WFAA-TV, Dallas: ‘Money for Nothing,’ ‘A Passing Offensive,’ and ‘The Buried and the Dead’

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

In the 20 years the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards jury has been handing out a Gold Baton, the award—its most prestigious—has never gone to a local TV station.
This year, it’s going to WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, which earned the top honor for what the jury saw as the station’s continuing commitment to outstanding investigative reporting. The award caps a strong year for WFAA, which won a Peabody Award on the strength of four reports from its News 8 Investigates team.
The station, owned by Belo Corp., is a frequent duPont winner. Last year, producer Mark Smith and correspondent Byron Harris won a Silver Baton for “Television Justice,” a three-part report on how the Murphy, Texas, police force collaborated with NBC’s “Dateline: To Catch a Predator” sting operations.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Harris are back this year with “Money for Nothing,” an investigation into lack of oversight at the U.S. Export-Import Bank that resulted in fraudulent loans.
Mr. Smith teamed up with correspondent Brett Shipp for the other two reports in the entry: “A Passing Offensive,” which examined pressures at area schools to fabricate passing grades for star athletes, and “The Buried and the Dead,” which exposed safety problems with faulty gas couplings that caused deadly explosions.
“These guys have been at it for a long time; they have incredible contacts,” said Abi Wright, director of the duPont awards program. “Their success has built on itself as they have maintained excellent work over the years. It’s basic shoe leather, and their station backing them, because it takes support to do that kind of work. That’s one of the goals of awarding this kind of work: to give positive reinforcement, positive feedback to stations.”
Tips from the community triggered two of the three stories in the winning package, but Mr. Harris and Mr. Shipp said it was basic follow-up, through Freedom of Information Act requests and poring through boxes of documents, that got the stories on the air.
The real reward in the reporting, said Mr. Harris, a 34-year WFAA veteran who won his first duPont in 1978, “is if you can get to the ‘aha’ moment with the documents.”
The WFAA reporters benefit from being “the only game in town,” Mr. Shipp said, adding, “All the other stations in town have stripped their investigative units bare.” By contrast,WFAA “has the reputation of giving a damn about true journalism and making changes in the community, state, country.”
Stations that don’t, he added, will be “the architect of our own demise. When we don’t expect quality journalism, we give people a reason to turn us off.”
The award to WFAA comes at a time when many local stations are under financial pressures that some fear could mean less money and time for investigative journalism.
The award to WFAA, said Ms. Wright, is first of all to honor the excellence at the station, but “also to send a signal, to boost morale at these stations that are working so hard, and doing more with less.”

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