Phil's News: Information-Education-Entertainment


Reporters vs. Journalists

Phil’s Note:  This was written several weeks prior to posting when I decided to start blogging again…unfortunately it was written just before life got very crazy with the Oklahoma natural disasters so posting was delayed.

Recently I gave a lecture to some aspiring college journalists. One of the first things I started out with was asking all the aspiring reporters to raise their hands. Then I asked who in the room wanted to be a journalist. I hope these kids were able to full grasp what I was telling them. I am not sure I did or could have when I was there age. Though, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot you could teach college Phil when his mind was made up about something.

This just in...

This just in…

The point of my questions was to say that there a lot of reporters in the world who are not journalists and a lot of journalists who aren’t reporters. Some of the best journalists I know (coming from my TV news perspective) have been assignment editors, producers and photographers. Those are people you will never see on TV and you will likely never know their names. Yet these journalists do a job because they love it and are dedicated to the craft. On the other hand there will be plenty of reporters you will meet who are just that…reporters. They don’t necessarily care about journalism…I am fortunate to have not worked with many like this and most of the reporters I’ve worked with care deeply about the calling of journalism.

Journalism is a calling. It is hard to realize this in this day and age when journalism is blamed for everything. We are either too conservative or too liberal. If you don’t agree with us we obviously didn’t do our research and we’re not to be trusted. I don’t believe this to be the truth. Not on the local level. I am not writing to make a political point or even talk about national news networks. I just hate being lumped into any stereotype.

I had a judge once tell me that he understood that I just needed a story no matter what the fact were. I stopped him and told him how disrespectful that was because that was like me telling him he was an ambulance chaser because he was once a lawyer. Journalists seek the truth, but the truth is not just what you want it to be. Journalists present both sides, you can’t call me a liar because I presented a viewpoint that you disagreed with and didn’t just air one side of an argument. And you most certainly call me a hack if your side failed to stand up to the serious questions I wanted to ask.

Yes there is a place for journalism in TV news. In fact, if news is to survive we need more journalists. I’ve seen the TV news industry change, even in my lifetime, from hard news to soft features and now I see the pendulum evening out and even trending more towards hard news again. A dedication to holding public officials accountable and following tax dollars are again popular topics. I am lucky to work for a company that puts an emphasis on these things.

But journalism is not as easy as it was for the heroes of the early days of news gathering. Those true broadcast pioneers did have to fight off the past shadows from the time of “yellow journalism.” They also had to battle powerful politicians who could have destroyed them personally and professionally. But they also had the undivided attention of a nation hungry for news.

Today news has to be entertaining. That is not to undermine what we do, but we have to focus on storytelling, compelling pictures and characters. It is difficult. We have to present investigations in ways that the average person will want to watch. It is not enough for us to tell you what’s important we now have to find ways to make the public care about what’s truly important. Sometimes that means being silly, sometimes that means being confrontational…I like to think of it as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down (I stole that line from Mary Poppins).

I hope the industry doesn’t die. Not just because it would mean I would be out of a job, but because it would mean that the country and our communities would lose so much. There need to be watchdogs. There needs to be someone who asks the tough questions. We need journalists.


I’m not sure who said it, but I’ve heard that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes imitation is just insulting.  That is especially true when that imitation is nothing more than ripping off your hard work and portraying it as your own.

To be honest, for the majority of my career in TV news, I have done little that is worth ripping off.  Recently I’ve been a part of stories that have been the result of months of my own work and research.  Part of me is pleased when I see others copying my work, knowing that at least those in the business saw it first on my station…and they know they are having to follow me.  That feeds my pride.  Though there are times when I see other journalists simply write out my work…take what I have done and simply pass it off as their own.  I’ve seen print articles write out my contributions entirely and cite sources that are copying me.  That is insulting.  And at the same time, I’m thankful for it.

I’m thankful because it’s given me a chance to see what so many journalists I’ve read, watched and respected have experienced for years.  Yes, most of the time the accusation is TV news ripping off the hard work of newspapers.  The sad thing is, that happens.  Though I’ve tried not to, I’m sure there are times I’ve not given proper attribution to a paper in the past.  I try to make sure it never happens again.  It means working harder and smarter.  These days I try to make sure no one scoops me, especially the newspaper.  It still happens.  When it does, I pick myself up and I go to work to make sure I get more, show more and tell a better story than anyone is able to read in the paper.

I understand we are all competitors.  We all want the story and we all have different audiences.  TV stations can do stories that appear in the newspaper and many times can do a better job, because people want to see the video and hear from those involved.  It’s a medium that allows us to share more than you can see in print.  Many times, the newspaper can tell a better story than I can on TV.  Those are stories that are far to complicated to fully tell when you are limited to a few minutes on screen.

While we are competing, I hope journalists don’t lose the respect for each other.  It’s one thing to protect your sources and any exclusivity, but if you’re not willing or able to do the work…cite your source.  I’ve written scripts that give credit to newspapers before.  It is a bitter pill to swallow.  I hate it.  Newspapers and TV are natural rivals.  In college we had a yearly softball game against the newspaper folks…all four years I was there, we stomped them.  For the rest of the year they touted their superiority as part of the print world and we mocked them for their devotion to a dying medium.  Now we are all in the same boat…budgets are being cut, newsrooms downsized and the need for news more vital than ever.  All I hope is that we respect each other.  Respect the craft.  Respect the work.  We can all share the same stories…but let’s all put in the effort.  Our viewers, readers and listeners deserve the hardest working journalists possible.


The murders of Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker were really the first big story I ever reported on in my news career.  Sure I had worked behind the scenes and coordinated coverage of other big events, but this was a case where I got to be on the scene.  I knew it was big, in fact, the first story I did was on the national and international attention the case was generating.  However as the years dragged on, I did believe it would be a case that would never be solved.

