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Alabama Public Television: Montgomery shuttered, DC Rising, and a New Staff for Capitol Journal, The Untold Story, Part Three

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Editors notes—As we continue to try and uncover what happened at APT that led to the firing of CEO Allan Pizzato and CFO Pauline Howland we have received volumes of information from sources that wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs or other reprisal. Pizzato and Howland, public figures and former government employees, have even had their attorneys threaten this news organization with a defamation lawsuit. 

Such threats by public officials should send a chill through the air of all who value a free press. Many past and present employees have come forward to tell their side of the story. It seems Pizzato and Howland have an aversion to any story that does not paint them in a favorable light. It is not the job of the media to judge the story but rather search for answers. In my opinion, threats by high-powered attorneys is the last bastion of scoundrels and thieves. 

It is easy to see why former and current APT staffers want to remain anonymous in fear of such threats. This should never be the case with the press. I have no ill will or prejudice against Pizzato or Howland and would like to hear their side of the story. However, it seems they are more interested in hiding behind the skirts of their attorneys than speaking the truth. 

God help us all the day that lawyers for high-profile public figures muzzle the free press. 

MONTGOMERY—While shuttering the studios at the three-story media complex in Montgomery, Pizzato was building up his Washington DC facility.

According to a report in the Association of Public television stations, “APT’s newest production facility is located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The studio facility has a set designed for the production of public affairs programs in order to produce interviews with Alabama’s Congressional Delegation members and other policy makers.”

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According to an APT staffer, “When the DC studio opened we were told that one of the most important reasons we were in DC was to interview members of Alabama Congress in DC. What the employees of Montgomery could not understand is why we spent so much money to do that.  Montgomery had been doing interviews of congressional members for years without paying anything at all 99 percent of the time or a small fee.” The staffers said that the House and Senate both have a studio with a satellite uplink for the purpose of interviews.  “That is one reason no other PBS has a DC studio, there is no need. They further say, “Even after the DC studio was in place, most interviews were still done in the House and Senate studio because members of congress were to busy to go to the Folger Library studio.”

APT’s DC bureau is operated out of the Folger’s Library and has a budget of $236,510 according to published reports.

In an interview in July 10, 2011, with the “Tuscaloosa News,”  APT spokesman Mike McKenzie said, “… the Washington, DC., bureau is paid for from APT Foundation funds and not state funds that have been cut, necessitating the closing of the Montgomery bureau and the layoff of 19 APT employees statewide.”

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McKenzie said under a lease and joint-production agreement, APT creates education and promotion material for the Folger Library. Alabama teachers can use produced material in classrooms.

“The DC bureau has produced educational material with the National Parks Service Foundation, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Other productions include the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and Ford’s Theatre,” said McKenzie.

“Why is Alabama Public Television producing shows for the National Parks Service Foundation and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association?” asked one staffer.

Several of those who lost their jobs in Montgomery felt that spending that type of money on a DC operation was a slap in the face to many who had given their lives and careers to APT.

Another described the “outrage” that there was after layoffs of Montgomery workers. Pizzato restarted “Capitol Journal” without consideration of many of the former staff according to sources.

In an interview, APT public information director Mike McKenzie had this to say: “We always intended to bring it [Capitol Journal] back, we just had to find a different way to put the program on the air, given the resources that were available to us, sharing the news of the state and what’s happening at the Legislature.”

Veteran producers and others expressed outrage that they were not offered their old jobs back or even given the opportunity to interview for their former positions.

“Many of us thought as state employees we had a right to be at least interview for those jobs,” said a former staffer. “Some of us talked about bringing a lawsuit but thought it was better for APT and the state just to move on.”

The former employee, said that obviously Pizzato and Howland did not share the same sense of loyalty.

According to a former Montgomery APT employee, most of the employees at the Montgomery studio who were let go in July of 2011 had worked there a decade or more.  “When he [Pizzato] let everyone go, he spent no more than 30 minutes at a conference table and the only concern he had and asked about…was how did the staff find out they were going to be let go before he got there?”

The reason the Montgomery staff was given for their termination was the state budget cuts “but in just 3 months, he hired a whole new crew…and did not ask anyone back that worked on camera/crew…hired all new people,” according to the former staffer.

Former and current APT staffers say they find it amazing that Pizzato is fighting a wrongful firing suit when “he fired staff wholesale, without regard, under false pretense and without remorse,” says a staffer.

Several past employees still wonder if Pizzato did not violate state personnel policy in letting them go–sighting budget cuts–and them turning around a few months later and filling those positions with newcomers. They also wonder how the Alabama Supreme Court could find that Pizzato and Howland suffered wrongful termination and not them?

“Does Alabama have two sets of standards?” asked one former employee that Pizzato let go. “One for executives and another state workers?”

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Alabama’s hospitalized COVID-19 patients Sunday at highest number since Sept. 2.

It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama hospitals on Sunday were caring for 920 COVID-19 inpatients, the highest number of patients since Sept. 2 and a 23 percent increase from a month ago. 

It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another  surge just as the regular flu season begins to fill up hospital beds. 

Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Alabama’s seven-day average of daily hospitalized COVID-19 patients was 864 on Sunday, the highest it’s been since Sept. 8. State hospitals saw a peak of COVID-19 inpatients on Aug. 6, when 1,613 patients were being cared for. 

The state added 1,079 new confirmed and probable cases on Sunday, and Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases hit 1,358 Sunday, the highest it’s been since Aug. 13. Two “data dumps” to the Alabama Department of Public Health of older confirmed cases Thursday and Friday elevated the daily counts on those days, but after weeks of daily cases hovering around 700 and 800, the state now regularly sees more than 1,000 cases a day. 

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The older test results skew the state’s percent positivity, but Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity on Sunday was 20 percent. Just prior to the addition of those older cases, the 14-day average was 15 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

As cases continue to rise, the number of tests being performed statewide continue to decline, which is increasing Alabama’s percent positivity rate. The 14-day average of daily tests was 6,619 on Sunday — a 5 percent decrease from two weeks ago. 

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There have been 2,866 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths statewide. The state’s 14-day average of daily confirmed deaths was 14 on Sunday, up from 12 two weeks ago. 

The United States on Saturday recorded its second highest day of new cases since the start of the pandemic, with 83,718 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. Saturday’s peak was just 39 cases fewer than the country’s all-time daily high, set on Friday. As of Sunday, 225,061 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S.

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Elections

Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend

Brandon Moseley

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Trump boat parade

As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.

The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.

The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.

A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.

Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.

Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.

The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.

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Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.

Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise

Eddie Burkhalter

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COVID-19 Corona Influenza Virus Molecules Image Stock Photo

The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9. 

UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.

“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said. 

Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.

Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.

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Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.

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Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”

Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.

“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”

Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.

“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.

Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.

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News

Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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