Suicide video: Did NBC10 blow it?

    It’s never happened to me, but I get a sick feeling when I see a reporter break a big story, then discover he or she has it wrong.

    That’s the prospect raised by the strange events Friday, when NBC10 reported that city Licenses & Inspections supervisor Ronald Wagenhoffer left a cell phone video before he took his own life in which he said the Center City building collapse that killed six people was his fault.

    Within hours, Mayor Nutter’s press secretary was calling the report “a total lie.” He later told WHYY’s Elizabeth Fiedler there were two videos, that he’d watched both, and that Wagenhoffer had clearly said, “It wasn’t my fault.” The station stands by its story.

    They can’t both be right, and since the videos will certainly be reviewed by the city inspector general, the grand jury investigating the collapse and attorneys for civil suits, somebody will be shown to be right, and somebody embarassed.

    Channel 10’s darkest hour

    Back in 1982, when Channel 10 was a CBS affiliate, the station dropped a bombshell on its evening newscast: Mayor Bill Green was the subject of a FBI kickback investigation. Great story, if true.

    Green quickly called a news conference to deny the story, during which he publicly humiliated Channel 10 reporter Bill Baldini, there to cover Green’s reaction. The station stuck by its story for about a day, then had to retract it and apologize. They eventually paid Green a six-figure settlement.

    Looking back, it’s easy to see how Channel 10 screwed the pooch. They ran the story before running it past the mayor. They sent a reporter to Green’s office the afternoon the scoop was scheduled to run and asked to speak to the mayor about an important story, but declined to tell his press secretary what it was about.

    He wouldn’t bite, so they took their chances and ran with it. If they’d taken another day and laid their cards on the table to the mayor’s people, they probably would have figured out that they had a decent story – there was a federal investigation involving city employees – but the mayor wasn’t implicated.

    In fact, after the station ran its story, U.S. Attorney Peter Vaira took the unusual step of issuing a statement publicly clearing the mayor.

    Over the years, I’ve lost a few exclusives because I waited a day to double-check it or give an affected party a chance to respond. I can’t rememeber what most of them were, which is the point. It stung at the time to lose a scoop to competitors, but that heals.  If I’d gone out on a limb with something wrong, I’d remember it forever.

    Nutter’s press secretary Mark McDonald tells me Channel 10 didn’t run the story about the Wagenhoffer video by the administration before airing it. When the mayor’s people saw the report, they got the videos from the police, and we are where we are.

    (Disclosure: McDonald and I are old friends; we staffed the Daily News city hall bureau together for more than 10 years).

    So now?

    Channel 10 and McDonald agree on a lot here. Wagenhoffer did express regret in one of the videos about not doing more to prevent the collapse, and said he’d had trouble sleeping. The major difference in their accounts is whether he said the collapse was or wasn’t his fault, which is large. A family member also gave our reporter Elizabeth Fiedler a statement saying Wagenhoffer never said the accident was his fault.

    Good news organizations are cautious about suicides. Most aren’t reported at all. As painful as it must be for Wagenhoffer’s family to see reports about the video in the news, the content here was relevent to the critical issue of whether the city did its job to protect the public.

    If McDonald’s version of the video is accurate (he’s not showing it to other reporters), it’s consistent with the administration’s public posture on the collapse: The regulations and practice in effect at the time, now seen as inadequate, were followed, and will be improved upon. Nutter apologized, too, without saying the city was responsible for the disaster.

    It’s also consistent with what we’ve heard publicly and privately about Wagenhoffer – that he’s a guy who took public service seriously and cared about his job (not uncommon in my experience among veteran city employees).

    Time will tell whether the new rules and procedures the mayor announced will be implemented and maintained.

    One issue is resources. I checked last week and noticed that the number of full time employees in the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections had fallen from 450 in 1999 to about 300 today. (The Inquirer reported that and other relevant information today).

    And there are conflicting policy goals. Everyone wants to make the city more business-friendly, and regulations can slow things down, especially for small businesses. Also, much was made of this contractor’s criminal past, and the administration is considering background checks for contractors. Providing employment opportunities for ex-offenders in this city is an important goal of this administration.

    We have a long way to go before we close the book on this tragedy. The story of Wagenhoffer’s last words is one we should get right. 

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