Georgia ramble turns exposé

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Ira Glass didn’t know what he was in for when he walked into the post office in the seaside burg of Brunswick, Ga., and asked the first person he met to name the most interesting character in town.

Judge Williams (left) wields a lot of power in the Glynn County Courthouse.

Glass and his This American Life production team had given themselves a special assignment: to collect the best stories they could stumble upon far off the beaten path of their day-to-day reporting routines. They followed the standard operating procedure of the Atlanta Journal’sGeorgia Rambler” columnist Charles Salter, who researched more than 500 columns in the late 1970s by roving around small towns of the Peach State in a company car.

Nine of the radio show’s producers and reporters adopted Salter’s technique for an episode that aired last summer. They drew the names of their assigned Georgia locales from a baseball cap, went in-country with mikes and recording equipment and, on fast turnaround, collected a trove of human-interest material.

The project also led them to two bigger stories that took much longer to report. One story resurrected fizzy material from an original Georgia Rambler column about a handwritten recipe for Coca-Cola. When it aired in February, “Original Recipe” garnered international news coverage, and Glass was interviewed by Al Jazeera.

The second story, which required months of shoe-leather reporting in and around Brunswick, yielded an hourlong broadcast in March about a judge with an unusually punitive approach to administering her drug court.

Glass’s “Very Tough Love” roiled the town, prompting death threats against Chief Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams and libel-suit threats against This American Life.

According to local news accounts and legal observers, the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission is now examining the judge’s conduct.

Commission Director Jeff Davis declined to comment. The commission operates under strict confidentiality rules and can neither confirm nor deny an investigation of a judge unless it has filed a formal complaint in the Supreme Court of Georgia, he said.

Where reporters “don’t normally go”

Charles Salter retired more than a decade ago and dedicated himself to angling for fish instead of stories. But he maintains that almost anyone you interview has at least one interesting story to tell. Sometimes it’s a spooky one.

Decades after Atlanta columnist Charles Salter (pictured) turned up a secret early recipe for Coca-Cola, the old story was new again on This American Life. (Salter photo in collage: courtesy of Salter family.)

Salter says the column was inspired by the 1930s work of newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle. He also took cues from the Reader’s Digest column, “The Most Unforgettable Person I’ve Ever Met,” compiled from reader submissions.

Salter’s daughter-in-law, Lisa Pollak, a producer for This American Life, brought up Salter’s Georgia Rambler column in a story meeting.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do that as a staff — to pick a town and find the most interesting story in that town and do it?’” Pollak said. “Why not just do it in Georgia?”

When Salter was filing five Rambler columns and two fishing columns per week, readers sent him all kinds of tips. If a tip didn’t pay off with a good story, he’d drive off and find one. He could always step into a diner and “talk to the good ole boys.”

“In those little towns I visited, I never did look for famous people,” Salter said. “I looked for ordinary people with interesting stories to tell.”

As the lead producer of This American Life‘s Georgia Rambler show, Jane Feltes chose nine of Georgia’s 159 counties, selecting those that would bring demographic diversity and some inland and coastal towns to the mix. She deliberately left out big cities.

“The goal was to go places we don’t typically go,” Feltes said. “We have a lot of stories on our show from major cities like Atlanta. We wanted to really challenge ourselves, get out of our regular pattern as reporters, and get out into the world where regular people lived.”

Jane Feltes

She wrote the nine county names on slips of paper and put them in an Atlanta Braves cap provided by Pollak. Feltes drew two slips of paper herself — for Coffee and Bacon counties in south-central Georgia; she also travelled to Hall County to record sound for comedian Eugene Mirman’s story. Pollak went to Chatooga County in the state’s northwest corner. Salter’s son, Chuck, revisited a family farm in Elbert County that had been the subject of one of his dad’s original columns.

In all, stories from eight of the nine counties drawn from the Braves cap made it into the Georgia Rambler show, which aired last July.

“I really liked this process — it was a freeing show to work on,” Feltes said. “The parameters were, ‘Go find someone interesting to talk to,’ where some of our shows have way more requirements — it usually has to be story about this or that sort of character. This was, ‘Go have fun and hopefully you’ll come back with something interesting.’”

Still, it wasn’t easy to find good stories in an unfamiliar place with a one-day turnaround.

Field reporting “was a very solitary experience,” Feltes said.

Townspeople would recommend an interesting person, such as the bartender at Olive Garden, who wouldn’t show up for an interview scheduled after his shift ended. “People get nervous about being on the radio.”

“You’re wandering around a small town with a tape recorder and a mike, and when you walk down Main Street, everyone is looking at and talking about you,” Feltes said.

Results of the ramble

Listen to the Georgia Rambler episode of This American Life, broadcast July 30, 2010.

Or Original Recipe, about the Coca-Cola recipe, Feb. 11, 2011.

Or Very Tough Love, about Judge Williams, broadcast March 25, 2011, with a response from the judge’s attorney (see also transcript).

