The story began simply enough. In St. Louis, KMOV-TV reporter Craig Cheatham was investigating a school district in an affluent suburb of St. Louis that was failing to meet the needs of special-education students. Then he met Stephon, a special-ed student from the East St. Louis school district, which is notorious as one of the worst districts in the state and is considered impossible to penetrate or change.
“It’s a forgotten community,” said KMOV acting news director Genie Garner, who is now news director at Belo station WHAS-TV in Louisville, Ky.
“Most viewers think of East St. Louis problems as insurmountable,” said KMOV photographer/ editor Gary Womack, which leads them to regard stories about the district as “white noise.”
But Stephon led to Tom Kennedy, an attorney who had a mission to improve the East St. Louis school district, and soon Mr. Cheatham was producing the first of what would be 21 reports over a seven-month period.
Those reports methodically documented a web of abuse, corruption, nepotism and state and federal violations that were undeniable in their power and shock value. That included, ultimately, the revelation that district funds were being used to create hundreds of non-teaching jobs for school board family members or political cronies.
“You start out excited, then you get frustrated and angry, and then you dig in your heels,” said Mr. Cheatham, explaining the evolution of the news focus. “We decided it was worth the fight.”
He credits Ms. Garner with taking a big risk. “It was a risky situation for an acting news director to go this far out on a limb,” he notes. “The stories represented a community that is constantly forgotten. The station wasn’t going to curry any favor with running this story. They did it for all the right reasons.”
Mr. Cheatham also credits the Belo group, which owns KMOV. “They place a very high value on enterprise journalism, especially investigative journalism,” he said. “They walk the talk and they look for relentlessness.”
Mr. Cheatham received cooperation from many involved parties, but the school board—source of the most egregious activities—totally stonewalled him. He filed at least a dozen requests for documents through the Freedom of Information Act to get the school board minutes, which revealed some of the worst abuses.
The KMOV reports generated change. “I don’t think there’s any question that our story had a significant impact on how the school district educates kids in East St. Louis,” said Mr. Cheatham, who said half a dozen people were demoted or reassigned and students at two charter schools got special-ed services that had been denied by the district for at least four years.
“One thing we noticed is that the board rubber-stamped everything, and that isn’t the case any more. I believe the process is no longer quite corrupt. It’s cleaned up considerably, and that’s a lasting change,” he said.
Credits: Craig Cheatham, reporter; Gary Womack, photographer and editor; Genie Garner, acting news director