PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – I set out to explore the various manners in which WAVY TV 10 interacts with political, economic, and social factors. I conducted three interviews, which included Bob Bennett, a producer of WAVY TV 10 with more than 30 years of experience in broadcasting, Andy Fox, a broadcaster who came to WAVY TV 10 over 30 years ago. Lastly, I interviewed Brett Hall, a reporter who joined WAVY TV 10 in March 2018.
I began the interviews by asking each participant if their work has shaped the way politics is discussed within the community.
Bennett stated: ‘‘It’s local news, I don’t think so. I think that our main job with local news is reporting the facts. Digging in a little bit deeper. Holding the powerful accountable, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think that it’s shaped in any way. I don’t think it’s like cable and network news and stuff like that. I think we’ve tried to be as unbiased and in the middle as we can possibly be.”
Fox had a different take on the matter: ‘‘Yes, I think with our Truth Tracker we do that. We will take their campaign commercials, and we hold candidates to the true test, and we confront them. It’s become very polarizing for some, because it’s an aggressive type of political journalism. We are delving into finding the facts, but you have to be really careful because people are sensitive.”
Fox believes that WAVY TV 10’s Truth Tracker reports directly influenced an election. He said, “One candidate did not appear. He ended up losing. There have been times when I have told campaigns that you will lose because you did not come on Truth Tracker.’’
Fox said: ‘‘Another candidate refused to answer questions that were asked of her. You’d ask her a question and it ended up with something about Joe Biden, which was completely irrelevant. She’s lucky that I did not take the five-minute interview that I did with her and put it on social media. I think that it would have been extremely embarrassing to her because of the way she performed in that. The power of what we do is sometimes the power not to do something. I chose not to do that, because I did not want to be mean. She refused to answer questions, and then they showed up in her opponent’s commercial, which almost cost her the election. Because of that, she came very close to losing in a Republican seat.”
Regarding Truth Tracker, Bennett explained how WAVY TV 10 ‘‘does deep dives into campaign finances and into the truth behind campaign commercials, but I don’t think that in any way we’re really doing it as far as slanting and politics is concerned. We do have two series. We have what we call our Truth Tracker series. That is looking for the truth within campaign commercials. We also have our Following the Funds series, which is basically following the money trail as to who was funneling money into certain campaigns. But we do these as franchises. We did it this year for the election for one of the State Senate seats, which was highly publicized with campaign commercials. We’ve done that with mostly local and state-run campaigns. We don’t really dive into national campaigns as much. We leave that kind of reporting up to the networks.’’
When asked if their work has shaped the way politics is discussed within the community, Hall said, ‘‘I wouldn’t go that far. I would say it’s aided in how it’s discussed, but I don’t think I’ve shaped anything. I’m sure I’ve shaped certain discussions, but no, I wouldn’t say overall. Like, I did a story about Norfolk considering not putting an arena in Military Circle. Instead, they wanted to put a new one downtown. I got a call from the Catholic Church in Norfolk, and they were surprised. They said that the city has been trying to buy land from them, and they weren’t sure they were going to sell it now. That shaped how politics is discussed because the city wasn’t being honest with the Catholic Church.’’
I asked if their work influences the community dialogue of Hampton Roads.
Bennett said, ‘‘I hope we do. I mean, we have a campaign here called Taking Back The Community. It was invented several years ago in light of all the crime that happens in the area. And we want to make sure that we cover the positive stories too. We want to cover the ways that the community is working to fight violent crime. I think that really has made a big difference with the community. I hope it has. But I believe that is probably our biggest thing. We have a crime problem in the area. The nation has a crime problem, and we’re getting involved in the community and also getting others involved in the community as well.’’
I asked about the coverage WAVY TV 10 did on The Brandon Act. It was a response to how Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta died by suicide in 2018. The legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2021.
Bennett stated, ‘‘I’m proud of what we did with our coverage. It helps to have two parents who didn’t suffer through their son’s death in silence. They spoke up and between us and them and some people in the federal government, we pushed, and we won. They won. They won more than we did. I think that our coverage is a very sliver of the credit because it was really Brandon’s parents. They won. They just needed to know which channels to go through. We kept talking to him and kept in touch with them and built a relationship. It’s based on keeping trust, and we’ll do this together. It’s nice for us to be able to say that we helped somebody do this, but it’s really helping them help themselves.”
Bennett went on to discuss how, “It is difficult when you’re grieving parents and your son has died in a horrible way because of a mental health issue that developed during their time in the military, possibly before but it may have exacerbated being in the military. It goes along with the deaths that happened aboard the USS George Washington as it was sitting drydock. Basically, it was there just for repairs which lasted for four years. The US Navy sailors didn’t sign up for this. They wanted to see the world and fight for freedom, and they ended up being in the dark for four years. When you say I didn’t sign up for this, it goes further into the mind than that. This act will also help people like that as well. So, I applaud Brandon’s parents for doing that. That was an act of bravery within itself. To take on the federal government and get this done. We were a conduit for what they needed to get done. We’re able to be, in that case, a medium.’’
I asked if incentives for higher ratings played a role in how they worked. Fox said, “You don’t want to put reports on TV people don’t want to watch. So, you got to do the reports that people want to watch. And sometimes it’s the delivery of the message that gets people to watch. People know that when they watch WAVY TV 10, and they watch a story I do, they know what they’re going to get. They’re going to get some edgy journalism. I’m confronting folks. So, they know it. People come up and say, Andy, I love your journalism. I love what you do. I love what you do for the community. I love this. I love that I don’t always agree with you.”
When asked about the role entertainment plays within the news, Fox said, “There’s always a question as to, well that’s just entertainment. Okay? That’s not news. It’s entertainment. We’re in a different life. Now, if you are not entertaining people with the way you are presenting news, then you are losing them.”
Fox went on to say how, “My entire career has been based on doing stories that impact people, and I do it in an entertaining impactful way. That’s what I do. That’s the way I sum it up. There are stories that in the morning meeting they say oh well that’s an Andy story. Well, what’s an Andy story? It’s a tough story. I get a lot of the tough stories that you have to do. Not like a house fire. With a house fire, you show up. You have the camera. It’s a terrible event. You have the dramatics. You have the flames. You have the house. You have the victims. You have the drama that’s involved in that. You just show up. It’s called the house fire story. I do a lot more complicated story. You have to reach out to people who might not be the typical people you will call, but they have an interesting perspective that takes the story in a new direction.”
Fox explained his method for telling stories that connect with the Hampton Roads community. He said, “I like stories where you grab people by the throat and say watch me, because there’s a lot of content out there. When I started in this business back in 1984, there were basically three networks and PBS. When I was in college at Syracuse, MTV was just starting, and ESPN had just started. CNN was just beginning. I think that there is a lot of understanding that the business has changed and there’s a lot of options out there. There’s a lot of moms in the kitchen cooking or dads in the kitchen cooking and there’s a lot of distractions going on in the house. So, you have to do reports that people are interested in that gets people to stop and say hey, let’s watch this.”
When I asked Hall if he ever refrains from showing important stories that perhaps might not be high ratings, he said no. Brett explained, “Sometimes the public has to hear some things. We have complicated stories that are terrible for TV, but the people have to hear it. You have to eat your vegetables. An example is the voting system in Virginia Beach. It’s extremely important. There’s a fight going on right now. Every city, especially down here, has shadow governments. A local hotel owner is trying to oust the mayor from office because the mayor will not put a referendum to change the voting system back to where the hotelier has more control.”