That is until the OSBI announced they knew the gun that killed the girls.  They knew it by the make, model and serial number.  Investigators would not say how they knew such detailed information without having the actual gun.  I did a story that day, the first real break in the case in more than three years.  After it aired, I got a call…a tip to look up the name Kevin Sweat.

Kevin Sweat

There was information in forums, bits and pieces…all clues that seemed to tie together every rumor I had heard during three years of covering the Weleetka murders.  Sweat was in jail charged with murdering his fiance, Ashley Taylor.   It took time, but I was able to contact the family of Ashley.  They were hesitant at first to come forward, worried their information could jeopardize their daughters case.  However, as information continued to surface they believed Kevin Sweat’s connection to crime could be forgotten…lost in the details of an unknown murder case.

When I first sat down with Mike and Faye Taylor, they were polite and had everything written out for me.  When they first met Kevin, what he was like and why they believed he was connected to the Weleetka case.  The outcome of these meetings resulted in a series of stories (Link 1) and (Link 2).

When the OSBI announced they were formally charging Kevin Sweat with the murders of the Weleetka girls, I was relieved.  Relieved that nearly two months after the OSBI used every media outlet in the state to belittle my work, I was proven correct.  I was relieved that this 3-and-a-half year nightmare was coming to an end for the Placker and Whitaker families.  I was also relieved that the Taylors were ultimately vindicated.  They too had felt pressure from officials to back off, go away and shut up.  They refused.  They would not be silenced.  If anyone asks me who the heroes are in this case I say Mike and Faye.  They didn’t back down when their daughter disappeared, they didn’t stop when investigators told them their daughter’s case was ‘just a missing persons case.’  They dug for the details and confronted the man they believed was guilty and he gave them answers for questions they didn’t ask.  Answers they would later share with the OSBI.  Answers that ultimately led investigators to question Sweat and get a confession about what happened on that rural road in 2008.

The questions are not over and the answers will come.  The questions that remain include when and what did the OSBI know about Kevin Sweat.  The director says they knew nothing that would have prevented Ashley Taylor’s death.  However based on what Kevin told the Taylors, it appears there could be much more investigators knew.  Why did all three of these girls have to die?  So many questions.

Write Right

If you watch the news, then you probably know the news lingo.  They are those highly predictable phrases that seem to pop up in story after story.  I had a news director who called it ‘Journalese’ and it was banned in his newsroom.  He explained, news stories should be conversational.  No one in the real world talks like a journalist.  Sure people accept it, and maybe even tolerate it, but few actually like it.

Maybe we use those words because we want to sound smart or sophisticated.  I think it’s because we get lazy.  I’m as guilty as any other reporter, producer or editor.  However, since getting my first lesson in ‘Journalese,’ I have done my best to rid it from my vocabulary and encourage others to do the same.  Here are some of the words and phrases I hope everyone calls me out on if they ever hear me say them or see me try to write them.  Just say, “Phil, you can do better.”

  • Residents – No one says this.  Perhaps, “people who live here or there.” Sure it’s more words, but it’s far more conversational.
  • Blaze – No fire coverage is complete without someone saying this word.  Breaking news…very few people in the real world use this.  I know it gets redundant to safe fire over and over again, but unless you’re a prospector from the 1800s who feels the need to reference “blue blazes” you don’t need to include this.
  • White Stuff – Snow.  No need to explain why my news director banned this word.
  • Officials – What officials?  Who were they with?  Do you know who you talked to?  The blanket ‘officials’ is so easy to use and I slip into every so often, but I try to qualify it with ‘fire officials’ or ‘state-department officials’ just to add some sort of context to the word.
  • Stable Condition – FYI…dead is the only stable condition.
  • “It’s that time of year again” – I had an anchor who refused to say this when I produced.  I often would try to slip it in to see if he was reading the scripts.  Clichés are fun to write, but in the end, they are so cliché.  Write smarter.

Of course there are so many more…add to this list or create your own.  News writing shouldn’t be predictable.  Writing is an art…use your entire palette.  Engage viewers by talking to them, not at them.

College – Was It Worth It?

Missouri Southern State UniversityA friend of mine recently put out a call for people to talk about their college classes and what classes best prepared them for life in the media.  The question got me thinking about my own college experience and how much my world and world view has changed since my time walking the halls at Missouri Southern State University.  What amazed me is, while so much has changed, a lot has remained the same.  I was never one to be satisfied with just one job and wanted to know how everything worked.  My university’s broadcast department was a great fit, because it allowed me to learn everything.  I could run an audio board, host my own show, edit, shoot, direct and even learned the basics of master control operations.  What frustrates me is hearing so many people saying their college classes did not prepare them for work in the real world.  Below is my response to my friend’s question and what I think prepared me the most for a world in journalism.

