, I had to issue the reminder, “I can’t talk to you about this at all.  You are two individuals on the corporate payroll.  I like you both personally, but I cannot discuss anything about a conversation with an employee with another employee even if you are married.”

ShoopsFrom all accounts, that was never a problem with the Jordans.  In her obituary, this was one description of Stephanie:  “She treated each and every employee and co-worker like her own and made them family.”

To stay in a city such as Washington, N.C., for nearly 20 years, one has to love it.  Dave and Stephanie apparently made a real home there.  Here’s what you may not realize:  Washington is part of Greenville-Washington-New Bern, one of those challenging animals of television known as the hyphenated market.  Each city’s viewers are typically jealous of their own local news and are not crazy about seeing many stories about the other two cities on their station’s newscast.  Here is something else you may not know:  the estimated population of Washington, N.C., as of 2016, was 9,801.  That may be the smallest city in America to have its own television station.  

What may not be an understatement is to say Washington may be the Mayberry of television cities.  In a town of fewer than 10,000 people, everybody tends to know everybody—or at least that is the way it seems.  If I lived there, I would probably see people who would light up if they saw their anchorman in a local restaurant.  “There’s Dave,” I’m sure they would say.  When you are in a viewer’s living room or den every night, you become a member of the family, especially in a small town.

Stephanie was not a household name in the community except to her close friends.  News directors, unless you are like this old guy was when I held that job and did commentaries three nights a week, are typically unseen and unfamiliar to the general public.  Yet, she found her fulfillment as the guiding hand of WITN News.  Over the years, she no doubt saw dozens of young journalists come and go.  At 46, her news staff was likely like an extension of her own two children.  Sometimes, a news director has to make unpopular decisions.  At times, you have to hand out discipline.  On occasion, you have to let people go—-truly never a pleasant decision even if the person being axed was not one who would be missed.  When you are in a leadership position for 16 years, you no doubt will have some people who decide they don’t like you.  However, my perception is those were few and far between in Stephanie Shoop’s world.

Even if you have occasional dysfunction—and every newsroom does at some point—a TV news operation becomes a family.  The morning of August 22, the head of the family at WITN News was snatched away in the twinkling of an eye.

I found a couple of tributes on Stephanie’s Facebook page that are worth sharing.  Here is one from a retired colleague, Steve Crabtree:

Prayers from here that our Heavenly Father wraps family, friends, news staff and other co-workers in His warm embrace giving each His comfort, peace and understanding. Stephanie was the consummate news professional and a gracious, compassionate, passionate and empathetic human being. She was dedicated to excellence in all she did and loved her family as well as her TV family with all of her heart. I respected few news directors in the U.S. more than her and feel blessed God allowed our paths to cross. My heart goes out to each of you! With love, Steve Crabtree; WVLT-TV VP/News, Retired; Knoxville TN

This one from Bill DiNicola tugged at me because I had the same emotions about a couple of the people for whom I have worked over the years:

It’s really hard to find the words… and fight back the tears long enough to write this. She was an amazing news director — but an even better mom, we all knew her as both. I am where I am now and more importantly I am who I am because of Stephanie Shoop — She was my News Mom, she was our News mom – she raised us right, she took in kids often for their first job, and turned us into well-rounded compassionate hardworking journalists, and she did it with love. You were the best possible example of a leader I could have hoped for. You let me get on the anchor desk when I weighed 500 lbs — who does that!?!? Like everyone in the WITN family, we were not ready for this. But because you were in our lives we will find the strength together. Dave, David and Grace — we’re here for you.

I can think of no finer tribute than for Stephanie to be called one’s News Mom.  That says to me—and should to many others—that she was much more than a news director.  One is not handed a label as Bill presented to Stephanie without being one who truly cares about people.

Shoop JordanWithout question, I hope Bill’s words were among many to help sustain Dave and the Jordans’ two children David and Grace.  A family, whether in television news or in any aspect of life, is a rallying center in times of sadness and deep tragedy.

Labor Day morning, I scanned TV Spy and saw that Dave Jordan—a man I have never met—was returning to work Tuesday.  He told reporter Stephanie Siegel:  “I’ve gone back to the station to visit as part of the healing process.”

In the same e-mail, here is how he reflected on his wife of 22 years:

“Stephanie was simply the most amazing person I have ever known and is deeply missed. Stephanie was also a very strong and determined person, and we are all drawing our strength from that. We all plan to do our best to pickup and carry on, as we know she would be telling us to do just that.”

Emotions are not one size fits all.  A sudden loss can send some people into an extended tailspin that requires a longer period of adjustment and grief before returning into the workplace.  Another family I knew lost their son on a Sunday afternoon in a skiing accident at a lake in South Georgia.  The next Sunday, three days after the teen’s funeral, the family was back at the lake.  “If we didn’t do this now, it would take us a lot longer to get on with life,” Bewick Murray, the father, said.  Everyone is emotionally different.

When I read that Dave was returning to the air Tuesday night, I had to log on to WITN.com.  I was not watching out of a viewer’s curiosity but as a member of the broadcast journalism fraternity.  I have not experienced the specific type of loss as has Dave Jordan, his children and the WITN family; yet, on the same day as Stephanie’s death, I received a call informing me of the death of my last living uncle, only six days after the passing of my oldest uncle.

Lynnette and DaveDave did his job with the same professionalism as he has for more than two decades in Eastern North Carolina.  At a designated moment in the six o’clock newscast, co-anchor Lynnette Taylor turned to Dave to share what was on his heart.  Here is an excerpt:

 

“I’m not going to pretend this is easy.  But I’ve reached a new reality in my life and it’s going to be that way for me and for our two children.

Family, friends, all of the viewers that have reached out with comments and cards….it’s amazing at a time like this how comments can lift you up.  I am grateful to all of you who have reached out to us. I want you to know that I’ll continue to need those because it’s going to be a journey.”
Dignity in a time of deep difficulty—that was the personification of Dave Jordan Tuesday night.
No doubt, many of those comments of encouragement and condolences have come from people Dave has never met.  I will add one of my own:  Dave, I’ve done the job you do and the job Stephanie did.  You don’t know me…..but if you need me, The Old TV News Coach is here.  May God continue to bless and comfort you and your family.
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