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Kids, lies and videotape

Did CBS-46 cave in to governor's threats over a story about disabled children?



When Gov. Sonny Perdue arrived at Atlanta's downtown Marriott Hotel on Aug. 29, he intended to talk some trash. But the kickoff to an anti-litter campaign turned into a barrage of verbal garbage hurled by the governor at a television reporter [watch].

Journalists at WGCL CBS-46 claim their bosses told them a Perdue aide threatened the station and that the station capitulated. Two of the governor's aides and WGCL's general manager deny there was an attempt at intimidation.

But, at the very least, Perdue showcased his penchant for imperial rudeness. And the station, rather than staying on top of a story that highlights his administration's meanness, took a dive.

At the Marriott shindig, reporter Wendy Saltzman badgered the governor over a policy that, according to Perdue's own experts, has booted about 2,200 severely ill children from the state's Medicaid program. Saltzman was trying to nail down Perdue's position for an investigative report.

Instead, the governor nailed Saltzman, angrily ordering security guards to eject her from the anti-litter meeting. One of Saltzman's colleagues says the reporter was "roughed up" by the security muscle. That colleague also says the station has a video showing Saltzman being manhandled and shouting, "Don't touch me." The station wouldn't confirm whether or not the video exists.

A month after the first incident, Saltzman waylaid the governor again. And again, things got ugly. The setting was a press conference on biofuel. Saltzman demanded an answer to her inquiries about the disabled kids.

Perdue responded: "We've addressed that with you, and I think probably from the way you've approached this subject you might want to think about some other markets like Chattanooga and Columbia and Tallahassee."

Saltzman repeated her queries.

Perdue: "Wendy, I've answered your question. I'm sorry, dear. You know, if you can't get answers, you might want to think about another market."

Obviously, Saltzman got under the governor's skin. His barb was so nasty, in fact, that the National Journal, a respected magazine for policy wonks, put a clip on its website as a sampling of Perdue's temper.

It's not a state secret that the gubna is prickly. That's not a good tactic with newshounds who employ a style of broadcast journalism called "ambush" reporting.

After the second encounter, according to three WGCL news staffers, a Perdue aide contacted the station and threatened to withhold $500,000 in campaign advertising if the Perdue-Saltzman dustup aired. That's a big chunk of change for a station whose news shows barely register on the ratings.

In an average of all ratings shares for news shows, WGCL had an anemic 7 percent, according to a Nov. 30 Nielsen survey. WSB amassed 52 percent, and WAGA and WXIA scored respectable 21 and 20 percent totals.

John Watson, Perdue's outgoing chief of staff, confirmed he spoke with WGCL General Manager Andy Alford and News Director Rick Erbach. "I was critical," Watson says. "Wendy invaded the governor's space and I wanted to register our disgruntlement about her."

Perdue's communications director, Dan McLagan, says he was in the room when Watson called the station. McLagan backs up Watson's account of no threat, adding that station executives had complained Perdue's re-election campaign wasn't spending enough at WGCL. "That's true, we weren't," McLagan says. "They don't have any viewers."

Alford says no advertising executive at the station was threatened. News staffers -- none of whom wanted to be named for fear of losing their jobs -- say Alford may be accurate but not complete. "The threat came in through our news managers, not advertising," one says.

Saltzman says she "can't comment."

One senior WGCL newsperson observes, "I think what happened is that Alford and Erbach were afraid they'd lose advertising, not that Perdue threatened them. I know Erbach promised Wendy we'd run another segment after the elections, one that contained the confrontations with Perdue, but that hasn't happened."

Another WGCL newsperson adds, "There was a meeting where Wendy was told by Rick [Erbach] that we could lose more money than the station spends on investigative reporting."

Erbach and Alford were provided details of what their employees, Watson and McLagan said. Erbach responded: "We don't discuss our business or editorial strategies. At no time did the governor threaten us." He refused to release tapes of the Saltzman-Perdue confrontations.

Lost in the controversy over her testy relationship with the governor is the subject of Saltzman's report.

In 1981, Julie Beckett, an Iowa mom of a disabled child, appealed to President Ronald Reagan to drop restrictions on Medicaid payments to middle-income families with severely ill kids. Reagan did, and Beckett's child, Katie, recovered to the extent that she graduated from college and now advises the government on disabilities. Reagan's program is dubbed the "Katie Beckett Waiver."

Perdue's administration has taken a strict approach to the waivers, at first demanding co-pays from the often financially devastated families. Children are disqualified when schools report they're making progress.

"I know the administration says [cutbacks] are because of federal mandates," says Pat Nobbie, deputy director of the Governor's Commission on Developmental Disabilities. "But in reality, the federal government doesn't care."

The total state cost of waivers is a relative pittance, about $10 million a year -- 0.7 percent of the state's Medicaid budget. And the Legislature this year unanimously passed Democrat-sponsored emergency funding of $7.3 million for families that have been kicked off the Medicaid program. But unless Perdue changes course, children will continue to be ousted.

Heidi Moore of Alpharetta, the mom of a child with Down syndrome, leads an advocacy group for Katie Beckett Waiver parents. "We're talking about the most vulnerable citizens in Georgia, 6,500 families," she says. "Under Perdue, more than 2,000 families have lost the Medicaid funding. That's just cruel. And that's why he was so vicious with Wendy Saltzman. He's really afraid of this story."


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