Category Archives: News

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Thank God For Kids

Category : News

Sisters

Sisters

I apparently do not post that often anymore. Well I have never been a very frequent blogger, but this post has been rolling around for a while in my head and I felt that I need to put pen to paper, (in the figurative digital sense).

This Christmas season we put about 3,300 miles on the rental car driving to various holiday gatherings. From Oklahoma to Louisiana, to Texas, to Missouri, we spent many hours on the road. To some this may sound like a nightmare, but I actually enjoyed the road trip. The girls did very well, thanks in part to the movies we had playing for them. However, for a good part of the trip, we were also to enjoy the free XM radio in the rental and the Christmas channels.

I’ll leave out how I’ve heard about a dozen versions of every Christmas song imaginable and how it took mile 2,450 for me to finally hear my favorite (There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays)…what really struck me was what I did hear. A simple song that I had not heard for years.

Thank God For Kids.

I did not even know it was a Christmas song but apparently, it was a hit from the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album in 1982, (though originally written and performed much earlier than that by another artist).

The song was never one I disliked. I enjoyed it, but I do not think I ever fully appreciated it until now. Here is the scene as the song comes on the radio…I’m driving as dusk was peaking over the horizon. Both girls had fallen asleep in the back, having spent the day with family and hours on the road. We had stopped and played and laughed all throughout the drive, but now they were napping. The intro to the song plays and the familiar chords strike a memory of my childhood hearing the tune played during a simpler time. But then the words fill my head…

“If it weren’t for kids have you ever thought, there wouldn’t be no Santa Claus…”

I turn up the radio with a smile, expecting just to hear a song from my past.

“We’d all live in a quiet house, Without Big Bird or a Mickey Mouse, And Kool Aid on the couch, Thank God for kids.”

My eyes glance in the rear-view mirror and I can see Karis sleeping…her lips pursed and blonde hair swept just off her face; the picture of serenity. I move the mirror slightly to see Selah in her car seat. She’s sleeping with her face in almost a smile. You can almost see her world expanding day-by-day as she learns, grows, and explores everything around her. It wouldn’t be a trip with Selah without a million questions about what we’re doing, who we’re seeing and why everything is happening.
“Daddy, how does this thing fly? And a hundred other where’s and whys I really don’t know but I try. Thank God for kids”
All of the sudden I’m having a moment that only music can provide. A way that a chord combined with just the right words can enter your soul. Like a candle flickering in a dark room, I begin to see all the times I’ve already been able to spend with these precious little ones.

“When I look down in those trusting eyes. That look to me I realize, there’s love that I can’t buy…Thank God for kids.”

And as the chorus plays, I think of all the smiles and laughs we’ve had that day. I think of all the fun times we have had and it’s like a small movie, playing on and old projector. From the times when I would sing Selah to sleep when we brought her home from the hospital, to the games I play with Karis. My mind tries to imagine what is next for them, what is next for me…what is next for me, for this family? I do not know. That is the grand adventure of it all. I begin to say a prayer, that God could grant me the wisdom I need to be the leader of this family and the father these girls need. A prayer that He will give me the ability to protect them and provide for them as their needs change. It is an awesome responsibility. And then…

“When you get down on your knees tonight, and thank the Lord for His guiding light. Pray they turn out right. Thank God for kids.”

This song started as a simple flashback to my childhood, growing up in the country; listening to country music. It has ended as a prayer of thanksgiving for all that I have been blessed with and a reminder that only the best lies ahead.
P.S. And in finding the right version of this song to post, it also made me remember how awesome the 80s and 90s hair and clothing styles were. Thank God For Kids, and Thank God for mullets.


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Reporters vs. Journalists

Category : News , Personal

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.


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Respect

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Category : News

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.


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Weleetka

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.


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Write Right

Category : News

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.


Phil's Thoughts