Sunday Interview with Dick McMichael: Anyone who says they're completely objective is lying: You try to be, and you hope you are.

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 5, 2014 

  • BIO

    Age: 83

    Job: Retired journalist, anchor at WTVM, Channel 9.

    Education: Jordan High, 1948; attended Mercer University, 1951-53; graduated from Columbus College in 1985.

    Family: Widower with one son, Rick; four step-sons, Kenneth, Mickey, Doug and Richard; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild on the way.

    On why he went back to college in the 1980s: “The first course I took was economics. ... And I knew economics would probably not be an easy course — and it was not an easy course. But I wanted to see if I could cut it, and if I cut that I figured I could go ahead and do the rest of it.”

Dick McMichael was there when television news started in Columbus.

Today, the 83-year-old retired anchorman is a blogger, breaking stories and doing what a lifelong newsman does.

He learned his craft by practicing it, first in radio, then television.

He took a single journalism law class at Mercer in the 1950s and skipped it a lot.

"That's the only journalism class I even attempted, and I was never sorry of that, because you can learn that doing it and I did," McMichael said. "But you need background, and you need a lot of background. You need history and you need political science."

McMichael recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his distinguished career, journalism and Columbus.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You've been retired for how many years now?

I retired in 2000. I continued to do some individual things for them (WTVM) -- some special documentaries and special reports for a few years, including an interview I did with Jimmy Carter over in Plains.

But basically I do the blog "Dick's World," mainly because it is a way to communicate with people, and stay connected, and express myself.

I do a little freelance writing, as you probably know. And I am a member of the Columbus Academy of Lifelong Learning. I recommend that for anyone who starts reaching a little age and wants to keep their mental activity going, and it's a good social group also.

You broke a story on your blog a few years ago when you got William Calley to talk about the My Lai Massacre for the first time. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

That probably is the biggest story I ever broke. I've broken a few important stories, but that one got such worldwide coverage and attention, and because of the subject and because people had been trying for years and years to get him, and were unsuccessful, basically, it turned out to be quite a story.

It got a lot of coverage, and to this day it has the most hits every week on my blog, and I still get comments. I still get people who are sending in comments to that particular blog post.

You knew the importance of what William Calley was saying in that room that day, right?

Absolutely. And when Al Fleming told me he had invited Calley to speak to the Kiwanis Club, I said "Al, I want to be there." He said, "Well, OK," and I let him know, if I remember correctly, that I was going to do a blog on it.

It was interesting, you know, because before this interview is over, we're going to get into investigative reporting. And I didn't have to do investigative reporting to have this really, really big story.

All I had to do was sit in a Kiwanis Club meeting and listen to him talk. What he said was definitely newsworthy, you know, to apologize for that and all the worldwide reaction that it got. It is being in the right place and at the right time.

You spent how many years as a working TV journalist?

Well, that's interesting because actually it started back in radio. In 1948, I was a 17-year-old radio announcer at WDAK while I was still in high school.

You just switched to your radio voice when you said "WDAK."

(Laughter) That's the first thing I said on the radio. Ed Snyder, who was an announcer at the time -- the late Ed Snyder, a great guy -- he was my mentor. Bob Barr from the Bob Barr Band knew him and he knew I wanted to be in radio and he connected me with Ed. ...

He taught me a lot. I did that and TV was coming into Georgia about the same time in 1948. That's when WSB-TV went on the air, the first station in Georgia, and shortly after that, Channel 5 went on, then Channel 11.

Eventually I ended up in TV on WRBL. WRBL went into TV in 1953, as you know, as well as WDAK-TV, which became WTVM. I was working in radio when WRBL put TV on the air and I saw what was happening over there and I wanted a piece of the action, of course, because I knew in the future what television was going to be. That was just obvious. And they let me be on TV a little bit on WRBL. I went off to the Army and came back and then did go into TV. Did a little bit of sportscasting, not much, on camera. The first thing I did on TV professionally was a commercial.

A commercial for what?

I think it was a Schick razor. It was a Sunday afternoon and none of the regular announcers wanted to come in on Sunday afternoon. I was on a radio shift and back then you had a lot of network programs on the radio, so there was maybe a half hour that I wouldn't do anything but wait for the break at the half-hour. And they said it's going to run about 3:15, or something like that.

Did you ever leave Columbus after that?

