News - Full disclosure
'Georgia Gang'sters wear many media hats
It's "The McLaughlin Group" meets Manuel's Tavern when the regulars of Atlanta's longest-running media punditry panel TV show appear every Sunday morning as "The Georgia Gang" on FOX-owned WAGA Channel 5. Begun 18 years ago as "Sunday News Conference" on WSB, the show has changed little despite name and network shuffles. A politically, racially and sexually mixed panel still expounds on the news topics of a given week, sometimes dynamically and sometimes less so.
The bulk of the panel has remained intact for more than a decade, giving the show both a venerable and predictable air. Its mainstays are all insiders, former high-profile editors and writers from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But some recent shuffles, including the business dealings of some panelists, raise familiar questions about how media personalities must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest and maintain their professional integrity.
First off, in May, panelist Bill Shipp's political newsletter Bill Shipp's Georgia was purchased by local dot-com InsiderAdvantage, a site in the business of tipping off upcoming government contracts to its subscribers. The deal merges Shipp, one of the deans of Atlanta journalism and a former AJC associate, political and city editor, with website owners Matt Towery and Pierre Howard, both former politicians. (For that matter, Towery is himself all over the map as a writer for Atlanta CityMag and Georgia Trend, and as an occasional political commentator for WXIA-TV. As a registered lobbyist, might he have an occasional interest in praising or pilloring certain politicians?)
In June, panelist Jeff Dickerson, until this summer an editorial writer for the AJC, took a job as vice president of public affairs with Weltner Communications, owned by fellow "Gang" panelist (and lobbyist) Betsey Weltner, the only nonmedia member of the group. That puts two officers of one firm on the show. Pretty good for clients? Or the ability to pick up new ones? Dickerson also pens a column for the Atlanta Tribune and has debuted as an Atlanta Business Chronicle columnist.
Weltner, though, will be leaving the show soon. She's really been a summer fill-in since 1998 for founding panelist Rick Allen, a former political editor at the AJC and the author of Atlanta Rising. That's good, right? Well, Allen was appointed by Mayor Bill Campbell to the city's Urban Design Commission. Does even an unpaid appointment present a conflict for him in discussing matters about the city?
For the show in general and Weltner specifically, the perception of conflict became a little bit stronger in the eyes of some late this summer. Now, "The Georgia Gang" doesn't have a ton of viewers, but it has some influential ones, including Gov. Roy Barnes' chief of staff Bobby Kahn, who complained to WAGA's GM when Weltner commented on a Clayton County transportation referendum without disclosing that a member of her firm had pitched it to represent proponents of the referendum. The firm never put in a formal bid, but still, Weltner and the staffer sent apologetic e-mails to Kahn, who was in effect accusing Weltner of sour grapes by predicting the referendum would not pass. It did.
The show's longtime moderator, Dick Williams, a former AJC columnist who now writes a column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and publishes the Dunwoody Crier, took a look at Kahn's complaint and deemed it minor, if one at all.
"The conflict of interest stuff has come up," he says. "We preferably do not discuss matters we may have an interest in, but if we do, we say so."
Disclosure really is the only way out for the 'Gang'sters. They're working journalists, but they're also self-employed ones, who pick up just $200 to $300 per show. Employment and interests are going to intertwine occasionally.
No shame in that. It just takes vigilance — and personal integrity — to wear many hats.
A similar show, "Atlanta This Week" on WPBA also features a topical media roundtable, but one in which guests are rotated each week and are largely journalists employed by news organizations. Speaking of disclosure, that show frequently includes CL staffers.
And speaking of hats, on a brief personal note, this is my swan song as media columnist for CL. I have sold out to a mainstream corporate media conglomerate. But please — with so many mainstream corporate media conglomerates out there — keep watching this space for needed criticism of all Atlanta media.
Greg Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.