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Thursday, May 6, 2021

When local TV news runs amuck; churches get slimed; facts aren’t checked

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Last month, Shirley Sherrod was tarred and feathered by Fox Cable News and more responsible news networks, who failed Journalism 101 – check your facts.

Last week, Indianapolis TV committed their own version of the Sherrod debacle, playing up a bizarre incident, while broadcasting falsehoods about the incident at a respected local church.

“Just Tellin’ It” begins its 17th year reporting on a complete breakdown in responsible reporting and journalistic ethics by local TV news that reported inaccuracies, suppositions and innuendo, while failing to check the real facts.

This story begins Saturday July 24 at Municipal Gardens, an Indy Parks facility. IMPD Sgt. Matthew Grimes was talking to youths when a “fight” broke out between two Black men. After he attempted to stop the fight, Sgt. Grimes was told it was “staged” to test white officers’ reaction.

The story wasn’t reported until five days later, Friday, July 30, when WRTV-Channel 6 Reporter Jack Rinehart broke the story. Rinehart reported the story straight, but Channel 6’s Web site said the incident occurred at a “presentation to a church audience.” A subsequent story by new African-American Channel 6 reporter Myrt Price left the impression that a church, Mt. Vernon Baptist, was involved.

The next day, Saturday, July 31, WISH-TV-Channel 8 reporter Phil Sanchez in a live report said “the story began at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church.” On Channel 8’s Web site, under Sanchez’ byline was a sub headline saying “He (Grimes) was giving a presentation for a church” and the story’s text said the officer was “invited by a local church group to give a presentation.”

WTHR-Channel 13 reporter Richard Essex’s story also aired July 30. I couldn’t access video, but 13’s Web site’s story didn’t say the event was sponsored by a church. (The story had also been updated Aug. 4 after I called the local TV stations about inaccuracies).

But on NBC’s Web site, under Essex’s byline, a story said the incident was “a presentation to a church group.”

WXIN-Fox 59 reporter Kimberly King’s story, Monday, Aug. 2, called the church official involved a deacon, (where all the other stations said he was a pastor or minister), and reported that “church members” told Sgt. Grimes the fight was staged.

So, the church sponsored the event. Right?

Wrong, which a few minutes of fact checking would’ve discovered.

If Mt. Vernon had organized the event at an Indy Parks facility, there’d be a lease or rental agreement on file. The afternoon of Aug. 2, I asked that of Jennifer McGilvray, Indy Parks’ spokesperson, who said there were no rental agreements for any Municipal Gardens events July 24.

Who sponsored the event? I asked.

Her answer, “The event was part of an Indy Parks program called the Eric Gordon Summer Basketball League which helps at-risk children and teenagers learn valuable life skills.”

So, why did the media assume it was a church function? Did the public safety director and IMPD, looking to score points against the Black church, lead the media astray?

Public safety spokesperson Maura Leon-Barber denied it, “We did not say it was a church event – members of the media did.”

The 24-hour, pressure packed news cycle is vicious. Shirley Sherrod was tarred and feathered not just by Fox Cable News, but by other more responsible outlets, all because no one took the time to check the facts.

The same happened to Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. Local TV news owes the church an apology. They also should correct their current inaccuracies in their Web site archives.

This debacle points out why it’s critical that there needs to be more African Americans, not fewer in local TV newsrooms. And that local TV news executives need to get out and learn about our African-American community.

This brings us to circumstances surrounding the departure of WRTV-Channel 6 anchor Todd Wallace, whose contract wasn’t renewed.

Both Wallace and Channel 6 officials told me they were “satisfied” with his work. His departure isn’t linked to any job performance issues. In an exclusive interview on WTLC-AM (1310’s) “Afternoons with Amos,” Wallace described Channel 6’s move as “a business decision. They wanted to move in a different direction.”

But Channel 6’s business decision is boneheaded, stupid and insipid. I’m told that Channel 6 officials and their news consultants believe “anchors aren’t important.” That’s why the station’s advertising hype revolves around their “watchdog reporters.” Which includes some great journalists (Rafael Sanchez, Jack Rinehart, Norman Cox) and some who still have lots to learn. But none is African American.

Question for Channel 6’s poobahs. Why isn’t the station’s other veteran, quality journalist Derrick Thomas one of your highly promoted “watchdog reporters?” Don’t you think Black reporters can get in one’s face like white ones can?

Three years ago, I thought that Todd Wallace’s arrival would help break the stigma of African-American male anchors in Indianapolis television. After all it had been some 15 years since any TV station (Channel 6) had employed a Black male prime-time anchor (James Adams).

Channel 6’s newscasts have been perennially near the bottom of what was a three station news race. But in recent years, Channel 59 has been more aggressive and threatens to move Channel 6 to the fourth place news cellar.

Wallace was also doomed by his station’s failure to promote their newscasts to African-American viewers, who comprise one-in-11 viewers in the Central Indiana TV market. Wallace wasn’t helped that during the critical May Nielsen ratings sweeps, Channel 6 spent a record amount promoting their newscasts, but not one penny in African-American media.

Channel 6’s 7 p.m. newscast also hurt Wallace. TV anchors reinforce their station’s visibility by participation in charity and community events, which are usually scheduled in the evening. Other stations’ anchors leave their newscasts at 6:30 p.m. to participate in community and charity events and are back in the newsroom for their 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.

But Channel 6’s 7 p.m. newscast kept Wallace out of those high-visibility and community-building events.

(And it’s insulting that of all the out of work male TV anchors in America, Channel 6 found one named “Todd” so they wouldn’t have to redo the Todd and Trisha logos.)

Let’s hope it’s not another 15 years – 2025 – before an Indianapolis TV station hires another African-American male anchor in prime time. But I’m afraid it could be.

See ‘ya next week!

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