Yeah, I did. I went back to Atlanta. Well, I went into television then. I did radio for a little while and then I did a newscast on TV and they decided they wanted me to continue to do a newscast on TV and I eased into television. And I stayed in television from that point on, from the 1960s until I retired in 2000.

Yeah, I left Columbus in 1968, and I went to Atlanta. I worked for Channel 5 in Atlanta, I worked there for a little while. I didn't stay -- it didn't work out for me too well. It was my idea to leave. I got an offer of a job in Columbia, S.C., WIS-TV.

That was an interesting experience because that's when I really got into investigative reporting. ... When I got to Columbia, I ended up being the assignment editor. In that situation, that made me the No. 2 guy in the newsroom -- the news director and the assignment editor. So, that meant that I could determine what was covered.

How has journalism changed?

Oh, wow! It changes all the time. From the very beginning technology changes journalism. It started out with -- in a sense -- with drums. You know, sending messages by drums, information. And there were smoke signals, and the big breakthrough of course was Gutenberg and movable type. Oh, wow, that was a big deal. That changed the world. Well, what's happening now is changing the world -- I mean the digital revolution. That's where we're in now. We're in the digital revolution and it is having a huge impact on news coverage and the way news is covered. And it's good; and it's not good.

What would you have said in 1948 if somebody had told you you're going to be a blogger one day?

In 1948, I would have no idea what they were talking about. That was not on the horizon. That's a whole different ballgame, and I had no idea I would ever be doing that. And it's an interesting concept, because I think somebody once said, "Yes, we have a free press if you own the press." So, the difference is now you can own the press pretty easily. All you have to do is get online and they can read what you write all over the world. I just got a comment yesterday from somebody in London on a blog I just did.

What is the state of television news in Columbus right now?

That's a good question. I was very pleased with what had happened at WRBL when they hired a new news director who had some experience. He had been in the business for a little while. And of course we always like people who think the way we think. He had the same idea of news coverage for a television station that I have.

What is that idea?

That idea is that you have a responsibility to this community. You are the "fourth estate." Free press is extremely important to democracy. ... You've got to pay the rent. But you have a job to inform the public and this democracy. And for democracy, you know all the business about (Thomas) Jefferson and what he said about newspapers and democracy. And you have to have it, you have to have the balance, you have to have watchdog journalism. If you're doing your job, you don't just report the surface, you don't report a police report -- story after story after story -- the local crime story.

So you saw the beginning of "If it bleeds, it leads."

Of course. It did and it still does. I don't mind reporting what happens on the police beat. People want to know these things, but you have to consider the stories that really affect lives. Now, if you have a crime wave, if it's really a big, big problem, and you're living in fear in your community, you've got a big story. I mean that's a community-wide social, moral issue.

But for these little individual things that they run, people get the idea by watching the first five minutes of a television program that Columbus is under this humongous crime wave, because that's what they are reporting.

One of the reasons I think they do this -- couldn't swear to this but my experience gives me a clue -- is that it's easier. It's easier to cover what's obvious. ... It's not easy to dig. It's not easy to do research. It's not easy to have the background and the knowledge and the perspective to go in and do those stories that really, really matter -- those stories that really count to your everyday life and how you live in this community and what you know about the government. And you need to know about the government because they have a lot of control over your life.

Do you trust your government?

Wow, that's a good one. I trust it some, not totally by any means. I know people will hide things and one of the stories you hear about being an investigative reporter is what you want to report is what somebody else doesn't want you to know.

Is it possible to be a young reporter to cover a community you don't know anything about?

It is possible. I've done it, and of course I wasn't all that young. It's possible to go in and learn about it. But you have to know the basic proper reporting techniques that work with stories, any story. You know those. And you have to use those and you have to have your mind open to learn about that community...

See, the paper has an advantage right now in Columbus. You have reporters there like you. You've been here, you know the city and you know how to report and you're not alone. You have Tim Chitwood and others, Richard Hyatt, and so forth, and that gives you a tremendous, tremendous edge in covering this community.

Now, it's not that the TV stations don't do a good job, and it's not that they don't do some good reporting -- they do. As I said, we just had a news director at WRBL-TV, (Perry Boxx). ... And he just had this idea that we had. He had this idea that you have to dig a little bit.

I was told that he filed the most Freedom of Information requests for stories in the two years that he's been here than were filed in the previous 10. So, that was very encouraging. ...

If you had not become a journalist, what would you have done?

