OPINION: Richard Belcher, after a half century of hitting hard, signs off

Credit: WSB

Credit: WSB

If you’re a government official and Richard Belcher is hovering in the waiting room, you’re having a bad day.

After 50 years — yes, half a century — Belcher, the stern, silver-maned beanstalk in a suit, is hanging up his microphone. He signs off Nov. 23.

Belcher, 73, is retiring from his gig as an investigative reporter at WSB-TV, Channel 2. But he’s not just an investigative reporter. He helped establish the genre for Atlanta TV.

I caught up with Belcher at his Druid Hills home this week and received a four-hour history lesson on Atlanta and television news in the city. When I arrived, he was considering donating to a charity and had investigated how it shaped up in an audit. Private life, it seems, is not that different from TV life, where he has carved out a niche as the bane of corrupt and inefficient government.

His reports don’t come across with the breathless “I gotchas” like some of the other TV news snoopers. His is more a straightforward, authoritative delivery that allows the facts to clobber his target.

“I cover government, not politics,” Belcher said. “Does it work? Can the county balance its budget? Does the training program work? I want to see if government is delivering the products and programs that they promise. My world view is skeptical. I don’t mind being the skunk at the picnic.”

During our discussion, his wife, Sally Sears, a longtime Atlanta TV news reporter herself, passed through the room, glancing over and smiling. What’s so funny? I asked.

“I might have heard this before,” she said. The two met in the 1980s at WAGA-TV, Channel 5, and have been married 34 years. They have a son and he has two daughters from a previous marriage.

I imagine she’s heard it before. There’s been a constancy to his work and life view. It’s based on a just-the-facts, old-timey view of journalism.

Credit: WAGA

Credit: WAGA

“He’s the last of his kind, when tyrannosauruses walked the earth,” said Jeff Hullinger, an anchor on WXIA-TV, Channel 11. The two worked together in the 1980s at WAGA. “He’s fearless, intimidating. Big and smart with that old-school Atlanta accent. A man not to mess with.”

Belcher can’t stand those who obstruct the inner workings of government. It’s not so much the corruption, he said, it’s the lethargy and circle-the-wagons mentality that annoys him.

He started at WGST radio in 1971, when still at Georgia State University. He studied business, wanting to be a stock broker. He quickly realized news is a lot more exciting.

Ten days after starting, he was at Fort McPherson covering the trial of Capt. Ernest Medina for his part in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. For a month, the 22-year-old newbie sat next to Homer Bigart, a newspaperman who won Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of World War II in the Pacific Theater and six years later for coverage of the Korean War.

“It was electrifying,” Belcher told me. A year later, the DeKalb County native graduated from college and got a job with WXIA-TV, Channel 11, a station that was then a “ghastly No. 3” in the ratings. He drove to breaking news events with a cameraman in a Ford Torino decked out to look like it was ready for NASCAR.

They shot film — “you know, 16 millimeters, with sprockets” — and then raced back to the station to get it processed, cut and edited on deadline. During off hours, he haunted the old Carnegie Library downtown to absorb old newspaper articles to understand all the connective tissue of Atlanta life. There is probably no one in this town who has his institutional memory. I’ve often tapped it.

“My love, like all young reporters, was crime,” he recalled. “What’s more exciting than a triple homicide or a drug raid?”

Or gambling rings? Or bootleggers? Or crooked cops with connections to hookers and nightclubs? 1970s Atlanta had all that. And more. What else did an ambitious 20-something TV reporter need?

In 1973, he got his head gashed during a dustup with a competing station’s cameraman. Atlanta cops locked up both of them. Four years later, while in the stakeout in the lobby of a government building, he pushed an Atlanta cop who had shoved his cameraman, Michael Carlin. He got arrested for that, too. Police weren’t happy with him; he was busting stories on a cheating scandal where APD favorites were getting answers for promotional exams.

Credit: WAGA

Credit: WAGA

At the time, Belcher, Carlin and a couple of others spawned investigative reporting for Atlanta TV. Carlin remembers the first story was a long two-parter on the GBI turning a woman pot smoker into an informant. The investigative group they founded still exists 45-years later at the station, now called the I-Team.

Longtime investigative reporter Dale Russell, who learned the craft from Belcher at WAGA and still toils there, has been battling it out for stories and ratings with his old comrade for decades. (Belcher jumped to WSB in 1990.)

“I’m glad he’s gone; I can finally get a good night’s sleep,” Russell told me, joking. I think.

“He doesn’t like bullies,” he added. “He cannot be intimidated. He’s one of the best interviewers in the business, almost like a prosecutor in the courtroom. A very tough competitor.”

He recalls the 6′5″ former Cross Keys High basketball player liked to toss around elbows during pickup games years later.

Having watched Belcher for years, I am totally not shocked.