Too Close for Comfort
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
DAVID JOHNSON WAS IN his driveway vacuuming his car when a news team from Fox's KSTU-13 arrived. Only four days earlier, Johnson had been fired as the second in command of the committee planning the Winter Olympics scheduled for 2002 in Salt Lake City. He wasn't talking to the press.
Reporter Remi Barron and cameraman Charlie Ehlert walked up Johnson's driveway, with the camera rolling. Johnson told them they had five minutes to get off his property and forbade them to photograph him. Barron told him it wasn't illegal to take his picture.
"Johnson flipped out and knocked the mike out of the reporter's hand and kicked the photographer in the shins," says Eric Watson, KSTU assignment editor. "Then Johnson wrestled the camera out of Charlie's hand and told them they could get the camera back from his lawyer." Johnson then took the camera inside.
About five minutes later, Johnson's wife, Kim, brought the camera back and apologized. Her husband later did the same. Nevertheless, Fox ran the footage of Johnson's outburst.
Kim Johnson knew what her husband had done wasn't smart. She's an on-air reporter for Salt Lake City's ABC affiliate, KTVX, and she was in a difficult situation. It was her colleague, KTVX reporter Chris Vanocur, who obtained a letter written by her husband that broke open the Olympic bribery scandal.
"Sure it's awkward, and we've done our best to insulate her and keep Kim out of having any part in it," says KTVX news director Tom Sides. "Is she fine with it? Needless to say, the whole situation is uncomfortable for Kim. But she's still working here on special reports. It wouldn't be the first time a journalist is married to a newsmaker."
What did Kim Johnson know when? Did she feel any responsibility to report what she did know? That's hard to say. "I do not care to comment on any part of the story,'' she says.
"I'm sure she knew what was going on within the Olympic movement," says Mike Gorrell, who has covered the Olympic planning for the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's very awkward for her. She's hardly been on the air since."
Sides says station officials didn't tell Kim Johnson, then an anchor, about Vanocur's story before it aired on November 24 and haven't forewarned her about other stories concerning her husband. In a February report by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's ethics panel, blame for the scandal was laid largely at the feet of Johnson and his one-time boss, Tom Welch, who resigned in 1997.
The situation at the station was awkward, too, for Vanocur. "Our friendship goes back 10 to 15 years," he says of Kim Johnson. "We've co-anchored in the past. As far as I'm concerned, Kim is a very good friend. Always has been, always will."