This year is a Leap Year which means there’s a Leap Day, February 29th. Since 2000 I have hated that day–the day 6-year old Kayla Rolland was shot to death by a classmate in their school near Flint, Mich.
You see, I’m like most reporters. Over the years you write thousands of stories. Some you forget after a while, others are memorable for one reason or another and then there’s the story that sticks in your gut forever. This is one of them.
The day started out on a light note. Feb. 29, 2000 I was the CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent. We were assigned to do a light feature on how people spend the extra day that comes every four years. Fun.
We never reached our first shoot. As we cruised on the John C. Lodge freeway in downtown Detroit I got a call from our desk about a school shooting in Mt. Morris Township, a suburb of Flint and we were to head there immediately.
During the hour-long drive we monitored the all-news radio station but details were few except for the vital information that the shooting happened at Buell Elementary School. That meant very young victims. We had no idea.
First stop was a command post set up by the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department where we informed as to the main spokespeople and told where we could set up our satellite truck in an area across from the school.
CNN being what it is wanted a live shot ASAP, and then several more after that. You vamp as best you can during those first ones until more solid information becomes available. It finally became available while I was standing out in front of the camera awaiting our next hit. A little boy shot a little girl. They were both 6 years old. I never get nervous in front of a camera, but I was shaking…because I was shaken. I could only think of my two kids…a boy and girl. He was 15, she had just turned 12. Still in school. School. SCHOOL! A place that was supposed to be a safe haven. But the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that occurred only 10 months previous were still very fresh in our minds.
Now I was standing yards away from a school where a little child killed another. We later learned the boy found the gun in the closet in the crack house home of his drug-dealer uncle with whom he and his family were living because his father was in jail for violating parole. He had served a sentence on a drug-related crime.
We also learned the boy had several behavioral problems, including stabbing a girl with a pencil a few weeks before the shooting. When he tried to kiss little Kayla Rolland, she rejected him. The next day he caught up with her, said, “I don’t like you,” then shot her dead.
Yeah, well, reporters can be a callous ilk, but this one got to me. I could barely get the words out and hold it together while on a live camera. I’ve covered any number of tragedies, natural disasters, plane crashes, shootings, fatal auto accidents, but the vision of a very damaged child violently taking the life of another is something I will never shake. Not ever.
Every four years I dread so-called Leap Day. I think of Kayla. I think of the little boy who shot her. It’s the day our society took a leap backwards…and kept going….Sandy Hook Elementary School, Stoneman Douglas High School, Santa Fe High School, Virginia Tech and on and on and on.
Yes..I hate Leap Day….and every other day school kids and their teachers can no longer feel safe. They’re there to learn. When will this country?
I’m retired, but I’m not totally retired. I’m retired from full-time work, but I do some freelance things which means I’m not interested in climbing the corporate ladder and I certainly don’t care about a better title or office with its own bathroom. So it makes things a little tricky when I’m at an event that includes time for networking.
Oh….don’t get me wrong. It’s not difficult for me. I’m always happy to make new friends. I don’t even need benefits. Plus, networking has served me very well in finding freelance gigs. But it sure sucks for the non-retirees who made the mistake of striking up a conversation in hopes they’ve made a new connection that will result in new business or the inside track on a better job.
Take, for instance, an event I attended this week. The networking breakfast lasted an entire hour before the main presentation. I grab some food and coffee and camp out at a high-top table with three seats. I’m a sitting network duck. A guy aims his two-blue lasers at me, pivots to the empty seats and gamely asks, “these seats taken?” Me being a wiseass reply, “only by a layer of dust, but I’m sure it won’t mind if you sit on it.” The guy is intrigued and sits anyway. Oh boy, I’m guess I’m gonna get networked. We introduce ourselves and he stops and gives me an appraising look before asking the inevitable question, “So what is it you do?”
My answer always stops ‘em at square one. “Oh, whatever the hell I want,” I reply with a smile. “I’m semi-retired!” His face drops as he thinks to himself, “oh shit, now I’m stuck with a guy who’s useless to me and my career until I can find a graceful way to escape.” I know this and amuse myself with that thought.
He seems like a nice guy so I get a little serious and explain that I freelance as a journalist and also work as a consultant for a PR firm. The guy looks a little happier although it’s obvious we have no common ground.
I, of course, know networking protocol, and make the required inquiry as to his line of work. “I’m in real estate. Commercial real estate.” An excellent profession. Now, hoping to justify wasting 10 minutes with me he gives it his best shot, asking me, “so where’s your office?” I love this one because I get to shatter his last hope by responding, “My basement. It’s awesome. Has a window that looks out into the woods, a microwave and a bathroom four steps away.”
