Thursday, November 08, 2007

Is His Bark Worse Than His Bite

Bulldog: The Making of Mike Fleming


The following is an excerpt from our November issue. Subscribe now.

By: Richard Thompson

An hour had passed. The Mike Fleming Radio Program starts promptly at 4 p.m. on Newsradio 600WREC, and its conservative host was prepping himself and his audience with breathless monologue in anticipation of the late arrival of Mike Fleming’s prized and elusive guest, “King Willie,” a respectful (or discourteous?) moniker for Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

It’s a Thursday, one week after Herenton, 67, won his fifth consecutive term in office as historically, as easily and as contentiously as Fleming had predicted all along much to the chagrin of his listeners—mostly male, older, conservative and likely white who depend upon the 65-year-old, veteran journalist to be one of Herenton’s chief critics.

Fleming is like his core audience, he is their voice—arguably their conscience, having nagged them with the inevitable about the city’s first, and only, African American mayor. Herenton’s challengers had no chance, Fleming argued more than once. Whatever. It didn’t matter now with Herenton en-route to 2560 Thousand Oak Drive, where Clear Channel Radio Memphis houses WREC and its six other radio stations.

In Memphis, WREC is the dominant news/talk station; though its lineup boasts nationally syndicated talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Mike Fleming clearly mans the station’s top locally-produced program, airing from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and one of the longest running in the city.

During the election, however, Herenton had declined to appear with Fleming though his top three challengers came to the studio; the mayor’s special assistant, Pete Aviotti, did a phone interview. After the election, though, Fleming and Herenton—who are more longtime acquaintances than strangers or adversaries—intended to set the record straight, face to face, on Fleming’s turf.

To be sure, there was plenty to talk about. Most notably, Herenton’s victory speech—cathartic for him and divisive to others, especially the part in which Herenton distanced himself as the source of Memphis’s racial strife. “I didn’t separate us,” Herenton said Oct. 4, and now, a week later, Fleming told his listeners that he intended to query King Willie about that statement among other things. However, his first interview with Herenton in more than a year didn’t go quite as Fleming planned. He couldn’t stop laughing when Herenton arrived.

A meticulous preparer, a journalist who relies more on fact than spewing un-vetted opinion like most talking heads, Fleming was well-versed on the issues but he did not anticipate Herenton, an imposing figure at 6’6, to enter the booth smiling and wearing a crown. It was a good and stunning joke, one hard to recover from though Fleming tried.

“He stunned me a little bit when he came into the studio wearing a crown,” Fleming told his audience before the first break.

“I call him King Willie. I’ve done it all through his [16-year] tenure here [Herenton is chuckling] and it’s not in any demeaning way. It’s just that you are the King of Memphis once again, right?”

“No, I’m just a servant,” Herenton replied, after stifling his own laughter though Fleming’s erupted again.

“Well, you’re out here with the peasants now…”

***

For several days after that interview, Fleming got an earful from his listeners, the majority of whom (according to an informal poll on his blog) felt that he went too easy on Herenton. Fleming, himself, thought he had set a strong tone in the interview, pointedly asking Herenton why he seemingly made it easy for people to hate him and whether he thought about that victory speech and the haters who disappointed him.

Yet, judging from the listener reaction, they perhaps wanted Fleming to interrupt Herenton, be more contentious with him, as Herenton freely explained that Memphis is much more cosmopolitan than the “backwater, riverboat, Southern town that the New York Times described” and how some white citizens who may not be educated or well-traveled enough immediately put the term “haters” in an oversimplified black-and-white context when the reality—according to the mayor who has a doctorate—is that many more African-Americans, business people and even ministers “hate” him than people care to realize or admit.

“I’m doing this for you,” Herenton told Fleming. “You know me Mike. Most of the times I don’t give a damn. I’m just responding to you because you’re giving me the opportunity, because I can’t deal with ignorance. I can’t deal with ignorance and prejudice. I’m much too enlightened to deal with that.”

Fleming, though, had to deal with listeners who didn’t like the fact he seemingly acquiesced the microphone to Herenton, even at times clarifying the mayor’s position, instead of raking him over the proverbial coals.

“I’m just not built that way,” he would tell his listeners later, though he admitted that he should have followed-up his questions and vowed to do things differently the next time.

***
“I believe in fairness as much as I do anything else,” said Fleming.

In essence, that typifies how the East Tennessee native is built. Fleming is a journalist, willing to give both sides their say even if what said reflects less than positively on him. That’s just the way he’s been trained after more than three decades in journalism, work that “absolutely” separates him from most talk show hosts, said Tim Davies, vice president and market manager for Clear Channel Radio Memphis.

“Some talk show hosts’ backgrounds can be limited,” said Davies, adding that Fleming’s journalistic training enables him to facilitate on important issues facing the Mid South.

