By STEVE JONES Sentinel staff writer
Furious over the portrayal of Rome in Tuesday’s national broadcast of "Good Morning America," Mayor James F. Brown said he’ll never watch ABC — the television show’s network — again.
Cast and crew of the news program were at the Rome railroad station on Monday afternoon as part of a 50-state Whistle Stop ‘08 tour. More than 500 people turned out to meet the train and greet television personalities Robin Roberts, Diane Sawyer and Cris Cuomo.
Though the show’s under 2-minute segment on Rome began with praise of the city’s enthusiastic welcome, it went on to call Rome the "snow capital of the east," remind viewers that Griffiss Air Force Base closed 13 years ago and comment on a tough housing market, all with pre-shot video to match.
Mayor Brown, who is on vacation with is wife in Florida to celebrate their anniversary, called the Daily Sentinel late Tuesday to blast the segment. Before he even saw the Tuesday show, he said, he was getting calls and e-mails from people expressing total disappointment with what ABC ‘Good Morning America’ did for our area."
Brown said the negative portrayal of Rome was a calculated attack. "They had an agenda to come up here and do a negative-type story on upstate economics, on gas prices. The top management, I know their viewpoints," he said. "Their mission is to get Barack Obama elected. They focused on all the issues he’s focused on." First-term Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for president. Brown is a Republican and has been mayor for five years.
Brown said producers approached the city about a profile as a stop on the train trip across the northeast. He said it was pitched as a profile of a city with a renovated train station. So his chief of staff, Tammy Burkhart, welcomed show crew to town, showing them what Rome had to offer. Instead, he said, they brought an all together different objective.
"All along they knew what they wanted to do. The plan from Day One was to come up here and take a look at the economic situation and focus on the negatives and not the positives." He continued, "Instead of being proactive and doing positive things, they focus on the negatives and the past," Brown said.
The segment noted how Rome was once known as the Copper City, with its wealth of wire production jobs, but that most of that industry is gone.
It said the base closed, but that, said the mayor, is old news that Rome has been working to overcome for over a decade.
Brown likened the portrayal of Rome to viewers nationwide to the damage done to Upstate New York when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer compared its economy to that of Appalachia’s in early 2006.
So, Mayor Brown said he will avoid support and cooperation with what he called the "liberal media" that goes out of its way to support Obama. And ABC won’t get any more business from him, he said. "They couldn’t pay me to turn on ABC," he declared.
Rome Area Chamber of Commerce President William K. Guglielmo said that what started as the city’s excitement to show itself off to the country turned into a misrepresentation of Rome on national television.
"We wanted to do our best to promote Rome in a positive light. I’m sure that was everybody’s intention." But after the afternoon of filming, "‘Good Morning America’ seemed to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive, and there’s so much positive going on in our community. What was portrayed was so incomplete. It really turned me off."
Chamber board chair Doug Bartell was similarly upset. "People are fired up. They’re fired up because the City of Rome, the schools of Rome, the people, the civic groups were so proud to be selected as a stop on the tour." The people came out to welcome the show, and now "they feel a little used."
He said the crowd was there to celebrate Rome, but wound up framing a preconceived argument about economic hardship. "People seem deflated that the story came out like it did, because it wasn’t it a true representation of the community." The video showed a rusty water tower, he said. Why not balance it with the new construction at Griffiss? he asked. The reference to the closure of the air base could have been paired with the fact that $350 million has been invested at that site since the closure. He said the show’s narrative could have said that despite these national economic hardships, Rome is trying to dig itself out.
Bartell noted that about 50 business members took time off from work to attend the event to "rally and show support." The visit, he said, did have one positive aspect. Like himself, people "felt such civic pride before and during the whistle stop." Hopefully, he said, the community can keep that pride and use it to continue to overcome.
Tom Bell, one of the developers of the Wingate Inn at Griffiss said, "would we be making a $6 million investment if we thought the economics were as bad as they reported on ‘Good Morning America’?" The hotel is having its grand opening party tonight.
Even the lone positive Brown could think of was still lacking, he said. "One positive was that they hit on the history of the city." But, he said, there was no reference to the Erie Canal. Though the ABC news story written to accompany the video on ABC’s web site delves into Rome’s connection to the Revolutionary War and Oneida Indian Nation history, there’s no mention of it in the television segment. "Other than that we made national TV, I don’t see a lot of positives coming out of this," said the mayor.
What Brown said he hoped for was "focus on positive things." He said he wanted to see praise for Mohawk Valley EDGE’s efforts to rebuild the region’s economy. He also praised those that helped put the event together so that ABC’s visit would attract a big crowd and be a success.
He gave credit to Burkhart for organizing the city’s efforts, to Ryan Hickey of the Parks Department for his involvement, Public Works and Commissioner Frank D. Tallarino Jr.’s preparation efforts, public safety personnel, as well as to all city employees who helped prepare and execute the festivities at the Martin Street station. He thanked Guglielmo for the group’s work.
He also thanked school district Superintendent Jeff Simons for coordinating the school groups that attended despite the fact that school was cancelled along with after-school activities that day because of Sunday’s storm. "Every aspect pulled together looking for some positive feedback," Brown said. He said he felt that those efforts were not rewarded.
While it’s hard to argue that times aren’t tougher in Rome than in past years, Brown said it was unfair to hold the city up as an example of what has been hard times nationwide. The segment, he said, cast Rome in the role of an especially down-on-its-luck city, when it has the same challenges as many cities from the east to the west coast.
"We welcome ‘Good Morning America’ back to get the story right," said Bartell.
GMA’s public relations person was e-mailed for comment, but had not responded as of noon. The train is in Ohio and Pennsylvania today.