“The most important thing about any college education, in my opinion, is learning to be a critical thinker. I think this is a skill that has helped me as a journalist more so than any one class.
Comm. Law was great, and I agree it has helped keep me safe, although if you leave the state you learn it in, don’t forget to study up. A journalist’s education never ends.
My first video production class helped me understand the history of film/tape and editing and I learned how everything works. This has helped me to do anything I want to do. While you can do a live report just by putting a microphone on, if something goes wrong (as it often does) it helps to know why and how a mic works in order to troubleshoot so you can get on the air.
As odd as it sounds, I took an Honor’s Theatre Appreciation class that was taught by our Honor’s director that I think helped shape my entire view of the world. That class offered rich discussions and taught me that even the leaders aren’t always correct and it’s OK to disagree with others, what matters most is the conversation.
While no one class can prepare you for a world in the media, they all can shape you in to a person that will succeed. I’ve heard all too often, “college didn’t prepare me for the real world.” I tell those people that they didn’t prepare themselves for the real world. You can’t learn how to produce sitting in a classroom, but you can learn how to communicate with others. You cannot really learn how to conduct an interview in a classroom, but there is a class that will teach you communication styles that will let you learn about people and you can use that to get the best responses.
Internships are crucial to learning the media world. However, like college classes the internship is only what the intern is willing to put into the process. I was lucky and landed at a small-market station that was short a nightside reporter. Which meant I got to shoot, write, edit and report. I also took the initiative to help the ‘traditional’ journalists understand that website-thing they just got and was responsible for creating content online. Intern should find a void and fill it. In a world of cutbacks there are jobs to do and the only thing stopping you from getting the best work experience is you not asking how you can help. Be willing to make mistakes, you will. What matters most is learning from those who have been there before and not making the same mistakes twice.
I will admit, I was a cocky college student, who assumed I would just land my dream job as soon as I walked across the stage and accepted my diploma and other honors. I was wrong. I had the best education possible and I still struggled. I am still struggling to find my perfect position. Am I closer than I was in market 146? Yes. The difference today is that I’ve learned I’m not always right and sometimes, it’s not what’s next that’s important. Most of the time, what’s most important is making the most of where you are right now.”
Original Post by Paul Yeager can be found by clicking here.

Mark Shannon: Life & Legacy

A sign on the door reads, “Limit Visits to Five Minutes.”  It was put up by a loving wife, concerned over the energy her husband is expending meeting friends, family and fans.  On this day, we’ll get more than 5 minutes, because he has a lot to say.

Mark Shannon has fought, what conservative Oklahomans would call, the good fight.  Regardless of if you agree with his politics, you can’t deny his passion for the cause.  For the past four years, his afternoon radio talk show has grown in popularity as he takes on every topic from city hall to Washington politics.  Though, his latest fight is one he may not win.

Mark was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000.  He fought it twice, each time pushing the disease back into remission.  This time, the Leukemia may win.  “I’m fighting, but I feel beat,” Shannon says from his hospital bed.  He admits to feeling worn out, and who could blame him with everything he’s been through.  “I don’t feel like I’m quitting.  I feel like I’m doing what God wants me to do and in the end He will decide when it’s time for me to go.”

It’s that faith that speaks volumes.  As our interview goes on, you can see his strength fade.  Yet, when he speaks of God and the relationship that has carried him through the all this, a renewed vibrancy shines in the face of the man known for his passion and energy on the radio.  Mark says his survival so far has been due to a simple plan.  “Just put one foot in front of the other and leave to the results up to God and see what He’s got planned for me.”

As we walked through Mark’s past, sharing stories of radio stations, programs and personalities a nurse interrupts the discussion.  She say’s she’ll come back.  The pause gives my photographer a chance to ask the question I hadn’t found a way to bring up yet, “Are you scared?”  No, not scared, “Nervous…what I’m nervous about is pain,” Mark says in a calm voice.  He goes on to describe how doctors have told him he shouldn’t feel much pain.  “The deal is I’ll probably wear myself down to where I don’t have enough oxygen left, and they’ll put me on something to relax me and I’ll probably just go to sleep.”

Mark’s biggest concern is for his wife.  He hates the burden his illness has been for her.  She’s not in the room to hear him dote on her.  She’s patiently waiting outside, giving Mark time to talk.  He jokes, “I think she’ll find a little bit of a break to be away from me…I tend to wear people out.”  Though you can tell she’s not yet ready to let him go.  In a few minutes she’ll send in the hospital’s PR staff to tell us it’s time to wrap things up.  She’s concerned about the growing line of well-wishers and her husband’s now noticeable lack of energy.

Acceptance comes in many forms.  Mark Shannon’s acceptance comes with an acknowledgment of the final things he has left to plan.  “I want to have a really good funeral.  I know that sounds funny, but I want it to be a really joyous celebration.”  He talks of plans for music and testimony.  Some old-fashioned “teaching and preaching,” as he calls it, something to let his friends and family know death is not the end.  “I’m looking forward to Heaven.  I don’t how it all works out, but I’m looking forward to the freedom of not having to worry about stuff anymore and the good life so to speak.”  He’s given a lot of thought to the subject of Heaven.  Don’t expect him to behind a microphone inside the pearly gates.  Mark quips, “I’ve added up my rewards and I’ll probably end up working at the 7-11.”  It’s a job he’ll be glad to do.

A News View

Phil's News Map

When I first started in news, I realized we tend to have a warped perspective of the world. Maybe it’s the odd hours, maybe it’s the fast pace or maybe it’s the being immersed in the bad news. Whatever the reason when I’m in a conversation with a non-newsie and the name of a town or community is brought up, my mind goes to what story I was there to cover. Most of the time it’s bad; a fire, flood or murder. Sometimes there are good stories; political activism, an inspiring sports team or just a quirky person doing something interesting. Either way, I’m certain it’s not how most people view the world. If you’re interested in testing this theory, find a person who works in news and ask them what they know about your hometown.

I wanted to find a way to convey just how interesting and diverse a life in news is, so after doing a story about a guy who created a cool map…I decided to make my own. It’s a Google map that allows me to place markers at the locations I’ve found myself. Each icon has a description of the story I was there to cover and sometimes my thoughts and reactions to the story or the community. Some icons include pictures or video from the scene.

While there are a lot of bad stories I’ve had to cover, each one has taken me to a different part of Oklahoma. I’ve tried to include positive experiences even with the most negative of stories. I have not included every story I’ve covered since arriving in Oklahoma three years ago, but I’ve tried to hit every town I have visited. I will continue to update this map as I travel to new locations and tell new stories.

To view the map use the embedded link below. You can also find a more permanent location on the  “Phil’s Map” page, or go to the “Pages” tab at the top of your screen.  It is important to note that the thoughts and views expressed in the icons are my own and do not represent the staff or management of any station or employer.

