Wendy Bergen's Exclusive
The ace reporter promised her bosses at KCNC Denver a riveting story on illegal dogfights. Strange thing, it arrived in a plain brown envelope.
Alan Prendergast, a freelance writer basedin Denver.
Hoaxn Denver, as in most major television markets, the local news stations tend to schedule their most provocative stories for the "sweeps" months of November, February and May to boost the ratings book. That was the case in early May of 1990, when KCNC-TV unleashed "Blood Sport," a four-part series prepared by reporter Wendy Bergen on illegal pit-bull fights.
"Blood Sport" was classic sweeps material, a shrill and bloody exposé. Featuring gruesome close-ups of pit bulls tearing into each other, interviews with rabid fans and boastful dogfighters (with faces and voices disguised) and disturbing claims that the so-called sport was "big business" in Colorado, it was the kind of eye-grabbing story KCNC had come to expect from its star reporter.
It was also an outrageous fraud. Even before the final segment aired, rumors were spreading that at least one of the featured dogfights had been staged for KCNC's cameras. Bergen claimed to have received the fight footage anonymously in the mail, but the truth was even worse than anyone could imagine: All the dogfighting had been arranged by Bergen or others for the series, and other scenes purporting to show high-stakes gambling and dogs being trained to fight were also staged.
Over the past 18 months, "Blood Sport" has generated far more controversy than KCNC bargained for. The series cost Bergen and two veteran photojournalists their jobs and led to their indictment on a total of 15 felony charges, ranging from perjury to conspiracy to commit dogfighting, the crime they had set out to expose. Bergen, to be sentenced this month, faces up to 10 years in prison. Bergen's superiors at KCNC, the local NBC affiliate, have also come under fire, despite their insistence that they were hoodwinked along with the public. The case has emerged as broadcasting's version of the Janet Cooke affair: a tale of ambition and deception, of manufactured "facts" attributed to anonymous sources and of a system that failed to safeguard the news-gathering process from fakery.
Yet the "Blood Sport" scandal is even more bizarre than Cooke's Pulitzer Prize-winning hoax. The evidence suggests that not even Bergen and her cameramen knew that certain aspects of "Blood Sport" were faked. Bergen staged some scenes and lied to her boss about it, but she was also apparently tricked by her sources, who found it surprisingly easy to manipulate the news.
"It was just one small, bad decision after another," Bergen says now. "I knew it was wrong, but no one ever believed it would go to this level."
Bergen's 12-day trial this past summer became something of a media event itself, drawing the attention of "The CBS Evening News" and live coverage by the Courtroom Television Network, the fledgling cable operation. For many observers, the criminal case was overshadowed by troubling questions about ethics, ratings wars and the often blurred line between video reportage and showmanship. It was almost as if TV news, not one wayward reporter, was on trial.
Maybe it was. Bergen's actions notwithstanding, she wasn't the only one responsible for "Blood Sport," nor was she the one who decided to broadcast the series, which had been plagued with legal and ethical problems from the start. Her deception never would have made it on the air without the aid of a helpful technical crew and unskeptical editors and station management. The case uncovers a dark side of electronic journalism, where "getting the story" means getting the right pictures and sound bites, no matter how contrived; where ethics and even common sense can be abandoned in pursuit of the powerful, controversial and, in this case, counterfeit visual images seen on the evening news.
Before "Blood Sport," Wendy Anne Bergen had a reputation in local media circles for hard work, dedication and considerable success. Raised in affluence in Greenwich, Connecticut, Bergen had distinguished herself at smaller stations in upstate New York and North Carolina before joining KCNC in 1983. Six years later, at 33, she collected three regional Emmy awards for an undercover series on the homeless; to get the story, she and a Denver Post reporter, posing as a homeless couple, had lived on the streets for a week.
It was the high point of Bergen's career, but within a few months she was looking into what she believed would be an even bigger story: pit-bull fights. Although the practice was illegal, Bergen had heard about a shadowy "underworld" of dogfighting that authorities rarely investigated. This secret society fought dogs in suburban basements, she'd heard, for pride and money.
Bergen pitched the story to KCNC's then-assignment editor, Anne Gordon and won approval to try to infiltrate what she thought would be high-stakes, heavily-attended affairs. Gordon would later recall that they were both enthusiastic about the project; she told Bergen that if she could get tape of an actual fight, "this could be an award-winner."
There was only one problem: dogfighting, it seemed, was not the thriving scene Bergen imagined; during the past decade there had only been two convictions for dogfighting in the entire state. In any case, organized dogfights were hard to come by in the Denver area.
