Established TV news outlets have been shedding editorial staff, even at the once-vaunted O&O level. Stations are relying more and more on pre-fab wire reports and in some cases even running thinly veiled promotional vids complete with bogus "correspondents" as part of regular newscasts. On too many stations, newscasts have been tarted-up, tabloid-ed, dumbed-down and frequently prostituted for corny tie-ins with adjacent entertainment programming. Old-school broadcast journos like the late great Bill Stout (oh how I miss him) are sneering at us from beyond the grave.
Given these unfortunate truths, it was extra-heartening to see in the list of 2007 Peabody Award winners announced last week that the 16 esteemed members of the awards committee found plenty to commend at one old-guard network affiliate that has long nurtured and protected its reputation as a provider of local news that matters.
WFAA-TV, serving the Dallas-Fort Worth market, earned a Peabody that recognized for a series of influential, in-depth reports from the station's dedicated investigative reporting unit on four topics: fraud and negligent lending practices at the federal U.S. Export-Import Bank; the lethal lack of oversight of the maintenance of natural gas pipelines running near residential areas; a probe of the unconscionably cozy relationship between a local police department, NBC's "Dateline" and a watchdog group that set up a series of sting operations to nab men who trolled on the Internet to arrange sex dates with teenagers; and a heartbreaking look at conditions in a Homeland Security detainee center and the story of one immigrant family's ordeal.
Each one of the reports is incredibly detailed, well-reported and well-told in terms of its impact on the people of the state of Texas. Each report had a swift and significant impact on the moves taken by others to address problems raised in WFAA's reporting. But most impressive was the intelligent and altogether sober presentation of reports on complex topics with lots of specific information, documents, whistle-blowers and opinions from all sides of presented to viewers in segments than run as long as -- gasp -- six minutes or more.
This is reporting that takes time and shoe leather, extensive research and the support of an editorial staff with a deep understanding of the communities they serve. This is television that respects the intelligence of its audience. There are no histrionics or hyperventilating in the delivery, just two seasoned investigative reporters tackling important stories in a fearless, responsible manner. The rhyme of the slogan "News 8 Investigates" is as gimmicky as it gets.
Don't take my word for it. Watch the Peabody-winning news segments on WFAA.com:
"This station has a long history of doing that kind of reporting," said Dave Muscari, vp of product development for the station. "There has been a reluctance by many stations to really stay involved in investigative journalism because it becomes so litigious. It gets a little scary around the edges. This station has never backed away from it. The company has been very supportive of it, and we've been very rigorous and dedicated to it."
WFAA-TV is an ABC affiliate owned by Belo Corp., which also owns the Dallas Morning News (though the publicly held Belo recently split its broadcast and newspaper holdings into two separate companies). WFAA's commitment runs all the way to the top, as the station's prexy and g.m., Mike Devlin, is a former WFAA journalist who later worked as a news director in Portland and Houston before rejoining WFAA as boss about three years ago. While working for Belo's Houston station, KHOU-TV, Devlin led the team that broke the story about defects in Firestone tires that were linked to fatal accidents and debilitating injuries.
The heart of WFAA's investigative team are correspondents Byron Harris (pictured left) and Brett Shipp (pictured right). Harris has been with the station for more than 30 years and is one of the Lone Star state's best-known and respected TV personalities. In the late 1980s Harris broke a series of stories about problems within the savings and loan industry that precipitated the national crisis.
Shipp is a second-generation WFAA-er, the son of a former reporter and news director, Bert Shipp, who worked at the station for more than 40 years. Harris and Shipp, who report to executive news director Michael Valentine, have their own producer Mark Smith and photographer-editor Kraig Kirchem, among other staffers. The unit has the freedom and funds to tackle stories that take weeks, if not months or years to report. The level of documentation and detail that Harris turned up to buttress the allegations of fraud and rampant neglect at the Export-Import Bank are not something you can pull together with a few Internet searches.
To get a comment from the creepy founder of Perverted Justice, the watchdog group that NBC allegedly paid to set up its sexual predator stings, which resulted in a former local district attorney committing suicide in his home as police arrived to serve a warrant for his arrest with a "Dateline" camera crew in tow, Harris traveled to a law enforcement convention in Cleveland to corner his target. And he remained 100% professional and calm as the slippery character -- obviously on the defensive -- insulted Harris for being "old."
Shipp braved xenophobia to tell the story of the Palestinian immigrant Saleheddin Ibrahim and his family, who were torn apart when he was caught in an immigration sweep while his wife and four of his children were sent to a former prison-turned-detainee facility in Austin. When the hate mail started to flow for his sympathetic portrait of the family, Shipp addressed the need for tolerance and humane treatment of outsiders on the air and on his blog on the station's website.
Muscari sez WFAA is particularly proud of its track record as a force for positive social change when it shines a light on dangers, festering issues or wrongdoing. Followup reporting is crucial, and it's clear from the number of stories archived on WFAA's website that Harris and Shipp know how to dog a story from beginning to end.
"In every single one of these stories, human beings were impacted. These are community issues. Without this group of people digging and digging and digging and undoing the onion, people wouldn't know about pipeline problems" or a local police department's highly questionable cooperation with NBC's programming agenda, Muscari says. "We run a business that is judged every day by the ratings. But it's also pretty gratifying when you can do something that affects laws and lives and everything."
WFAA-TV wasn't the only local outlet to earn Peabody recognition last week.
KNXV-TV Phoenix got the nod for its expose of frighteningly lax baggage screening at the city's primary airport.
Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV probed improprieties in Pennsylvania's state-run student loan program, and waged a legal fight for its right to review the state's loan records.
WSLS-TV Roanoke, Va., was recognized for its 48 hours of "live, exhaustive and remarkably calm coverage," as the Peabody judges described it, of the killing spree at Virginia Tech.