I've always been a performer and I don't deny that. When I was just a small boy, I use to play radio. That's back when radio is like television is now. They had Jack Benny, Bob Hope, the Lux Radio Theater, and drama and everything, the kind of programs they had to drop and go to music when TV came along. But that is what we had then, and we listened to the radio the way we watch TV now.

What is your favorite movie of all time?

I like "Midnight in Paris" -- to me that's just a choice piece of movie making. Of course, "Lawrence of Arabia," that was a masterpiece.

You're telling your age now.

That's true. And of course the great one, "Gone With the Wind" -- "Casablanca," and I could go on and on and on, but I like a lot of the movies now. You know, they make a lot of movies now that are made for teenagers and people who like a lot of noise and a lot of action. So they make a ton of those movies; that's where the money is...

But they still make some others, too. They still make some thoughtful movies about what people do, about stories, so it's there. You just have to watch for them, and a lot of them are in the screening room.

What year did you graduate from Jordan?

1948.

Were you part of Bob Barr's band back then?

I was. I was there before he came. As the story goes, we were playing in a little rag-tag 17-piece band. Right before he came, the big thing that we did was to play for the ROTC parade -- we played one simple march over and over again. The other big thing is we played for graduation, and that was the two big things we did.

What instrument did you play?

I played drums. I played percussion. ... The band director was a student at that time. He was a football player and he played clarinet. So, we didn't play for the football games. My friend introduced me to him and he said he understood I played drums. And I said, "Yes, but I can't read music." He indicated that I would fit right in -- that none of the drummers could read music -- and go downstairs and find a drum that nobody else is using and put it on.

And that's the way I started.

Bob Barr came not too long after that and when I was talking to him, he let me know that drummers would read music and he said, "And you're going to teach them how." I couldn't read music and I was going to teach them how! So what I did was go to the textbook to the drum lessons. I would learn it the first lesson the night before; the next afternoon, I would teach them. Then I would do the second lesson, and that's the way I did, and sure enough, they learned to read music.

I learned and a lot of them ended up learning better than I did. That's the way I ended up being Bob Barr's drum major, and I really, really admired that man. He was just a great man and did a lot of wonderful things for a lot of students.

Many people see the Bob Barr Band but don't know who Bob Barr is.

Shortly after World War II, he was out at Fort Benning as an instructor in OCS. He had a musical background, and had gone to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

He was big in his high school band in Oklahoma. He was a first lieutenant and the war was over and he was looking for a job. This is when William Henry Shaw came in and he was for having band programs, for music, for arts, and everything else. He did a lot for this community -- and he was putting up money.

... So, one of the things he did was part of his budget was going to the music program, and so they hired Robert Barr. And they hired Capt. Lee for Columbus High. And they hired Bill Baker, who ended up at Baker High School.

Who is the most colorful personality you ever worked with in radio or TV?

The name that pops to the surface first is Doug Wallace. He was a very unique and interesting guy. I liked him and we were friends for a long time, and we worked together for a long time. He worked for the paper a lot, too

Did he ever show you the "Pea Patch"? Did you know where the Pea Patch was? I did. He invited me out to the Pea Patch. And I'll never tell anybody where it is.

Can you tell us now that Doug is gone where the Pea Patch was?

I guess so. It was on Schomburg Road -- I don't suppose it matters now. I don't know what's happened to the Pea Patch, whether it's still in the family or not. I thought that was an honor that he would take me out to his secret Pea Patch.

Were you there the first day he threw the chalk?

I was there when he started, because I was in radio when TV started and Doug I think at the time was working for the paper. The paper owned 51 percent of WRBL at that time.

So, Doug wanted to do the weather. And he went in and auditioned for it and I guess maybe some other people did too. And they said, "Doug Wallace," and he started developing his style, did it all with chalk on a chalk board with a map and so forth, and he said, "You know, Dick, for a while there I was coming in and doing it -- we never mentioned pay or anything -- and so I'm just coming in and doing it." At the very beginning of TV everything was live. And he said, "I got to thinking after a little while maybe they should be paying me something for this."

And so he finally did raise the subject and they finally of course starting paying him once he raised the subject.

One of the things that journalists have to do is they have to hide or not be public about their political views. Since you retired, you have become more open about your political views, right?

I did for a little while.

Are you conservative, Democrat, Republican?

I'm conservative fiscally, I'd like to think, and I'm liberal socially.

Did that ever show up in your reporting?

