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February 28, 2006

This is a story you’ll only read about in LEO: Local TV battle turns unsightly over ‘dumped documents’ story

“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning... a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” —Joseph CampbellWhen historian and noted mythology scholar Joseph Campbell died in 1987, the market for local TV news was comparatively smaller and less competitive than it is in 2006. You’ll notice in the quote above, for instance, that he refers to newspapers, which are all but irrelevant today, here in the Future.Despite showing his age, however, Campbell’s words may offer a particularly acute insight into the modern day’s blood-spattered local TV news battlefield. His message was clear: Give yourself time to guide your own thinking before the day’s news does it for you.Rare is the occasion when TV media publicly acknowledge that other stations do, in fact, exist. Meanwhile, they — like all media — constantly piggyback on one another’s stories, mostly choosing to ignore who got theirs first or which station’s “investigative team” has displaced the most figurative dirt. This, as much as anything, is the history of American journalism.For Louisville’s Fox-41, it was the atypical — and perhaps unethical — way the competitive process played out last week following a story it unearthed that pissed off its news team just enough to say something for publication. ‘First on Fox’For all of February we’ve been in the midst of “sweeps,” that sacred period during which a huge media research firm, Nielsen, gathers viewership statistics across the country for programs local and national. If a station’s viewer numbers are high during sweeps, it looks like a badass on things like advertising rate cards. It’s an important time of year.This was a solid TV news story, the veritable Swedish meatball of sweeps food: hundreds of personal legal documents discovered completely intact in a very large, very public recycling bin behind the Louisville Zoo. With identity theft pervasive in the Digital Age, the story was topical and pertinent.A tipster reportedly called every TV news station after finding the booty while dumping non-controversial recyclables last Monday afternoon. According to a Fox rep, it was the first station to respond.Reporter Julie Tam’s story ran during Monday night’s “News at 10,” and revealed that such important personal information as names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and detailed medical information was included in the documents.Tam’s piece also disclosed that Fox-41 had taken one box of documents to examine, and upon discovering its sensitive contents, called the cops. Tam reported that police immediately began an investigation, and the station subsequently ran video footage of an officer removing the documents from the Fox-41 office.Her report also offered this: “We went back to the recycling center where the boxes were found, and all of the boxes were removed. At this hour, there is no word where the documents are or who might have them.” Guess who had them: WLKY-32, better known as “The News Channel.”Waiting to exhaleDuring the Tuesday evening newscast — after Fox-41 had run its second piece on the subject, earlier on the day’s 4 p.m. broadcast — The News Channel’s Paul Moses reported the story as a “Target 32” investigation. The station’s tags implied the station got the scoop.Moses also delivered this heroic line: “This is an identity thief’s dream, and thankfully we’re the ones who grabbed the files.” You may now exhale. Nowhere in its reporting of the story did WLKY — which aired at least two “dumped documents” pieces — mention Fox-41. That’s not uncommon: daily newspapers, for example, those dying beasts of a bygone era, contort in all kinds of absurd ways to avoid mentioning their weekly competitors.“That goes under the heading of imitation being the highest form of flattery,” said John Ferré, a professor of communication at U of L, in an e-mail exchange last weekend. “WLKY’s story is incomplete, but then, so are most broadcast news stories.”Ferré also noted that by failing to cite Fox-41 for breaking the story, WLKY had not misled viewers. But folks at Fox are a bit peeved. News director Barry Fulmer questioned the ethics of his competitor’s reporting and presentation.“Louisville is a very competitive news market, and stations are always doing their best to be first and break the story,” he said. “I think we did a good job reporting the story and letting the public know about an important issue of identity theft.” No investigation? No investigation.Here’s the real kicker: Despite both stations reporting otherwise, there was never any police investigation. Dumping documents in such a way does not warrant a criminal investigation, according to Metro Police detective John Fogle, who is handling the matter.If it were a criminal matter, he said, “both stations would’ve tampered with evidence.”Fox-41’s Fulmer said it was a matter of semantics — police said they would investigate, and the station reported it as an investigation.WLKY-TV news director Mike Neely did not respond to numerous phone messages seeking comment for this story. Ferré said of the competing stories: “It appears that the excitement of both Fox-41 and WLKY led reporters to swipe evidence, which is not only unethical but illegal. However, Fox-41 was acting more in the public interest here than WLKY because they notified the police when they realized that sensitive information was just sitting in public recycling dumpsters, available to any TV news reporter who decided to climb inside.” And so the ultimate question remains: If a news organization breaks a story and there’s no one around to cite it, does it make a scoop? Guess we’ll wait till the next sweeps period for the answer to that one. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com