Undeterred, Bergen turned to a source she'd recently developed, Mark Labriola, a 28-year-old telemarketer at a local investment firm. Despite his prosperous, clean-cut appearance, Labriola claimed to know some pretty rough customers, including dogfighters. He was also remarkably eager to help Bergen with her series – so eager that Bergen's attorney would later accuse him of being a "news groupie." For her part, Bergen soon became dangerously dependent on Labriola's help.
As it turned out, Labriola knew very little about dogfighting. He did, however, introduce Bergen to a few "contacts," including a man named Dennis Poindexter, who testified at Bergen's trial that Labriola had secretly urged him to con Bergen into thinking he knew some big-time dogfighters. "We lied from the get-go," Poindexter said. "Just to be on TV, I guess. I don't know."
Eventually Labriola asked Bergen for $50 to pay a contact in California to provide the address of a local pit-bull breeder. Bergen balked, saying she'd never paid for a story before. But on September 20, 1989, she handed Labriola the cash – money her attorney characterizes as a "finder's fee" for information, not payment for a dogfight – and Labriola wired it to California. That evening he met with Phil Walker, a sullen 22-year-old who claimed a certain expertise in dogfighting, according to Labriola's testimony.
Accounts of how the first fight came about – specifically, whether Bergen knew at the time that Labriola paid Walker $200 for the dogfight – vary tremendously. At the trial the key players couldn't seem to agree on what amount Labriola paid, when it was paid or whether Bergen flatly refused to pay. In any case, on September 21 Bergen and her crew attended a hastily arranged match that prosecutors argued would not have happened without KCNC's participation. It was between a 14-year-old brindle and a young black challenger.
The fight took place on a secluded sandbar along the South Platte River. Bergen arrived in an unmarked station vehicle with cameramen Scott Wright and Jim Stair, the hero of KCNC's celebrated 1988 helicopter chase of a cop killer. Walker and Labriola each brought a friend, but there were no other spectators. "I just thought they didn't want to be on camera," Bergen says now, regarding the absence of any fight fans. "Once we got what we got, no one really questioned it."
Labriola and Walker brought the snarling pit bulls within a few feet of each other. No one told the dogs it wasn't a real fight. Once released they charged and fought savagely for about a minute, until the brindle had a secure grip on the black dog's head. Walker narrated the action ("Eventually this dog would take off one side of his neck, just take it off"). Then he pried the brindle's jaws loose by jamming a screwdriver into the roof of its mouth. The dog howled in pain.
After the fight, while Bergen and Stair interviewed Walker, Wright followed Labriola back to his car. Along the way, Labriola opened his wallet and flashed five $100 bills at the camera, saying he'd bet on the fight and lost. "That's history," he sighed.
"I was totally amazed," Wright later testified, "at that amount of money going on this silly dogfight." Although he was puzzled by the lack of spectators, to this day Wright insists that what he saw was a real dogfight, complete with big money changing hands.
Back at the station, Bergen screened the raw footage for Anne Gordon and News Director Marv Rockford. They, too, were impressed. If anything, the fight was too graphic for television; it would have to be edited, Rockford decided. And, of course, the series couldn't be pegged on a single fight sequence. Rockford wanted more video: footage of muzzled training matches and of dogs exercising on treadmills, all the conditioning that Bergen said a real fighting pit went through.
During the next few weeks Bergen and Labriola went back to Walker several times in an effort to obtain additional footage. According to testimony and to his own TV interview, Walker claimed to know all about training dogs to fight but, reluctant to get further involved in the series, he stalled Bergen's requests with one excuse after another: his treadmill was broken, a certain trainer wasn't home, he didn't have any muzzles.
Irritated with the delays and eager to wrap the series in time for the November sweeps, Bergen took matters into her own hands. On October 11 she gave Labriola $30 to buy muzzles for Walker's dogs. Wright, apparently unaware of the purchase, then shot them sparring in a suburban park.
Bergen also arranged to shoot the black dog "exercising" in Jim Stair's basement on his personal treadmill – although fighting pit bulls usually train on special canine equipment. Wright shot the footage since Stair was laid up after leg surgery. "I did it out of frustration," Bergen later told Labriola, in a conversation he was secretly recording. "I did it because I kept meeting with this asshole, and he kept shining us on and shining us on."
At the time station management had no indication Bergen was staging these scenes, but it did receive warning that the series was in trouble. Late in October Bergen told Rockford she'd just heard some disturbing news: Not only is dogfighting for "monetary gain or entertainment" a felony in Colorado, punishable by up to four years in prison, but even attending a dogfight is a violation of the statute. Apparently, no one at KCNC had bothered to look into the law before assigning a crew to attend and tape an illegal event.
