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Keeping Calm in a Crisis: The Reporter’s Perspective

“This is part one of a three part series on covering news in the face of crisis or tragedy.”

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This is part one of a three part series on covering news in the face of crisis or tragedy. I wanted to highlight perspectives from three different positions; that of a reporter, a host and a program director. These conversations are all with people I’ve worked with over the years and highlight (in my view) the right way to deliver the news in difficult the face of difficult situations.

We start first, with the perspective of a reporter……

7/14/99- A TRAGIC DAY IN MILWAUKEE

Doug Russell is a veteran reporter and host who had two different stints at Milwaukee’s legendary news-talk station WTMJ. On July 14th, 1999, the city was shook when “Big Blue” a heavy lift crawler crane being used at the construction site of Miller Park, collapsed. Three workers were killed and significant damage was caused to the stadium. On this day, Russell, working in the sports department, had to “flip that switch” to hard news and cover what turned out to be a local tragedy. What resulted was a team effort by WTMJ that earned Russell and the station local and national accolades.

RM: Take us back to that day and set the scene. When did you first learn of this situation and what was your reaction?

DR: I was at my desk at WTMJ’s Radio City studios. There was an old television on wheels in the office that happened to be on the closed feed from the static camera our sister television station, WTMJ-TV had. I glanced at it as I went to my desk to prepare for that evening’s Sports Central show that I was producing at the time. The camera was trained on it because there was a scheduled roof “pick” that day involving the Big Blue crane and TMJ4 wanted it for their archives. These “picks” had become mini-events because they were the most visible signs the stadium was coming together.

Nothing was amiss and I didn’t think anything of it until about 60 seconds later when our airborne traffic reporter, Tom Carr, first reported on the accident (audio below). I turned around and on the screen was a crumpled blue crane draped over the first base side of the ballpark and dust was flying everywhere. My reaction was to find my news director, Dan Shelley and asked “what can I do?” He asked me if I had recording equipment. I told him I always keep a crash bag in my desk (a helpful hint for everyone involved in live news reporting). Dan immediately told me to take the cell phone (we only had one for the entire station; they weren’t commonplace yet) and get down there as fast as I could in afternoon drive time traffic.

RM: When you were on your way to the scene, what was going through your mind?

DR: On my way down from Milwaukee’s East Side to the stadium I was listening carefully to WTMJ for any information the guys in the studio were looking for as well as traffic reports. What I didn’t realize is that WTMJ morning anchor Cheri Preston (now at ABC Radio News) was on the Marquette University campus for a graduate level class when she heard the report as well. Marquette, only being a very short drive to the stadium, gave WTMJ the first reporter of any kind on the scene (audio below). Cheri was the first to report from an eyewitness that three iron workers died in the accident. She was unflappable. Just an incredible reporter…even borrowing a stranger’s cell phone to do her first report (attached). Through her early reporting, she gave me, a very young radio personality at the time, instructions through her example of what we were looking for as a station.

As a side note, as it turns out, I was also the last reporter to leave the scene, at 5am the next morning, as WTMJ rightfully made the decision to have a 24 hour presence at the sight of the biggest news story in America that day. From midnight-5am, I did live on-site reports during the top of the hour news.

RM: You arrived on the scene and I can only imagine it was chaotic. How were you able to get yourself balanced with what was going on and also with what your newsroom was asking of you at the time?

DR: When I was a news reporter, I covered the court case of David Spanbauer. David Spanbauer was a monster who terrorized Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley for years, sexually assaulting, torturing, and murdering young women and girls. The news training I had from that court case, talking to the families of Cora Jones, Ronelle Eichstead, and Trudi Jeschke steeled me for just about anything. You lose part of your humanity, but that’s the price most journalists have had to pay to varying degrees for dispassionately doing their jobs. Think about how 9-11 was reported on, for example. At some point you still have to just put your own human feelings aside and do the work your audience demands.

Doug Russell (circled) reporting from the site of the “Big Blue” crane collapse on 7/14/99. (PHOTO: Getty)

RM- You have lived in Milwaukee most of your adult life. How were you able to put your emotions aside and focus on what was such a tragic event for the city…in the days and weeks afterwards?

DR: The aftermath for the city was significant at the time, but as the saying goes, time really does heal all wounds. There is a generation of Brewers fans that never saw a game at Miller Park and will never know the names of the three men (Jeffrey Wischer, Jerome Starr, and William DeGrave) killed that day. At the time it was devastating. To the families of the men killed, even more so, obviously and still to this day. But the city has moved on. As for me, it gave me the opportunity to show that I could cover a major breaking news story live on the air. The audio eventually landed on One-On-One Sports VP of Programming Mark Gentzkow’s desk, and he hired me as an anchor/reporter a few months later. Cheri would end up in New York at ABC, so she did pretty well too. WTMJ’s coverage was recognized with several awards from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Milwaukee Press Club, the Associated Press, and the Radio-TV News Directors Association, bestowing us with the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for spot news coverage.

