Channel 4 investigative reporter Becky Oliver makes it look easy. The ambush, that is. But ambushing somebody is harder than it looks, especially for a first-timer like myself and especially if the target is Becky Oliver.
On paper, Oliver is the winner of countless awards for investigative reporting. On TV, she comes off like Xena: Warrior Princess. It is an image Oliver and KDFW-TV sell. The would-be actress, they boast, has closed down businesses, changed laws and put more than a dozen "bad guys" behind bars. But is Becky Oliver as ballsy in person as she is on air?
There were two ways to find out: watch her on tape and interview her in person.
First came the tapes of Oliver, taken by a couple of her news-report targets who'd recently turned their cameras on her. In one, she backs out of an interview she requested when she sees it's being videotaped. Very un-warrior like. In the other, however, she lives up to her image. That tape was made last fall, when Oliver showed up at a local attorney's office for a follow-up to a story she aired about a chiropractor who allegedly drugged and raped a client. The original story has won Oliver a nomination for "Journalist of the Year" by the Press Club of Houston. In March, it also got her and KDFW-TV sued for defamation. On the tape, the attorney resorts to lecturing Oliver when his attempt to ambush her fails.
"Reporting the news is a privilege, Ms. Oliver. It's a very serious responsibility, and you don't seem to take it that way," he tells her.
"I've put my heart and soul in this business for almost 20 years," Oliver responds. "I take it very, very seriously."
Good to know. Because Oliver is taken seriously by viewers. She is Dallas' version of Geraldo, a latter-day Mike Wallace who not only plays "Gotcha!" with the bad guys, but looks daring doing it. It's a method for which she is both vilified and praised by viewers and peers.
Nothing wrong with that. But an increasing number of critics question whether she takes her ethics as seriously as she does her sensational quest for ratings. They ask: Does she cut corners and bend the truth to get high-profile exclusives? Has the pressure of working for perennially last-place, Fox-owned Channel 4 gotten to her so much that she reports what she thinks, facts be damned? Does Oliver consider herself a serious journalist, or will she admit that her on-camera antics are just a shtick designed to entertain rather than inform?
Being a reporter herself, I figured Oliver would have no problem granting an interview. In fact, after checking with her bosses, Oliver agrees to get together. First, though, she wants to know what questions I am going to ask. It was the first time, but not the last, the warrior reporter flinched.
"This isn't my forte to be on the receiving end of these things," she snaps. Later she says, "I don't view this as a piece that could make Becky Oliver look good."
To get some preliminary advice on ambush tactics, I call an old colleague of Oliver's to find out how Oliver does it. I'm not sure I'm going to do it for this story, but the information couldn't hurt. Could it?
The first thing an ambusher must do is determine where the ambush should take place. In Oliver's case, an obvious choice would be downtown at KDFW-TV. The former insider tells me that won't work. To avoid a trespassing charge, a kosher ambush is performed on public land. At the station, Oliver is said to park inside an attached parking ramp. By the time she hits the street, she will be inside her car and able to elude.
At her house, then?
Home is better, the source agrees. This source, who requests anonymity for fear this blabbing will "burn all my bridges," doesn't like Oliver and believes her work is a disgrace to the genre of television investigative reporting. "She's so loud and so obnoxious, we thought for a while she had a hearing problem. Everything is all about her. 'Me. Me. Me. Me.' She's a case," the source says, adding, "I've met some princesses in television newsrooms, but she takes the princess cake."
The idea of ambushing Oliver--to use the same tactic she has used to establish her reputation as local TV's fearless crime fighter--elicits glee from this source. Particularly if the ambush is done at her house, where her six children live. Oliver, I'm told, is paranoid that the people she's exposed in her exclusive "I-Team" reports will seek revenge on her children. "This will inflame her."
Yeah, I think, an ambush would be fun.
For weeks, I had been weighing allegations that Oliver's confrontational tactics, combined with distorted video images, had resulted in stories that created false impressions of wrongdoing at DART and, to a lesser extent, the Dallas Independent School District.
