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TV news and the Wetterling case: ‘No bells and whistles to this one’

Jacob Wetterling
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Jacob Wetterling

Everyone in the news business loves a big story, and a scoop even more. But really, just as a long holiday weekend begins?

News that the remains of Jacob Wetterling had been found, and that “person of interest” Danny Heinrich had led authorities to the site erupted across social media Saturday morning as many reporters were kicking back for the three-­day Labor Day break. By noon, dozens had abandoned plans for the fair or the lake and were heading back to the office.

Others were already there. “I was up at the lake Friday night,” says KSTP-­TV news director Anne Wittenborg, “when I started getting [messages] from [Tom] Hauser, who was following up a lead that something was going on with the Wetterling case.”

Hauser, the station’s veteran political reporter, still has police sources. (Hauser did not respond to requests for comment.)

By Friday, authorities had finished the second of two excavations at the farm site near Paynesville and had recovered skeletal remains and personal effects.

Paul McEnroe, the ex-­Strib reporter who’s now leading KSTP-TV’s rejuvenated investigative unit, was soon in on the phone hunt for confirmation that the activity was Wetterling-­related, that what had been recovered were the remains of the 11-year-­old, whose disappearance has haunted Minnesotans for 27 years. 

“I thought about it for a few hours,” says Wittenborg. “But around 10 Friday night I said, ‘Yeah, I think [I] need to get in the car and get back down to the station.’” As she and McEnroe tell the story, Friday night eventually became much later Saturday morning.

“Friday night lasted about 35 hours,” says McEnroe.

Eventually, the phone work paid off with confirmation that the case had been resolved, although far from fully explained. As viewers and readers scanned their phones, papers and other devices for more information over the weekend, they found “more” very hard to come by. The bulk of the coverage was “timelines” of the case and reaction from neighbors, friends, other victims and public figures. All interesting to a point, but mostly redundant. The official story was on lockdown until Heinrich’s court appearance Tuesday, when everyone in the various bureaucracies was back on the job.

Like KARE­-TV, which brought in former WCCO-­TV investigator Caroline Lowe to help out after Heinrich was picked up on child pornography charges last year, KSTP had targeted the Wetterling case for special vigilance. “It’s been on our ‘developing stories’ board since Heinrich was picked up,” says Wittenborg.

“We’ve followed it hard every single week since then,” says McEnroe. “The reason Hauser got the tip was as simple as old-­fashioned reporting and traditional sourcing. There were no bells and whistles to this one. Although it helped we had a news director, Anne, who had the guts to let us go get it.

“You guys kind of laughed when I said I was coming over here. But I’m telling you, KSTP is back, man. It was a sight: 2 a.m. Saturday morning and the newsroom was as full as I’ve ever seen the place.”

(For the record, whatever laughter there was at McEnroe trading in his Strib gig for one at KSTP was due to the thought of McEnroe — a not­-exactly silky smooth, polished TV guy — turning a tradition­-bound ship like Hubbard Broadcasting’s TV news operation more than a couple degrees off its standard heading.)

Lowe, who lives in California (and has picked up a private investigator license), flew into town Sunday to join KARE’s all­-hands-­on-­deck approach to what comes next.

KARE News Director Jane Helmke, Wittenborg and McEnroe all mentioned the eight­-episode podcast on the Wetterling case produced by APM Reports that’s scheduled to launch next weekend. What the discovery of Wetterling’s remains means to that all­-but­-completely­-finished initiative remains to be seen. Baran and APM did not respond to requests for comment. 

McEnroe, for one, sees plenty more story to tell. Among the obvious topics is the thrust of what Baran has already said the series will explore: Namely, why the case took so long to solve? Heinrich, after all, was interviewed not long after Wetterling’s dissapearance, but wasn’t pulled back into the suspect loop until two years ago, when a blogger, Joy Baker, connected other assaults to Wetterling’s disappearance.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Sasha Aslanian on 09/07/2016 - 11:33 am.

    In the Dark podcast now available

    Hey Brian,
    APM Reports moved up the podcast launch. The first two episodes are now on iTunes. First episode airing/streaming on MPR News with Tom Weber now.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 09/07/2016 - 12:28 pm.

    newspapers caught flat footed

    What was interesting to watch Saturday was how poorly the newspapers were in dealing with the story.

    The Pioneer Press had nothing until well after 830 a.m. and then all they had was an unattributed 3 paragraph piece that stayed up until well after 11:30.

    Don’t they have anyone in the newsroom on the weekends?

    For a change the electronic media did a pretty good job of old fashioned journalism and got the story and ran with it. KSTP should be proud to have been first with CCO coming in second by only a few minutes.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 09/07/2016 - 05:24 pm.

    Just wondering…

    …at what point does “investigative reporting?” stretch into exploitation for the sake of, whatever?

    Not there yet I suppose..but could say the story becomes the victim in the telling?

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