It occurs to me that when a pit bull menaced Jackson TV newsman Bert Case back in 2010, it was because one watchdog recognized another – and didn’t want competition in the neighborhood.
Case is, after all, one of central Mississippi’s most well known people. And Case has kept a watchful eye on his turf since starting his broadcast career in his home town in 1965.
The video of Case flailing his clipboard and shouting direct orders to his attacker was not a journalistic moment, per se, but it has had well over 9 million views (three times the entire population of Mississippi) on YouTube. And in a show of good humor, the clip was included in a montage prepared when “Bert” anchored his farewell newscast for WLBT last week.
The last time I saw Case on duty was in the Vicksburg National Military Park about six years ago. In a ceremony, seven reproduction metal battle markers had been unveiled. A nationwide, private campaign had raised the money to start replacing tablets that had been removed during World War II and melted to make ammunition.
It was a big ceremony. The director of the National Park Service was there. Trace Adkins – Trace Adkins – sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Not only that, it was a Bert Case story. Case loves stories that honor the military.
Anyway, Case finished his interviews and his standup and was walking a brisk pace toward his car. We hadn’t spoken, so when I saw him pocket his cellphone, I shouted, “Hey, Bert.” He wheeled, saw me and rapidly closed the 50 feet between us; came at me kind of like that pit bull came at him two years later.
He knew I worked as a newspaper editor, so pleasantries were skipped. “Nobody,” he shouted. “Nobody knows what news is anymore.” (There were a few extra words in the stream, but I left them out.) He explained that the call was from a boss in Jackson who had learned of some event at a casino. “They told me to do a possible VO for this ceremony and go to the casino and do a package,” he said. (There were extra words again, some of them the same.) Translating broadcastese as best I can, he meant the powers-that-be had decided the marker ceremony was worth the anchor reading a sentence or two with video in the background (VO is voice-over) depending on the time available in the newscast. The casino event trumped it, worth 90-120 seconds (a broadcast eternity) with a reporter speaking from the scene (package).
Case knew news. He knew fluff. He embraced the former. He remained professional when assigned to the latter. The first person I remembering using the term “institutional memory” was Orley Hood, by coincidence also a great Jackson journalist, now retired. Hood’s specific reference was to the value an experienced person brings both to a local news organization and those who rely on the organization for news and information.
Shepard Smith, the Fox News anchor responsible for the nation’s most-watched newscast, speaks candidly of the other extreme, calling it parachute journalism. Smith said no media giant can keep correspondents everywhere news occurs, but he also said the reporting by those who jump in, shoot some video, ask a couple of questions and board the next flight out can’t approach the depth and perspective of those who know an area, its people, its issues, its perspectives.
Journalists with “institutional memory” have developed contacts who know them and trust them to report truthfully, accurately and with depth and perspective. Their calls get returned when others don’t.
In his farewell, Case expressed thanks for the messages he received since word of his departure began spreading. His career has brought many accolades, including selection as the 2001 recipient of the Silver Em, the highest journalism award presented by the University of Mississippi.
It’s sad that he’s hung up his microphone. But I’ve been thinking. At least one creature is happy about Bert’s retirement – that dog.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. He is assistant dean/assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism and New Media.