Exhibit 1: During April and the May sweeps period, Oliver appeared to nail a story about how DART employees are running amok with the transit agency's credit cards and living large at the taxpayers' expense. Meanwhile, her reports implied, DART officials were clueless about the abuse and, worse, evasive when she confronted them. The stories upset DART officials, who say Oliver didn't find a single example of any wrongdoing on their part.
The stories were a messy hatchet job, topped off with footage of Oliver ambushing DART board president Jesse Oliver. It's assumed that TV journalists only ambush people who refuse to talk to them. With Oliver, that's not the case. Oliver invited Jesse Oliver to comment, either on camera or in writing, for her May 23 report. Jesse Oliver did just that, giving Oliver a written response well beforehand. Oliver ambushed him anyway.On camera, Jesse Oliver looked terribly evasive. With the camera pointed at his head like a gun, he ducked and squirmed in a fruitless attempt to get away from the reporter, who had him pinned against his car inside a parking ramp. Oliver, who stood a good two inches taller than her target, blocked his path and insisted that he watch a copy of an earlier story and comment on it. "When can we sit down and look at my story!" Oliver demanded, her voice rising into a high-pitched bray before breaking into its signature rasp.Now that's a dirty trick. Maybe she does deserve to have a microphone shoved in her face.
Oh sure, I'd go into the prearranged interview with an open mind. It's possible Oliver could so aptly defend her approach to journalism that I'd become her most loyal fan and an ambush wouldn't be necessary. But I'm doubtful. My research had crafted an image of her that was hard to shake.
In a letter dated April 24, DISD Superintendent Mike Moses informed local power brokers that Oliver was snooping around his hotel room. Earlier, Moses had criticized Oliver for a story that contained a "glaring omission" and unfairly created the impression that there was new evidence of missing money at DISD. Moses believed KDFW-TV and Oliver responded to his complaint by siccing a camera on him. "The intent is obvious," Moses wrote. "It is to discredit."
Then there were the unusual letters between DART and KDFW-TV, which began to fly like hail balls in April when Oliver hammered the agency's credit-card spending. Along the way, Oliver accused DART officials of investigating her, causing her to be concerned for "the safety of her children." Meanwhile, DART officials accused Oliver of harassing them and engaging in a pattern of "deception and distortion in an attempt to secure higher ratings."
A few days after she scheduled our meeting, Oliver calls to delay it a week. "I want to make it clear to you we're not blowing you off," she says over the telephone. She offers several excuses, but I think she is getting scared. Shocking, given what I know about Oliver.
Since Oliver arrived at Channel 4 in 1991, she has become famous for staking out petty crooks and local sleazebags. She, along with her cameraman, hides inside trucks with darkened windows and secretly follows her targets until they step onto public land. There Oliver springs into action, sticking her microphone into their squinting faces while demanding to know why they won't answer her questions.
Brash. In your face. No holds barred. Those are the words former WFAA-TV Channel 8 reporter Robert Riggs uses to describe his old competitor. "She is funny," Riggs says. "She comes across as if she eats rusty nails for breakfast."
"Her identity is chasing after the guy with the handicap sticker," adds Brett Shipp, Oliver's competitor on WFAA-TV. "That's Becky Oliver."
This spring, Oliver was doing plenty of chasing. Besides DART's board president, Oliver ambushed a pair of slumlords--one at a gas station, the other at the courthouse. The one at the gas station tells Oliver she looked like a mugger. "I look like a mugger?" she asks. In the courthouse, Oliver blocks the other guy's path and sticks a microphone under his nose. When he tries to push it away, Oliver screeches, "Don't touch the microphone!" Evidently, Oliver is willing to risk arrest to bring her story about their dilapidated properties public. At one point, she gets in a standoff with a cell phone-toting employee at one of the roach-infested properties. "They're calling the cops on us!" she screams.
