Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cops vs. reporters, 1970s style

   Dennis Anderson had a long and storied career at WDIO-TV Channel 10 in Duluth, Minnesota and satellite station WIRT Channel 13 in Hibbing that spanned from when the stations first went on the air in the volatile mid-1960s until his retirement in May 2011. Spending most of his years as the lead anchor on the station’s newscasts he was known for his signature sign-off, “Good night everybody, and be kind.” But as a reporter-photographer for the station in 1971, he was caught in a tangle between the TV station and city police, resulting in a confiscated camera, allegations and counter-allegations of harassment and a lawsuit that determined the rights journalists have in the face of police power.

   When WDIO came on the air in January 1966, it was the scrappy newcomer in a small city with two well-established TV stations; CBS affiliate KDAL-TV Channel 3 and NBC affiliate WDSM-TV Channel 6. WDIO was the area’s first full-time ABC affiliate and it was clear from the get-go that the station came to shake things up in the Duluth media establishment.

  The approach to news was hard-hitting, with an emphasis on exposés and investigative reporting. Critics variously called it bombastic, sensationalistic and muckraking, but the approach grabbed the public’s attention, the solid journalism behind it kept that attention, and by March 1971, the upstart television station in Duluth was number one at 10 p.m., with an astounding 56 percent audience share.

   After working for the station early on as a reporter, Dennis Anderson left WDIO in 1968 to accept a job as news director and lead anchor at another ABC affiliate, KTHI-TV Channel 11 in Fargo. But the departure didn’t last and in 1969 he returned to WDIO to anchor a new consumer watchdog segment on the newscasts called Action Line.

   As the lead investigator for Action Line, Anderson looked into, and attempted to resolve complaints written in by viewers. But in 1971, the mild-mannered reporter was caught in the middle of a sometimes intense, sometimes bizarre feud between the TV station and Duluth police.

   It started with a couple of different Action Line segments uncovering alleged misconduct within the ranks of the Duluth Police Department. The first involved a viewer complaint about a used car dealership. The subsequent investigation found a few police officers were repairing and selling used cars to an unlicensed dealership in their spare time, and were allegedly circumventing state law by falsifying title transfers. The City of Duluth had also been investigating the case, but WDIO-TV brought it to the public’s attention and it eventually resulted in the conviction of one officer.

   A second Action Line investigation turned up police documents, provided by a confidential source, that were found to have been tampered with to protect a prominent local citizen who had been arrested for drunken driving.

   Then just after midnight on March 29, 1971, there was a report of a break-in at the Ski Hut sporting goods store in Duluth. Serving as both reporter and cameraman, Dennis Anderson hustled to the location, armed with a portable film camera and a Sylvania Sun Gun lamp.

   Police were on the scene and soon captured two suspects inside the building while Anderson at first kept his distance, staying behind the building. When he got word that the suspects had been captured, he went to the front of the building and began filming through a store window.

   As the arresting officers lead the two suspects out of the building in handcuffs, Anderson stood about eight to ten feet away on a public sidewalk and began filming, using the Sun Gun lamp to provide light. Sgt. Richard Gunnarson, who was holding the door open as officers walked out the suspects, shouted “No pictures!” twice at Anderson, who then turned off the lamp. The police sergeant then demanded the WDIO camera from Anderson, and he handed it over.

   Lt. Alexander Lukovsky, who was also at the scene, talked to Anderson and offered to give back the camera under the condition that Anderson check with the Detective Bureau to determine that the film he had shot did not contain information that could possibly harm the case, and that the suspects were not juveniles (which state law prohibited being identified) before going on the air with it. When Anderson told the police lieutenant that he couldn’t guarantee any of that, the camera was taken down to police headquarters.

   WDIO news director Richard Gottschald was furious. He went to police headquarters and demanded to know why the camera was confiscated. Police claimed that the bright lights being used by Anderson were impeding the officers in their line of duty but Anderson claimed they said nothing to him about the lights and that an officer in fact had asked him to turn the light on to aid the police.

   WDIO reported on the controversy in its newscasts and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union got involved on the station’s behalf, while a police union president accused the station of conducting a “subtle, continuing campaign to deride, humiliate and persecute us,” in a lengthy article that appeared in the November 13, 1971 national section of TV Guide titled “Hassle In Duluth.” The union called for a sponsor boycott of WDIO newscasts, which proved to be largely unsuccessful.

   The camera was returned to the station within days, unopened and the film inside unprocessed, but that wasn’t the end of the controversy. The station (then not owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc.) filed suit in US District Court (with Dennis Anderson also named as a plaintiff) and the feud between the station and the police only escalated.

   According to the TV Guide article, employees of the station were claiming police were engaged in a “campaign of petty harassment” against them, with radar speed checks set up on the road leading to WDIO’s hilltop studios on 10 Observation Road, and near the home of news director Richard Gottschald. Station employees said they were stopped and ticketed for minor infractions on a regular basis, and the news director, who made an extra effort to watch his speed knowing police were laying in wait, happened to let down his guard one night and sure enough was nailed for going a few miles over the limit.

   Police in turn complained the TV station was harassing them with reporters tailing squad cars in hopes of catching police committing some small infraction. “For a while, the squad cars and TV cars were chasing each other’s tails around Duluth in kind of a Marx Brothers game of tag,” according to the article in TV Guide.

   Finally on February 7, 1972, United States District Court Fifth Division ruled in favor of WDIO and Dennis Anderson, saying that the seizure of the camera “was wrongful, and in violation of plaintiffs' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, because [it was] not made pursuant to a valid warrant or arrest. Also, despite defendants' argument, it is clear to this court that the seizure and holding of the camera and undeveloped film was an unlawful ‘prior restraint’ whether or not the film was ever reviewed.”

   The Court went on to rule that “Plaintiffs' right to use a light in the taking of photographs at night should not be restricted except, and unless and until so ordered to the contrary by police in their reasonable belief that such is interfering with or endangering them in their work…There was no evidence of such interference by plaintiff Anderson here.”


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