East St. Louis is notorious as an impoverished community that has operated by its own rules for as long as anyone can remember. "It's a forgotten community," said KMOV-TV acting news director Genie Garner. "There's an attitude that no one wants to see stories about East St. Louis."
The belief that East St. Louis problems are insurmountable and unchangeable is what leads most viewers to regard stories on the topic as "white noise," said KMOV-TV photographer/editor Gary Womack.
But that didn't stop reporter Craig Cheatham, with Mr. Womack, from producing 21 reports over a seven-month period that, step by step, revealed a web of educational abuse, state and federal violations and the East St. Louis school board's nepotism and corruption.
"This is something that Craig has been passionate about for a long time," said Ms. Garner. "He had all his ducks in a row and knew where he wanted to start and where he wanted to go. Our VP/General Manager Allan Cohen said, just do what you need to do. When I see that passion and commitment, I'm thinking, maybe we could make a difference today."
The story started with a focus on problems in special education. "We were investigating a different school district that was failing to meet the need of special ed kids, in an affluent suburb of St. Louis that had traditionally been a good school district," said Mr. Cheatham. "I'd always heard that East St. Louis is one of the worst school districts in the state and possibly the country, but I couldn't get in."
Then Mr. Cheatham met Stephon, a special ed child in the East St. Louis district who had been thrown out of public schools and abandoned by special education teachers. That led to a connection with Tom Kennedy, an attorney who has made it his mission to improve the East St. Louis school district.
"The goal was initially to resolve this situation with special education," said Mr. Cheatham. "That was our focus for the first six weeks. We felt like we'd resolved it as much as we could when [the new school superintendent] Theresa Saunders agreed to provide the services they'd failed to provide for the last four years."
At the same time, Mr. Cheatham began receiving tips on other, more sinister problems in the school district. But Mr. Cheatham and Mr. Womack faced a daunting hurdle if they wanted to continue their investigation. "We had to balance daily assignments with this ongoing investigative project, which was extremely difficult," said Mr. Cheatham.
As Ms. Garner put it, "When you're a journalist, you're feeding the beast every day with the things people want to see. Sometimes you have to give them what you think they need to see. And once you start doing those stories, people pay attention."
Though Mr. Cheatham and Mr. Womack had the full support of KMOV-TV management, they still had to produce daily news stories, and they worked many extra hours pursuing the East St. Louis reports.
"I had to do an awful lot of juggling," said Mr. Cheatham. "I can't take myself out of the daily news mix. The most time we got [for East St. Louis] was two consecutive days, and there was a stretch when Genie gave us one day a week."
Fighting for enough time to cover the story was only one problem. Although Mr. Cheatham received a lot of cooperation from East St. Louis local politicians, teachers, administrators and parents of kids who weren't getting services, the school board stonewalled them.
"The only people who didn't like us to look into the school district were the ones who put jobs and self-interest in front of the interests of children," he said. "It's a small group of people, but a powerful one."
Initially, Mr. Cheatham saw hope in the form of Dr. Saunders, the new school superintendent who came from outside the community. But the ongoing TV reports show Dr. Saunders increasingly bowing to the wishes of the powerful school board.
To dig deeper into the story, which included the gross misuse of district funds and the creation of hundreds of non-teaching jobs for board members' family or political cronies, Mr. Cheatham submitted at least a dozen requests for documents through the Freedom of Information Act. It took weeks to get the minutes of the school board meetings.
"The copies of the minutes changed everything," he said. "It provided names of people who were hired, their salaries, who voted for them, the lack of disclosure. It was even worse than we thought it was. Out of the 120-plus new jobs the district had created, all of them were patronage jobs to some extent. They treated it like an employment agency."
KMOV-TV's coverage did have an impact. Many of the special education issues were resolved, with students getting the services they'd been denied, as well as a reorganization of the special education department and the reassigning of the department head.
In recent elections, one of the school board members lost, but the old circle of power is still in charge.
"We're not taking a Peabody and running from East St. Louis," said Mr. Cheatham, who said they've gotten positive feedback from the people of East St. Louis. "If anything, we're digging in our heels, even more interested in staying. The investigation is ongoing."