Carl Monday (courtesy WKYC)
Carl Monday, an investigative reporter with WKYC-TV in Cleveland, received wide attention recently for a story on sexual misbehavior in area libraries. Earlier in May, WKYC broadcast a weeklong series by Monday, “The DUI Dilemma,” which followed the exploits of a chronic drunk driving offender, Patrick “Bubba” Naska. Monday, 55, who was named “Best TV Investigator” by Cleveland Scene, has won 42 regional Emmys in his career. CJR Daily spoke with Monday last week.
Edward B. Colby: Your reporting is relentless, and two of your recent main subjects, Michael Cooper and Patrick “Bubba” Naska, were later arrested after your stories about them aired. But when one of your stories ends with you taking refuge in your car from a father going berserk, and [another includes] Bubba saying, “I’m about ready to kill you,” no matter how intoxicated he was, do you ever think, “Hey, maybe I’ve gone too far?”
Carl Monday: Well, first of all, I don’t think our intention when we decide to take on a story is necessarily to get somebody arrested, or make life miserable for anybody. In both of these cases, the story kind of took on a life of its own, especially with the library story. In the case of Bubba, we felt we had to approach him at some point, and he was all too willing to talk to us, so we just let him ramble on. I think we’d asked him what right did he have to be behind the wheel and putting us all at risk, I think it’s a question that our viewers would have asked if they had been put in that position.
As far as the library story, again, we started off just doing a story. We got statistics and crime reports from the Cleveland and [other] public library systems, and we found, I think just in the past six months, over 50 examples of significant crimes being committed in the library, and a lot of sex-related crimes. And when we found that we said, well, let’s take a hidden camera into the library, and just see what’s happened. We certainly didn’t expect to find somebody [23-year-old Michael Cooper] actually masturbating in the library. And then when we got the video, we spent actually, I bet you it was two weeks before we arrived at a decision on what to do with the video, and we agreed that it was representative of some of the kinds of things that we found in the reports themselves. We felt that it was the right thing to do to air the video, but we naturally wanted to sanitize it as much as possible to make it acceptable for air.
We didn’t have any complaints about the video itself. Nobody complained that “Hey, you were too graphic,” or that “You put sexually-related video on the air,” but there were questions about whether we should have put it on in the first place. Again, that decision was made based on the fact that we had complaints of a lot of sexual activity in the library, sometimes in front of minors; a lot of downloading of sexual content, of sexual predators in the library, sexual predators approaching librarians, grabbing librarians, and on and on and on — sex in the bathroom. So that was what was behind that decision process.
EBC: But still, many bloggers, as you put it, “seemed more than ready to tar and feather” you. Do you think some of their criticisms were justified in terms of the library story, or would you still present the story the same way next time around?
CM: Yeah, they’re certainly entitled to their opinion. We expected to take some heat for it. I think we could have done a better job of making clearer that, one, he was an adult and fully responsible for his actions. We did tell the audience that this was not his first time doing this. He admitted it, so did the library, and I think that was part of our decision process, as well, that he’d been doing this on more than one occasion.
Maybe we should have approached him somewhere else, maybe in a more private setting. We should have made it clearer that we did not approach the family, because a lot of the criticism concerned our quote-unquote interview with the father and the mother. We never knocked on their door — they saw us talking to their son, they came out on the front lawn and started getting verbal and physical with me and my photographer, Mike Leonard. And, well, we had them there, they wanted to know what we were doing there, and I said, “We’re here because your son did this, you know, what do you think about it?” And that’s when all hell broke loose. And of course then we had to decide whether do we include that in the story, and we decided, well, let’s not make that a focal point of the story, let’s put it at the end of the story, and this is what happened while we were out trying to interview Michael Cooper.
This thing has really, like I said, taken on a life of its own. I mean, they’re selling t-shirts on the Internet, “Carl Monday Caught Me Masturbating,” and cartoon strips, and it’s been on every blog and Web site … We certainly like our stories to be seen and heard, but we never thought it would get that kind of exposure. It’s been on MSNBC, it’s been everywhere.
EBC: How long have you been doing investigative television reporting?