View Phil’s News in a larger map

Best Friends, Worst Situation

Eric and Jennifer Lotz in Haiti

Eric and Jennifer Lotz have a heart for Haiti.  From the first time I met them, they talked about the Haitians and their desire to return to the country and serve.  Before returning to serve Haiti Eric and Jennifer served me, and so many others, as campus ministers to the Wesley Foundation at Missouri Southern State University.  Eric was a mentor, friend and was the closest thing to a brother I’ve ever had.  They always opened their home and their hearts to the lives of so many of us poor college kids.  Some of the best times of my life were spent either in the Lotz home, on some road trip or working with Eric on one of the many Wesley Foundation service projects.

Eric was the one who pushed us all to experience missions.  He has the heart of a missionary and it was thanks to him I was able to experience Haiti.  It was an experience that changed my life.  When Eric and Jennifer chose to take their family and return to Haiti I was sad.  It was a selfish sadness, because I was losing face-to-face access to one of my best friends.  That sadness was replaced with pride and humility; proud that I was able to share so much time with such incredible people and humble because I knew I was not spiritually prepared to take on such a journey.

When I first heard about an earthquake in Haiti, my first thought was to my friends who had just moved their family into Port-au-Prince.  There was no word for hours.  Just prayers, thoughts and hopes bouncing from friend to friend across the internet.  Then news came.  They were alive, safe and already helping others.  Here is a link to a blog by one of Operation Blessing International’s directors about Eric on “The day the earth shook.”

To facilitate friends without all the connections, I have put together a timeline of sorts…pieced together from Facebook updates by friends and family members.   Scroll to the bottom to see the progression of updates:

