Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Self-Absorbed Saga of Shea Allen

I think the thing that really bothers me about Shea Allen is her attitude.

That is a tough thing for me to say because journalism is my love. Well, I guess my love is really writing, but it led me into journalism as my college major and most of my professional activity.

And, believe me, I have known some reporters — some were colleagues, some were competitors — who had really atrocious attitudes.

But I would hire any one of them over Shea Allen, the former reporter for WAAY–TV in Huntsville, Ala.

Allen is an admittedly cute young thing, and, apparently, she had a pretty good following in the Huntsville viewing area, too, but she became an ex–reporter after her "tell–all" blog was — shall we say? — exposed.

Aww, that's way too easy.

It's dishonest, too, because Allen teased her readers with a confession about going bra–less during a broadcast, but the only thing she exposed was a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. When I was in college, my journalism professors always reminded me that there were limits to free speech. It is important to act responsibly. "You can't stand up in a crowded theater and yell, 'Fire!' " they would say.

And, in a figurative sort of way, that's what Allen has been doing.

And I think she is guilty of bad judgment — spectacularly bad judgment. As a journalist, I'm willing to accept a certain amount of bad judgment as being inevitable. But this goes beyond inevitability.

(Her undergarment revelation reminded me of an on–campus incident when I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. The student newspaper staff, for whom I served as the unofficial adviser, was notified that an unidentified coed had been seen sitting on the steps of a building. She had been wearing a short dress and, apparently, nothing underneath.

(The newspaper, which published daily, ran a story about it, and the next day, traffic was nonstop for hours around the building, which normally sat on one of the quieter streets in town. I never heard if that coed returned to that building, but, apparently, quite a few of the young men on campus not only hoped she would but also hoped they would catch a glimpse of her — in the flesh, you might say.)

"I've vowed to always fight for the right of free expression," Allen wrote. "It's allowed, no matter what the profession."

Yes, Americans are entitled to freedom of speech, and I encourage that. There are many things that I want to write about, and I like the flexibility that the digital world gives me. I write more than one blog because there are so many things of interest to me, but Allen's blogging isn't a commentary on the important issues of the day or an homage to something she enjoys or someone she admires. It is high–tech exhibitionism.

And, while her brand of exhibitionism isn't against the law, it generally isn't acceptable behavior, either, especially when one shares one's heretofore secret tricks of the trade.

Actually, it isn't even exhibitionism. It's more like digital teasing. Using a blog to appeal to people's baser instincts rather than educate or enlighten strikes me as being no more of a contribution to the greater good than the text messages Anthony Weiner keeps sending.

And I find that especially egregious when the blogger is in the public eye — such as someone who is on the news every night.

After reading Allen's post, one realizes that, deep down, she's shallow. I mean, come on, this is a fight for "the right of free expression?"

She revealed, for example, that she is best at her job when she has no script to read "and no idea what I'm talking about."

I don't know. Maybe she was trying to be funny. Or maybe she likes that crawling–along–the–edge–of–a–knife feeling she gets from winging it and thinks she excels under those conditions. Personally, I preferred being better prepared when I went out on an assignment as a reporter.

It probably wasn't a reassuring feeling for her employers when they read that, though — nor, I'm sure, was it reassuring for them to read that Allen's best story ideas came from people "who secretly have a crush on me." (Can you say "stalker?")

Or that she "hate[s] the right side of my face." OK, most of the people I have known have had some kind of self–image issues, but few have felt the need to announce them to the world. Unless they wanted to encourage a cameraman to shoot their good side.

(Speaking of which, she also wrote that she had "mastered the ability to contort my body into a position that makes me appear much skinner (sic) in front of the camera than I actually am." I can't say that her weight appears to be a problem — but if you're a self–absorbed narcissist, I suppose it could be.)

If I had been in the position to decide whether she would remain at WAAY, I guess I could live with most of the things she wrote in her blog, even the confessions about doing a broadcast without a bra (borderline sleazy but mostly harmless) or winging it in some of her reports. I could probably even live with the knowledge that she has "taken naps in the news car."

Or that "[h]appy, fluffy, rainbow stories about good things make me depressed." I've never worked in broadcasting, but I assume the general rule there is about the same as it always was in newspaper newsrooms. Reporters write about what they're told to write about, and the boss doesn't particularly give a damn whether they like their assignments or not.

But there are a couple of items on her list that I just can't get around.

Professionally, it bothers me when she writes, "If you ramble and I deem you unnecessary for my story, I'll stop recording but let you think otherwise."

I believe that a reporter is entitled to have his/her own opinion, but most judgments are better left to the reader/viewer to make. A reporter should be neutral, a fly on the wall. I can understand if Allen has felt, on occasion, as if a source was wasting her time, but arbitrarily cutting off the recording is too judgmental for my taste — even if the source is unaware. A reporter is the eyes and ears of the community. That community is not served when the reporter chooses to be deaf and blind.

I understand about reaching conclusions on a source before the interview is done, but even if the source is rambling, he/she might still say something that is worthy of inclusion. (Perhaps that should be "especially if the source is rambling ...")

But the revelation about Allen that I find most troubling is this: "I'm frightened of old people and I refuse to do stories involving them or the places they reside."

OK, I get that our culture is obsessed with young people, and older people are looked upon as disposable. You can see it everywhere you look, and it's been that way as long as I can remember — the young are the face of everything.

But when I was growing up, there was still a healthy respect for older people, their lifetimes of experience, their accumulated wisdom. That seems to have disappeared at some point; now, older Americans are largely regarded as a nuisance. Why? I don't know, but I see it as a waste of a valuable resource.

Our politically correct (not to mention charged) culture is quick to pass judgment on racial comments that were made decades ago without bothering to find out the context in which they were made, but little is said about discrimination against older Americans, whether it is in the workplace or anywhere else.

I would consider it refreshing if Allen lost her job not because her breasts were roaming freely inside her blouse one day but because she so blithely dismissed one of the largest and most dependable segments of her station's audience.

Other than the increasing likelihood of dying soon, older people are reliable in just about every good way imaginable — including loyalty to local news shows. They vote, and they buy things.

Young people are more fickle, and that is definitely an age–related trait. Shea Allen and the rest of her generation don't realize it yet, but one day (much sooner, in fact, than they suspect) they will be part of that older dmographic, and they will want to be appreciated for what they have learned in their lives.

Right now, I'm inclined to think Shea Allen hasn't learned a lot.

I've heard some people spinning stories that Allen was fired because she is a woman. I'm not saying there wasn't an element of that involved. Perhaps there was. I have no knowledge either way.

But I do know she was a popular on–air personality, and broadcasters simply don't terminate popular on–air personalities without legitimate cause. I have to wonder if WAAY was concerned about losing older viewers. Maybe there were complaints. More than one–third of Huntsville's population is 45 or older (nearly 30% are between 25 and 44), and TV reporters — being as visible as they are — are representatives of their employers.

If Allen doesn't appreciate her older viewers, she can't be an effective representative. Hopefully, WAAY will replace her with someone who can appreciate older viewers — and won't be afraid of them.

And if Allen does get another broadcasting job, I hope she will enter it having learned something from this experience.

While social media is a great tool for writers, you really need to be careful about posting too much personal information — or too many incendiary opinions.

That's an important lesson for anyone who dabbles in the digital world to learn — but it is particularly important for young writers whose antennae aren't quite as sharp as older folks whose professional lives predate the dawn of the internet.

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