“I was born to be a reporter,” Mike Deeson says, and he’s got 12 Emmy Awards that would seem to bear this out.
Deeson, whose 35 hard-hitting years of investigative work with Tampa Bay’s CBS affiliate WTSP-TV also led to the Society of Professional Journalists naming him Florida Journalist of the year – the only time that’s ever happened to a broadcaster – has just published a memoir through St. Petersburg Press.
The title, Bad News For You is Good News For Me!, is a nod and a wink to Deeson’s personality and approach to his work – he’s a tenacious watchdog, with teeth, but he’s got a lethal sense of humor and many of his true-life yarns are peppered with jokes and “look how dumb I was” reflections.
Not that there’s anything funny about Deeson’s recounts of the stakeouts, ambush interviews, politician meltdowns, heartbreaking confessions and sudden punch-outs from the people he was profiling.
He witnessed several executions at Florida State Prison. He reported from Saudi Arabia and Guantanamo Bay. He produced an extensive – and eye-opening – piece on the pornographic film industry’s profitable presence in Tampa Bay.
“I was sued a bunch of times, and won every lawsuit,” he says. “I mean, any idiot can file a lawsuit. We won every one on summary judgement because I had the paperwork to back up what I was saying.”
In every instance, there is a you-are-there quality to Deeson’s writing, whether he’s exposing a corrupt government agency or revealing the abuse a quadriplegic inmate suffered at the Hillsborough Jail (Deeson discovered a clandestine video of the incident and aired it). There are all kinds of ups, and all kinds of downs, in his book.
“I give a lot of speeches,” says the author, who retired from WTSP in 2017. “Basically, this book is my speeches. I never go in with a formalized speech; I just tell stories. I’ve been a storyteller all my life.”
The book is also a procedural – the reader gets a first-hand look at what goes in a busy television newsroom, behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
“I was able to see things firsthand that people could only vicariously live through my stories,” Deeson says. “And I thought folks might be interested in the different things I encountered over the past 50 years.”
In one of the early chapters, Deeson details his coverage of – and interaction with – four American presidents. Most impressive by far, he reports, was Bill Clinton, who not only remembered his name after meeting him for half a second, but returned to him 15 minutes later and said “Mike, you said something a few moments ago that I want to know more about.”
Deeson was stunned.
“That,” he recalls, “was the greatest life lesson, honest to God. And I to this day use it. When I meet someone I shake their hand, I look them in the eye and I say their name out loud. And try to pay attention to them.
“How many times have you met somebody who thinks they’re hot shit? They’re shaking your hand and they’re looking down the line to see who else is down there that they need to impress? I don’t ever want to be that guy. The person I’m talking to is the most important person in the world to me at that moment.”
Listening crucial to good reporting. “If your mind is wandering, you’re not paying attention and all that stuff, you can’t do that.”
With 50 years of stories (including the 35 in the bay area), Deeson says his original manuscript was twice as long; although the book has numerous Tampa-centric tales (former mayor Dick Greco has a real star turn, for example) most of those he chose to include are of statewide, and national, interest.
These days, Deeson’s ire is up because of animal abuse. Deeson Media, the company he created in 2018, has just about finished a major project. “If I don’t screw it up, it will be the most important piece of journalism I’ve ever done,” he says excitedly. “It’s about elephants being abused in circuses. I’ve traveled the country working on this. It’s massive.”
The announcements that Feld Entertainment, which owned the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, had discontinued elephant “acts” (and, subsequently retired the circus altogether) gave animal activists a moment’s respite … but it wasn’t enough, Deeson reports.
“Everybody thinks because Ringling went out of business that there’s no more traveling elephants. But there’s some smaller circuses that do have elephants. And they beat the crap out of them to train them. Then they put them in small boxcars to move them. And then they chain them 19 hours a day – elephants in the wild eat and move all along.”
He was hired by the animal rights organization FACE (Free All Captive Elephants) to make the documentary (titled Broken), which he hopes will premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“My passion is exposing wrongdoing. And bad actors. I went to Africa after I retired, and watched elephants in the wild, which is just amazing.”
Still, he did extensive research before committing to the project.
“Then I went Man! This is a great investigation.” And he got to work. Like always.
St. Petersburg Press is a division of the St. Petersburg Group, which owns the St. Pete Catalyst.