TV reporter calls talk with racist a blunder

Don Germaise rues his decision to exchange interviews with a white separatist.

Published May 20, 2006

In 12 years as a reporter for Tampa's ABC affiliate, Don Germaise's experience with journalism has been mostly one way: He asks the questions, others answer.

But he has found himself in the middle of a controversy over an appearance on the other side of the camera's lens. An interview he granted to a member of a white separatist group has been posted on the Internet, drawing thousands of downloads from viewers and criticism for breaching standards of journalistic objectivity.

"How could somebody as experienced as I was be so naive as to talk to this kid?" said Germaise, an energetic reporter known for his aggressive hurricane coverage. "I was trying to help him out. He said he wanted to be a journalist."

Germaise said he submitted to the interview after videotaping his own talk with David Daugherty, the Web master for an Internet site operated by the Tampa unit of the National Vanguard. The group maintains that the media are controlled by Jews and that ethnic diversity harms America.

But Daugherty recalls a more explicit bargain: If Germaise wanted an interview about the National Vanguard, he also had to let Daugherty interview him.

Daugherty, 28, posted Germaise's interview on May 9, saying Thursday there had been more than 4,300 downloads of the video, featuring the reporter's views on free speech, illegal immigration and the control his bosses at Tampa's ABC affiliate exert over his stories. The site also offers links to information about pro-white music and a glowing report on a speech by convicted Holocaust denier David Irving, now in prison in Austria.

Daugherty has asked to swap interviews with other journalists, but no one agreed until Germaise did.

"You very rarely see one of these guys who is a standard foot soldier reporter interviewed in front of a camera," said Daugherty, who denounces most news stories about pro-white groups as "propaganda" developed by a Jewish-controlled media industry. "They're kind of a faceless people. When I posted the story, it generated a ton of traffic because everybody wanted to hear what this guy had to say."

"ABC Action News Reporter Blasts Media Bosses, ADL!" the headline reads over the link to Germaise's interview. (ADL refers to the Jewish advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League.) "Don Germaise confirms what many of us have suspected about 'mainstream' media," adds a blurb on the site.

"All these illegal immigrants are causing a huge strain on government services because they want free medical care, they want to be able to drive, they want all of these resources that are available in this great country of ours," Germaise says on the video, filmed at an Ybor City park. "Yet they're not paying taxes because they're illegal immigrants. If you're in the country illegally, you shouldn't be here."

When asked by Daugherty whether media owners influence the news process, Germaise said, "When the boss speaks, the workers listen. I have definitely had my manager say we need to do this kind of a story. Did it come from ABC, did it come from Walt Disney? Did it come from someone else? I don't know. I do know there have been times when I've been told to do a story."

The interview drew praise from visitors to the message boards at Stormfront.org, a "white pride" Web site. "I'm speechless," wrote one user, identified only as Zemi. "We need more voices like his in the MSM (mainstream media). I hope he gets to keep his job. Or will someone find a illegal immigrant to do his work?"

Germaise, who eventually developed a story on the National Vanguard for WFTS earlier this month, maintained he did not provide the interview to Daugherty in exchange for permission to interview him. However, Daugherty made the same demand of a St. Petersburg Times reporter who hoped to write about the National Vanguard unit, but editors declined.

And while experts on hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center knew activists sometimes videotape journalists interviewing them - as protection against misquotes - they had not heard of someone insisting on interviewing the interviewer.

"It just shows how desperate they are to get any scrap of legitimacy," said Mark Potok, director of the law center's intelligence project, which tracks racist groups nationwide.

Potok noted that the National Vanguard, which is a splinter group of the better-known National Alliance, has cloaked its prejudicial views in more palatable colors - denouncing violence and racial epithets, for example.

"Ever since David Duke pioneered moving out of (Ku Klux Klan) robes and into three-piece suits, this has been a tactic for some groups," he added. "There are always groups out there which try to put a kinder, gentler face on the white power movement."

Famous locally as the "hunker down" guy for his kinetic reports from inside raging hurricanes, Germaise insisted his earnest attempts to answer Daugherty's questions were distorted by heavy editing. Now he's left wondering whether the world thinks he's a closet white separatist.

"This is a guy who told me in an interview he wanted every black person in America moved to another state," Germaise said of Daugherty. "I can state unequivocally that there is nothing about this group that I like. I was naive ... to let them use my words to make it appear the way they did. I was wrong."

Apart from opinion columnists, pundits and critics paid to put their opinions into print, news reporters often avoid expressing preferences about issues they may cover - fearing the appearance of bias. For example, Washington Post editor Len Downie famously refuses to vote and encourages his staff to do the same.

Don Heider, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said Germaise was "seriously compromised" as a result of the interview.

"What comes through (this interview) is that there's some conspiracy at the station to cover the (news) in a certain way," said Heider, a former TV news reporter who watched Germaise's interview over the Internet from his office in Austin. "I'm not sure his news director would agree with that."

But should reporters pretend they have no opinions on contentious issues such as immigration reform and hate speech? Isn't fairness the goal rather than detached objectivity?

"As journalists, we have to think through how we're going to be more honest about what we believe," said Heider, who has written extensively about race and class issues in media coverage. "(But) to do it in the format (Germaise) agreed to do it in is a dangerous thing. You need a safe environment to talk ... and that's not a safe environment."

Though some journalists have lost jobs for revealing their personal views in embarrassing ways, Bill Carey, vice president and general manager at WFTS, said Friday he was reserving judgment on Germaise's actions until he had more time to consider the issue.

"While Don is a great interviewer ... he didn't make the best interview subject, and I think he's been humbled by that," said Carey. "He embarrassed himself ... and he understands it was a bad decision."

Germaise declined to speculate on the larger question of whether he should have expressed opinions at all. But he acknowledges that he violated the station's policy requiring management approval before submitting to the interview.

"We are supposed to be the messengers and not the story," said Germaise. "Here, I've become the story, which is wrong. It does a disservice to my viewers."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media


Don Germaise's interview with the National Vanguard's David Daugherty:

Daugherty: "So as an American you would personally be opposed to some of the (Anti-Defamation League's) hate speech proposals?"

Germaise: "I'm opposed to anything that limits the First Amendment of the United States. I just don't know what the definition of a hate speech is. I just have to go back to the Constitution of the United States - my goodness, that's what our country is founded on. If we're going to throw out the Constitution of the United States, let's all just pack it up and move to another country."

Daugherty: "One liberal professor ... I heard him saying race is a social construct. Do you believe race is a biological reality ... or just a social construct?"

Germaise: "If you take race as a specific definition, of course it's biological. I cannot have sex with a white woman and have a black child. It's not going to happen. So in that context, yeah it's biological."

Daugherty: "What would you do about the (unintelligible) that do break the law that are here now? And they are marching in the streets demanding that they get recognized as now legal because they don't like the law. They don't like the law so they want your political party to change the law to suit them. What do you say about that?"

Germaise: "... Let me ask you this: If an Iraqi illegally enters this country and they catch him in a farm picking tomatoes or growing grapes or whatever he's doing ... do you think they'd treat him differently than they would a Mexican? Yeah! There's a double standard right now. An illegal immigrant is an illegal immigrant."