In Depth

Sign Off: Investigating the Investigators

By Tom Petner

What will $3,000 get you in today’s depressed broadcast economy?

According to Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” “It probably costs CNN that much to turn on their hologram machine."

But $3,000 and some cheesy costumes did get two young political gadflies some impressive undercover video. In a hidden camera sting, the pair captured video of low-level staffers at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now giving advice on everything from tax evasion, human smuggling to child prostitution.

The fuss and flourish, countercharges and political fallout over the ACORN hidden-camera videos made me curious: Where’s mainstream media in all this? What’s up with investigative units at the local television stations? Are there less, or are the investigative efforts simply lying dormant during these tough times?

As Jon Stewart put it (more like ranted), “Where were the real reporters on this story? Investigative media, where the hell were you?”

The answer is, it’s a mixed bag for investigative units at local stations.

You do see a lot of sweeps and “special report” stories on food quality, and “gotcha” pieces about consumer scams. But judging from my viewing perch in the New York market, you don’t see a lot of true investigative stories — few investigations that truth-squad “breaking stories”, and even fewer that doggedly pursue longrange stories.

“Local news has forsaken such work, largely due to the time it takes to get it right, and the low percentage of wins for time spent,” said Steve Cohen, news director at San Diego’s KUSI-TV.

“The undercover work of the conservative I-team of two [the ACORN pair] is a throwback to the early days of local news investigations. While the work of John Stossel, Steve Wilson and Pam Zekman did not have a political hypothesis, they were driven by a hunch that something was wrong that needed to be turned right. This type of Don Quixote work often targeted groups failing to serve the people.”

To Cohen’s ROI point, today’s economy has taken its toll on local units and personnel. Over the past year, a number of high-profile investigative types have lost their jobs at local stations. The most notable recent example is Roberta Baskin at WJLA-TV, Washington. Her position was simply eliminated.

Mark Horvit, executive director of the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization told me, “It is certainly true that many local affiliates are reducing or cutting their investigative teams, and that at many stations there is even more pressure to produce more with quicker turnaround, as staff sizes shrink. “

So what’s happening?

Mark Toney, senior VP of television and digital strategies at SmithGeiger consultants, says it’s about “the price of admission.”

“You have to look to the basics that have to get covered. You’ve got to spend a lot of resources on breaking news and you’ve got to do it on weather. In the mornings, you’ve got to do traffic. All those things are all sort of the price of admission to get the viewers to watch, to get them into the newscasts before they even get a chance to see the investigative piece.”

Then there’s the big “L-word” that looms large for stations – lawsuit.

As a matter of fact, ACORN says it’s suing the two political activists and others involved in the undercover video, charging that staff members at ACORN’s Baltimore office were recorded without consent. The lawsuit premise: Maryland is a two-party recording state.

“You just can’t simply ignore that your investigative unit is going to get you sued. That’s all there is to it. That’s money. And do you have that kind of money in this environment,” said Toney. ”The reality is, if you do your job right, or wrong, you’re going to have legal problems. You’re going to have more of them if you do it wrong.”

There are indeed television stations still willing to make the big “C-word” — commitment — to investigations. One of them is McGraw-Hill’s station in Denver, KMGH-TV.

Talk to reporter John Ferrugia — one member of the station’s five-person investigative team — and be prepared to hear the passion of an investigative zealot. With a slew of awards, including two Peabodys under its belt, Ferrugia said the investigative unit’s ROI is high. “The investigative team here isn’t ‘we’ll see you next month.’ We’re in a situation where we permeate the news product. We’re part of the newsroom and news product, not separate,” he said.

“When Byron Grandy came here as news director — he’s now the GM — we put together a model and said we’re going to do three things. We can’t be everything. So what we’re going to be is breaking news, weather and investigations. “

What’s the viewers’ take on what they are doing?

“What we see is that we’re content providers, and content spread across platforms,” said Ferrugia. “Its content people want to know about. When they watch our broadcast, they’re not disappointed. We didn’t waste their time. We didn’t build them up for something and tell them the chewing gum was expired. If you can continue to produce quality through the downturn, then on the upturn, people are going to come to understand that your brand is quality. It’s what you do in the worst of times that makes you shine.”