I tried to guard against it. You know anyone who says they're completely objective is lying. You try to be, and you hope you are. And sometimes you even err on the wrong side, so to speak. You come out and the story will be favoring the side you don't favor because you want to be fair. You'll go that far.

I've heard you called the most trusted guy in news in Columbus.

That's always good to hear. I tried to be. I made a big, big effort to be fair, and that brings up some interesting questions -- being fair -- because say you have something that comes out like climate warming, like climate change.

So, you talk to this scientist and he's telling you all these scientific reasons that, yes, it's happening. He shows you these charts and gets into math and so forth, and you think, "How can I balance this because some people are saying this is a hoax?" So I'm going to get this guy over here who I know is opposed to this. I'm going to balance this scientist with this guy.

OK, 97 percent or more of scientists agree that climate change is real. I got this one guy over here who says, "Ah, it's a big liberal hoax." And I'm going to put him on to balance this scientist. Should I do that? Should I give him the same amount of time that I give a scientist, somebody's opinion who can't back it up scientifically? Should I really do that?

So, you're saying, as a journalist, sometimes being fair is not giving both sides equal treatment, equal time?

It depends on the two sides. When you say both sides, you put the scientists over here saying this based on actual empirical evidence, not just some idea that somebody has, but get me another scientist who can prove to make a point with empirical evidence, that's the one you want to balance it with -- in my view.

Is having an ego a part of being a good reporter?

Of course. You can't be on television and get anywhere without having an ego. I don't think having an ego is necessarily a bad thing. I think it's how you use it. You have to be confident to a degree with what you're doing and there has to be a drive to achieve things that you want to achieve. Sure, I think ego is a part of it.

Who is the most significant news maker during your lifetime in Columbus?

That's a long time. The most significant news maker? Well, let's define news maker.

OK. News maker would be somebody who made news. It could be a politician, a businessman ....

A criminal, right? News maker, the guy that gets the most attention, right?

Using that definition, who is it?

It's obvious, right? So, the most serious news maker as far as getting international coverage and attention, as well as in Columbus, Ga., where it was a huge, huge story, was William Calley. And all the fallout from that. That's a big deal. Now, in other areas ....

Would Carlton Gary fall into that category?

He would. That whole story is one of the biggest stories we ever covered. Oh, that was horrible. That was a story I wanted to be over. And our ratings shot through the roof during the Stocking Strangling coverage. We had over 50 share and you almost don't do that. So, people wanted to know what was going on; it was crucial. They were afraid. Hysteria was in this town.

You wanted that story over?

Yes. I wanted that story over because I hated seeing what it was doing to this community and I hated to see this hysteria, and people accusing people. I got some interesting telephone calls covering that. Not just from the audience -- and I did -- but from the police and from people who said they were giving me tips and so forth. And I know the same thing happened at the paper, because I talked to reporters at the paper who were covering it at the time. It was the same situation. I had never seen anything like it before. People were really, really terrified.

You're getting up in age now and when your obituary is written -- down the road, hopefully many years -- what do you want to be said about you in the lead paragraph of your obituary?

The lead paragraph would be pretty standard I'm sure.

What do you want to be said about you?

Chuck, that's a hard one.

I'm giving you the chance to write your own obituary. I don't know if that's fair or not, but ...

I would like for it to say he sincerely did try to contribute to the welfare of the common good.

You feel like you've done that, don't you?

I feel like I've tried. I don't know how much I've done it. I'm not perfect and I don't claim to be. I've made mistakes and I've done some wrong things -- some things I'm not proud of -- but I've done a few things that I am proud of.

I think I have a good connection with a lot of people in Columbus, and when I say good connection, I don't mean just business leaders or political leaders, I do know a lot of those, but I mean people on the street that I meet.

People who watched you all those years?

People who watched me all of those years and there's not a day that goes by that I don't run into somebody that will say something to me about that. I have to admit, it makes me feel good when they say, "We miss you."

Age: 83

Job: Retired journalist, anchor at WTVM, Channel 9.

Education: Jordan High, 1948; attended Mercer University, 1951-53; graduated from Columbus College in 1985.

Family: Widower with one son, Rick; four step-sons, Kenneth, Mickey, Doug and Richard; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild on the way.

On why he went back to college in the 1980s: “The first course I took was economics. ... And I knew economics would probably not be an easy course — and it was not an easy course. But I wanted to see if I could cut it, and if I cut that I figured I could go ahead and do the rest of it.”

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