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Why TV networks may be afraid of investigative stories

By STEPHEN BATTAGLIO • Updated Dec 2, 2019 at 2:31 PM

LOS ANGELES — This has been the autumn of discontent for investigative TV journalists.

Ronan Farrow’s best-selling book “Catch and Kill” detailed his frustration with former bosses at NBC News over his failed attempt to break the story on the sexual assault and harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. A month later, leaked video showed ABC’s “20/20” co-anchor Amy Robach grousing over how the network would not run a 2015 interview with a victim of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein that implicated Prince Andrew and former President Bill Clinton.

In both cases the networks said the stories never reached the editorial standard they believed was necessary to put it on the air. Robach even publicly backed up ABC’s assertion, saying her private remarks on an open mic were made in “a moment of frustration.”

But the dissatisfaction Farrow and Robach expressed reflects a deepening concern by some veteran journalists and producers that network TV news divisions are avoiding controversial enterprise stories that could pose financial risks from litigation and create aggravation for their corporate owners. Declining ratings, public distrust of the media and the surfeit of news from the Trump White House have added to those pressures.

“I would say that you don’t go to broadcast television to see investigative reporting these days,” said Lowell Bergman, a veteran investigative news producer and emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “There’s much less of it because it’s a bigger hassle than other kinds of reporting. And network television has always been concerned not just with ratings but with profits.”

Chris Hansen, whose undercover and hidden-camera investigations were a staple of NBC News for more than a decade until he left the network in 2013, said enterprise reporting has become less attractive as newsmagazines such as NBC’s “Dateline” and ABC’s “20/20” are seeing higher profits with true-crime stories that can play — and be replayed — like scripted dramas.

“I think a lot of time network executives go, ‘OK, how much can we spend for an Overseas Press Club Award or a Peabody for an investigation? What is that worth our time versus a less expensive crime narrative that people will watch and people will learn something from?’” Hansen said. “It’s good stuff, but it’s not traditional investigative reporting.”

As networks have become part of sprawling, publicly held media conglomerates — ABC parent the Walt Disney Co. and NBC parent Comcast have grown significantly in size in recent years — risk management is now a major element of running a news division.

“There is no question lawyers are more careful now,” said Rick Kaplan, a veteran TV producer who has worked at ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. “Why are they careful? The finance people are telling them, ‘If you lose, and we owe millions of dollars on a legal suit, you’re toast.’”

Rich McHugh, who was the NBC News producer on Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein, said since “Catch and Kill” came out, he has become a sounding board for TV journalists who have faced resistance in getting their investigative and enterprise pieces on the air.

“If you speak to any reporter who has chased down a story, whether it be for a month or two to seven months, everybody has a version of their story getting killed,” McHugh told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve heard from 50 reporters and producers who’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had my story killed, it was infuriating, they said we didn’t have it.’”

Several longtime investigative reporters and producers who spoke to The Times said the legal gantlet they go through to get a story on the air has always been arduous.

“I don’t think you’ll find an investigative reporter who hasn’t had his bosses say a story is going to get a further review because the subject is high-profile,” said one veteran network producer who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “It would be naive not to expect that.”

Chris Vlasto, senior producer of investigations at ABC News, also believed the rigorous review process stories go through has been a constant. But he acknowledged that technology has heightened the level of caution.

“We’re now in a world of fake videos and easily faked documents, and I wake up every night scared about that,” Vlasto said. “I think our lawyers do and I think standards (and practices) does. That’s what makes it a scarier time now for every journalism organization. We have to be on our guard because people want to get us.”

The price for getting an investigative story wrong can be high. A phony document that CBS News used in a 2004 report on former President George W. Bush’s military service effectively ended the network TV careers of its longtime anchor Dan Rather and two of the network’s producers.

The divisive political climate has added tension. For several years, viewers have been subjected to President Trump’s relentless assault on what he calls the fake news media and descriptions of the press as the enemy of the people.

Editorial decisions have become fodder for right-wing critics. Robach’s leaked rant has prompted conservative commentators to suggest that ABC was covering up for Epstein and Clinton, leading House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to request a congressional hearing into the matter.