To be sure, there is more to Fleming than his criticism of Mayor Herenton. He is a bulldog of a journalist who honed his skills at newspapers in Nashville and Jacksonville, Fla. before being hired as a sport/investigative reporter at the Commercial Appeal in 1974.

He has covered a variety of topics: Memphis’s NFL Drive, the Southeastern Conference, Super Bowls and more. He, along with the Commercial Appeal and Sports Illustrated, was sued for libel by former Memphis State Basketball coach Dana Kirk; that $11 million suit was eventually dropped. Toward the end of his tenure at the “morning paper,” Fleming transitioned to cop reporting, which he had also done before coming to Memphis. “He was one helluva cop reporter,” said one former colleague.

One of his biggest stories on that beat came after he left the Commercial Appeal and went to WMC Channel 5 in search of “another challenge” in 1991. His second week on the job as the station’s sports director, Fleming ended back up at the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Memphis, where his strong sources on the cop beat garnered him the inside scoop on a prison riot at the county jail. The prisoners involved in the riot, he said, wanted him to mediate on their behalf. He had written about them before.

“We talked roughly eight to nine hours,” Flemings recalled about the back-and-forth negotiations between the prisoners and the city. Ultimately, when it was over, Fleming and WMC, then owned by Scripps Howard, scored a major scoop—one that garnered Fleming an award of merit from then-Mayor Dick Hackett.

Fleming said he became “burned out” on sports and he wanted to do politically-driven reporting; he eventually headed WMC’s investigative reporting team. His radio program started in 1993 on WMC-AM790, though he had been dabbling in radio before. (In 1993, Scripps sold WMC, the TV and radio to Ellis Communications, which later merged with Raycom Media in 1996.)

At one point, Fleming and Mayor Herenton used to do a monthly call-in show together. “I don’t think anyone today could have imagined that taking place,” said Ken Jobe, WHBQ Fox13’s news director and former co-worker with Fleming at WMC. Fleming parted ways with WMC in 1998 and eventually signed on with WREC, where his radio program has been ever since.

“Mike has a good sense of what his listeners want to hear,” said Jobe. “And I think that he is very savvy when it comes to that. He knows how to do good radio and how to keep a radio broadcast interesting lively and informative.”

***

To Fleming, good talk radio is more than just a “bunch of buffoons” who simply want to hear themselves talk. It’s like an honest conversation at a coffee table with friends and foes alike.

“I just don’t want to say anything that just comes in my head. I do have a journalistic approach to what I do. That’s who I am and what I believe in,” said Fleming, who recently started a video “counterpoint commentary” with Jeff Lee, a talk show host on WDIA 1070AM, another Clear Channel station. It’s called “In Black & White;” Lee is African American.

Though Fleming is supposed to represent the white perspective, those who have known him for a long time suggest that his radio persona is not an accurate reflection of him.

“The Mike that I know personally is not the one that sometimes spews a conservative line. For the most part, that’s just Mike being on the radio,” said Otis Sanford, the Commercial Appeal’s Editor of Opinion and Editorials who has known Fleming 30 years and considers him a good friend. “I take that for what it is.”

Jobe concurs: “I don’t think people know Mike as well as they think they know him. Some of that is being a figure himself. Some of what he does is perpetuated by him. If you simply listen to his radio program, you can’t walk away knowing the entire Mike Fleming. He’s a good man and good person.”

To be sure, Fleming bristles at the notion that he’s not the same person in and out of the studio. Though he doesn’t have a microphone at his dinner table, there are issues, like abortion, about which he feels strongly, and he doesn’t change himself for the ratings. “I don’t care about them,” he said.

“I want it to suit me,” said Fleming about his radio program. “If I can’t live with it, I don’t basically do it. I think you have to please yourself first.”

Fleming said: “I would go on as long as I believe that I am doing something that some people think is important—and I put myself at the top of that list.”

He remembers what his father told him, and it keeps him focused to this day: “At the moment you take your last breath, I hope you are still learning.”

And to that end, Fleming doesn’t expect to stop anytime soon. So much more to learn. So many people depend on him for information—a somewhat disturbing prospect for Fleming, who wishes that there were more radio talk shows, more TV stations and newspapers.

“More voices, not fewer.” he said. “I wanted Air America to survive (in Memphis).”

No matter, there are still some issues that Fleming wants to tackle like reinstituting the runoff provision in the mayoral election since African Americans are no longer disenfranchised as they were in 1991. African Americans comprise 65 percent of the city’s population now; it’s whites who are disenfranchised, he said.

And lest one tries to pigeonhole him, Fleming said he knows that some issues are defined by one’s culture and race, especially in Memphis.

“The biggest problem in the race issue is the black politician,” he said, adding that they tend to fan the flames of division to get elected and then to stay put.

“They do great harm to race relations,” said Fleming. “. . . they should be held accountable for it.”

Sounds like something a King would say.

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