When personnel cuts come around, investigative teams often are among the first casualties. Their reporters tend to be some of the newsroom’s most experienced and highly paid, and in some cases the unit is assigned a dedicated producer and photographer. That adds up to the kind of money that many cash-strapped stations well might decide to save or reallocate—no matter how prestigious the unit.
That’s what happened in January 2009 when Roberta Baskin, the last remaining member of the investigative unit at Allbritton Communications’ WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., was laid off—the day after she won a duPont-Columbia Award for exposing a pediatric dental chain that was ripping off Medicaid and other insurers by doing unnecessary procedures on children. The station said steep personnel cutbacks had left it unable to afford specialty reporting.
Joe Bergantino, an award-winning veteran of Boston’s WBZ-TV and head of its investigative unit, said he left in May 2008 after he was told the station had decided to look at “less in-depth projects.” He became the first director and senior investigative reporter at Boston University’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
In Dallas, the ranks of investigative reporters also have thinned, the latest departure being that of Bennett Cunningham from CBS affiliate KTVT last December, reportedly over a management request that he take a five-figure pay cut. He plans to practice law.
WFAA has its own stable of accomplished investigative journalists, including the award-winning News8 Investigates team of reporters Byron Harris and Brett Shipp, producer Mark Smith, and photojournalist Billy Bryant. The station is hardly impervious to the economic pressures weighing on so many stations these days, but WFAA’s management has decided to allocate resources in a way that retains and highlights strong investigative work, and not just during sweeps periods, when ratings are measured, but on a near-daily basis.
Harris, Shipp, and Smith brought home a 2009 duPont-Columbia Gold Baton for a trio of investigations—the first time the award’s highest honor has ever gone to a local television station. That baton gleams on a sunny windowsill in Valentine’s office. He commissioned the investigation into the tragic Wylie house explosion, back in 2006, when he was the station’s executive news director. That story led to a series called “The Buried and The Dead,” one in the package of three investigative series that snagged the award. More importantly, it exposed a potentially deadly threat to thousands of Texas families.
After months spent reviewing reams of documents, interviewing families, and enlisting the help of experts, reporter Shipp and producer Smith discovered that the problem with the gas-pipe coupling near the home of Benny and Martha Cryer was not just an aberration caused by work in the vicinity by another utility, as the official report suggested. Instead, it was symptomatic of a far larger problem, one plaguing thousands of similar couplings and posing the threat of more tragic results.
Mostly installed prior to the 1980s, these compression couplings—connecting the gas main to the service line to the home gas meter—were joined with rubber seals that appeared to steadily deteriorate and weaken over years of cyclical, weather-related expansion and contraction of the soil. Shipp found that the manufacturer of the couplings had long ago warned of their “pullout potential” and had recommended the addition of a cheap part to secure the connection. Called a supplemental restraint, the part would have kept the joints together. But the gas company apparently failed to make the modification.
Moreover, the investigation revealed that the Railroad Commission members, who are elected, received a substantial amount of their campaign funds from the very industries they regulated—which may raise questions but is legal under Texas law.
The WFAA series launched a year after the Cryer house exploded. “And three weeks later the Railroad Commission ordered the removal of the problem couplings that resulted in the Cryers’ deaths,” said Shipp. It is likely that the series and the station’s relentless pursuit of the story saved lives. But, Shipp pointed out, some three million compression couplers still exist beneath the soil across Texas and are being replaced only after leaks are reported or found.