Poor guy is ready to eject from his stool and uses the excuse I certainly have used many times. “Well, I’m gonna go get some more coffee.” He gets up and thinks he’s done with me. I decide to give him a scare. “Hey, me too!” But I’m not a complete jerk. I hang back and let him make his escape.
I actually do refill my coffee, grab a pastry and return to my high-top perch. I’m on reset. Here comes another one. “Hi! My name is Ralph, what do you do?” I go through the act, thoroughly disappointing him and this time it takes only 3 minutes before we both decide we need refills.
But this being a sort of game for me, I know I won’t always win. I see an old friend and we start to catch up. A woman who knew my friend pops by and I’m introduced. I have a feeling about this one. She’s looks really confident, and happy… and is carrying an empty coffee cup. “Oh, what do you do?” she asks, half expecting me to bullshit her with a fancy executive title. But being honest, as well as a wiseass I give her my stock reply. “Whatever I want. I’m semi-retired.” She half smiles, gives me a knowing look and says, with a conspiratorial air, “Me too. But the coffee is free and I need a refill.” “I do too!” I gratefully respond. “Damn right,” she says.
Pete Rose has again asked to be reinstated into the good graces of Major League Baseball and I think he should. You see, me and Pete…well, we go way back…back to the time he was tossed out of baseball for betting on his own team and other infractions that don’t include taking performance enhancing drugs or stealing signs.
So what’s this about me and Pete? Don’t ask him. He’ll have zero memory of me. I was just another reporter covering the whole saga of the investigation that led to his ban, but we did have some one-on-one time together that resulted in a good anecdote and an idiotic decision by a CNN producer in Atlanta.
Here’s how it went down. We were granted an exclusive with the man on the first night of his radio show on a Cincinnati station. We captured him taking calls on the air, and afterwards I would interview him. Cool. Right? Now, I couldn’t care less about his radio show. I had some questions about reports of alleged tax issues and other fun stuff like that.
So we set up in a separate studio where I would conduct the interview with both of us standing up near one of the walls. Remember that wall. I figured I’d soften him up with some fluff questions about his radio show and flattery that he sounded relaxed. “I’m always relaxed talkin’ about baseball,” he replied with a big smile.
That’s nice. I knew his smile would soon disappear. After a couple of those softballs I got to the point and asked him about a report in the Dayton newspaper about alleged tax irregularities. Smile now a frown. “I ain’t seen it,” he snapped. Me being the helpful reporter gave him a quick summary of the story while his PR person panicked and attempted to get our cameraman to stop rolling. He ignored her. I persisted but Pete was looking at me the way he eyed poor Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse when he barreled into him to score the winning run in the 1970 All Star Game. In 2015 Fosse told the Denver Post he still felt the effects of that collision.
At that point Pete had had it with me and my line of questioning so he took his big, beefy right arm, placed it across my chest and slammed me into the wall..remember that wall? Then he walked out grumbling he had to record promos. His PR person was shaking and insisted I shouldn’t have asked those questions. Meanwhile, my cameraman also was upset because he thought the chances of getting an autographed photo of Pete for his son were out the window. But somehow, a few days later, a signed glossy arrived in the mail.
I really didn’t get much of an answer from Pete but I thought it was good video, which we fed into Atlanta. A young producer didn’t quite see it that way and the video never saw the light of day. Today, a clip like that would probably go viral since there’s an insatiable appetite among many Trump supporters for video of reporter abuse.
I ended up covering the whole damn saga. Here are original courtroom watercolors of Pete from one hearing in downtown Cincy.
Funny story. The artist was placed in the jury box since there was no jury. It was still pretty tight quarters and in the middle of the hearing the poor guy kicked over the container holding the water he used with his paints. The judge was not amused and paper towels were summarily summoned. Despite that unfortunate interruption, I thought the images of Pete came out very well. Afterwards we politely suggested he consider colored pencils.
I think Pete’s paid a fair price for his infractions. I’m not making excuses. He screwed up, but he’s paid a much higher price than others who cheated, affecting the outcome of games and were only fined and/or suspended. Pete made some bad decisions. Did his time, suffered the consequences. He never lost his love for the game and even on the outside looking in, he’s continued to be an ardent ambassador for the game of baseball.
Look, I don’t hold it against him for slamming me into the wall. That was a long time ago. Things happen…then you move on. So should baseball.
