Monday, April 12th, 1999
My wife walked into my office Monday afternoon and issued a terse bulletin: "The cotton mill in Cabbagetown is on fire—it’s completely ablaze. There’s a guy on a crane."
Sure enough, most of local television was on the story (although Channel 46 er, CBS Atlanta, seemed not to be paying attention.) I snapped the TV on to WXIA, and there were vivid live pictures high over a would-be huge trendy loft-complex-to-be going up like the second burning of Atlanta. We both watched transfixed as a crane operator clung for dear life as choppers were mustered for a rescue.
We witnessed most of this drama through the lens of Bruce Erion’s 11Alive Skycam, for the simple reason that when it comes to stories involving aircraft and air rescue, Erion tracks and reports the story better than anyone else. A former Vietnam chopper pilot, Erion understands the problems rescuers faced intimately, and he’s able to communicate to us Earth-bound folk in a remarkably clear, jargon-free manner. Everyone else in the air over Atlanta (with the exception of Keith Kalland, who, after all, isn’t piloting and talking) have the crippled communication skills of, well, pilots.
If WXIA had left good enough alone and stuck with their early team—Bruce talking with weatherguy Royal Norman back at the studio—they would have won the afternoon. But no, they brought in insipid reporters on the ground who didn’t seem to be tracking the information Erion and Norman had before it was their turn. We saw Bill Liss and Kevin Rowson saying absolutely nothing of interest, poorly. We saw Jennifer Leslie trying the patented consultanty "the crowd’s prayers were with the crane operator" crap.
And WXIA’s last shred of credibility disappeared when Wes Sarginson and Brenda Wood where connected live to a hoaxer—one of those Howard Stern fan-weasels—who claimed to be in charge of the mill. I tried to warn them, screaming "Hoax! Hoax!" at the TV, but, did they listen?
Meanwhile, over at WSB, the quality of ground reporting was better if only because anchor Richard Belcher and reporter Sally Sears seem to have some inkling of the history of this town. Sears reported that her vantage point in Oakland Cemetery was "roughly on the line between where the Union soldiers and where the Confederate soldiers are buried," and for a moment, this "Breaking News" event was happening someplace other than Genericville.
By my count, Fox 5’s Sharon Crowley wins the award for saying "as you can see here" the most times in succession during a live shot— sometimes four to five times in one sentence while trying to gather her thoughts. Fox 5 folk in general trotted out the phrase "raging inferno" most during the live coverage. On the other hand, they deserve big credit for having enough perspective to put together a lengthy historical piece on the mill and Cabbagetown in general. Real background information, cool!
Later Monday evening, both 20/20 and Dateline did sum-up pieces that used extensive amounts of their Atlanta affiliate’s video—with scant acknowledgement. And in a promo faux pas, nanoseconds after Dateline showed us the climatic moment, WXIA told us to "stay tuned for an amazing rescue you’ll have to see to believe "
Uh no thanks, we just did. In fact, by midnight, if you had a television on, you shared the experience with a whole bunch of your neighbors. It was a reminder to me that there are some kinds of "Breaking News" that can hold you riveted to your screen, connected with your fellow viewers, compelled to find out what happens next.