Rather than challenge the law on constitutional grounds, Rockford and Station Manager Roger Ogden decided to put the series on hold. They certainly couldn't air the fight footage Bergen had obtained; that would be tantamount to a video confession. Rockford suggested the series might be revived if Bergen could obtain fight video from another source, someone not employed by the station.
That winter Bergen and Stair discussed various ways to get more video. According to Stair, the ever-helpful Labriola offered to shoot a fight with his father's home video camera. But Stair had a better idea: He volunteered to shoot the fight himself professionally, dub it onto VHS and mail the tape "anonymously" to Bergen so it couldn't be traced back to someone at KCNC. Bergen liked the idea.
Unfortunately, the fight Labriola had offered to shoot turned out to be another hoax. He invited Stair to a friend's house, then released Walker's black dog on one of his own pit bulls in the backyard. Labriola's dog had no taste for mortal combat, and a disgusted Stair dropped his camera to help break up the skirmish. He told Bergen the scene looked staged and was probably unusable.
Bergen was disappointed, to say the least. She had already sent a memo to Rockford indicating she would have the series back on track for the May sweeps, and she was coming up empty. It was at that point that Bergen stuck a blank tape in some previously used, postmarked packaging and told Anne Gordon and others at the station that she had just received an anonymous tape. What Bergen would have done had Gordon wanted to view it is anybody's guess, but Gordon never asked to see it. Bergen then edited and scripted her series using the shelved video from the September fight – complete with the same audio – but disguising its professional quality to pass it off as a mystery tape.
Wright and Stair, amazingly, agreed to go along with the anonymous tape ploy. Most amazing of all, the four-part series was approved for broadcast Sunday, April 29, through Wed-nesday, May 2.During the program Bergen even told viewers, "The tape arrived anonymously in the mail."
The explanation offered by station officials and critics at the local dailies of how "Blood Sport" got on the air is that Bergen enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy at KCNC, her work wasn't closely supervised and, they say, because the system is built on trust, there isn't much an editor or a news director can do if a reporter is bent on deception. But that doesn't explain why Rockford and Gordon failed to recognize the "anonymous" fight as the same footage they'd screened months earlier and shelved for legal reasons. Nor does it explain why no one at KCNC ever questioned the grossly exaggerated premise of the series; if pit-bull fighting is so pervasive in Colorado, why do the same dogs – Walker's black dog and the brindle – show up in practically every scene?
News director Rockford, who received a mild reprimand from NBC (which owns the station) for airing "Blood Sport," contends that the scandal was an "aberration" in the way things are done at KCNC. In court, he noted that he had asked Bergen why the dogs in the "new" footage looked so familiar; Bergen replied, "Same dogs, different fight."
"It frankly never occurred to me that she would even consider reusing that video," he said, "so I never asked the question." Gordon said she didn't think they were the same dogs.
A lot of questions, it seems, were never asked at KCNC. In February 1990, in her memo to Rockford vowing to resurrect the pit-bull series, Bergen had written, "One day I am going to get an anonymous 1/2-inch [VHS] tape in the mail of a fight...we will not have broken any laws...I believe it will be a ratings success!!"
Rockford testified that he didn't recall having read the memo or its "prediction" until after the series ended in May. But another witness suggested that station management simply didn't want to ask questions about how certain pictures were obtained.
"I thought they knew that was our video," Jim Stair said. "They had seen it before...I just assumed that they knew, and they thought [the controversy] was a media event and it was going to go away."
Bergen has her own theories about management's role in the process. "I was at the center of this," she notes now, "and if I'd been more honest about it, we wouldn't have been in the mess we were in. But TV stations don't have the level of bureaucracy newspapers have; in TV, a 5 o'clock producer looks at your story for two minutes and it's on the air. There's just not the level of concern, perhaps...
"I think there is something of a ratings frenzy at times and Channel 4 [KCNC] and Channel 9 [KUSA, the ABC affiliate] were very close at that point...Everyone was in sort of an altered state. Everybody was saying, 'we've got to beat them at 10, we've got to beat them at 10' – nobody understood they'd moved a few degrees out of reality."
On May 2, 1990, acting on a tip, RockyMountain News broadcasting columnist Dusty Saunders reported that Bergen's anonymous tape may have been shot by KCNC at a fight staged for its benefit. Saunders' allegations soon triggered picketing of the station by animal-rights activists, internal investigations by KCNC and NBC attorneys, police investigations where the fights occurred and, finally, a grand-jury probe – not to mention a firestorm of criticism of KCNC in the local media and industry publications.