I was exposed to politics at an early age–6 to be exact. My first foray was quick, decisive and an utter failure. It was time to choose a first grade class president in room 102 at P.S. 186 Queens. Since we didn’t have a class president in kindergarten, I was thoroughly unfamiliar with the process. I didn’t even know what a class president’s duties were, but it seemed better and more prestigious than class clown–an office I already held–unofficially, of course.
My parents always took me with them to the polls so I imagined electing a class president would be a similar process, you know, with votes. But our teacher, a severe spinster who was also the school’s music teacher and broke out in spontaneous operatic arias, was having none of that. In her mind first graders were not mature enough to choose their own leader so she discarded any sense of democracy, standing in front of the class and barked, “Who wants to be class president. Raise your hands!”
Well…we all raised our hands, with at least one kid named Steven vocalizing, “ooooh, oooooh, ME!” for emphasis. That was my first exposure to overt campaigning. But our operatic instructor ignored Steven and chose another boy…because he was tall. That was my first exposure to what I later came to know as “optics.” Turns out the tall boy was a wuss. He was supposed to keep the class quiet when the teacher had to leave the room but he was deposed in a coup carried out when we launched a barrage of pencil erasers and the ceremonial dumping of a 64-pack of Crayolas. Teacher was nonplussed and simply asked the class, “well, who wants to be the NEXT president?”
This time none of us were stupid enough to raise our hands so she chose a girl in a pink dress who immediately began to cry. Since she was cute and apparently had no political aspirations we didn’t give her any crap when teacher left the room and vowed never to run for political office in the future, choosing instead to consider transferring to Catholic school where students had no say in anything. Ultimately she remained in our class when her family’s rabbi took issue.
Politics remained a part of my life when my mother became very active in the Eastern Queens Democratic Club. She rose to a leadership position, supporting Democratic candidates for New York City Council, NY State Governor and the Legislature. We helped her fold flyers while my father muttered, “why are you helping that asshole?” He considered all politicians as assholes and my father, a highly intelligent chemical engineer, was rarely wrong in his assessments.
My mother’s political connections did hit paydirt for me during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. She landed me a total political patronage job in the New York City Comptroller’s office. It was an awesome job in one of the majestic Municipal Building. It’s that flat building you see as you cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Everything about it was over done, including the men’s room. The urinals were about four feet high and about a foot wide, and you had to step up on a slab of marble to get to them. Every pee was like a performance on your own little stage.
Anyway, my job was to type, on an old Royal typewriter, checks to people who had successfully sued the city for pothole damage to their cars, or heath issues when they received slipshod treatment at a city hospital. I typed maybe five checks a day. I spent the rest of the time reading the papers and studying for the FCC license I would need to pursue my career in broadcasting.
Once, out of boredom after lunch, I attempted to file some case folders but I was almost tackled by one of the regulars who said, “we don’t file in the afternoon in the summer. It’s just too hot!” She ordered me back to my desk which was in a long row like in a classroom. I sat in front of an old dude with a gray crewcut named Higgins. His entire job was rubber stamping the date on a stack of papers. He’d been doing it for 20 years and aspired to nothing. Yup…gotta love those political patronage jobs. By the way, I did study enough to earn my FCC license.
After that, I’ve attempted to avoid any sort of active involvement in politics although I follow it closely. I did watch the debacle in Iowa with great interest though, because who doesn’t love a trainwreck..especially if only politicians are casualties. After all, as my late, wonderful father always said, “why help those assholes?”
My 47-year career has taken me to both sides of the street as both a flak and a hack. So I’ve seen things from each side of the scrimmage line. Right now, in my semi-retirement, I’m actually doing both simultaneously as a freelance journalist, mainly as a Senior Contributor at Forbes.com, and consultant for Detroit PR and marketing firm Franco.
The cool part of playing both roles is it sensitizes you the challenges, frustrations, wins and losses you encounter in each position. So I decided it might be fun, and useful, to have a couple of internal conversations with both sides of me. It’s OK to eavesdrop. That’s why I’ve posted them here. You can even contribute to the conversation in the comments. Here we go.
Key: JE=Journalist Ed
PRE: I’ve got a client that wants me to get national coverage on the fact they opened a new office in East Dumpy. Would you bite?
JE: Don’t know. What business are they in?
PRE: They sell printer paper in packs of 400 instead of 500-sheet reams. The CEO insists this will help solve what he believes is a massive office supply storage space crisis at firms around the country. He says 100 fewer sheets saves 7/8-inch for each pack.
