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.
Since the Cryer house blew up in 2006, at least five more houses have exploded, killing two Texans and seriously injuring at least five others. At least four of those explosions were related to faulty compression couplings, according to Shipp. “That story never went away. We could have said we won our award and that’s it. Uh-uh. People are still dying,” said Shipp. He is fifty-one, a tall, lanky reporter and second-generation WFAA-TV staffer whose affable demeanor belies a fierce persistence. He talks Texas, too. “All our stories have legs,” he said. “It just depends if you want to keep walking.”
The WFAA investigative unit scored its first big triumph with the sixteen-part series “Fake Drugs, Real Lives,” which won a 2002 Peabody and a 2003 duPont-Columbia Silver Baton. Shipp and Smith reported that the Dallas Police Department’s spectacular success on drug busts in 2001 was not quite what it seemed. In fact, more than half the total cocaine recovered, and more than a quarter of the methamphetamines, turned out to be nothing more than pulverized billiard chalk or sheetrock. Paid police informants framed dozens of people—primarily non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants, many of them working as mechanics—by stashing the fake drugs in cars at auto shops. The informants collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rewards, which they shared with their police handlers.