CM: [I] was in all-news radio for about five years, but I’ve been in Cleveland television [longer] … I’ve been at WKYC for five years now, and I was at WJW as the I-team reporter — it’s now a Fox station — I was there for 22 years. So, actually next month, I’ll be entering my 28th year in Cleveland TV.
EBC: It seems like people might duck and cover when they see you coming, but in your stories you frequently get incredible access, whether it’s a library manager, police chief or judge taking your pointed questions. So why are people in the Cleveland and Akron area so willing to talk to you on camera?
CM: Well, I’m not sure everybody is, because a lot of times you’re messing with people’s livelihoods and generally making life miserable for people and asking them to comment on stories that they don’t want to comment on. But I think when all is said and done, and despite the confrontations and the video that’s etched in Cleveland viewers’ minds — of me being thrown down stairs by a Cleveland city councilman, or being roughed up on a story — I think people have realized that we at least make an honest attempt to be fair and accurate, and even though sometimes the stories are sensational in nature and sometimes take on a sensational tone, I think that most of the time we’ve been evenhanded in our approach to stories, and I think people realize that.
But they know that we’re not going to back down, either … I remember there was the police chief’s press secretary a few years ago, his public information guy, had a sign in his office when you walked in that said, “You know it’s going to be a bad day when the first person you see in the morning is Carl Monday.” And I always got a chuckle out of that … but I think a lot of that is just television hype. When all is said and done, I think the viewers know that I’m going to try my best to be fair and honest and accurate about a story.
EBC: You also got Mike Cooper and Bubba Naska to admit some incredible things — Cooper admitted that if he were a parent he would be scared of a guy like himself, and Bubba, when told “There’s a warrant out for your arrest, you know that?” replied “I know. There’s about 10 of them, actually.” How did you do that?
CM: I think it’s just a case of engaging in a conversation with somebody, and I think even though they know there’s a camera and a microphone stuck in their face, I think at some point in the conversation they let their guard down, and sometimes even volunteer information. I mean, I had a guy confess to a murder on camera once, believe it or not. Led to a new trial, and the guy, I’m in a conversation with him, and he says, “I want to confess to a crime” … and I say, “Well, what crime did you commit?” And his reply: “Murder.” As I said, you just never know what’s going to come out of their mouths sometimes.
EBC: Whether you intend to or not, sometimes you yourself play an active role in the outcome of your stories — your video of Bubba’s drunk driving, for example, led to his indictment. So do you agree with what Dateline NBC has done recently, deputizing citizens to help make arrests for its “To Catch A Predator” series?
CM: Well, it’s always a touchy subject and we’ve been wrestling with this issue for as long as I’ve been in investigative reporting, and it comes and goes … We go through periods where we vow not to cooperate with the police and withhold all our notes and records, and then we go through a period where we’re riding in the back seat of a cop car. So yeah, it’s always a tough decision to make. Whether or not Dateline has gone too far, I think maybe they’ve gone too far in exploiting that particular subject. I mean, I think it’s being renewed for another 13 weeks. When is enough enough?
Sometimes I think you need it, if for nothing else, for safety reasons — you need to have the police involved. And sometimes it’s the only way to get information. But I think you do have to be careful of crossing that line. I know beat reporters — I’m not going to mention any names — in this town that will not do a story on a particular department, let’s say, because they don’t want to lose them as a source, and I think that that’s when you cross the line.
EBC: Most important of all, is your name really Carl Monday?
CM: Yeah, yeah. Well, you’d think in this ethnic town like Cleveland, I’d use my ethnic name that I was born with, but I was at Kent State, it was 1972, and I was a freshman there, I was doing a radio show. It was my first radio show coming up that weekend, and I didn’t have a radio name, and everybody had to have a radio name back then. And the guys in the dorm, we were just hanging around, and we were thinking, OK, well, what are we going to use? And somebody said there’s a TV series called It Takes A Thief, I think it was called, with what-was-his-name … but anyway, his air name was Alexander Monday. And somebody says, “Well, why don’t you call yourself Carl Alexander?” And I says, “Eh, there’s already an Alexander on the radio in town,” and he said, “Well, how about Carl Monday?” and I said, “Well, OK.” And I then I used it that weekend, and it stuck. It stuck for the next 35 years. But I legally changed it back in 1972, 1973. So yeah, it’s not the name I was born with, but it is my legal name.