By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
In March 2005, enterprising 17-year-old high school journalist David McSwane mounted an undercover look into questionable U.S. Army recruiting practices and then hounded local TV stations and newspapers in Denver to follow up. Only CBS-owned KCNC-TV responded, expanding his work into a series of reports, “How Far Will the Army Go?,” which it began airing April 28.
The reporting ended up on “CBS Evening News” and CBS’s “The Early Show” in May, and the Army, responding to KCNC’s work as well as to stories from other news outlets, ordered a daylong recruiting hiatus so it could retrain its recruiters. The station is receiving a Peabody Award for its efforts.
Mr. McSwane, who at the time was a writer and an editor for The Westwind newspaper at Arvada (Colo.) West High School, said he got the idea for his exposé when he overheard a classmate whom he knew to use illicit drugs talking about joining the military.
Being careful not to lie about his Social Security number or name, he said, he went to see the Army recruiters himself. Eventually, he recorded a phone call in which a recruiter told him how to get a fake high school diploma and videotaped a recruiter taking him to a drug paraphernalia shop to get a drug-masking substance. He said he checked with local police to be sure it was legal to tape someone without that person’s knowledge.
He had an idea, he said, the story was “bigger than my high school,” but when he faxed the results to local stations and papers, only KCNC bit.
News Director Tim Wieland said the station “obviously had questions about it” when the call came in from a kid “saying he had this big expos%E9;.” But he agreed to meet Mr. McSwane and his mother, and after the 90-minute meeting, “It sure felt to us like a no-brainer, one we ought to pursue.” The station’s main concerns were that the tapes were valid and the footage hadn’t been staged.
The assignment to work with Mr. McSwane fell to KCNC investigative reporter Rick Sallinger. “We went to the Army recruiters and we played the tapes for them,” Mr. Sallinger said. A commander ordered an investigation into the recruiters’ conduct, and eventually, Mr. Sallinger said, one recruiter was court-martialed and another was reprimanded. Subsequent reports looked at the pressures recruiters were under from higher-ups; the station interviewed the wife of a recruiter who had committed suicide.
KCNC worked closely with its lawyer to get the reports on the air, Mr. Sallinger said, noting that it would have been illegal for the station itself to tape phone calls for broadcast purposes if it hadn’t notified the other party in advance. Moreover, Mr. Wieland said, “We wouldn’t necessarily pose as somebody we aren’t in order to obtain a story, but David had already gone down that road. … We were able to follow him down that road.”
The station made Mr. McSwane and his mother see a lawyer too. The first one they saw, Mr. McSwane said, told them to back out of the TV deal. “My mom was freaking out,” he said, but he insisted on seeing a second lawyer, whose advice was to go ahead.
The Peabody is the station’s second; it also received one more than two decades ago for “Erin’s Life,” a series following a brain-injured patient through her recovery.