Greg Fox is a political reporter and anchor at WESH 2 News in Central Florida. He’s covered politics since 1988, and currently covers government in Orlando and Orange County.
By Jason Parsley
Greg Fox is an award-winning reporter, including a 2012 Emmy award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (Suncoast Chapter) for a series of investigative reports on red-light cameras; an Emmy for his reporting on oppressive political and social conditions in Cuba; and a two-time winner of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
Most recently, he won SPJ South Florida’s First Amendment Foundation Freedom of Information Award for his series on TextGate. The judges had this to say about the series:
TextGate is a good example of how news organizations need to both protect Open Record Laws and at the same time use FOIA to create compelling stories. The storyline was interesting, but the underlying issue of records being destroyed and how the news organization is responding is what really made this a winning entry.
But Fox may be best known for his “Truth Tests,” which analyze the truthfulness of facts presented in political commercials. A judge once said of the series: “’Truth Tests’ series should be sent out to every station as a model.”
Fox was born in Absecon, N.J., and graduated from High Point University in North Carolina with a bachelors degree in journalism and English. He also was a varsity tennis player for the Panthers.
Fox also serves on several nonprofit boards including the board of directors for Morningstar School Orlando, for special needs children; The executive advisory board of the Central Florida Council, Boy Scouts of America; (Assistant Scoutmaster- Troop 849/Altamonte Springs); and board Of directors, Smile For A Lifetime (Longwood, Florida- providing free orthodontia for low income families).
Follow Greg on Twitter.
SPJ South Florida: Can you tell us about your award winning series TextGate and where it stands now?
Greg Fox: TextGate evolved from an investigation of how commissioners in Orange County voted on a proposal that would have put a referendum on the Nov. ballot to mandate earned sick pay for workers at all private businesses in Orange County. We requested emails and text messages and discovered that the four commissioners who voted to reject the measure were texting before and during the public hearing with lobbyists for Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Darden restaurants who opposed the measure. They then deleted those texts (public records). A lawsuit is still pending from the citizens group who brought the measure, against the county, for alleged sunshine law violations.
A criminal investigation was launched in January and last month (Aug. 28), the state attorney found that commissioners violated the law by destroying public records, and fined the mayor and four present and former commissioners $500 each.The state found NO violations of the state open meetings law.
Any other thoughts on public records, open government or the public’s right to know?
This should be a wake-up call to every city and county government to begin installing software to collect and provide text messages on official business, just as they have for years with email. Orange County has since installed such programs for less than $100,000.
A judge once said your “Truth Tests” series “should be sent out to every station as a model.” Can you tell us about that series?
“The Truth Test” was “born” in August 2002 when then Attorney-General candidate Charlie Crist was running against current Orlando Mayor (and at the time, state lawmaker Buddy Dyer). Democrats hoping to support Dyer had placed a billboard in Orlando that claimed, among other things, Charlie Crist had flunked the Florida Bar exam several times. My news director at the time said we should “put those claims to the test.” So our first “Truth Test” was actually NOT a review of a TV political commercial, but rather, a check of the claims in the billboard.
Since that time we have done roughly 15 to 25 “Truth Tests” of political ads each election cycle and will continue to do them. It’s hard work. The people who zing the politicians in those ads are just vague enough to make us really work to substantiate or obliterate the claims that are made. Most of it is murky, gray territory with actually few claims in any one ad being outright lies. Usually there is a careful, unscrupulous blending of fact, fiction and deception. It takes me about 6 hours to research each ad, and another couple of hours to write. Then we shoot the segments (about three to four minutes in length… which is long in TV terms) as a single “stand-up” where I literally read through the entire script on camera. They are some of the highest-rated segments we have aired, on any topic, and the audience loves them.
What’s a misconception about your job?
I think people believe, possibly because we live in an age of 24/7 news cycles, that reporters are constantly here at work. Don’t get me wrong… Nine- to 12-hour days are not unusual, but I get calls from some of my contacts in the middle of the night on stuff that, trust me, can wait until I have had my first cup of coffee.
Another misconception is that I am working on politics all the time. Actually, I cover Orlando and Orange County government, the Expressway Authority, the Orlando International Airport and occasionally tourism (our number one industry). Most days I am NOT working on political stories, but I do my best to stay tuned-in to the developing politics of the moment and we are already planning how we can cover the 2014 Governor’s race.
What’s one part of your job that most folks don’t realize you do?
They would probably find it hard to believe that I can shoot and edit. Really! That’s not me boasting. The reality is, my away-from-work hobby is videography. I have been the official “videographer” for Drama and Chorus events the past six and a half years at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs (as my three sons attended classes there). That involves a lot of multi-camera shoots, and hours of editing, which has made me a better writer. As I visualize a story and get a better understanding of the work my partners in videography do here at WESH, it makes the words flow more freely onto the page.
The other aspect of my job the general viewing audience may find hard to believe is that setting up and tearing down live shots is a 50-50 job between a reporter and videographer. I have learned how to tune-in microwave transmissions, establish IFB (interrupted fold back) so that producers can communicate with me during live remote segments, and at the end of the “shot” it’s all-hands-on-deck rolling up cables, and cleaning up. We sometimes drive to two or three locations a day to set up and tear down live shots for broadcasting our various reports.
