Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV is being honored with a “compilation” award for four notable investigative series in 2007.
“We try to pick stories with systemic issues that need to be looked at long-term,” said investigative producer Mark Smith. “There are so many stories out there, it’s a real art to culling out the key ones and focusing our energies on projects we can do a multipart [report] on.”
All the story ideas came from the reporters (Byron Harris for “Money for Nothing” and “Television Justice,” Brett Shipp for “Kinder Prison” and “The Buried and the Dead”), said Mr. Smith, who produced all four programs. Kraig Kirchem was photojournalist for all four stories.
“Money for Nothing” started when Mr. Smith got a tip from a federally connected source who was troubled by the lack of oversight at the U.S. Export-Import Bank on guarantee or insured loans. The Ex-Im is a federal entity that aims to create U.S. jobs by financing sales of domestic goods to foreign buyers.
Researching the story was a long process, said Mr. Smith; it took nine months of asking for and then receiving records from the bank before the story could even take off.
What he and Mr. Harris found was shocking. “The bank made nearly $250 million in loans to Mexican businesses without verifying basic facts,” Mr. Smith said. “A simple Google search showed money going to companies who didn’t even carry the products they were supposed to be selling.”
During a 1,500-mile road trip to various listed businesses, the team discovered the businesses had no idea they were even listed on loan applications.
“The ultimate troubling thing was that some of the loans had gone to businesses connected directly or indirectly to the Mexican drug cartel,” said Mr. Smith. “And the default rates were atrocious.” The story is still unfolding.
“The Buried and the Dead” examined the safety hazard created by thousands of gas couplings that were put in the ground in the 1970s and ’80s.
Federal standards and manufacturer warnings said these couplings could have serious leakage problems, but the Railroad Commission, which regulates the natural gas pipeline system in Texas, didn’t remove them. After a number of deaths due to gas leaks, WFAA-TV told the story.
“The Railroad Commission didn’t put the pieces together to see that the couplings were at fault for a number of years,” said Mr. Smith. “After our stories, it led to the commission ordering these couplings to be replaced throughout the state.”
“Television Justice” followed the lengths to which the Murphy Police Dept. went to accommodate “Dateline NBC’s” “To Catch a Predator.” “They sacrificed justice in the effort to help ‘Dateline’ make entertainment ratings,” said Mr. Smith. “They went to the point where the cases became un-prosecutable.”
WFAA-TV came in three months after the “Dateline NBC” sting operation in Murphy, inquiring about why none of the cases featured on the show had gone to trial. “That’s when we found out that the district attorney’s office had warned the police and police had left because they were troubled by the investigation,” he said.
“It was a difficult story to tell, because Murphy is a small town and there are a lot of people who were definitely supportive of the operation,” Mr. Smith said. “It was one of those things that divided the community, and because of small-town politics, getting people to be candid was very, very difficult.”
For “Kinder Prison”—about women and children detained in a federal immigration facility while they awaited decisions on their amnesty appeals—WFAA-TV ultimately produced 25 stories, indicative of how this explosive story developed over time.
“The problem we raise in the stories was that many of these people weren’t flight risks,” said Mr. Smith. “They were law-abiding people, many of them in the U.S. for many years, and to incarcerate them in 8-foot by 8-foot cells for lengthy periods seemed inhumane and beneath the standards this nation has prided itself on.”
Equally if not more disturbing was the fact that children as young as 2 also were being held in the facility, with minimal schooling, questionable healthcare and a scant hour of playtime outside the cells.
“The story led to a change in the conditions in which these individuals were being detained,” said Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith said it’s no accident that WFAA-TV was able to put out four substantive investigative pieces in a single year.
“The overriding theme in our news department is, if you’ve got a good story, you have to give the reporter time to work on it,” he said. “Upper management creates an environment that allows us to accomplish those goals.”