JE: Sorry, I’ll pass. I think it’s a made up crisis.
PRE: Wait! What would it take for you to do this story? I’m under a ton of pressure. New client and the agency is busting my ass to make them happy.
JE: First of all, office issues, paper or otherwise, are not what I write about. You have to think of that before pitching a reporter. Second, even if I was your guy, you can’t just say something’s a crisis. You have to be prepared to back it up with some research–proof. A CEO just trying to get some publicity with an unproven scheme isn’t a news story. Finally, I feel for ya, but my masters are my editors and audience.
PRE: (trying to pull out a win) But you’re a business writer. Aren’t office storage issues a business story? What if I came back with some stats that back up the client’s claims. Would you reconsider?
JE: Possibly. I’d have to look at the info then decide if it’s BS or not. I’m swamped right now. On deadline, so I gotta run, but get me that stuff ASAP and I’ll let ya know.
PRE: OK, cool. I’ll have it for you by the end of the day.
(PRE is sweating. He knows there really isn’t much, or any, research on the subject, but smells pulling this one out of his butt…sends email to JE)
PRE: OK, did you get that stuff I sent you? Pretty convincing, I’d say.
JE: What’s the Institute of Office Ergonomics and when did they do this study? I never heard of them and Googling it comes up with nothing. Plus, I’m calling BS on the conclusion that over 3-million square feet of storage space could be saved each year in the U.S. by using smaller packs of paper. Did your client pay for this study?
PRE: OH, they’re a, um, boutique outfit. Don’t even have a website, and, well, the client did subscribe to the study but the IOE is totally impartial.
JE: Nice try. Not buying it. Very sorry
PRE: Well, you’ll be sorry when your competitor runs it.
JE: I’ll take that chance.
PRE: Hi. Thanks a lot for doing that story with my client, but he’s kinda pissed.
JE: What’s the problem?
PRE: He says you took his position on “solar powered pencil technology” out of context and actually misquoted him.
JE: Really? What part of “I believe solar powered pencil technology will render ink an archaic form of inscription” was wrong? I recorded the entire interview, as agreed to, and that’s exactly what he said.
PRE: Check your recording. He claims he actually said, “I believe solar powered pencil technology will render ink a second tier form of inscription.” Plus, the way your framed it was inaccurate. Going into the quote you wrote, “Solar Pencil CEO Al Bum makes an unproved claim regarding his product’s rising role in imaging, declaring…….”
JE: So what’s the issue? He can’t prove his declaration and there isn’t one industry expert who will back it up. I know. I tried finding one.
PRE: I get it, but couldn’t you have gone into that quote a little softer? I’m taking a lot of heat for this.
JE: I understand your situation but I’m writing news stories, not ads.
PRE: Yeah, sure, of course I know that but at least resist the use of judgmental adjectives and just state the facts.
JE: It’s not judgmental to state the fact that there’s no documentation whatsoever your client’s claims are viable.
PRE: Why did you even accept the story if you weren’t convinced it had merit?
JE: Fair enough. Why did you agree to sell a story you knew wasn’t true?
PRE: I didn’t know and I long ago vowed I would never knowingly lie to a reporter
JE: You’re in a tough spot when your clients lie to you. So how will you explain things to him?
PRE: Yes, I’m in a very tough spot. I’ll just blame everything on you 🙂
JE: Heh…OK…Good talk!
EVENT NOTE: I’ll be on a PRSA panel Feb. 19th in Royal Oak, Mich. with several other journalists who have gone to the “dark side.” Details at this link. Should be pretty lively…and..there’s breakfast! Hope you can come if you’re in the area.
I’ve got boxes of press badges, but this one is one of my most cherished. Hard to believe it’s been 34 years since I covered that very first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance, what we’ve shortened to MLK Day. More on my coverage in a moment, but I wanted to re-tell a story I’ve told before, about a personal episode regarding the holiday and how it’s indicative of how it’s sometimes perceived.
One Monday in January, 2002 I showed up for work at the Associated Press at my regular time, not completely sure why I was able to find a better parking space than usual but grateful. Before I could reach my desk the shift supervisor intercepted me and with amusement in her eyes asked what I was doing in the office.
“Uh…Monday,” was all I could muster.
“Uh, MLK Day,” she replied. “You get a choice of off days. MLK Day or your birthday. So who’s birthday you going to celebrate?”
No one likes Mondays so I scooted out of the bureau hightailed back to my car, giving up my awesome parking space.
