The Little Picture: Real Investigations Need Real Investment

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In the Midwest, a trio of television stations kept viewers from catching cold this winter with a spicy news series that was almost too hot for TV.

It started inside an Internet chat room, where vigilantes posing as 14-year-olds were hit on by grown men, and ended at a house where the unsuspecting predators showed up expecting sex but got their mugs on the 10 o’clock news instead.

They called it an “investigation.” In the cities where it aired-Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo.-the competition called it “entrapment,” fake news and “in poor taste.” (Sour grapes usually are.) Meanwhile, viewers watched the stories in droves. Consultants took notes.

Online sex predators are not a new story, but Perverted-justice.com is. The 2-year-old Web site (motto: “Exposing wannabe perverts on the Net”) has begun partnering with TV stations as a way to advance its agenda.

For some observers, the Perverted-justice story is a throwback, tactically and ethically, to one of the all-time undercover classics: the Mirage series in Chicago. In 1977 reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times and “60 Minutes” posed as proprietors of a watering hole called the Mirage Tavern and waited for city inspectors to show up demanding bribes. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize-even the Tribune lobbied on its rival’s behalf-but the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee said no way, that the Sun-Times had lied to get the story.

The Mirage series marked the end of an era in surveillance journalism, but as evidenced by the online-pervert story, it lives on in a highly time-compressed form. In just four days KCTV, the Kansas City station that teamed with Perverted-justice, was able to lure 17 men to its hideout (including one who had a very long 250-mile drive back to St. Louis). WDIV-TV in Detroit caught 15 guys on tape in the same span.

Last week, Perverted-justice posted the results of another quickie sting it conducted with a station in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s not that shocking that people use chat rooms to arrange illicit sex, but that’s not going to stop this story from taking over the May sweeps. And if that’s the case, the stations that get run over will have only themselves to blame.

In many markets, TV stations have long stopped doing real investigative journalism. I-teams were once all the rage; then station groups got nervous about lawsuits and even more nervous about the idea of employees spending weeks on a single story.

Stations today love to promote their stories as investigations, but viewers start to tune out the hype after one too many stories in which the reporter tries to get a locksmith to let him into someone else’s car, or any of a hundred other “investigations” that can be done in an afternoon.

“Six, seven, eight years ago, everyone was doing a lot of great investigative reporting,” laments Joel Grover, the investigative ace of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. Mr. Grover is one of the lucky ones; his boss, Bob Long, gives him time and space and has even been known to reject one of Grover’s ideas because it sounded too much like a ratings ploy.

Mr. Grover has a lot of friends in the business. He hears what goes on at their stations: time pressures, budget pressures and, coming soon, People Meter pressures. When Nielsen can monitor each click of the remote by women 25 to 54, every month will be sweeps month.

“A lot of investigative reporters are being pushed to create more and more and more stories,” Mr. Grover said. “Obviously, you’re not going to break the really big, really important stories that way, because those take time.”

Actually, there’s no dearth of big stories getting on-air. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute sees a lot of investigations as a contest judge. He can rattle off a half-dozen instant classics off the top of his head: A massive expose of workers-compensation problems by WFAA-TV in Dallas; a horrific account, told by Charlotte’s WCNC-TV, of crooked dentists who cap thousands of healthy teeth just to collect Medicaid payments; Indianapolis’ WTHR-TV finding the state foster care system failing to protect children; the dogged reporting of Denver’s KMGH-TV that uncovered an epidemic of rape at the U.S. Air Force Academy (and last week won Best in Show in the National Headliner Awards).

These are stories that make headlines and spur reforms, said Mr. Tompkins. But there’s a catch.

“All of these stations have made a continuing investment in investigative work,” he said. “The best ones are doing some of the best work I’ve seen in years.” Now we’re talking about a very different kind of I-team, the kind that doesn’t get a story in four days on a laptop. The kind of team that turns out solid stories in June as well as in May. The kind that’s expensive to maintain but in return delivers value to viewers and shareholders alike.

Mr. Tompkins doesn’t think the bean counters at most stations will ever go for that. (“There are cheaper ways to get ratings,” is how he put it.) But that doesn’t stop others from dreaming.

“Every station, every market, should have a full-time investigative reporter,” said KNBC’s Mr. Grover. “There’s no excuse not to.”