Wednesday October 22, 2014

Richard Brown talks news biz at Showcase

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During a three-decade career, network TV reporter and anchor Richard Brown has had a knack for being where news happens.

For outlets such as CTV, Global, CNN and Saskatchewan's NewsTalk Radio, Brown has covered news and reported from hotspots such as a war-torn Beirut, a genocide-ridden Rwanda, and Los Angeles during the riots.

It should surprise no one that Brown found himself in yet another news hotspot again Friday.

It was none other than North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

The night before, CTV National News had splashed the city's crime problems on its newscast in a piece declaring the city to be “Canada's crime capital.” A CTV News correspondent and crew were at the Don Ross Centre Wednesday reporting at the Neighbourhood Watch meeting held there.

In the wake of that story, those in the audience at the Battlefords' Best Business Showcase event, where Brown was the featured speaker Friday, wanted to know his thoughts. Local Rotary president Warren Williams pointed to the negative media coverage and asked Brown how they could get a more balanced approach from the media.

The response from the former CTV News weekend anchor was a lengthy one.

“Part of it is the way the story is told, but part of it is that the media is always looking for that which is not good,” he said.

Brown said many reporters are “born out of the days of Watergate where there is always a bad story underneath a good story.”

He encouraged the community to “look for the success stories in the community and focus on them, whether the success stories are about young people finding ways to get together to head off crime, whether it is an anti-bullying story, whether it is stories about having communities coming together, because it's easy for reporters to find the bad news. What you have to do is hand them the good news.”

Brown had another comment about the reporting of crime statistics.

“You can make the numbers say anything you want,” he said.

“If you've got three guys who commit 15 B and Es, that's not a crime wave. That's three idiots committing 15 B and Es, but the numbers show up like 15 B and Es.”

He also pointed to a case in Saskatoon where three guys had broken into 47 cars. That wasn't 47 vehicle issues, Brown was saying. Those were three individuals who caused all of it.

“So it's how you measure those numbers. Part of the story is asking reporters to do their jobs. Dig into the story. Is this a small cluster of people creating this crime? Or is it something else?”

Brown, who returned to Saskatchewan in 2009 and now works in communications for Mayor Don Atchison in Saskatoon, reiterated those same thoughts in speaking with the Regional Optimist.

“I think we have to be careful on how we report on crime. You can make statistics say just about anything,” he said, adding that “if you're going to look at a community you really need to look at the numbers, and you need to decide whether or not you have the small group of people really doing a great deal of damage in your community, where you don't have a crime wave — you have a small group of people.”

He adds “there's growing pains in North Battleford. And when you have young journalists reporting on a story as deep and as wide as crime, then they need to take even more responsibility when they report on the story to make sure that they're getting it right and they're not trying to slant the story one way or the other.

“Because that's the problem. You can look at crime numbers and you can say 'oh my God.' You know, 'everybody in North Battleford is a criminal, or a victim.' And it's just not true.”

As for how North Battleford should address the problem, Brown expressed his belief that Mayor Ian Hamilton and his team at City Hall were working on that issue and “trying to figure out what the numbers mean.”

“You know, it's difficult in growing communities, and a lot of communities in this province right now have a lot of major issues that they're facing, whether those issues are crime or growth, regional development, paving the streets, and this is certainly one of the issues that I'm sure is on Mayor Hamilton's plate.”

Brown's response to the question on the recent news coverage was part of a wide-ranging presentation where he recounted some of the hair-raising stories and interesting characters he's met during a news career that spanned three decades — one that began at CKBI in his home city of Prince Albert during the late 1970s.

Among the characters he'd met along the way was Ted Turner, who brought Brown to Atlanta to anchor for the brand-new CNN Headline News in the early '80s.

“Ted Turner was an entrepreneur, a visionary, a man who thought outside the box and outside the bounds of broadcasting,” Brown said.

The 24-hour news channel was a novelty in those early years. Brown noted a frequent early advertiser for CNN Headline News was Ginsu Knives and that they basically paid his salary during the time he was there.

After that, Brown's career took him to several places and media organizations, and he developed a deep interest in international stories. He recalled the words of his old friend Peter Jennings who said, “we used to travel the world on somebody else's dime.”

“The problem was everywhere we went there was either a war or tragedy. So all of our travels were never vacations,” Brown said.

One story he was sent to cover were events in war-torn Beirut, Lebanon in the early 1980s for CTV News.

Brown recalled that on his sixth day there, he and his crew were back at the Commodore Hotel and discussed going down the street for dinner and a beer after work. Instead, they made the decision to return to their rooms at the hotel to clean up first.

It proved a fateful decision. While back in his room, the building shook with “one hell of an explosion." It turned out a car bomb had gone off outside on the street.

“If we had decided to go down for a beer first I wouldn't be standing here today,” Brown told the audience.

Brown also recalled a nerve-rattling sit-down he had with mob boss John Gotti while working in local TV in the then crime-ridden, mob-run New York City during the 1980s.

“I was never so frightened in all my life. The Beirut bombing was nothing,” Brown told the audience about the meeting. Brown was called in his newsroom and invited to chat and have coffee with Gotti. At that meeting, Gotti explained to the disbelieving newsman how sad he was about all the crime going on in New York.

Brown felt Gotti was behind much of the violence and had arranged the meeting to try and improve his own image.

“My fear after that was he really was trying to intimidate me” and the rest of his team in how they covered the news, he said.

Brown also recounted the death and tragedy he saw in Rwanda, covering the genocide in 1994 while with KGO in San Francisco. That motivated him to raise a quarter million dollars for Rwanda relief.

Those experiences are harrowing enough for most people, but Brown explained to the Regional Optimist what he feels is the key for him to stay sane through it all.

“I'm very fortunate to have a loving wife and a very good family and they have allowed me to be the journalist I've wanted to be, and when I come home I'm just me.”

Brown adds “when you're grounded at home and have a family that loves you and you can come home to them and decompress, I think that makes you a better journalist, but I also think it makes you a better human being.“

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