During the 30 minute drive home, I was a bit ashamed that MLK Day just wasn’t on my radar…that it was an optional holiday per the union agreement. His birthday or yours. Didn’t matter. You get a day off. Never crossed my mind. It should have. Not only because I grew up in the 60’s, was 100 percent aware of, and in awe of, his courage and accomplishments, recall with great clarity hearing the bulletin announcing his assassination, but because 16 years earlier, I was assigned to cover the very first MLK Day in his hometown of Atlanta for CNN.
But as I reported in the story attached here, MLK Day faced a volume of struggles in direct proportion to the challenges Dr. King faced in life. Bigotry, small-mindedness, ignorance. Indeed, there seems to be a take it or leave it attitude. Your birthday or his…which day do you want off? Doesn’t matter. Pick one.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many wonderful events commemorating Dr. King’s birthday including the annual “United We Walk” march in my community in suburban Detroit, and many, many others across the country.
I remember covering those first MLK Day activities from Dr. King’s church, on the street where the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change sits, where Dr. King is buried. On a map it’s called Auburn Avenue. In the hearts of those who respect Dr. King’s work, it’s called Sweet Auburn.
I interviewed all sorts of people including Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. King’s widow, Coretta. She exuded peacefulness, forgiveness and strength. Side note: Mrs. King kept her eyes closed during the entire interview. Maybe she was in deep reflection. After we were done, she opened her eyes and thanked us. Her assistant explained her eyes were closed because the TV lights were so bright.
Jesse Jackson and Rev. Robert Schuller were there. Perhaps caught up in the moment I breathlessly reported to the CNN assignment desk “the civil rights movement has been revived! I can’t wait to turn this package!”
All the air out of my balloon was expelled when the editor told me to just do a VO/SOT. That’s TV language for some video for the anchor to voice over and a soundbite. Don’t even write a full-length piece. Being in the Deep South, I took what’s known down there as a hissy fit. The editor thought I was just a reporter having a tantrum. I was beyond frustrated, but had no recourse but to carry out my assignment.
So there it was. From the first MLK Day to today, 34 years later, the annual remembrance of the birth of this giant of the civil rights movement, who risked his life, and lost it, fighting for common human decency and fairness, still seems to be an afterthought. A welcome three-day weekend. Three at last.
Your birthday or his. Pick one. Do yourself a favor. Choose both. Your life is better because he was born.
I’ll lay my quid on the table forthwith. I’m on team Sussex. For one, you can’t go wrong rooting for a ginger man. Case in point, the late, great, irascible Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Wild, impatient and foul-mouthed, but a brilliant talent. He pissed off almost everyone with whom he came in contact, but you couldn’t dispute his skills.
Now, Harry is neither brilliant nor skilled, but apparently irascible in that he managed to piss off his granny, who just happens to be the Queen of England. That takes a pair of brass kippers.
Then there’s Meghan. She went from “Suits” to fruits–meaning being sucked into family so inbred its genome has only one step. If you sent their DNA to “23andMe” the result would be “23ofYou.” Her dissatisfaction with the royal life was a no-brainer since most of the family is a no-brainer. Young, beautiful and talented, the Duchess of Sussex was destined to ditch the dreariness of royal duties that mostly involve a lot of shaking, hugging, bowing and birthing.
And now the Sussex’s have decided to make their Sussex-it, high-tailing it to North America, presumably, Canada, where Meghan lived while shooting “Suits,” and trademarking their own Sussex Royal brand.
I can see it now where Duchess Meghan appears on Home Shopping Network hawking Sussex Royal brand pacifiers, tea sets, jewelry and crop tops. Perhaps Harry would join her to promote his own “special collection” of polo mallets, jodhpurs and Ginger Prince Ale.
Personally, I’d be in for a couple of Sussex Royal bobbleheads. You see, they’d be special. In the spirit of defying the Queen’s express order not to make their escape announcement, the bobbleheads would only shake their heads “no.”
I also envision a Sussex Royal production company. Duchess Meghan could resume her showbiz career producing, perhaps, royal-themed programming such as “Paparazzi Death Wish,” “A Curtsy Too Low,” and a twist on the the groundbreaking musical, “Corgi and Bess.”
As a former helicopter pilot, Harry would take on the important role of remaining in the sky and out of the way, occasionally making airborne Starbucks and pho runs for the cast and crew.
So it seems obvious, this was a well thought-out decision and I wish them the best of luck. Indeed, if they are, they may actually re-write the rules of royalty. I believe it will be titled the “Meghan Carta.” I want those bobbleheads autographed.