Late Breaking

Longtime readers of the Strip know that this pontificating porterhouse enjoys nothing better than pointing out the foibles of our local television newshounds and, in particular, the pervert-obsessed ways of KCTV Channel 5, the station that turned lurid investigations into ratings gold and trounced longtime laid-back 10 p.m. leader KMBC Channel 9.

So you might think that the meat patty was beside itself when it saw that two different news organizations had slapped down one of Channel 5’s hard-charging types, investigative reporter and part-time anchor Dave Helling, for one of the station’s patented “Gotcha!” exposés.

Back in December, Helling announced that homeland security was sorely lacking in the Kansas City area. He had gone to six different farmers’ supply stores trying to buy large quantities of ammonium nitrate — the fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh combined with diesel fuel to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 — and was turned down every time. But on the seventh try, he found a Tonganoxie merchant, Bill McGraw of McGraw Fertilizer, who sold him 500 pounds of the stuff. Helling cited unnamed “experts” who warned that what McGraw had sold could be turned into a bomb.

Within days, however, the small Tonganoxie Mirror came to McGraw’s defense, saying that what Helling bought wasn’t ammonium nitrate but a fertilizer blend called “20-10-10.” The stuff was only 20 percent ammonium nitrate, mixed with potash and phosphorous, and the Mirror cited its own (unnamed) experts, who said that the stuff wasn’t dangerous at all.

And now the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review, which writes about the state of journalism from the halls of Columbia University in New York City, has hit Helling and Channel 5 with one of its storied “darts.” In a popular column called “Darts and Laurels,” the magazine lauds journalists when they do something to advance the craft and criticizes them when they foul up. It’s written by CJR executive editor Gloria Cooper. And in the most recent edition, Cooper throws a pointed barb at Helling, saying that his story was a pile of fertilizer.

Calling Helling’s story “shoddy journalism,” Cooper acknowledges that a bomb can be made from 20-10-10, “but only, experts told CJR, if the would-be bomber had an eon to spend painstakingly picking out the tiny grains of ammonium nitrate, one by one, from the tiny grains of phosphorous and the tiny grains of potash.”

Take that, Channel 5!

Still, as much as it enjoys seeing the upstart TV leader take one on the chin, this skeptical sirloin couldn’t help noticing that Cooper, like the Mirror, had based her criticism of Helling on the claims of unnamed experts.

We called Sam Zeff, Helling’s producer on the December project, and asked why Channel 5 didn’t name the bomb pros the station had used to decide that 20-10-10 was dangerous stuff.

“We quoted them only as sources because of their position in law enforcement or their position in the bomb-making industry,” he told us. “We are completely confident in the sources we used.” Part of the purpose of Channel 5’s story, Zeff said, was to point out that Kansas, where McVeigh bought his damned ammonium nitrate, still doesn’t regulate sale of the material.

CJR was partially right,” Zeff continued. “It does take more time to use it [20-10-10] in an ammonium-nitrate-and-diesel-fuel bomb, but one of the factors of any terrorism equation is time. Terrorists are very patient people. Whatever you read, they talk about sleeper cells. They wait for the right opportunity.” He points to the 9/11 attack as something that would have been considered sheer fantasy before it happened.

OK, the Strip can see that point. But CJR‘s Cooper is just as defensive about the bomb experts she used in her story.

Naturally, the Strip hoped to find someone with bomb expertise who had the brass bottle rockets to put his name on a public statement siding with one position or the other — is 20-10-10 harmless or is it a real menace? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seemed like a natural place to start. But our initial attempt to contact the ATF met with this buck-passing response from its national media office: “We do not regulate it, so we won’t comment on ammonium nitrate that’s sold in fertilizer.”

Later we learned that the ATF has been getting numerous requests to clear up the controversy. As of last week, the agency was still struggling with how to respond.

Paul Marquardt, an ATF employee in the Kansas City Division Office, tells the Pitch that government experts don’t want to get in the middle of the fight. “The ATF does not want to be placed in the position of refereeing these expert arguments. We are then placed in the position where we may be telling people what works and what doesn’t work, and we don’t want to do that.”

Well, we can appreciate that Marquardt was being careful so that little McVeigh types wouldn’t pick up bomb-making tips, but his statement was pretty far from a denial that 20-10-10 could be used for nefarious means.

Still, even if Channel 5 had a valid point — that potential bomb materials should be more closely regulated in the state — did it have to subject Bill McGraw to its slimiest jump-out-of-the-bushes gotcha style?

We asked Helling about the piece, and he predictably defended it as a solid news story. But Helling’s no ogre. This slab of protein has run into him enough times to know that he spends a lot of time hosting debates and lunches and other things that journalists who think of themselves as pillars of the community use to fill their calendars. And after talking to him, the Strip got the distinct impression that Helling himself regrets the way the story was told.

“After the Tonganoxie story, I think we all agreed to redouble our efforts to do quality reporting,” Helling told this cutlet. “We went back to go over our reporting techniques and examine what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”

Yeah, Dave, we figure that dart has gotta hurt. Even if it was aimed a little low.

Tony Ortega talks about this week’s Pitch with KRBZ 96.5’s Lazlo after 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Categories: News