For his assignment, Glass drew Glynn County, a touristy area on the state’s short Atlantic coastline.

Glass went to the post office in Brunswick, the county seat, and asked, “Who is the most interesting person in town?” He got the name of a wealthy local man, Joe Iannicelli, who opted to go to jail rather than follow Judge Williams’ order that he pay alimony due to his ex-wife. Glass arranged to talk with Iannicelli, but he didn’t find a solid enough story in the man’s tale.

By that time, it was too late to report from Glynn County for the Rambler show. But Glass became interested in other doings in the courthouse.

Out of voters’ view

Georgia voters choose judges in nonpartisan elections.  Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, a candidate was running against Amanda Williams for Superior Court in the Brunswick Circuit; a lot of people aside from Joe Iannicelli were talking about her record. Williams is chief judge in the Brunswick Superior Court, and her support for an unpopular project to expand the county jail, as well as allegations that she steered legal business to family members, had come under scrutiny, according to several observers.

Mary Helen Moses, the lawyer beat 2-to-1 by Williams in last year’s race, said the judge wields a lot of power. Few people were willing to challenge Williams or even be known to support her opponent. The local newspaper, the Brunswick News, refused to cover election forums unless both candidates agreed to participate, and Williams wouldn’t appear at events involving Moses. “The only press coverage of the campaign was paid ads,” Moses said. Glass developed a story on the election campaign and planned to report it for Georgia Public Broadcasting, but decided against it. “I felt it was not right to run a story on one candidate in an election on the week of the election,” he said.

During eight months he went to Georgia at least four times. The story of “Very Tough Love” turned out “very, very different from the issues that were being debated in the election and thrown around by the judge’s opponents,” Glass said. At the center of the story were the accounts of drug-court offenders Lindsay Dills and Brandi Byrd.

Although Glass interviewed the judge during the election campaign, she turned down all subsequent interview requests. “It was an odd story in that I had these leads, and it took a long time to figure out what I could document on the radio, who would speak with me, and who would go on the record,” Glass said. “It just turned out to be enormously time-consuming.” To finish his reporting, Glass asked staff producer Nancy Updike to fill in as host for two consecutive weeks, something he’d never done before.

The story of Dills, a young woman who struggled with addiction and depression, was particularly troubling. After relapsing from the drug-court program several times, she was sent to jail for an indefinite period and, while in solitary confinement, attempted suicide.

Byrd, who faced the choice of going into the drug-court program or facing trial on a felony drug charge, illustrated the pressures exerted on a first-time offender to go into the program. Byrd had been arrested for carrying painkillers that her mother had given her after a surgical procedure. She didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford to have her own prescription filled.

Glass contrasted the sanctions and procedures that Williams imposed with national guidelines for drug-court programs and concluded that the judge’s approach is unduly harsh.

“There are over 2,400 drug courts, all over the United States,” Glass said, in the intro to “Very Tough Love.” “They give enormous power to judges. You sign away all sorts of rights when you enter the programs. This is what happens when a judge takes that power and starts doing things other drug courts don’t. Things that violate the basic philosophy of all drug courts. After months of investigation, I believe it’s likely that no other drug court judge in the country is running a program like Judge Amanda Williams’s.”

Not newsworthy in the county seat

Two weeks after national broadcast of “Very Tough Love,” a lawyer representing the judge wrote a 14-page single-spaced letter to Glass, challenging his reporting and warning of a potential libel suit. The lawyer — David Oedel, a professor at Mercer University Law School — said Glass’s conclusions in the broadcast were “altogether so inflammatory that a firestorm in the blogosphere and elsewhere is occurring.” The story was “extremely damaging” to the judge, and she had received death threats via email, Oedel told Current.

“When you’re on a national platform like that, you have the power to affect local perceptions in a way that ordinary local reporters would not have the capacity of doing,” Oedel said.

Indeed, the local newspaper hasn’t tackled the story of Judge Williams. The six-days-a-week Brunswick News hasn’t yet told readers what Glass reported more than two months ago — a decision that has riled the newsroom, according to two sources familiar with the newspaper.

Managing Editor Kerry Klumpe declined Current’s request to interview his courthouse reporter, Louie Brogdon.

With Williams declining to talk with Glass and trying to block his reporting, he worked hard to tell the story and keep it balanced. “I say in the story that she’s been successful with lots of [drug offenders], and I quote someone who says that she saved his life.” But the judge turned down his request to record an event for drug-court offenders who had successfully completed her program. “That would have been great tape, and I would have been happy to have it in the story.”

Oedel’s lengthy rebuttal to “Very Tough Love” doesn’t really address the main conclusions drawn from his reporting, Glass said, “which is that Judge Williams’ drug court is run differently from others in its punishments and the way that it brings people in the court.” The judge and her lawyer “apparently have no problem with any of that.”

This article contains a correction from earlier versions: The daily newspaper in Glynn County is the Brunswick News, not the Brunswick Times.

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