The former insider was right: Oliver's reports are all about her. First, she establishes herself as the hero, who fearlessly confronts wrongdoers with information so damning they either try to escape, or, worse, they begin to attack her. And if they can go after her, then they will come after you. As I was about to learn, this type of paranoia can be contagious.
On the promised day, I sit in the KDFW-TV lobby and wait. In 10 minutes, three cold calls come in to the front desk for Oliver. From what the receptionist says, they sound like consumers who have gotten the raw end of some deal. So this is how it works: All Oliver has to do is cherry-pick from among her many callers, find out who allegedly screwed them, ambush that person and put it on TV. The resulting stories will generate more cold calls, and the cycle rolls on. Sweet racket.
As I wait, I remember something the former insider had told me: "Don't ever think you can have a reasonable, rational discussion with this woman." I grow anxious. Recorded images of Oliver--viewed in slow motion to heighten the Exorcist-like effect of her facial expressions--come back to haunt. My mind begins to race. Suddenly, I am sure that Oliver is gonna get me. She'll have attorneys in there. And a camera, too. How will I look on camera? My hands get moist. I look out the doors and consider fleeing.
That's when a woman hands me a three-paragraph letter, written by Maria Barrs, Fox 4's vice president and news director.
"Thank you for offering us the opportunity to discuss our approach to investigative journalism, and specifically our recently broadcast stories on DART and DISD," the letter states. "While we would like to discuss those stories in depth, the reality is that anything we say can be used against us in litigation pending against the station and Becky Oliver. Therefore, upon the advice of our attorney we must respectfully decline your invitation for an interview."
Outside I become resolved. If this was the way Oliver was going to be, so be it. It was time for the ambush. Becky Oliver has it coming.
Oliver is one of those journalists who attends investigative journalist conventions at which there are the inevitable debates over ethics. The gatherings can be insightful, but mostly they are places where reporters give each other awards that justify their work and generally make them feel better about the fact that their jobs require them to be jerks. Fact is, only judges and juries can determine when a journalist has crossed over the line into improper behavior. Ethics come from within. And there is nothing like an ambush to challenge one's ethics.
Oliver has six children, all of them young. Chances are good that when I ambush her, a flashing photographer in tow, her kids are going to be there. Do I ambush Oliver in front of her children? What if they cry? It's not their fault their mother ambushes people for a living and has one coming. I decide to sort that out later. First, I need to figure out where Oliver lives.
I call the former insider back and learn that Oliver, who used to drive a late-model sport utility vehicle, lives on a street in Forest Hills. "Big Forest Hills where the rich people live." Through Dallas County Appraisal District information, I find a house on the street mentioned that is owned by an "Oliver." That's gotta be her husband, I figure. The data also shows that his mailing address is a house on another block. But which one do they live in? There's only one way to find out.
The anxiety begins to return the minute I turn onto the street, driving slowly, but not so slowly as to attract attention. I have never met Oliver in person, but I find myself worrying she'll see me. Then I see the house. It's practically a hovel, too small to house six kids. Must be the other house. There are a couple of problems with the other house, at least on paper. For starters, it's only appraised at just under $200,000--less than the hovel. Surely, Oliver, who is married to a lawyer, can afford more. Second, the records show that the house has a senior citizen's tax exemption. Oliver is 41. Her husband can't be that old. Maybe the house is her father's house, or her husband's father's house. Or maybe not. Maybe the Olivers are lying about their age in order to get a tax break. What a story that would be. I grow more excited with each passing block.
Finally I see the place. Jackpot. From the front it appears small, but there's a huge addition built on the back--big enough to house six kids. Hence the low appraisal: The county doesn't know about the addition. "The folks at the appraisal district will love to read this," I say, to nobody. Becky Oliver is living large at the taxpayers' expense!
But first, I need to be sure I've got the right place. Wouldn't want to jump to any wrong conclusions. Best thing to do is run the plates on the cars, see who owns them. Oliver's name has got to show up somewhere. And then I see it: a late-model SUV parked out front. Bingo again. I look around and notice that a neighbor has stopped her gardening and is watching me. She's on to me! Oliver probably told her to keep her eyes peeled for strange cars. I punch the accelerator, vowing to return after sundown.
