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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Doesn't Pass the Sniff Test   

Nashville reporter jumps the gun with water plant safety report.

By Lonnie Shekhtman

According to his biography on WTVF-Channel 5's Web site, reporter Rob Manning loves to do live, breaking news stories. So perhaps it should be no surprise that he decided to break into Nashville's water plant to demonstrate the potential threat terrorism posed to the metro water supply.

In a report that aired October 12, attempting to show how easily terrorists could poison the water with anthrax or smallpox, Manning shimmied underneath a water facility fence and reported from inside that it had only taken him 20 seconds to break in. Plus, he added, a security guard had pulled up in a truck and didn't even bother to question him! In retrospect, this was probably because Manning had actually broken into the city's wastewater treatment plant, several miles away--and worlds apart in other ways--from the water facilities.

His bio does say that his favorite part of the job is "telling stories you don't often hear about." Well, this is probably a reporting first.

When asked how he confused the two facilities, Manning says it wasn't so much a matter of confusion. Rather, he wanted to expose problems. Waste problems, water problems--whatever. And since the city had assured him that all water facilities had a high level of security, he says he decided to investigate and see if that was the case.

"I knew it was one of the water facilities," Manning says. "I didn't know what they treated there." He concedes "it would have been a stronger story" had he broken into the right facility. The assistant director of operations at Metro Water Services, David Tucker, says the two water facilities look nothing alike. Plus, "there's definitely a difference in the smell," Tucker says. Because Manning entered the plant from the rear, which is mainly the service gate, he did not see the sign identifying it as a wastewater plant.

Gene Policinski, deputy director of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, says that there are very few cases where this type of journalism is appropriate--even if it involves the correct facility. "It's very flashy, it has an aura of drama about it, but it's not news," Policinski says. "I think the public is not willing to accept gimmick journalism."

But thanks to Manning, Nashville can rest easy--its sewage is now safe from the threat of terrorism. Manning's investigative report has led Metro Water Services to repair the point in the fence where Manning was able to crawl through.

"He could have done the same thing if he would have come and said, 'Hey, you have a hole in your fence,' " Tucker says.

Edited by Jill Rosen