CHARLESTON, SC — Last Thursday, folks in the newsroom at WCHS, an ABC affiliate in Charleston, WV, were feeling pretty good. Indictments had just come down against two public officials the station had named in a May broadcast, citing anonymous sources, as targets of a state and federal investigation. One employee even used the word “relieved”—though not everyone at the station agrees that’s the best way to characterize the mood.
That spring broadcast led to a public spat between WCHS, located in the state capital, and the editorial board of a local newspaper in Mingo County, tucked amid coal country in the state’s southwest corner. The Williamson Daily News had attacked WCHS—though it didn’t name the station—in an editorial that accused the out-of-town TV media of coverage that was “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.” (A link to the editorial on the paper’s website is broken, but you can read much of it in my May post for CJR.) The newspaper’s ire focused on the station’s use of anonymous sources in the May 20 segment, in which reporter Kallie Cart said FBI and state police were looking into “alleged election violations” and “other possible federal crimes” by local public officials. WCHS named as targets of the investigation Michael Thornsbury, Mingo County’s only judge, and David Baisden, a county commissioner. Indictments were “expected soon,” Cart reported.
The wait turned out to be nearly three months. But late last week, those federal indictments came down against both men.
“There is a measure of vindication in this for us,” the station’s news director Matt Snyder told me. “As you know, our initial story received some backlash, so it’s always a good day when the facts come to light.”
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Judge Thornsbury is accused of a complex and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to frame a romantic rival by planting drugs on the man, among other shenanigans, and manipulating a grand jury to have him put behind bars. “Prosecutors say Thornsbury was having an affair with his secretary when she tried to end it. He tried to frame her husband to eliminate the competition,” The Associated Press reported. Thornsbury has been charged with conspiring to violate the husband’s constitutional rights. (The salacious details of the judge’s alleged conspiracy really are something when it comes to low-rent local corruption, and I urge everyone to read this account in The Charleston Gazette by Kate White, Ken Ward Jr., and Rusty Marks. The story would make for a great made-for-TV movie, which could even include a prologue about Thornsbury’s shady refusal to recuse himself from hearing a major pollution case against a coal company he had ties to, until the state Supreme Court ordered him to step down.)
For his part, Baisden the commissioner is charged with the more prosaic offense of allegedly “attempting to use his authority to persuade a store to give him a discount on tires for his personal automobile,” according to the Charleston Daily Mail. When the store didn’t play ball, the politician, who is also the county’s purchasing agent, allegedly ended the store’s government contract, costing it tens of thousands of dollars. The allegations are unrelated to the charges against the judge.
Back in May, when WCHS aired its original broadcast on the investigation against the two men, reporters for the Daily News were chasing the story too. But the paper wasn’t willing to run with anonymous sources discussing charges that hadn’t yet been filed against people in its home community, an editor told me. “[I]t’s easy for television media [in Charleston] to jump the gun on a potential big story,” the paper’s May editorial read. “They won’t see those that they’ve unjustly attacked at the grocery store or at a youth baseball game … We want what’s best for our community and right now, what’s best, is not to perpetuate rumors.”
The station stood by its story in the face of that criticism. Here’s what I wrote about the back-and-forth at the time:
And, obviously, dealing carefully with anonymous sources can be tricky. You have to make sure they’re not giving you bad info to push an agenda, or echoing a common flawed data point. And if the WCHS story turns out to be wrong―if those indictments don’t come to pass―the station will owe its readers and the subjects of its reporting an accounting of why it got and relayed bad information.
But a serious investigation of prominent public officials, with indictments imminent, is a newsworthy story. And anonymous sources can be a legitimate reporting tool, used carefully. Was WCHS right to have confidence in the credibility of its information? At this point it’s impossible to say from the outside; the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.