Robert Riggs recalls how Oliver left a lasting impression on him when she spoke at a gathering of lawyers.
"She knocked everyone out of their seats when she, point blank, told them sex sells at Fox. If you have a story with sex, I'm interested," recalls Riggs, who adds that Oliver earned his respect. "What I liked about her was there wasn't any holier-than-thou pretensions from her. She will tell people she thinks they should be televised for their sins."
To get evidence of said sins, Oliver is willing to use every controversial tool television journalism offers. Chiefly, hidden cameras, titillating video and the ambush. When he was a working reporter, Riggs says he avoided ambushing people. "I called people and told them I wanted to talk to them," says Riggs, who calls Oliver the "James Bond assassin" of the ambush interview.
Word that Oliver is the subject of complaints is news to Brett Shipp, who used to work with Oliver at Channel 4 before he joined WFAA-TV. While he doesn't "embrace" Oliver's style of reporting, Shipp says he has the utmost respect for her as a professional.
"Never was there a question about fairness with her. She pretty much does her homework before she unleashes the fury of Becky Oliver," Shipp says, adding, "I'd be surprised if she's out there coloring facts to get a story."
That is precisely the complaint now being lodged against Oliver.
As part of his lawsuit, Rodney Polk claims Oliver recklessly reported false allegations that he drugged and raped client Adrian Thomas, who turned to Oliver, rather than the police, with her story two days after the February 2000 incident allegedly took place. Polk's current lawyer declined to discuss the lawsuit, but in related litigation Polk has suggested that Oliver used Thomas to set him up as part of a story he suspects Oliver began reporting before Thomas ever met Polk. In doing so, Polk, who lost his state chiropractor's license as a result of the story, has argued that Oliver "went beyond reporting the news to creating it."
Channel 4 attorney Chip Babcock, who successfully defended Oprah Winfrey against allegations that she libeled beef and whose lesser-known clients include the Dallas Observer, says he's confident the station will prevail. When asked about the allegation that Oliver set up Polk, Babcock says it's outrageous. "I can't think of an example in modern journalism where that's ever been found to have happened. It certainly didn't happen here."
In lieu of going to the police, the woman went to Oliver and told her that Polk drugged her and made her perform oral sex on him. Evidently, Oliver believed her story. She gave Thomas a hidden camera and sent her back to Polk to confront him about the rape and, in the process, collect footage of him confessing to the crime. (In the resulting footage, Polk says a lot of strange things, but he never admits to the crime.)
But Oliver didn't stop with sending a purported rape victim back to her alleged attacker. She also advised Thomas not to go to the police until after she could broadcast her "exclusive" report, according to testimony Thomas later made during a state hearing in Austin. Why would Oliver do that? I don't know, but hindsight suggests she didn't want a police investigation to get in the way of her story: The Dallas Police Department investigated Polk for sexually assaulting Thomas, but a Dallas County grand jury later no-billed the case.
Neither DISD nor DART officials have expressed any desire to sue Oliver, but they have similar complaints. In both cases, they say Oliver ignored crucial facts that would have undermined the angles of her stories. Mike Moses declined to discuss the matter, which Observer columnist Jim Schutze wrote about earlier this year ("Bush-whacked in the Bulrushes," February 22). DART public relations staff, however, spoke at length about their experiences with Oliver, which prompted them to make the unprecedented decision to film Oliver's on-camera interviews of DART officials.
"She continues to create the impression that we're living in the lap of luxury over here," says Robin Stringfellow, DART's assistant vice president of communications. "We were trying to keep ourselves in the position of answering her questions. She wants it to appear that we're slamming the door when we're not slamming the door. You make someone available, and she muffs it."
