Live From Georgia

Paul Rea was framing his shot on a rural roadside when he saw the truck and its furious driver pull into view. Rea was on the ground in pain seconds later, receiving the thrashing of his life.

It was October 2000. Rea, a reporter/cameraman for WSAV, the NBC affiliate in Savannah, was covering the aftermath of the bizarre suicide of a South Georgia sheriff who shot himself while fleeing federal and state agents trying to arrest him on drug charges.

“I see one of his campaign signs as I’m driving; it says something like ‘Fight drugs, vote for this guy.’ I had to get that shot,” says Rea, who got more than he could have imagined. The man in the truck was the sheriff’s brother, who was just returning from having made bail as a co-conspirator in the drug ring.

“He kicks the camera over and starts beating the hell out of me,” Rea says. “Finally, he wore out or gave up. So he picks up the camera, throws it into a ditch, then drives off. I pick up the camera, and it’s still rolling. We got the whole thing on tape.”

It doesn’t really matter that Rea’s bosses refused to air the skewed footage, or share it with other network affiliates clamoring for a copy.

What matters is the GBI saw it and the sheriff’s brother served two years. What matters is, Rea was at a roadside ditch, bruised and battered, and he was more hyped over the discovery that he’d captured his own drubbing on tape than he was bummed about the beating. Even while he got the pi?ata treatment from a frenzied brute, he got the shot.

Though Rea almost certainly is the only person on Georgia Trend’s who’s who list of TV newspeople to have taped his own beating, his experience defines the pluck and tenacity of the TV journalist. Our focus is on Georgia’s local affiliates, not the international giants based here (like CNN and The Weather Channel).

These are people who unsettle us, or ease us into our comfort zones, people other journalists pay attention to. It’s an odd breed: Photogenic, thick-skinned, sometimes mistaken for well-groomed automatons for the way they recite the day’s body count with stoic tranquility. The best of them exude poise and grace under pressure, summon trust from the viewer, share with empathy the moments that epitomize our times while injecting a bit of their own personality.

Oftentimes, TV news stories draw breath, take shape and make noise all around the people who are reporting them. TV news can be contrived, scripted, but it’s also spontaneous, real, more impulsive than sudden death.

“The anchor person earns his keep when there’s no teleprompter, no script, and he’s forced to fall back on his own wit, curiosity and reporting ability,” says John Pruitt of WSB, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, an anchorman who has spent more than 40 years telling stories to the camera. To hear Pruitt tell it, a TV newsperson maintains trust and credibility by walking a tightrope between understatement and overreaction.

Local stations channel the gee-whiz technology that brings us instant news from other corners of the world (a la CNN) into stories that affect us immediately at home, the things we encounter on a daily basis. The city’s sewer problems, the physically-challenged kid on the local high school football team, the financially-challenged animal shelter, the corrupt county sheriff, shenanigans in the state capitol.

These are the pieces of the news puzzle Georgia’s local TV news folks assemble every day, in Atlanta and the other sizable cities around the state. Rea, a reporter who wouldn’t mind sitting in the anchor’s seat one day, describes himself as “a megaphone for the neighborhood.”

Bringing The Story Home

And when national events warrant it, Georgia’s local TV newspeople bring the story home with a confidante’s perspective. “I was at ground zero about a month after 9/11 and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” says Pruitt, whose voice cracks with emotion while recalling the moment four years later. “The site was still smoking, and they were ushering in relatives of the fallen.

The authorities gave us time to shoot, but when the relatives were brought in we were told to put the cameras down and stand aside. There were mothers, husbands, children, some of them carried teddy bears. The looks on their faces were absolutely devastating.”

The story WSB aired had no video of the relatives, just Pruitt’s first-hand account and the look on his face, the same look your neighbor might have if he was telling the story.

More recently, in the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s TV stations threw themselves into the fray, providing countless stories of evacuees flooding into the state and local organizations providing or sending help to the storm-ravaged area. While virtually all the substantial on-site disaster coverage was provided by satellite feeds and reports from the networks, or network affiliates in Mississippi and Louisiana, Georgia’s TV personnel had the local angles covered.

For almost 60 years WSB has been covering local and national news, ever since becoming Georgia’s first TV station in 1948. The station’s most recognizable and trusted face for the past 30 years belongs to Monica Kaufman, a short African-American woman known for ever-changing hairstyles, something her co-anchor Pruitt won’t kid her about.

“My policy is to never comment on Monica’s hair,” Pruitt says. “What I will say is, she’s an excellent journalist who has a unique way of presenting the news, projecting her personality in such a way that directly communicates with people, makes a connection.”

Two nationally-honored stories stand out for Kaufman – a 1992 investigative report on the Georgia High School Association, which had never had a woman on its executive committee, and the 1995 documentary, “Hot Flash! The Truth About Menopause.” It was the sort of story Kaufman excels in telling, one she says no one would have touched in the past. “People start listening to you when you’ve been around for a while,” says Kaufman, a breast cancer survivor whose calendar is overcrowded with speaking engagements.

When Kaufman broke into TV news 30 years ago most of what we saw on the evening telecast was narrated by white guys in suits. That’s changed. One area slow to change, according to some observations, are the faces behind the scenes.

“There aren’t nearly as many African-American women in management in the 21st century as there should be,” notes Brenda Wood, a 28-year news veteran who anchors for Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, WXIA. “In the last 20 years, there are more of us in that role, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. We’re on the air but the people behind the scenes who are ultimately making the editorial decisions and determining the substance of what is news, those people by and large are not African-American women.”

The biggest change, of course, has been in the technology. “If anyone had told me we’d be able to do satellite shots around the world, I’d have thought they were crazy,” says Kaufman, whose station was the first in Georgia to go digital, in 1998.