The erosion of public trust in the media also has created more caution. ABC News parent Walt Disney Co. paid more than $177 million in 2017 to settle a defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. over the network’s 2012 story on processed beef trimmings, known as “pink slime,” which are used as low-cost filler. The network never retracted or apologized for the story and had gone to trial to defend it.

One of the considerations in settling the suit was whether ABC News could get a favorable verdict in a conservative red state such as South Dakota, where BPI is based, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. (ABC News declined comment on the matter.) Under South Dakota law, damages could have gone as high as $5.7 billion.

Network news decision-makers insist there has been no diminution of their efforts or pushback from their corporate overlords.

“I have never felt more support from a news organization to do investigative reporting,” said Richard Greenberg, executive editor for the investigative unit at NBC News since 2016. “The bar is high. But I can assure you the time has never been better, at least at NBC.”

Greenberg declined to comment on Farrow’s assertion in “Catch and Kill” that Greenberg told him to “pause” his Weinstein reporting at the behest of NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke. NBC News called the book a “smear” and Greenberg said he “never” gets corporate interference about running tough stories.”

The network says it has doubled the size of its investigative unit in recent years. While the decision to agree to let Farrow take his Pulitzer Prize-winning Weinstein story to the New Yorker turned into a major embarrassment for NBC, it has not deterred the network’s ability to attract talent to its investigative team. NBC recently announced that Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist, is joining the unit after stints at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

“This is someone not afraid to take on the rich and powerful,” Greenberg said.

CBS News President Susan Zirinsky has been able to bolster her network’s investigative unit since taking over in January. She said resources, not lack of corporate will, has been the challenge at her network, which has made original reporting part of its identity and still has “60 Minutes” as a prime-time platform for investigative stories.

“When I came in, a real priority for me was building up our investigative unit, giving them the producers and correspondents,” Zirinsky said. “We’ve always done investigative, but I felt like they needed more muscle.”

“There is no reluctance here and there never has been,” added Len Tepper, the head of CBS’ investigative unit since 2009, noting that the network uncovered corruption at Wounded Warrior Project, which led to the firing of its two top executives in 2016, even though a CBS board member was involved in the charity for military veterans.

Much of the investigative reporting efforts in recent years have been focused on Washington and the nonstop news frenzy created by the Trump White House.

In late November, CBS News broke a story on how a candidate for an ambassadorship was asked to make a substantial contribution to the Republican National Committee. NBC News revealed a falsified work record of a State Department employee who was fired after the story appeared.

But veteran investigative TV journalists and producers question whether Beltway reporting falls into the same category of work that can change lives.

News executives who spoke with The Times could cite investigative stories their networks have done on private concerns in recent years that resulted in a chief executive resigning or a government action.

Investigative stories, however, have to compete with the firehose of news generated by the Trump presidency and the high viewer interest in it, as proven by the ratings surge that cable news outlets Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have seen since the 2016 campaign.

Hard-hitting Washington stories also are far safer from a litigation standpoint.

“It’s always easier to report in depth on politicians or public officials, because legally there’s less recourse for them,” said Bergman, who was played by Al Pacino in the movie “The Insider.” “It’s always been much more difficult to report on those who control private power, the corporate elites.”

McHugh said during his time at NBC News, he heard reporters not on the White House or national security beats complain about the difficulty of getting their stories on the air.

“The president has become a giant target for the media who sucks up a lot of the oxygen on TV and in print,” McHugh said. “So it’s far easier for editors and producers to say, ‘We are going to devote two segments on Trump and the wrongdoings therein versus this corporate malfeasance elsewhere that comes with tremendous risk attached, even though the viewers might benefit.’”

Richard T. Griffiths, a former CNN producer and executive who is currently a fellow at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism, said the intense viewer appetite for news on a volatile president is hard to ignore.

“I think a big part of that is there is a lot to investigate,” Griffiths said. “They have put the resources where the concerns are and the public curiosity is. I concur that it has probably crowded out a lot of (reporting on) wrongdoing that otherwise would be getting a lot of attention.”

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