The two stories, which aired in April and the May sweeps period, were so sensational that even the most distracted Fox viewers would be compelled to rise out of their recliners and march on DART in a taxpayers' revolt. The stories left the clear impression that DART employees, unbeknownst to DART officials, use the agency's credit cards to buy millions of dollars worth of goods for themselves. Oliver never says this definitively, but she doesn't have to: The visuals do it for her. The stories, cut with images of swiping credit cards and slamming documents, are littered with footage of diners gorging themselves at white-tablecloth restaurants, paintings hanging in galleries and women getting makeovers.
In fact, the stories did not unearth any convincing evidence of wrongdoing at the agency. And while Oliver made DART officials appear to be evasive, behind the scenes they were trying to answer her questions.
"Throughout all of this we have not refused a request. Ask a question, we'll give you an answer. The problem she's had is with the answer," says DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. "If the facts don't conform to the story that she wants to tell, she's not interested."
Indeed, Oliver seemed to ignore information Lyons provided, even when it directly contradicted her thesis. For example, Oliver repeatedly mentions "jewelry stores," but the purchase she was referring to was made at a pawnshop, where a DART supervisor used his credit card to buy back tools an employee, who was subsequently fired, had stolen from the agency. Oliver mentioned the pawnshop in her second story, but she didn't let the information get in the way of her thesis: The report still included an image of a diamond ring.
Besides the Jesse Oliver ambush, Oliver used footage of her interview with Victor Burke, DART's general manager, to create the impression that DART officials were ignorant of employee spending. Over and over, the stories cut to footage of Oliver asking Burke about specific purchases and Burke responding, "I don't know." The viewer, however, doesn't get to see the entire interview, which Lyons videotaped.
Lyons recorded the interview in part because he didn't trust Oliver. Earlier, Lyons had given Oliver copies of 10,000 credit-card transactions she had requested. When he scheduled the interview, Lyons says he asked Oliver to give him a list of the purchases she wanted to ask Burke about. That way, he would have time to pull the appropriate receipts, which would explain why the purchases were made, and have answers ready when she arrived. "She said, 'Well, I don't have to tell you what my story is about,'" Lyons says.
As her cameraman sets up in the background, Oliver asks Burke if he's prepared to explain specific charges. "There's no way I can go into thousands of acquisitions and be very specific," Burke tells her. "If you have any specifics, you need to leave them with me and allow me the opportunity to look at them."
Oliver waited for her cameraman to begin recording and quizzed him anyway. Seated with her back to the DART camera, Oliver flips through her copy of the 10,000 transactions. One by one, she pulls out individual charges and asks Burke to explain them. One by one, Burke tells her he doesn't know what they're for. As the interview progresses, Oliver's questions become statements, followed by nitpicking.
"What about balloons?" Oliver asks, not waiting for an answer. "Balloons. Balloons. Balloons. Balloons."
Aware that he's being videotaped, all Burke can do is smile and listen. Oliver presses on, collecting footage of a stiff DART official who appears to have no idea what his employees are doing. Eventually, Burke's face turns red. "I would say to you," he tells Oliver, "I certainly believe we have a good story behind these purchases if you would allow me to bring you a response to these particular questions that you've asked."
Oliver balks at the offer. "It's not me," she protests. "I'm just asking the questions. This is up to the public to decide whether or not this is abuse."
After the interview, DART decided to yank its advertising from Channel 4. When faced with the decision to pay for advertising that would run opposite of credit-card stories, Lyons says the agency opted not to. After that, Lyons says his dealings with Oliver got strange. A couple of days before the first story aired, Lyons had his cameras rolling again when Oliver showed up to interview DART board member Ray Noah, who is chairman of the audit committee. Noah says he wanted the interview to be videotaped.
"If you've got that reputation, then I don't want to talk to you without some protection," Noah says. "The freedom of the press and the right to interview is a two-way process."
Given his oversight role over DART, Noah was a good choice for an interview. But it wasn't meant to be: When Oliver saw DART's camera, she backed out. "I guess we're gonna have to decline the interview then," Oliver says during the exchange. "Because we were hoping that we could talk to you in private, away from the DART cameras."