RM: If you could give advice to anyone who would have been in your shoes that day, what would it have been? For anyone that is rushing to the scene of a situation like this (especially where loss of life is involved) how do you best handle it?

First, always have a “crash bag” at arms length with everything you need to report a breaking story. It’s a terribly overused term nowadays, but they call it “breaking news” for a reason. You never know what is going to happen when. So have a bag with a recorder, a mic, mic flag, paper, pens, extra batteries, a computer if you can. Whatever you would normally take to a news situation, have in your crash bag. If it’s your first time on the scene of a tragedy where loss of life is involved, take a moment to realize that you probably will be speaking with someone who just lost a family member – how would YOU like to be treated if the shoe was on your foot? Know to not ask a question like “how does it feel” to lose a loved one (how do you THINK it feels, jackass?). Empathy goes a long way in those situations. On the flip side, you still have a job to do. You can be empathetic while still calmly reporting the facts. But I think it’s important for every reporter to just take a breath and recognize the gravity of what they are reporting on before going on the air and just blurting out the first thing that comes out of their mouth.

That’s a wrap on part one.  Next week, we’ll take a look at this topic, but from a host’s perspective.

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BNM Writers

‘Chicks On The Right’ Critical of Biden, Inauguration, Calls For Unity

The Chicks on the Right weren’t pleased with Chris Wallace praising President Biden’s inaugural address, and pushed far right theories that Biden is mentally ill and a figurehead for others to run the country.

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Newly inaugurated president Joe Biden called for unity during his inaugural address and some members of the conservative media have adopted a more conciliatory tone toward the new administration.  Others have yet to get the message. Such is the case for Chicks on the Right. Amy Jo Clark and Miriam Weaver, who are also known by the pseudonyms “Daisy” and “Mockarena”, posted a vlog late Thursday night sharing their reactions to the inauguration. In the nearly 30 minute vlog, they leveled criticism toward Fox News’ Chris Wallace for praising President Biden’s inaugural address, while also pushing far right theories that Biden is mentally ill and is a figurehead for others to run the country.

Before launching into criticism, however, The Chicks did take time to praise one aspect of Inauguration Day: The music.

“I have to say it (the music) was really good,” Weaver said. “Dave Ghrol was fantastic. John Legend, I loathe him because he is such a Commie, but he sang I’m Feeling Good, probably the best I have ever heard it.”

That’s where the praise ended though, as the duo were critical of everything else from security to President Biden signing Executive Orders on his first day in office and all points in between.

“It had a very Soviet feel to it with all the barbed wire fences,” Clark said. “Welcome to the Gulag…. His speech was very telapromter-y. He did not even know what he was saying and then Chris Wallace saying it was the most amazing speech he had ever heard was absolutely ridiculous. It was nothing but canned bullcrap.”

Weaver took issue with the way in which Mr. Biden signed the Executive Orders.

“He had little index cards to prompt him what to say before he signed each one of the 17 orders,” Weaver said. “The press was allowed to be there for the first three and he could not complete a coherent sentence. After the third one when he was really losing it, it looked like he did not know where he was, they were literally shoving the press out the door. The people in charge knew he was fading fast.”

“The guy is so freaking old,” Clark said of the 78 year old Biden. “It looked like he needed a nap and some Geritol. They were propping him up all day which is a microcosm of his presidency. He is going to be steamrolled through the next four years, if he even makes it that long. He is not the real leader of the country. The real leaders are the A.O.C.’s (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). They will say he is in charge, but he is not in charge. He has no freaking clue what he is doing. This country is being run by a bunch of Socialists.”

Throughout the rest of the vlog, The Chicks touched on several talking points and conspiracy theories that are popular among the ALT-Right, including that China “unleashed” the corona virus on the rest of the world while comparing Mr. Biden’s call for unity to an abusive relationship.

“The Democrats have battered us for four years,” Clark said. “And now they are like, ‘Come on baby. Let’s get back together’. Heck no! I’m packing my crap and moving in with Mom.”

In addition to vlogs and other posts on their website, Chicks on the Right have a radio program that airs from 9 a.m. until 11a.m. on Indianapolis’ 93 WIBC.

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BNM Writers

Bill Spadea: People Have Forgotten How Important Martin Luther King Jr. Was

“Spadea said that one of the main reasons people don’t realize that race relations are improving in the United States is due to media coverage.”