Eric Lotz:  Dear earthquake, I hate you, but you will never get the best of us. We will rebuild a new Haiti and spite you. What do you think of that? (11/14/2010 10:01p CT)
Eric Lotz:  Dear earthquake, (11/14/2010 10:oop CT)
  • Eric Mattson:  Earthquakes only listen to people with showers and clean undies. (11/14/2010 10:0op CT)
Eric Lotz: also going to get a shower. Haven’t had one since Tuesday morning. Still wearing the same pants. Don’t ask about the undies, please. (11/14/2010 7:06p CT)
Eric Lotz: going to go arrange transportation for a group of 11 men and 4 canine search and rescue specialists from Spain. They will be working at the collased Ministry of Education building. (11/14/2010 7:05p CT)
Susan Salamun: Eric just posted that Operation Blessing’s disaster response team is to arrive tomorrow morning. Great news! Now he can go to work. (1/14/2010 6:22p CT)
Eric Lotz: Operation Blessing disaster response team gets here tomorrow at 8:00 am. Really looking forward to going from survivor to aid worker. Have felt so helpless these last few days. (1/14/2010 6:07p CT)
  • Jennifer Salamun Lotz: does that mean you are on the way back to the orphanage? Your oldest child is worried about you! (1/14/2010 6:27 CT)
Susan Salamun: Here are some pictures of the New Hope Haiti Mission orphanage where Jennifer and Eric and family are staying. (1/14/2010 4:30p CT)  {editor’s note: Click here to see pictures}
Eric Lotz: we’re doing well, trying to get a game plan. Day to day right now as to what we are going to do. So thankful for all the prayers and notes. Love you all! (1/14/2010)
Jim Hamilton: Just got tweet that Scott Salvant made it to Dominican Republic and is traveling with a caravan into Haiti with supplies. Reports of aid and relief workers being robbed by gangs. Pray for their safety. (1/14/2010 3:18p CT)
Susan Salamun: Another update. 2 of NHHM board members are in the Dominican Republic and heading for Haiti. There are some employees of the orphanage that have not been heard from yet. It was reported that all the orphanage employees have lost their homes. Jean Claubert had just bought food for the orphanage so they have a good supply for now. Please continue to pray. God is so faithful. (1/14/2010 2:29p CT)
(In response to question about what/where to send aid)  Eric Lotz: Yes!! Please collect whatever you can money-wise and we’ll try to get a list of items that would really help.
Our new house is not stable enough to live in, so we’re at the orphanage now. It’s going to be difficult to find a place permanently, though; everything is damaged.
Eric  (1/14/2010)
Eric Lotz: phones have been down since last night, just found some wi-fi to connect to. (1/14/2010 2:09 CT)
Susan Salamun: Father, May your glory shine through all that is happening in Haiti!! (1/14/2010 12:28p CT)
Christine Lotz: We were able to Skype our daughter-in-law this morning. She couldn’t see or hear us but we could see and hear her and it was wonderful to see her smiling face. Our eight year old granddaughter told us that they were outside when the earthquake hit doing Bible study and singing “Jesus Loves The Little Children.” The laid on the ground and kept singing. They are all so brave and we are so blessed. (1/14/2010 12:30p CT)
Susan Salamun: Skype is such a blessing from God. We just talked to Jennifer and the children. They all are doing well. She had all the children outside doing a Bible study when the earthquake hit. She said that she kept thinking she should do Bible with them and finally got all the children together and brought them outside. Now wasn’t that a GOD THING!!! He is so amazing and takes care of his own. (1/14/2010 12:27p CT)
Jennifer Salamun Lotz: Completely humbled and overwhelmed with the love and prayers of my family and friends. Thanks to all of you for your prayers during this time. Our family is back at the orphanage for the time being as our house is unstable. Praising God for taking care of us and New Hope Kids. Still waiting to hear from many of the staff, though. Keep praying! (1/14/2010 12:20p CT)
Susan Salamun: Scott, one of the board members of NHHM is on his way to Santo Domingo with plans of meeting Eric and Jean Clabert at the border. Please pray for Scott’s safety and that he will be able to purchase supplies for the orphanage. We put them in God’s hands. (1/14/2010 11:26a CT)
Jim Hamilton: Scott from New Hope is attempting to fly into Dominican Republic today and will meet Eric and Jean Claubert at the border. They will procure fuel and supplies hopefully in the Dominican to take back to the orphanage. This all depends however on the condition of the roads and Eric/Jean Claubert’s ability to get to him… in the DR. Please pray! Also please give all you can: (1/14/2010 10:17a CT)
  • Jim Hamilton:  Chatting with Jennifer right now. Eric is over trying to secure their belongings since there has been so much damage to their home. She and the kids are at the orphanage. Still mostly staying and sleeping outside due to aftershocks. Everyone there is as well as they can be. Still no word on many of the staffs’ and kids’ families tho. (1/14/2010 11:17a CT)
Susan Salamun: Just wanted to share these pictures. I have been to some of these places and driven down this street. It is so sad and I can’t believe what I see, but I know it is for real. Please keep praying for Haiti. (1/13/2010 11:54p CT)
Christine Lotz: We finally heard from Eric himself that he and his family and everyone at the orphanage are fine. Thank you so much to everyone for your thoughts and prayers. Their house is probably a total loss so God truly wrapped his arms around them and protected them. I am so extremely grateful. Please continue to pray for the safety and well being of all of them. God bless you all and thank you from the bottom of my heart. (1/13/2010 2:54p CT)
Eric Lotz: looks like a war zone here, so many buildings pancaked, so many corpses on the streets. (1/13/2010 2:33 CT)
Eric Lotz: overwhelmed by the love and support coming from you all. My most sincere thanks. (1/13/2010 1:43pm CT)
Keri Duncan: Eric just reported that his family will be staying with the folks at the orphanage so they are all together. He thinks his home is a total loss. Jean Claubert reports that the back wall of the orphanage is down and stairs to upstairs are down and supplies inside destroyed. Keep praying! (1/14/2010 11:44a CT)
Eric Lotz: 12:25 eastern time. we are fine, orphanage is fine, Pastor Leonel and family are fine. Our (new) house suffered some pretty major damage. I estimate the house will be a total loss. We’re going to stay at the orphanage for now. thank you for the prayers; they mean so much. Keep lifting up the people of Haiti. God Bless. Eric (1/13/2010 11:29a CT)
Melinda Wilson: We have heard through friends and family on facebook that Eric, Jennifer and their 5 kids are ok. The orphanage is badly damaged but everyone is ok. If you know of an agency that is going to provide relief, please contribute. Eri is with Operation Blessing (part of the 700 club), they are accepting donations for the…ir relief efforts. Food and water will be a must in a few days. (1/13/2010 8:26a CT)
Jim Hamilton: Scott from New Hope who runs the orphanage is going to try to get into Haiti tomorrow with cash for supplies for the orphanage. If you would like to donate to this you can do so thru their website: (1/13/2010 7:59a CT)
Susan Salamun: Thank you everyone for all the calls and prayers. There is wonderful news! All the children at the orphanage are ok and Pastor Leonel and his family are ok also. So much to be done so please keep the prayers going. Haiti is really hurting. Thank you God for watching over our loved ones! (1/13/2010 7:45a CT)
Jim Hamilton: I’m sure they will all get together in a safe place and “hunker down”. They’re all very resourceful. They need prayers! Today is Jameson’s 7th birthday! (1/13/2010 7:39a CT)
Jim Hamilton: Just spoke with Scott from NHHM and he just spoke with Jean Claubert at the orphanage and everyone is safe!!!! The orphanage is damaged, supplies and food ruined or inaccessible slept outside due to aftershocks but everyone well. Scott said Eric and Pastor Leonel both showed up at the orphanage while he was talking to Jean Claubert. (1/13/2010 7:37a CT)
Christine Lotz: Thanks be to God and to all of you for your thoughts and prayers. I just got a call that Eric and his family are all safe. Please continue to pray for them and for the children and staff at the orphanage and all the people in Haiti. This disaster could not have happened in a worse place. They are totally unequipped for anything like this. They need all our prayers. (1/12/2010 10:58p CT)
Susan Salamun: We just had a call from Dr. Hamilton who was able to get through to Eric and they are all ok. Eric was working at the hospital and Jennifer was home with the children. Eric was able to call her and started walking home. He saw some awful thing. Please pray for the people of Haiti. Eric did not know anything about the orphanage. (1/12/2010 10:37p CT)
Jim Hamilton: Eric said the devastation is worse than anything you can imagine. He left the hospital to walk home to his family with thousands of people seeking care in the lawn and the hospital has no supplies. Please pray for the people of Haiti tonight. (1/12/2010 10:36 CT)
Jim Hamilton: He was working at general hospital of port au prince when the quake hit. the hospital has sustained severe damage. He is walking home from there but has talked to Jennifer and the kids and they are well with only some damage to their home. Eric has not been able to reach anyone at the orphanage but states that it is… farther from the epicenter than their home is so hopefully that means everyone is well there too. (1/12/2010 10:35 CT)
Jim Hamilton: I just got off the telephone with Eric and he and Jennifer and the kids are all safe and well! God is good! (1/12/2010 10:32 CT)
Susan Salamun: I left my name with the state department and they are to call me back to take Jennifer and Eric’s name to put them on the list. It is such a comfort to know they belong to God and He has them in His hands no matter the outcome. (1/12/2010 9:29p CT)
Christine Lotz: Please pray for Eric, Jennifer, Christa, Hannah, Wilson, Jett and Callie who are in Haiti. We are waiting for some word from them. We love them all so very much. (1/12/2010 7:19p CT)
Susan Salamun: Thank you for all the calls. We don’t know anything yet. Please keep the whole country of Haiti in your prayers especially Jennifer and Eric and the children. (1/12/2010 7:09p CT)

Amber Waves of Grain

wheatIf you take a trip down almost any rural road in Oklahoma you’ll come across some of the most American stories.  On this trip to a small farm north of Enid, Oklahoma I came across some men in love truly in love with the country, only they’re not from this country at all.  In fact Steven and Kevin Clarke traveled from across the pond to land in a sea of gold.

