Fox 5/WAGA-TV’s Justin Gray was blocked by state troopers from a public immigration bill signing held today by Gov. Nathan Deal at the Gold Dome. Why? Deal’s press office was angry about an unrelated, unflattering story Dale Russell had done the night before about Deal.
Below is the story that upset Deal’s office. The campaign had paid $90,000 to a fund-raising company the I-Team had never heard of called Southern Magnolia Capital. Russell discovered that company was connected to Deal’s daughter in law Denise Deal. Phil Wilheit, identified in the story as Deal’s campaign manager, told Russell the transaction was “transparent” but Russell said the firm has no website or any obvious public information or direct link to Deal’s name.
Fox 5 news director Mike McClain sent a statement today at about 5:30 p.m. to me: “FOX 5 Atlanta stands by our I-Team investigation and Reporter Dale Russell. The barring of FOX 5 cameras from the bill signing today was unacceptable and obviously an emotional reaction to our I-Team investigation. We’ve voiced out concerns to the Governor’s Office and hope that they will reconsider that decision.”
Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson, when I called him, was still hot under the collar. He said the campaign never hid the fact Denise Deal ran the governor’s fund-raising campaign and having a family member do so is not illegal. He challenged me to Google the name “Southern Magnolia Capitol.” There was one site that immediately came up with her name attached to it: the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. (It was added, however, on May 10, just days before the report aired, so when Russell was first working on the piece, indeed, there was no sign of Deal’s connection with Southern Magnolia online.) He said she was compensated at a market rate. A P.O. box number Fox 5 identified as connected to Southern Magnolia was a clerical error, not a way to hide anything, he noted.
The person identified as campaign manager in the story Wilheit was the chairman, Robinson said, not the campaign manager, and he didn’t know all the details Fox 5 had showed him. Robinson thought they had “ambushed” him. The governor chose not to talk to Fox 5 about it because he didn’t want to be ambushed either, Robinson said.
He said the reason they blocked Gray was not anything Gray did but the fact the station did “a shoddy piece of journalism in which they should be embarrassed.” He is demanding an apology. He felt this was one way to punish Fox 5 because “we don’t have a TV station. We don’t have the power of the airwaves.”
Ironically, he said Deal has developed a good relationship with Fox 5 before this, noting the governor has has appeared on “Good Day Atlanta” since coming into office. “We’ve given them incredible access,” Robinson said. “That’s why this was so particularly upsetting to us.”
He said the story has “lots of innuendo but no context and very little facts.”
Judge for yourself:
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog