The outright faking of news by reporters is so odious and unprincipled that it rarely happens in mainstream American news media. When it does, it kicks up a squall that sends storm signals flying throughout the profession.
All the media can profit by examining a sensational Denver case. This is especially true of TV news stations, most particularly on the eve of the November ratings period. This is when stories are hyped to gain the maximum audience, which is measured to determine advertising rates.Felony charges stemming from the phony story, a staged pit-bull dogfight, are facing an experienced, award-winning "star" reporter and two photographers for the NBC-TV affiliate, KCNC-TV Channel 4, the region's premier station.
The episode has all the Denver media in a swivet.
The Denver Post used front-page play, with two color pictures, and altogether nine stories over three pages plus half a dozen photos, after the three were indicted by a Jefferson County grand jury in Golden on Sept. 21. "A media feast," the Post called it.
When the three put in their first appearance in court last Monday, the judge kept the incident from becoming a circus by permitting one TV camera and one still camera in court under a pool arrangement.
- THE REPORTER, Wendy Bergen, is charged with nine felony counts, including three of lying to the grand jury. Photographer Jim Stair is charged with dogfighting and conspiracy to commit dogfighting and perjury, and photographer Scott Wright with perjury and as an accessory to a crime. All three have resigned from the station. NBC reprimanded the news director.
According to the indictments, this is what happened:
Bergen last fall told the news director she had a source who could get her into a pit-bull fight for a series she was working on called "Blood Sport."
The news chief gave permission to film it. Then, without his knowledge, Bergen paid to have the fight staged and even coached a friend to act as if he had lost money betting on it. But when station officials learned that it is illegal even to attend a dogfight, they shelved the story, which had been planned for the November ratings period.
Bergen and the photographers then decided to use the tape anyway. They told management they had received in the mail a tape of a dogfight from an anonymous source. Bergen altered the original tape by rearranging scenes and copying it several times to reduce the quality, thus making it look homemade. The series was run during the May ratings "sweeps."
Bergen's news director said that "it is simply stunning to find out [deception like thisT could happen."
The Post's TV critic, Joanne Ostrow, ventured how it could: "Because of poor editorial supervision, the pressure to perform in the sweeps, TV's lust for good pictures and, ultimately, arrogance."
And the Post's editor, Gil Spencer, wrote in a column on Oct. 1, "A reasonably alert golden retriever would have known what to do with that tape. But the station . . . whisked it onto the air. A tape that could have been filmed in Norway. A tape supplied by a reporter intoxicated with ambition and big story ideas. A tape as anonymous as it was unquestioned by people who know better. . . ."
Bergen is accused of having lied about the affair to the grand jury three times over the summer.
- THE CLOSEST PARALLEL to this story in recent years was the Janet Cooke case, still the most famous instance of how a reporter hoodwinked her own paper with a bogus tale.
Cooke, remember, was the Washington Post reporter who concocted a story headlined, "Jimmy's World: 8-year-old Heroin Addict Lived for a Fix."
The story won her the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. A red-faced Post sent it back when it admitted the story was made up of the whole cloth and fired her.
Although the Post denounced the reporter as an inveterate liar, the editors deserved condemnation, too. Like the KCNC editors, they did not insist on knowing the identity of the "sources" at the outset. They began to ask questions only three weeks after the story appeared on the front page and after they had stonewalled on the issue of source protection in the face of demands of Washington police for the names.
Moreover, the Post managed its newsroom by "creative tension," pitting one reporter against another for front-page exposure, thus creating the conditions for the same kind of blind ambition the Denver story apparently betrayed. "I simply wanted not to fail," Cooke said afterward.
Lyle Denniston, a Supreme Court reporter for the Baltimore Sun, summed up the sad Cooke episode, and the star system that produced it, in a way that might be applied to the Denver case.
"The ultimate tragedy . . . was that it was so predictable. The power groupie, the fame-driven person runs through this profession now in great numbers. I don't think people respect truth very much; they respect theater and they respect excitement, but truth isn't a driving proposition anymore."