I came across this story in a newspaper article a year ago, and held onto with hopes the story would come back around…it did.  So we packed up and headed north from the city.  We followed the golden wheat fields to Delbert Joyner’s Centennial Farm.  Delbert’s family started farming just after the land run in the late 1800s.

Three years ago Delbert was bringing in his harvest a top a classic Massey Ferguson combine.  That’s when he saw a car pull up next to the field.  Two men stepped out, one started taking pictures.  The other man walked right up and got on the combine with Delbert.  “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Delbert says.  You see, it was the red combine with the distinctive white top that caught the Clarke brother’s eye.  It was just like the combine they used on their small farm back in Norfolk, England.  They were on something of a farming adventure vacation.  Two men in love with the land and the machines – just taking in the heartland.

Steven and Kevin Clarke are both farmers, but they seem to have something of an obsession with classic farm equipment.  The love affair began, according to Kevin, with a 1972 National Geographic article.  It introduced them to wheat harvesting.  In 1976, their passion was awakened with a documentary by the BBC.  “Yellow Trail From Texas” followed two custom harvesters from Oklahoma.  They spent an entire summer cutting wheat from Texas all the way to Canada.  The idea of spending six months in the fields was a dream job for the Clarke brothers, but they were too young to join a custom cutting crew.  Still they kept the dream alive and a few years ago made the trip to America.

After spotting Delbert on his combine, they asked to return the following year to help him with his harvest.  Delbert agreed.  Good to their word, the Clarke brothers arrived ready to work.  This is their second year helping Delbert fix up his old combines.  To them it’s not work,  Kevin admits some people may not understand why two farmers would want to spend their vacation working on a farm, “A lot of them think we’re mad, but this is what we love doing so we’re happy.”

The smile on Kevin’s face when he’s sitting on top of the massive machines is enough to make anyone love forget about the city and fall in love with the farm.  It’s true happiness found in the hearts of some international visitors in love with America’s fruited plain.

Red Dirt Rebellion

I must admit, my life is pretty tame.  I go to work and enjoy relatively quiet hobbies, but I love meeting people who get me in touch with the more wild side of life.  Enter the girls of the Red Dirt Rebellion.

The Red Dirt Rebellion is Oklahoma’s only all-female, banked-track roller derby league.  If you think you know roller-derby, think again.  This isn’t the staged show that was once popular.  It’s not even the regular roller derby that is starting to make a comeback.  It’s pure adrenaline.

We met Emily Murray at the track.  She goes by Suzi Uzi, like the gun, on the track.  Once the skates go on all these girls take on a different persona and it’s no-holds barred excitement.  You don’t have to be a wild gal to take part, there are nurses, homemakers…even a meteorologist on the track.  Suzi explained how they formed the league and how they built the massive track from the ground up.  An interesting side-note, the track was dismantled as soon as it was built and sent off to a movie set.  The track will be used in an upcoming Drew Barrymore movie called “Whip It,” which is about roller derby.

This was a unique and exciting experience.  If you have never seen roller derby or just want to meet some ladies who play hard and know how to have a good time, I recommend checking them out.

On the web: Red Dirt Rebellion


Well this post has been a long time coming and since it’s been quite a while since I wrote I thought I would start things back with a story that was a long time in the works.

I recently had the privilege to attend a reunion.  It wasn’t high school or college, it was a war reunion.  Four decades ago Gary Bain was shot down over Laos.  He was leading a bombing raid when he took enemy fire.  For the past 40 years Gary has been trying to track down the men responsible for making sure he made it out of Vietnam alive.

Gary tells the story and has pictures on his website “Video Exploers,” but here I will add some of my own observations from the 40-year reunion.  To see the story I did on the reunion click here.

You would think 40 years would make memories less vivid.  But when the memories come from war, it’s something you’re not likely to forget.

My first experience meeting Gary Bain was pulling up to his house the day of the reunion.  He was so excited to see us there and was so excited to be surrounded by the men who saved his life.  We talked with Gary first and he told us of the fighter pilots who buzzed his area for nearly three hours after his ejection.  He told us of the planes that took enemy fire as they tried to distract enemy soldiers from finding him.  Holding back tears, Gary told us of how his co-pilot and best friend Lt. William Ryan didn’t survive to eject.  We heard stories of the “Jolly Green Giants,” those massive helicopters that came to the rescue.  The “PJ,” or parajumper who was lowered into the combat zone and carried him to safety.  Incredible tales, but were the over told?  The answer is ‘No.’

After talking with Gary we sat down with Edgar Roy Moore.  He was the pilot who flew over Gary for 45 minutes.  He said for 40 years he wondered about the fate of that pilot on the ground.  Four decades of wondering if he had made a difference.  The years passed until one day Roy’s phone rang.  “Is this Edgar Roy Moore?  Playboy13?,” the voice asked.  It was Roy’s roommate from Vietnam, who told him there was someone looking for him.  The next day Gary called Roy to say he was the Marine who lay bleeding in the jungle as Playboy13 flew till he was out of fuel, only to refuel in air and return.  Roy says that was the first time he was ever able to talk about anything that happened in Vietnam.  He hadn’t even told his family about what happened, but out of 330 missions he flew that was the one he remembers.  He says it was the best thing he ever did in Vietnam.  Roy didn’t hesitate to fly from North Carolina to meet a very thankful Gary Bain.