For several months, Bergen, Stair and Wright stuck to their story: Wendy had received an anonymous tape. They told the same story to the NBC investigators, to the grand jury and even to their own lawyers, trying to brazen it out and hold onto their jobs. "Our hope," Bergen later explained, "was that we wouldn't get charged, and then we wouldn't get fired."
The cover-up was futile. Within days of the broadcast, the police had identified Walker's dogs as the stars of the series. And Bergen's trusted source, Mark Labriola, had come forward on his own, offering to tell the detectives his story in return for immunity from prosecution. Labriola admitted he paid Walker for the September 21 dogfight, but he claimed Bergen had authorized the payment and had promised to reimburse him by buying him clothes.
Acting as a government informant, Labriola then secretly tape-recorded several conversations with Bergen that proved central to the state's case against her – but a key to her defense, too. During one phone call the week after the series aired, Bergen sounded shocked when Labriola mentioned he'd paid for the fight; the jury would ultimately believe the note of surprise and dismay in her voice rather than Labriola's assertions that Bergen had always known the fight was staged.
In subsequent conversations Labriola begged Bergen not to "crack" and reveal his involvement. During one meeting, hours before her first appearance before the grand jury, Bergen was suspicious enough of him to pat him down repeatedly, looking for a wire. She didn't find the transmitter in his armpit and went on to make several damning statements.
"What I'm most freaked about is, I'm going to go in there and do it...It's a terrible thing but I feel like I'd rather gamble and commit perjury than get them [Wright and Stair] fired...My biggest concern is, I'm going to go in there tonight and tell Jim and Scott's story and then all I've got left is to see what you do," she told Labriola. "And if you switch it, you know, we're all in bad shape."
By September of 1990 Bergen realized the investigation wasn't going to simply fade away as she and the cameramen had supposed. She resigned from KCNC, told Wright and Stair she was going back to the grand jury to recant her perjury, and urged them to do the same. (Under Colorado law, false testimony can be recanted provided the witness comes clean before the "official proceeding" concludes.) All three appeared one final time and admitted to creating the anonymous tape. A week later they were indicted.
Despite her recanting, Bergen was slapped with two counts of perjury; the grand jury thought she was still lying when she denied knowing that Labriola had staged the "wallet scene," in which he flashed money at Wright's camera and claimed to have lost a bet on the fight. "At the time I thought he was gambling," Bergen had told them. "Now I don't know if it was just for our benefit or not...I still don't know what the truth of it is."
Bergen's confusion made for an intriguing line of defense: She didn't know which of those parts of her series involving Labriola were authentic and which were fake. In court Labriola recounted how Bergen had interviewed him anonymously on another story, a report on abuse of the prescription drug Xanax that aired in March of 1990 in which Labriola sat with his back to the camera and claimed to be addicted to the drug. It was another hoax, but whether Bergen was in on it was less clear. The only conclusion one could safely draw was that everyone connected with "Blood Sport" – the sources who hammed it up for the cameras, Bergen and her crew and the folks back at the station – seemed a lot less interested in facts than in product.
Bergen chose not to testify at her trial; defense attorney Lee Foreman put most of his energy into exploiting the credibility gaps of the state's star witnesses, Labriola and Walker. After almost two weeks of prosecution testimony and less than two hours of defense, the jury threw out the perjury charges and found Bergen guilty of conspiracy, being an accessory and one count of dogfighting in connection with the exercise for which she had purchased the muzzles. Ironically, Bergen hadn't hesitated to tell her TV audience she'd attended that bloodless event because she'd never considered it a dogfight. Her attorney has indicated he will appeal.
Last spring Phil Walker pleaded guilty to one count of dogfighting for his role in "Blood Sport" and received probation. Wright and Stair both pleaded guilty to an accessory charge; they received three years' probation. Although Bergen faces up to 10 years in prison, given her lack of a prior record and the unusual circumstances of the case, many observers believe that community service is a more likely sentence. KCNC is paying the legal bills of all three of its former employees, now said to total hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wright now describes himself as a freelance photojournalist. Stair is in the remodeling business. Bergen, who has recently become a partner in a corporate video production service, says she's still trying to figure out why she did what she did, and where reporters should draw the line between acceptable video and "staging" the news.
"The anonymous tape – that was deceptive and unethical, no two ways about it," she says now. "Everything else, to me, was a shade or a degree...somebody walks through a door, we want a tight shot and a wide shot, so we ask them to do it a second time. It's all staged, but is it harmful?
"Where I erred is that I made it look like the real thing when it was just an example of the real thing. I didn't do it intentionally, I just didn't think enough about it. I think if I had put 'dramatization' on it I would have been fine...To a degree, staging goes on every day." l