I buy really cheap shirts, because they only last a month or so before they have rips, grease stains, or the buttons get torn off while rushing around the live trucks in preparation for our segments.
Career highlight and lowlight?
There are two highlights:
The first is going to Cuba in 1998 to report for nine days in and around Havana, during the visit of (soon-to-be-Saint!) Pope John Paul II. To be able to see and experience that culture, and to share the moments of rediscovery between an Orlando-area woman and her family still living there, was stirring. Seeing half a million people pile into a town square to see the Pope was crazy! They were climbing trees to get a better look. I thought we would be stampeded! My videographer, Ray Cordero, even climbed a tree to shoot the event… from beginning to end for several hours. To this day I have no idea how he managed that without falling off the limb.
Ray and I won an EMMY for our coverage, in particular, examining the extreme poverty, both socially and politically.
I was fortunate enough in 1995 to be named a “Cronkite Fellow” by the Annenberg School at USC and invited to fly to L.A. and participate in various seminars, including sharing some of my Truth Tests. The awards luncheon followed and before that, Cronkite was interviewed by L.A. area TV reporters about a new survey that came out, saying network news ratings were the lowest in years. Now, here is a guy in his late 80s who is the living breathing legend, right? He could have made up something generic and the reporters would have gobbled it up. Instead, he starts questioning them! Asking questions like, who conducted the survey? What age groups were addressed and in what demographic groups? Were minorities adequately represented in the sampling? It was terrific. Still the greatest, I thought, and very glad to have met him later that day (and get a priceless photo!)
I went on to win two consecutive Walter Cronkite Awards For Excellence In Television Political Journalism but after that year, Cronkite was too ill to travel and I never saw him again before his death July 17, 2009 (which also happened to be my 49th birthday.) Very sad.
9/11. I wasn’t in New York. In fact my job for days was to watch and wait at Orlando International airport. Watch for what, I’m not sure. But it gave us hours and hours to simply watch the minute-by-minute devastation as it unfolded on live television. Ultimately, we all did stories on “air security” in the months that followed. I traveled to Georgia and to New Jersey to see first hand how air marshals were being trained, how pilots were arming themselves, how cockpits were being reinforced to prevent terrorists from entering, how flight attendants were being trained to act like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee “just in case” terrorists take over a plane. Any journalist who had a hand in covering any aspect of 9/11 and the aftermath had to be moved. Honestly, I just didn’t want to get on a plane for a while. Let’s hope something like that never happens again, anywhere.
Most amusing professional gaffe?
Easy one: I worked at WGHP-TV (formerly ABC, now FOX) in High Point, N.C. where I attended college, interned during my Junior year, and ultimately was hired part time and then full time. We were located in the 3rd to 5th floors of the downtown High Point Sheraton hotel. It wasn’t even a hotel. It was a “long-term” pay-by-the-month place, so most of the people I passed in the hallways were senior citizens. Anyway, we built a new station in another part of town and the last newscast ever in that hotel was the 11 p.m. news I was anchoring one Saturday evening, before they shut the transmitter off and moved all of the old equipment to the new building by 6 p.m. the following night to “sign-on” again. Small problem that night: Our weather person was sick, so I not only read the news, but after our sports anchor wrapped up his segment, I had to read the weather report. Then I had to be done by exactly 11:15 p.m. (just 15-minute-long Saturday evening newscasts back in those days. The Network then did 15 minutes from 11:15-1:30) or the network broadcast would cut me off. Adding to the pressure, our top company executives decided to join my general manager, Gene Bohi, in the studio to “watch” the new young kid do the show.
As the producer counted down in my ear:
Producer: 30 seconds Greg
Me: Sunny and mild tomorrow
Producer: 10 seconds
Me: Wear a light jacket
Me: Good night.
As I said “good night” thinking I “nailed it” I yelled “hell yeah! Right on the money!”
That’s when the producer told me to hang on, because the network broadcast was starting a few seconds late. UGH! So, my slightly raw language went home to living rooms, but we never got a complaint, and I kept my job.
Most frustrating part of your job now?
The most frustrating part of my job is accepting the fact that, much of the time, people at home care more about whether or not the popcorn in the microwave is done than watching intently, listening passionately and engaging completely in my daily story. Further, the days of two-minute segments for “routine” daily stories are gone. One minute, twenty seconds is the standard, and it could be less. Adding to the frustration is the tremendous pressure of doing more research, adding more opinions from various sides in a story and still tightening the clamp to make it one minute to 1:20 long. Very tough most days.
The most fun part of my job is that it keeps me so “tuned” into what’s going on in my community that I feel like I can confidently engage in conversation with anyone, at any level, at any time. In other words, I feel just as comfortable walking into a room full of “suits and gowns” at a million-dollar fundraiser and talking about the performing arts center, as I do showing up in west Paramore (the historically black heritage district of Orlando) and sitting in a barber shop and talking with the guys about the potential failure of the Amway Center and the Orlando magic, to revitalize their community. You can’t buy that kind of “cred.” You earn it every day meeting different people, from the sophisticated to the ultra-plugged-in, to the ragged poor and it makes you into a person who sees many sides to that one big story we call “life.”