Next up was Dennis Palmer.  He was just 20 years old when he volunteered for special service in the Air Force.  He was the PJ on the Jolly Green Giant crew who descended on the long cable to extract downed pilots.  “It was a big deal to Gary, but for us it was just another mission,” he said brushing off accolades of heroism.  But this was not even supposed to be Palmer’s mission.  Another Jolly Green crew was on alert, a mechanical problem forced them back to base.  Palmer said he wanted the mission so he didn’t tell the pilot until it was too late to turn back, that the flight engineer had forgotten his gas mask.  The crew decided if the gas that was spread to make enemy soldiers sick affect the engineer, the co-pilot would run the winch that lowered Palmer from the helicopter.  Palmer remembers seeing his AR-15 rifle hanging by the door, knowing there was hostile fire all around he knew he might need it.  He was lowered from the chopper, after 30 feet enemy fire blew out the nose gear putting Palmer in a spiral.  He was worried the Jolly Green was going down.  That wouldn’t happen this day, the pilot stabilized and Palmer continued his descent into the jungle, it was then he realized he left the rifle on board and had only a hand gun for protection.  He remembers running 30 yards to get Gary.  They were barely hooked back on the cable when the chopper took off.  Palmer received the Silver Star for the mission.

After the war, Dennis Palmer was stationed in Hawaii and served on the Air Force rescue team for the Apollo space capsules.  He was in the air helping with the rescue of Apollo 13 pod.

Off camera I talked with the Pilot of Jolly Green 15.  Talk about humility.  Captain Joe “Pete” Hall did not want much credit for the rescue.  He said he was just doing his job.  The Jolly Green 15 crew rescued 6 pilots during Vietnam.  Gary was the only one to say thanks.  The reunion in rural Oklahoma was the first time he had seen his crew since leaving Vietnam.

We also spoke with Maj. John Johnston.  He was the forward air controller that day.  He picked out targets and assigned Gary to fly the mission over Laos that day.  He stayed in the air and on the radio overseeing everything that happened that day.  Johnston says it was an absolute miracle that Gary survived the explosion on his plane, survived ejecting too close to the ground and survived the daring rescue.  Johnston was on the radio with Gary that day, but never met him in person – until now.

There were so many other soldiers, airmen and Marines involved in Gary’s rescue.  To read a first person account of what happened from Gary visit his website by clicking here.   He has spent years tracking down the men responsible for saving his life and details every moment of that day.

Incredible men on an incredible mission.

Phil Cross

Welcoming a Warrior

This post has been a long time coming…however I suppose it is better late than never.  This was a very interesting story to cover because it had several unique aspects.  I have covered several soldier homecomings and think each welcome home deserves as much coverage as possible.  This wasn’t a group of soldiers, it was a single soldier.  But this was like no homecoming I have ever attended.

Corporal Warren Queton served in the army for a year in Iraq.  He is Native American, so to welcome him home there was a pow wow put on by his family.  These pow wow’s are full of symbolism and we were allowed to witness a lot of ceremonies that are normally closed to the public.  It was one of the most emotional homecomings I have ever witnessed.  I also learned new things about Native American customs and traditions.  Each step, color and movement has a meaning.  I think everyone should explore the tribal traditions.  It is a fascinating history and one worth keeping alive.


Let it Snow!

It was snow day.  Already into spring, but there was a winter storm on the horizon.  Doomsday predictions, rampant speculation from all sorts of media.  We were all in the afternoon news meeting trying to decide what stories to cover for the day.  Each reporter trying to pitch a story interesting enough to keep us out of a live shot in the cold weather telling people how cold it is outside.  Not that we reporters don’t love live shots, it’s just we’ve all done weather stories and know if you pitch a story that’s good enough someone else will end up being cold for the night.  Of course when it’s spring and there’s snow in the forecast, it didn’t matter what any of us came up with…we were all doing a weather story.

The most interesting idea of the day was a discussion we got into when someone pitched the idea of are people buying the forecast?  Weather had been a big topic all week and we had seen predictions from anywhere from 12″ to 2″ in the metro…some people even predicting roads would be shut down in the city because of the impending doom.  Beware the White Death screamed the billboards.  Tie a rope from the barn to the house so you can feed the animals during the blizzard.  OK, so maybe that’s a little over the top and a bit exaggerated, but it was a little silly at times.  I think we’ve all seen snow forecasts in Oklahoma that were big and scary and then turned out to be nothing.  So thus was born the idea that became my assignment.

It was decided that I would be the one to go out and find the snow skeptics.  Since I was one of the biggest skeptics, it seemed only fitting.  Plus for those who don’t know me…I sometimes smart off about things…and my sarcastic humor lended itself to this story quite nicely.

In the end…the forecasts were partly correct.  Parts of NW Oklahoma saw up to two feet of snow, but it dried up just before hitting the metro.  Officially, Oklahoma City got an inch of snow…I would call it a trace of snow at my house, but then again, almost all of it had melted by the time I woke up and went to work.  The snow picked back up when the storm moved out of OKC and I ended up following the storm east for my Saturday story and actually saw a lot of snow that we were lucky to have avoided in the metro.


Let it Snow

Let it Snow

Noble Pond

This story took some work to get put together.  I heard about it while checking in with Jack Haley and knew it was too good to pass up, no matter how hard it would be to pull together.

If you ever heard Austin Haley’s story, you’ll never forget.  The five-year-old boy was fishing with his grandfather in a backyard pond in Noble, Oklahoma in August 2007.  Police were called to a neighbor’s house because a snake was trapped in a birdhouse.  The officers decided to shoot the snake.  One officer fired two shots.  The bullets missed the snake, but hit and killed Austin Haley.  This was quite possibly the most tragic story I have ever or ever hope to hear again.  The story made headlines in Oklahoma and around the country.