Leading The Investigation

Despite the penchant for instant news delivered to your living room from anywhere, there is still a place for the time-consuming investigative work that Dale Russell and the I-Team have produced at WAGA, Atlanta’s Fox affiliate. Russell, a former teacher and freelance writer, has been uncovering fraud, waste and corruption in government and business for 20 years. “I made the mistake of getting the perfect job at an early age,” says Russell who, along with executive producer Michael Carlin, started WAGA’s investigative team.

Russell is a rarity among Georgia’s TV journalists, a winner of the coveted Peabody Award, the TV journalist’s Pulitzer or MVP. Russell, Carlin, producer Mindy Larcom, photographer Travis Shields and editor Robert Carr were honored for “Singled Out,” an investigation of racial profiling by U.S. Customs at Atlanta’s airport. In 20 years, the on-air investigative team has tripled in size, with Randy Travis and Dana Fowle on the hunt.

“It used to be me and Michael beating the bushes, trying to find stories. We had to work hard, work our sources, make the phone calls and find the stories,” Russell says. “But two things have happened. One, I believe, was the success of ’60 Minutes’ and ’20-20′ and ‘Dateline’ and the plethora of news magazines with an investigative component. The public really picked up on this. They like us, and realize this type of reporting can make things happen.

“Also, our name recognition grew with the advent of ‘the I-Team.’ Our profile got higher; we got more support, more equipment, better editing, better machinery in place to do what we do. Now we’re in an enviable position where it’s not a matter of finding a story, it’s a matter of which stories to do, because we get flooded with tips.”

Russell is a long way from his print journalism roots. “It’s easier to quietly enter a room, observe, watch, take notes. Very low key. Now we come in with the camera blaring, the lights blazing. It’s big equipment, a lot of stuff to carry. The need for pictures in investigative reporting makes it harder to do what we do.”

Which is why they travel in unmarked vans. One time Russell, Shields and a guy from the insurance commissioner’s office were hiding in the back of a WAGA surveillance van while producer Richard Hyde infiltrated an illegal insurance fraud scam. “Out of nowhere this guy just shows up, we didn’t know who he was, but we saw him, saw that he had a knife. He was right out of central casting for the part of the murdering gangster,” Russell says. “The guy was part of the scam, and he needed a ride, so he gets in the van with Richard and starts leading us down quiet, deserted roads.

“Meanwhile, we’re in the back behind a curtain wondering what we’re gonna do when he kills Richard. At some point we dropped a video in the back and it slid across the van. The guy didn’t catch on. They were having a very strange conversation up front, but Richard was savvy and street smart, finally dropped the guy off and we were able to breathe.”

Reporters, especially TV reporters armed with electronic equipment, seem to get high on adrenaline and competition, to the point where bullets become magnetic. “The only way to do news on television is not to be terrified of it,” David Brinkley once said. Today’s reporters operate in an instant news reality, and many are striving to combine the guts of an Ernie Pyle with the depth of a Walter Cronkite. Not that such a news monster exists, but you can’t blame a girl for trying.

“I have at times done things that were, in retrospect, kind of stupid,” admits Dawn Hobby, news anchor and reporter for NBC affiliate WALB in Albany. One of those things happened about 10 years ago after a man made national news by shooting two people to death at a post office.

“There’s this drive I have, it’s hard to explain. But it’s a burning desire to be first, be accurate; it’s something I’m passionate about. So, we’ve got this murdering psycho guy on the loose and I get there in the truck to do a live report,” Hobby recalls. “He starts shooting. It was a defining moment of my life. This guy is firing, a crowd of people was running away, and I was running toward him, thinking at the same time, ‘What the heck am I doing here?'”

Dee Armstrong, WTVM, Columbus

Tracy Atwood, reporter/anchor, WAGT, Augusta

Brittany Bailey, reporter, WMAZ, Macon

Jill Becker, anchor, WSB, Atlanta

Richard Belcher, reporter/anchor, WSB, Atlanta

Dale Cardwell, reporter, WSB, Atlanta

Chris Clark, sports reporter, WTOC, Savannah

Sonny Dixon, news anchor, WTOC, Savannah

Dana Fowle, reporter, WAGA, Atlanta

Karla Heath-Sands, WALB, Albany

Dawn Hobby, news anchor, WALB, Albany

Clark Howard, consumer reporter, WSB, Atlanta

Fred Kalil, sports anchor, WXIA, Atlanta

Monica Kaufman, news anchor, WSB, Atlanta

Bill Liss, reporter, WXIA, Atlanta

Frank Malloy, news anchor, WMAZ, Macon

Angela Martin, news anchor, WJCL, Savannah

Randy Martin, health reporter, WSB, Atlanta

Jennie Montgomery, news anchor, WJBF, Augusta

Laurie Ott, news anchor/reporter, WRDW, Augusta

Emily Pantelides, reporter, WJBF, Augusta

Mike Petchenik, reporter, WAGT, Augusta

Jim Pinkerton, news anchor, WAGT, Augusta

John Pruitt, news anchor, WSB, Atlanta

Paul Rea, reporter, WSAV, Savannah

Richard Rogers, news anchor, WRDW, Augusta

Dale Russell, reporter, WAGA, Atlanta

Russ Spencer, news anchor, WAGA, Atlanta

Mary Therese, news anchor, WMAZ, Macon

Randy Travis, reporter, WAGA, Atlanta

Tina Tyus-Shaw, news anchor, WSAV, Savannah

Richard Warner, Georgia Business Report, GPTV, Atlanta

Ken Watts, anchor/reporter, WXIA, Atlanta

Brenda Wood, news anchor, WXIA, Atlanta

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