Later, Lyons spoke with Oliver on the telephone and learned that she thought it was "unethical" that DART tried to film the interview. Lyons, a former radio reporter, was stunned. If reporters record interviews, then so can their subjects. It happens all the time. Then, Lyons says, Oliver began to sound paranoid.
"She starts telling me she's been in the business 20 years, in this market 10, and if you want to know anything, fine, but she has kids, and she's worried about their safety," Lyons says. "I didn't know what to say. I asked around, just to make sure I haven't totally lost my mind."
It's 9:48 p.m. when we turn onto Oliver's block. I've enlisted a friend to drive, explaining I need my hands free. Secretly, I need the company--the idea of going over to Oliver's house has me anxious again.
Upon closer inspection, the SUV doesn't look like the kind of car Oliver would drive. Its wheels are jacked up, and there's an amplifier in the back. I take the plate number down anyway. We look around and notice the driveway is in the back, off the alley. There we spy a minivan. "Now that's a mommy-mobile," I say. My friend brings the car to a stop, and I peer into the windows. The lights are on, and I can see plastic-coated furniture--the kind a grandmother would have.
That's when I heard the dog. By the sound of its yapping, it couldn't have been bigger than a squirrel. But that was all it took. In a flash, the memories of juvenile delinquency came rushing back: the nights spent playing ding-dong ditch and smashing pumpkins. And the day, that terrible day, when my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Loubenheimer, singled me out for allegedly smoking a cigarette. She didn't have any proof, just a tip from a neighbor boy, but that was all she needed. My classmates gasped in collective horror as I was made a social outcast. The hell if I was going to let that happen again.
"Go! Go! Go!" I yell. "Let's get outta here."
"What? Why?" he stammers. "That's the number we need."
"Go! Somebody's coming. I heard a voice. They're coming!"
My friend pulls out of the alley, cursing. "I don't think you're going to make it in the stakeout business."
He was right. I am a chicken. The ambush was something I just couldn't bring myself to do, even if Becky Oliver has one coming.
Besides, it was the wrong house.
The effort, however, wasn't a total loss. I see that it takes a certain personality to ambush somebody, and that is precisely the reason Oliver is a household name in Dallas. Later, I decide to give Oliver another shot. I track down her home number and call her on her day off.
As it turns out, the former insider was right: Oliver can't stand the idea of surprise callers at home. No unwanted visitors have ever approached her home, but she says she tries to keep her personal information private to prevent that from happening. "I don't think that I'm paranoid," Oliver says. "I think that I'm being cautious."
During the conversation, which Oliver occasionally interrupts to tell her 2-year-old that "mommy's on a very important phone call," Oliver is pleasant. She tells me about her kids and the new boat she got to go water skiing. While an undergraduate at Kansas State University, she first wanted to be an actress but wound up majoring in broadcast journalism with designs of being an anchorwoman or a host. She later committed herself to investigative reporting as a graduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
"I credit the teachers there at Northwestern with really putting the emphasis on making a difference in your community," Oliver says.
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But does Oliver think her work is making a difference in the Dallas community? Did her DART stories serve the public by presenting an accurate impression of the agency? When she ambushes people, is Oliver casting their behavior in a truthful light, or is she distorting their actions just to give herself the appearance of being an effective journalist? In the Polk story, did she really safeguard the public against a rapist, or did she wander into a type of dispute that arises between people every day? Is that news?
Unfortunately, Oliver says she can't talk about any of that. Lawyer's orders.
"All I can say is, if you can just find a way to get this muzzle off of me I'd be happy to talk to you. I'm in a position right now where I really don't want to lose my job over this," Oliver says. With that she ticks off the list of subject areas her bosses have instructed her not to discuss. "You cannot discuss your role as an investigative reporter, your jobs, your ethics, anything about sweeps, anything about how you put your stories together," Oliver says. "They've gone over everything with me."
I still have my doubts about Becky Oliver, but also I am left with a notebook full of unanswered questions. So I'll try to keep my mind open. I wouldn't want to jump to any bad conclusions.