Give us your weirdest dues-paying job in your career.
This is very much a business where “kissing the ring” is sometimes the way young new talent perceives they have to get ahead. I can’t really remember that in my earlier days of reporting, although at my first TV station in North Carolina, I was assigned to work with a reporter/photographer named Rick Hodson. He was awesome!
He taught me how to shoot, and in return, I shot his stand-ups for his stories. I guess that was how I paid my “dues” because I really thought I could not fully develop as a reporter by continuing to shoot my own stuff. Fortunately, my second job in TV, working at Wyou-TV22 in Scranton, Pa. (where I met my beautiful wife of 25 years, Mary Ann), allowed me to focus solely on reporting.
Can you name some interesting moments in your career?
Now, in the area of “weird moments in Greg’s TV history” oh, we’ve got a few. Earlier this summer a woman came chasing after me in a hospital parking lot, right after I had gotten done reporting on a police officer who had been shot. She just kept yelling “News media! News media!” as she threw her purse at me, punched our news vehicle, smashed another station’s camera and punched a rival station’s videographer in the face before being pepper sprayed. Of course you can Google this and watch the video.
A couple of years ago, we had a malfunctioning live truck and as we were heading under an Interstate 4 overpass, sure enough the mast head was smashed to the ground, and then it really got scary when the mast wedged underneath of the Interstate and our truck rolled over on two wheels. We stayed that way, seat-belted into the truck and laying at a 45-degree angle for over an hour, while the fire trucks were called to stabilize the truck, to keep it from rolling over.
Probably the dumbest thing I’ve done under pressure was the way I treated one of the true female legends of our industry. I was covering one of Ronald Reagan’s last public appearances as the outgoing President – a trip to Miami in 1988. I knew that once his speech was done, I would have five minutes to get myself, my videographer, and all of our equipment out of the hotel convention center before the Secret Service would clamp down all surrounding road traffic, which would have us stuck for more than half an hour getting on the road back to Orlando. As bad luck would have it, my audio cable would not budge. I pulled on it, knew I had unplugged it from the audio feed board, and still it would not move. I traced the wire back to a spot on the camera riser where a somewhat older woman, wearing fashionable shoes, was standing on top of my audio cable. I whispered to her, as the President was wrapping up his remarks, to please move her foot off my cable. She replied: “And what If I don’t?” I told her flatly, “I will knock kick your fat A_ _ off this platform, now MOVE!” That was how I “introduced” myself to Ann Bishop, one of the leading ladies of broadcast journalism who was one of the driving forces behind the success in the 80′s and 90′s of WPLG-TV in Miami. I later re-introduced myself at a Miami news event and, thankfully before her passing in 1997, apologized.
Brush with “greatness”? A few months after my move from Scranton, Pa. to Orlando Florida, my old boss Larry Stirewalt called to say he was coming down to the Radio Television News Directors’ Association’s (since renamed RTDNA) annual convention. It was mostly dull and there was some ridiculous talk of network news budgets shrinking to the point where all of the networks would pay to support bureaus and crews around the world to “save money.” At one of the “after” parties, my pal Larry suggested we go up to the CBS Suite in the Peabody Hotel. Diane Sawyer was there and, with just enough cocktails in me, I bravely “chatted” with her for more than an hour. She was as fascinated with the state of local news as I was with the shenanigans going on at the network (like, for instance, would having her replace Dan Rather be a good idea? Yup, they were talking about that way back then). At the end of the evening, when Larry wisely grabbed me by the collar and told me “Let’s go!” Sawyer gave me a big hug and kiss (on the cheek) and warmly set goodbye. I still think about that night.
How have you incorporated or utilized social media in your job?
Social media is a fact of life in my business, but I will be right up front with you: I am NOT very hip when it comes to tweeting as often as I should. Second, while social media is important, there is not now, nor will there ever be, anything more important that asking questions, getting answers and researching to find fact.
One piece of advice you would give journalism students.
Journalism students should know this industry is not a get-rich-quick scheme. The pay to start is terrible. And if you are not good at what you do, you will not make your banker or your wallet any happier. During your various station internships, be aggressive. We get lots of interns. They are mostly quiet, mostly doing nothing, and learning nothing. A few “get it” that you have to want to be in the car with reporters, and videographers, carrying tripods, light cases and other equipment, and becoming engaged in what is going on with the story. When in the newsroom, don’t be content answering the phones (really, that’s what you’ll do for a whole semester). Tell producers you want to screen video, pick sound bites, write stories. For students who want to become producers, do some reporting first, if you can. Learn what it is like to talk to people first hand, experience stories in which people grieve, are angry, and want change. When you sample the flavors that reporters and videographers do, you will have greater insight and passion as the person “back at the station” filling up the rundown with the daily stories.
Throughout September, October and November, SPJ South FloridaFlorida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Jason Parsley is President of SPJ South Florida. Follow him on Twitter.