Discover more from Tread by Lee Hedgepeth
Why I left CBS 42
I reported for Birmingham's WIAT for nearly two years. Now, it's time to move on. Here's why.
I never had a choice.
It’s now been over a decade since I first entered the field of journalism, and in that time, I never felt that I’ve had a choice but to aim my efforts toward one goal. That goal, plainly stated, has been to better understand the people of Alabama and to try, in whatever way I can, to reflect what I learn in my journalism in hopes that we will all come to know ourselves better.
My commitment to that goal has brought me to every corner of this state. In 2021, it brought me to CBS 42, and in the time since, I’ve tried to show the heart of Alabama to itself.
That heart, it seems, is often broken.
When snow fell on Birmingham in the first days of 2022, Rentle Lee Wilson had been left out in the cold. The City of Birmingham said that Boutwell Auditorium had been “unavailable” as a warming center, and that reality had left individuals facing homelessness – folks like Wilson – without a place to keep warm.
But in all the brokenness, there has often been beauty, and, on some occasions, cause for hope.
For the rest of my life, I will never forget sitting on Martha Menefield’s front porch in Valley, Alabama, tears in the elder’s eyes as she explained to me that she was glad her grandchildren hadn’t been there to see police cuff her and take her to jail over an unpaid trash bill. The story of her arrest had already made headlines, but not a single journalist had come to look her in the eyes, bear witness, and share with the world exactly what she had to say.
Once she was provided the platform to tell her story, the floodgates opened. Many other individuals in Valley became willing to share their stories too — even in the face of retaliation — as a way to push for change. Soon, a class action lawsuit was filed by some of the most powerful lawyers in the state on behalf of all those who faced a loss of liberty over, to put it simply, trash.
That, I have come to learn, is the power of journalism. The ability to hold space for those whom society has given no room to breathe, much less thrive.
On more than one occasion during my time at CBS 42, my journalism caused consternation among those in power — both those institutions and individuals implicated in my work as well as those in news management at the station.
Once, in the summer of 2022 and in the shadow of the World Games, after my repeated coverage of the city’s efforts to house displaced residents facing homelessness in un-air-conditioned, tiny wooden structures experts called “human storage,” Mayor Randall Woodfin told CBS 42’s news director that I am “an activist, not a journalist.”
Good journalism should compel people to action.
It’s never been the individuals marginalized by mainstream society that have taken issue with my journalism. Quite the opposite. Instead, the complaints have always come down from on high — from the city halls, the wardens’ offices, and most recently, from the office of Alabama’s Attorney General.
On Friday, Feb. 17, I posted a 54-second, unedited clip of Alabama’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Steve Marshall, reacting to a video first published by CBS 42 showing local jail officials carrying Anthony Mitchell, a Walker County man, his body motionless, and placing him in a marked police cruiser. Mitchell would die later that day in police custody, officials would confirm. I was the first journalist to report his death, and CBS 42’s Carly Laing and I were the first reporters to speak with his family and begin investigating the circumstances of his final days alive.
The video of Mitchell obtained and published by CBS 42 plainly contradicted a statement provided to us by the Walker County Sheriff’s Office that claimed the 33-year-old was “alert and conscious” when he left the jail.
Steve Marshall’s reaction to the video was undoubtedly newsworthy. Early in his interview, CBS 42’s Andrea Lindenberg had asked for Marshall’s reaction to the video of Mitchell. Marshall said that an investigation being conducted by state and federal officials (but not his office) would provide the “big picture” of what occurred, not just a glimpse into a “discrete moment.” Later, though, Marshall admitted that he had not been able to see the video and asked that it be rolled again.
What followed, in my view, was the only instance where Marshall provided a genuine reaction to the video of Mitchell. It was that minute of footage, which I would later post to my social media accounts, where Marshall claims that Mitchell may be “posturing,” a comment that, as of this writing, the AG’s office still hasn’t clarified publicly in any way.
“Alabama's Attorney General watched video of Anthony Mitchell's limp body being placed into a Walker County police vehicle for the first time today,” my tweet accompanying the video said. "’It's almost like he's posturing a little bit,’ the AG said while watching. Read Mitchell's story here: https://bit.ly/3k8fjtC”
The day after I posted the video of AG Marshall’s reaction, which has now been seen nearly 2 million times, I received multiple calls from news management to inform me that both Andrea Lindenberg and the Attorney General’s Office were upset that the video had been posted. That portion of the video, news management claimed, was “off the record” and not meant to be published. My publication of the video, one news manager said, was a “betrayal” of Lindenberg, and she was owed an apology. Off-the-record or “on background” conversations are important, another news manager said, because they can provide information that may not otherwise be obtainable. A comparison was made to Mark Felt and Watergate.
The Attorney General of Alabama is no Mark Felt, and Andrea Lindenberg is no Bob Woodward.
Had I not published the video of the Attorney General’s reaction to the video, it would have never seen the light of day.
In my view, Lindenberg should never have conducted the interview. Carly Laing or I, the reporters who worked to tell the story of Mitchell’s death in police custody, should have done so. Additionally, according to emails from our Montgomery reporter, the interview with Marshall was conducted on the condition that CBS 42 also ask about the AG’s opinion piece criticizing the recent release of incarcerated individuals in the state. This condition violated a company policy that prohibits such conditioned interviews without prior approval from the Nexstar’s standards division. Even if an exception is granted, the policy states, viewers should be told about the condition and why it was agreed to. As of this writing, this has not been done. CBS 42 viewers, including the people of Walker County and the family of Anthony Mitchell, deserve better.
It is also my view that anytime the Attorney General of Alabama is sitting in front of cameras in a news studio, a microphone clipped to his chest, he is on the record. As a public official, Marshall should understand this, and as news managers, I feel that it was your obligation to publish the video of his genuine reaction to the surveillance video.
Instead, news managers conveyed to me that they agreed with the Attorney General’s characterization of my posting his own comments as “underhanded.” Management also said that had I approached them about publishing the AG’s comments included in the video, I would not have been permitted to do so.
Those views reflect fundamental differences around the practice of ethical journalism between myself and the news management of CBS 42.
As I mentioned previously, my commitment has never been to WIAT. Instead, my commitment has been to producing compelling, well-researched journalism that puts a mirror to the face of Alabama: journalism that helps us to know ourselves, learn from what we find, and compel action to make our world a better, more livable place for everyone.
Because I felt I could no longer fulfill this commitment at CBS 42, I resigned on Thursday, Feb. 23.
In 1893, Ida B. Wells, one of the greatest journalists ever to live, delivered a speech to the National Press Association. In it, she outlined what she viewed as the requirements of good journalism in the South. In one section of the speech, she noted that many news outlets in the region weren’t committed to telling the truth. Instead, she said, some Southern newspapers were committed to the status quo: to the idea that not rocking the boat was the best way forward.
“Their weekly advent creates no ripples upon the body politic, disturbs no existing condition and if they can secure the wherewithal to feed the press — are permitted to exist, until they die a natural death,” Wells told the gathered journalists. “If it could be established, a fearlessly edited press is one of the crying necessities of the hour.”
It is my hope that Tread will be an avenue for me to continue telling stories about the people of Alabama and of the South — stories, reported fearlessly, that reflect the souls of our communities back to themselves. If you’re interested in helping make that happen, I encourage you to subscribe to Tread below. There are both free and paid subscription options.
Tread by Lee Hedgepeth is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.