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11/6/2003

News > News

A dog on a steak

 

The evening of Oct. 7 was supposed to be festive at the Fort Gatlin Shopping Center in Edgewood. There, supporters of Mobility 20/20, the county sales tax referendum to build roads and improve I-4, had gathered to celebrate what they were sure would be a victory.

Ron Hill, a 58-year-old veteran radio reporter, arrived early, around 5:45 p.m. He interviewed former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick, who headed a county task force in favor of the referendum, then sat down in a large white tent set up in the parking lot to eat a pork sandwich and a couple of cookies, and drink a Bud Light.

An hour later the tent filled with supporters, maybe 100 people, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Chairman Richard Crotty. But the mood quickly turned somber when early returns broadcast on a large-screen TV showed Mobility 20/20 going down in defeat. The returns sent Dyer and Crotty scurrying to an office inside the Fort Gatlin building reserved for certain Mobility 20/20 officials and their volunteers. "When the handwriting was on the wall, they all left the tent," Hill says.

Hill worked for WDBO-AM (580), a news/talk station whose white-older-male audience prefers its politics in two shades: conservative or libertarian. The fare consists of news, weather and traffic reports, interspersed with syndicated talk-radio vets like Neal Boortz, Sean Hannity and "former liberal" Michael Savage. WDBO is ranked No. 4 in the Orlando radio market, but No. 1 among listeners between 35 and 64.

The station is aggressive in its news coverage. Members of the Associated Press voted WDBO best overall news operation for six years straight in the 1990s. Hill, who learned the radio business in his hometown of Chicago, won an AP award in 1996, and was runner-up several times. He takes the reporter's gadfly role seriously. His motto: Annoy as many people in as short a time as possible.

When Hill saw Dyer and Crotty head into the office, he was the only one of the 20 reporters at the event who followed them. "They were schmoozing, clapping the backs of the press," Hill says. "But as soon as it looked like the thing was failing, they took off. I wasn't born under a Christmas tree. They were trying to avoid talking to reporters."

Hill says he hoped to catch Dyer and Crotty in a moment of candor, rather than waiting for them to compose themselves and return. "I was not about to hear pabulum," he says. "My listeners don't want to hear pabulum. The sign on the door said, ‘staff only.' To hell with that. This is government in the sunshine and I wasn't going to kneel to them."

Besides, Hill had a deadline. He has to file a report every half hour and he needed immediate reaction.

Hill talked Dyer into an interview. But as he asked questions, Hill noticed that several volunteers and a security guard were eyeing him. After the interview, one of the volunteers told Hill the media wasn't allowed in the office. Hill ignored him. Then, Hill says, the security guard asked him to leave. Hill response: "I'm news media and I'm not going anywhere."

As Hill looked for Crotty, another volunteer began bumping into him, Hill says. At first, he assumed the nudges were accidental. Then he realized the man was pushing on purpose. So Hill put one hand on the small of the volunteer's back, the other on his neck and threw him onto a countertop. "Once I realized what he was doing, I said, ‘Get the fuck out the way,'" Hill says. "I think he went partially over. He wasn't hurt in any way."

When Hill found Crotty, the chairman said he'd make a statement outside. So Hill left. "He's the man," Hill says. "What's the point in standing there?"

Before leaving, he got into a shouting match with Crotty's chief of staff, Elizabeth Gianini. "Elizabeth started yelling at me. She said, ‘You should have never shoved [the volunteer].' She said he was just doing his job. He was protecting the principals. Give me a fucking break. Some bozo volunteer is going to keep me away from public officials? No, no, no. Wrong. Sheriff deputies have tried to keep me away and failed."

Hill eventually got his interviews, and left. A week later, on Oct. 15, he discovered that Steve Triggs, the county's communications manager, had revoked his press pass. The move was largely symbolic, since reporters (such as those at Orlando Weekly) have access to county officials without the pass. Triggs told Hill the only way to get his pass back was to apologize to Gianini. When Hill said no, Triggs pointed out that Hill's boss, WDBO News Director Marsha Taylor, had already apologized for him. Hill felt betrayed and resigned the next day, Oct. 16.

Badge of courage

The county's version of events doesn't differ much except that Triggs, in an Oct. 8 e-mail to Taylor, claims Hill pushed the volunteer into a wall, not a countertop, and that Hill originally talked his way into the office by saying he had to use the bathroom. Triggs also noted that Hill drank a beer before the confrontation. "I doubt WDBO or Cox Broadcasting condones drinking on the job," Triggs wrote. "I'm not saying Ron was intoxicated, although his actions certainly suggest he was not in complete control."

There was a time when journalists could get away with a two-martini lunch. But those days ended shortly after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal and journalists, following the rest of corporate America, moved toward abstinence. "Having a few drinks over lunch used to be a badge of courage," says University of Missouri journalism professor Thomas McPhail. "It used to be a way to get leads and breaks in a story. But with the rise in professionalism, mores have shifted quite dramatically. You definitely cannot drink at a business lunch -- if not on the clock. Drinking presumes a closeness with those you are reporting on because you are beholden to them not to squeal on you."

Hill regrets having the beer because it is easy thing for Triggs to focus on. "That is PC," he says. "That is not reality. I weigh 300 pounds. How much would one beer affect me? It was a Bud Light, for crying out loud. But it gave Triggs and Gianini ammunition to use against me."

Several veteran journalists applauded Hill's persistence in trying to interview Crotty and Dyer before other media outlets. "Reporters becoming aggressive in going after a story -- I think that's admirable," says Larry Lorenz, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Loyola in New Orleans. "A reporter ought to go after what he can get."

At the same time, reporters have to know when to walk away. "Being physically aggressive, pushing and shoving, that's wrong," Lorenz says. "Rather than forcing himself on a person, a reporter can ask, can we talk later? A reporter has every right to ask for access and a public official has every right to deny access, even in a public situation."

Lorenz also sees problems in WDBO's position not to back Hill. "Management does not always understand the adversarial role between reporter and official," Lorenz says. "Management wants to keep everyone happy, but it's not always happy when a reporter is doing his job." (Marsha Taylor and WDBO programming director Kipper McGee did not return phone calls for this story. Several WDBO reporters declined comment.)

But Aly Colón, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, says management can't give carte blanche to reporters' actions. "It's a case-by-case thing," Colón says. "Management has to decide what is going on. If a reporter decides to take an action unilaterally, that's another issue. How can management agree to back up when they don't know what he or she was doing?"

Hill says he should have known Taylor, WDBO's news director, wouldn't support him. He says she has a history of commiserating with the political establishment. "Marsha likes everything nice and smooth. She's Little Mary Sunshine."

One thing that might work against Hill is that, because he was working out of view of the other reporters, only county officials and volunteers saw what happened. In other words, he doesn't have anyone to corroborate his testimony. "Fuck them," he says. "Who cares? I don't need any witnesses."

Hill says he'll be looking for another job soon. He wants to stay in the area but he has a six-month non-compete clause in the contract he signed with WDBO.

In the interim, he has already accomplished something he has long put off: signing up for military health benefits. Hill received three purple hearts in four years fighting as a Marine in Vietnam. While he is taking care of old injuries, politicians will be left to wonder how long they have before Hill returns.

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