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Local radio hosts from across the nation spent Monday honoring and reflecting on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Bill Spadea, host of New Jersey 101.5’s AM Drive Time was no different, but he offered an interesting thought during his opening monologue. Spadea says that thanks to Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders, race relations in the United States have improved in spite of media depictions to the contrary.

 “I think people have forgotten how important Martin Luther King Jr., and what he did, was,” Spadea said. “I’m glad most people get the day off of work, but I am afraid that is all it has become for a lot of people.”

Spadea followed by explaining Dr. King’s role in ending the “Separate But Equal” precedent that was established by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court casein 1896. That legal doctrine remained prevalent through Jim Crow Laws until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, in which Dr. King was a central figure.

“I think as time has passed, people have forgotten how evil Separate But Equal really was,” Spadea said. “People were discriminated against just because of their skin color, gender or sex. We have come so far. People just don’t recognize it.”

Spadea says that one of the main reasons people don’t realize that race relations are improving in the United States is due to media coverage.

”All we have seen and heard over these past months are pictures and reports of riots and destruction,” Spadea said. “If that’s all we see, people will think that things have not improved, but we have come so far. We are in a much better place than we used to be.”

After his monologue, Spadea took calls from listeners who shared their opinions on race relations, mask mandates and other news topics of the day.

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BNM Writers

The Shifting Media Spotlight

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs had an insightful conversation Friday with Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. The two recapped the lasting achievements of Donald Trump’s administration, the media’s deceptive coverage of his Presidency and journalism’s once-revered role as our nation’s watch dogs.

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2021 brings a new focus for the media, as frustration and anger linger across the country relating to journalism’s role in the rancor and discord enveloping American life over the past couple decades. 

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs had an insightful conversation Friday with Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. The two recapped the lasting achievements of Donald Trump’s administration, the media’s deceptive coverage of his Presidency and journalism’s once-revered role as our nation’s watch dogs.

“The President again is being fraudulently impeached by the Dems, and there is not even a whisper of dissent or opposition to that in the national left-wing media,” Dobbs said, also pointing out the recent attacks on Jeffress by some members of the Republican establishment. 

“Lou, this is something we’re going to see more and more over these next four years,” Jeffress began. “That’s an attempt to shame people like you and me who strongly support this President, and to repenting of our support of him. Well I’ll guaran-dang-tee you I’m not repenting of anything, certainly not my support of this great President.”  

Jeffress told USA Today this week that he had no regrets in supporting Donald Trump. None whatsoever.

“I told him this week that I believe he is the greatest President of my lifetime, and he will go down as the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty President in American history,” Jeffress added. “Nothing anyone says is going to change that. Lou, he’s leaving office next week with his legacy intact.” 

Dobbs, who has for four years pointed out nonstop media deception relating to  President Trump’s accomplishments, went further to recap the incessant attacks on the 45th President of the United States.

“It’s an extraordinary legacy all the more because of the efforts of the radical Dems, the deep state, from the beginning almost of his candidacy for the office – they tried to deny him – and then their efforts to overthrow him and block his agenda throughout. He accomplished more than any President in the first three years of his term. His four years in office are remarkable in achievement, all the more so because of the naked, corrupt opposition of the radical Left and the deep state,” Dobbs said.

Jeffress, an early and consistent supporter of candidate and then President Trump, added that the President knew what he was in for, as the entire establishment swamp of both parties was not simply going to sit back and allow him to disrupt the normal way of doing things in Washington.

“I remember sitting in the oval office and telling him ‘Mr. President, you have an axis of evil that is going to conspire to take you down. Not only the media and the Democrats, but the establishment Republicans,’” he recalls telling Trump. “And that proved to be true. They conspired together but they couldn’t stop his tremendous achievements in spite of all of those headwinds. I am grateful, eternally grateful, for what he has done for our nation, even though he’s leaving office for now. His legacy will endure.”

The news over the weekend was how Dobbs summed up the conversation in his synopsis of the non-stop attacks from the left and the media, designed to take down Trump politically and personally.

“It is the most vile, venomous assault ever conducted against a President in our country’s history,” Dobbs pointed out. “Short of the assasignation of Abraham Lincoln. This is a nation that cannot heal, that cannot come together, until we understand the truth and reality of what we have witnessed over the course of the past four years of this man’s presidency.”

“We’re going to depend upon you over these next four years to point out what is going on – the darkness, the lies that we’re going to see,” Jeffress implored Dobbs. “Yes, we need to pray for our new president, president Biden. The Bible says we need to pray for all of our leaders. But we also need to be ready to push back against the unGodly policies that are sure to come. These are days for God’s people to stand up and be courageous like never before.”

If recent history is any indication, both Dobbs and Jeffress will remain standing strongly on the front lines, illuminating the truth, as the next chapter of our nation’s history unfolds.

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