Enter Chris Rogerson.  He’s a composing student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  In August 2007, Chris was watching the news and heard about Austin’s death.  He was so moved that he sat down at his piano and just played.  What came next was, in my opinion, a masterpiece.  He wrote the music for “Noble Pond,” a piano solo.  Just recently he decided to orchestrate the piece to be performed by his school’s orchestra.

Chris found an address for Jack and Renee Haley and mailed them a simple note explaining who he was and what he had written in Austin’s honor.  Jack Haley told me when he opened the card from Pennsylvania he was stunned.  He couldn’t move.  He called for his wife to come read the note.  They both knew they had to make the trip to Philadelphia to hear the world premiere of the orchestra version of “Noble Pond.”

After finally tracking down Chris I was able to get the Fox affiliate in Philadelphia to hook up with Chris and shoot an interview for me.  I am only sad the economy and our budget cutbacks prevented me from making the trip to Philly myself.  I was amazed when I was finally able to see Chris perform the piano solo he wrote.  I was moved by the music and also by the Philadelphia photographer’s shots.  It was truly inspiring.  In fact after seeing how well the story was shot, I felt an even bigger pressure to do this story justice.  I wanted to live up to the amazing video I had in my hands.

I am hopeful Jack and Renee enjoy the story and the performance.  I am hopeful Chris is able to get some publicity for his work.  I love listening and performing music, however composing was never one of  my strong suits.  It’s always inspiring to me to see someone write and play music, especially something with that much emotion.

Austin’s story continues to inspire.  Jack gave me an article written in a religious magazine.  It shared the story of Austin’s faith in God and how he shared his beliefs with everyone he met.  Austin’s story is also being used in a new training video for police about when to use deadly force.

What happened at a pond in Noble has inspired and changed the lives of countless people.  Count me as one of them.

Austin Haley


The Real Deal

What is it about a police chase that captivates our attention?  High speeds?  The element of danger?  Combine that danger with bigger vehicles and you get a very dangerous situation, but it can also be very exciting.  So when my friend and photojournalist, Ben Latham, told me about a new training track being built to teach police how to stop chases with big rigs I was on board.

We met Greg Couch on his track just outside of El Reno.  Its more than 200 acres of land offering a variety of driving surfaces.  Greg is a reserve sheriff’s deputy and has experience working on oil fields and driving commercial vehicles.  Put all those together and you get this track.  The video opportunities were amazing and Ben shot it so well.  It’s something he was very excited about working on and he did an amazing job putting it together.  I can’t wait until the track is finished and we can go out again and meet the first training class.

Morrison Murder: The First Hearing

Should a 12 year-old boy be charged as an adult?  Just by saying “12 year-old boy” it would indicate he is a child and not an adult, but investigators say he committed a very adult crime.

The news broke Wednesday night when agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation said a 12 year old shot and killed his mother in the small town of Morrison, Oklahoma.  Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of these headlines recently.  Kids killing people.  This child is innocent until proven guilty, but just the concept of someone that young committing a crime of this magnitude would have once been thought impossible.  The Noble county district attorney Mark L. Gibson says he’s never seen a case like this before.  He told me he even called around the state asking other DA’s if they had any insight, and he can’t find anyone in Oklahoma who’s had to prosecute a 12 year old for first-degree murder.  While he wouldn’t talk specifically about the case, Gibson did say he hasn’t made up his mind if he will move to have the boy certified as an adult.  Gibson added the child’s mental status will weigh on the decision…family friends say he is a special needs child.  Gibson has yet to see any official documentation supporting those claims.  Personally, I think that will be the deciding factor.

Mental status aside, this case still presents a serious dilemma; Do you let a murderer out when he turns 18 or send a child to adult prison?  Either way I would say this kid’s life is ruined.  Gibson said he thinks there is a major hole in our state’s law because there is no option to hold over a dangerous juvenile offender once they reach 18 years of age.  If the boy was 13 it would be automatic and there wouldn’t be a problem (except for the obvious child committing crime problem).  Maybe lawmakers need to look into tweaking the state’s Youthful Offender Act.

Unfortunately I think we’re only going to see more of these types of crimes.  I’m not blaming anyone or anything.  I think we are all responsible for our own actions.  However, it does seem like kids are growing up much faster than they used too..I’m not sure why.


Austin’s Choice

The Haley family are quite possibly the most amazing people I have ever met.  They have an unshakable faith and have survived an unthinkable tragedy.  I would say almost anyone who watches news anywhere around the country heard about what happened to their son.  The story of two police officers in Noble accidentally shooting and killing Austin Haley made headlines around the country.  Yes it was an accident, but a judge agreed that there was gross negligence involved when they chose to pull a gun and shoot at a snake stuck in a birdhouse.  I can’t imagine the horror they live with knowing that stray bullet hit and killed a little boy.

From the time we first met the Haley’s they were very open and honest about their emotions and what they were going through.  Sometimes I hate the part of my job that requires us to seek out grieving families and ask them to talk about the worst day of their lives.  But every time I talked with Jack or Renee Haley I left feeling emotionally uplifted.  It’s something about the grace they carried themselves with that was absolutely inspiring.  During the trial, plea hearings and sentencing I admired how they were able to sit in a courtroom face-to-face with the men who killed their son.  Accident or not, I don’t know if I could have done that.  Yet even with their grief, they were able to forgive the men who took their son away from them.

Nine months after Austin’s death, it was my honor to report on the next chapter in their lives…the birth of a new baby boy.  While no new child could ever replace Austin, the circumstance around the new child’s birth are extraordinary.  How the night before Austin died he prayed for his mother to have another child, and he prayed that he would be the one to pick out that child.  Add to that the memories of Austin’s brother who saw him get shot and can describe in detail what happened next.  I am a man of faith, but I don’t know how anyone can hear him describe seeing Austin go up to Heaven without getting goosebumps.  The faith of a child is a remarkable thing.

The Haley family reminds me there is still good in the world.