TV journalists indicted for illegal dogfight
A grand jury’s investigation into allegations that KCNC-TV staged an illegal pit-bull fight has resulted in indictments against three station employees.
By Joanne Ostrow
Joanne Ostrow is TV/Radio critic for The Denver Post.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 7 (October 1990), p. 3.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
“Blood Sport,” Denver TV station KCNC’s special four-part report on illegal pit-bull fighting, seemed tailor-made for the spring ratings sweeps.
A grand jury has determined that it was.
On September 21, former KCNC reporter Wendy Bergen was indicted for allegedly paying to stage an illegal pit-bull fight which was videotaped for her series, and then lying about it to a grand jury. Bergen faces up to 32 years in prison if convicted of all charges, which include two counts of first-degree perjury.
The jury also indicted Channel 4 photographers Jim Stair and Scott Wright for their involvement in the dogfight and attempted cover-up. All three staffers have resigned at the request of the station.
KCNC news director Marv Rockford was issued a reprimand for not adequately supervising his staff. No station managers were indicted; NBC, which owns and operates the station has reopened an internal investigation.
Rockford said he had given the OK for Bergen to begin work on the series after she told him she had a source who could get her in to see a dogfight. According to the indictments, Bergen paid that story source what amounted to $250 to get information and make arrangements for a fight.
Later, in exchange for immunity, this same source wore a wireless microphone and secretly recorded a conversation with Bergen for the prosecution.
There are other bizarre twists to the story: When Bergen discovered the tape shot at the dogfight had audio problems, she allegedly had her source repeat comments about fictitious betting that were staged for her story — after coaching him on what words to use and even voice inflection. Bergen and Stair also supposedly used a Channel 4 vehicle to transport a pit-bull to Stair’s home to get video of the animal training on a treadmill.
While Bergen was working on the series which was originally planned for the November sweeps, she apparently learned that even attending a dogfight is a felony in Colorado, punishable by a $100,000 fine and four years in prison.
Bergen had gone to the district attorney and told him she had pictures of a pit-bull fight. He advised her not to air the tape. Because of the legal problems, station management then shelved the series.
In a memo to Rockford, Bergen wrote, “I have every intention of getting ‘fighting pits’ back on track for May . . . One day I am going to get an anonymous 1/2-inch tape in the mail of a fight. As we say in the biz, I believe it will be a ratings success!!”
Sure enough, a tape appeared. Apparently, no red flags were seen by management and the series ran in May.
Immediately, rumors started circulating; an anonymous caller tipped the Rocky Mountain News that the series had been staged by Channel 4.
Rockford, at this time, dismissed the allegations as “absolutely not true.” He said the feotage was shot by amateurs and mailed anonymously to the station. According to the indictments, this is the story Bergen and the photographers agreed to tell. They also allegedly copied the tape several times to reduce the quality of the original and doctored it to make it look more amateurish.
The case was turned over to the Jefferson County grand jury at the end of May and Bergen was placed on paid leave of absence. NBC launched an investigation, flying in corporate lawyers from Chicago.
Weeks later, Channel 4 admitted that Bergen and a KCNC camera crew had been present at a pit-bull fight last September. The station did not make clear whether the videotape shot by its staff was the tape aired in the Bergen series.
Throughout the summer, KCNC staffers were called to testify before the grand jury. Bergen, Stair and Wright stuck to their story until September 13, a week before the indictments were returned, when they learned they might be charged with perjury. The court records show that the photographers then changed their testimony and said they had fabricated the story about the tape being mailed anonymously. Bergen, the same day, repeated the original version of how they got the tape. She was indicted for perjury for lying to the grand jury on three different occasions. Stair and Wright were charged with a lesser crime, conspiracy to commit perjury.
After the indictments, Rockford said, “A great deal of trust is inherent in the editorial process. I accepted at face value Wendy’s explanation. Clearly, I shouldn’t have.” He said what happened to KCNC could happen to any news organization if the reporter is determined to deceive.
“These are all basically good people,” Rockford said. “It’s a tragedy for everybody . . . So many people have lost so much. Why (this happened) is a question I don’t think I’ll ever know.”