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.
As a result of the News8 investigation into the planting of fake drugs, about two dozen innocent people had drug charges against them dropped. The police officer at the center of the investigation was prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison. Three other officers were prosecuted and sentenced to probation. For News8, said Smith, “it built a following, it built a viewing audience of people that really wanted to see more.” It also helped further build up investigative reporting as a distinctive signature of the WFAA “brand.”
That is something Mike Devlin, WFAA president and general manager, considers good business. “The war we’re in is against parity. There is a sameness in newspapers. There is a sameness in television. The average viewer says this is all the same,” said Devlin. “Aside from outlandish personalities—and they come and go—strong investigative reporting is one of the key components in fighting this issue of parity, or the homogenization of the industry.”
Shipp and Harris usually follow up on their stories as they develop. That puts them more frequently on the air and also reinforces WFAA’s reputation for investigations. The unit has a lot of latitude on stories—which range from fraudulent autopsy mills and unqualified airline mechanics to pastors using church jets for personal business and local voter fraud. Their story ideas are not always approved, says Harris, a thirty-five-year veteran of WFAA. “I describe us as Labradors. The Labrador is supposed to go get the duck and come back with it. That’s what I do. Sometimes the hunters”—the managers—“say, ‘we don’t like the story—go get another duck.’ ” He does so, he says, because “they’ve got the rifle.”
Harris is sixty-three, a silver-haired, natty dresser with the manner of a slightly prickly professor. He seems to have a particular nose for financial wrongdoing—and is proud of WFAA for allowing him to cover those stories. “God, how many local TV stations do stories about the Export-Import Bank?” he asks.
The very thought of a complex financial investigation would likely induce yawns at many stations. But Harris and Smith pulled off a series about the taxpayer-funded bank called “Money for Nothing,” the second of the three series that earned WFAA the 2009 duPont gold baton. It took a year of hard digging. “We waited eight months just to get the documents to do the story,” says producer Smith. He is fifty-four, a former investigative journalist at the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News who came to the station in late 2000. An intense, energetic man, Smith gets many of the tips and does much of the groundwork for the dozen or more short, medium, and long-range stories the team may be juggling at any one time.