Sail On

The Shipp boys were, arguably, the coolest kids in elementary school who didn't have access to a stack of Playboys. Their dad, Bert Shipp, was a local newscast legend, having worked as a reporter and news director at Channel 5 and, beginning in 1961, at Channel 8. The other kids got to see old man Shipp on television interviewing Southern Methodist University football coach Hayden Fry, and then his boys would bring in cool stuff for homeroom, like the time they carted in a copy of the Zapruder film. Of course, what made the Shipp kids completely groovy was when they'd show their class the film of Dad interviewing the Beatles.

But that wasn't the most excellent part of growing up as Bert Shipp's kid. It wasn't that their dad was always showing up on TV from faraway places like the Indianapolis 500 or Washington, D.C., or even Vietnam. It wasn't going to the Channel 8 newsrooms on Saturday afternoons after SMU football games. No, the most far-out thing, at least for wide-eyed preteen Brett Shipp, was spending Friday nights with his old man on blood-'n'-guts patrol at Parkland hospital.

"We dug it, watching and waiting as the ambulances would roll in," says Shipp, 43, between bites of his very modern-day extra-healthy breakfast of oatmeal and bananas. "That was my life growing up, hanging out in the newsrooms or having my old man sitting by the Magnavox, switching channels, watching all the local newscasts. It all seemed so exciting."

More than three decades later, Brett Shipp knows it is just that: a daily shot of adrenaline, the sort of hooked-on-the-rush feeling that causes big-time investigative reporters to go through withdrawals when they aren't breaking stories.

Right now, that's not a problem for Shipp, because since late December he's been uncovering and reporting one of the biggest stories in recent Dallas history: the so-called "Sheetrock" scandal, the scores of fake-drug cases against Hispanics dismissed by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office because many of the "drugs" confiscated in the arrests were found to be mostly composed of gypsum, the material often found in Sheetrock.

The reporting, first by Shipp and his producer Mark Smith, has led to the suspension of two police officers, an FBI investigation and national media attention. On Monday, ABC News Nightline spent its entire show discussing the scandal; Shipp led off with a 13-minute summation of the story to date. Shipp is the fifth WFAA reporter to air a Nightline report; Valeri Williams, Byron Harris, Gary Reaves and former Channel 8 reporter Robert Riggs are the others. It's a sincere honor in that it not only solidifies his place among that group--perhaps the finest crop of local-TV investigative reporters in the country--but it also gives weight to an issue Shipp feels is the most crucial he's ever addressed.

"It's a great feeling professionally [to have Nightline air my report]. Because on a human and civil rights level, it's the most important story I've ever done," he says. "Nobody can realize what a tragedy this is until you meet the people hurt by it. It's very embarrassing for this city. But you know what? There are some people who should be very embarrassed."

It's that idealism that sometimes makes him seem like the same wide-eyed kid who watched his dad on TV years ago. Because he is.

"The whole concept of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is one he believes in," says David Duitch, news director at WFAA-Channel 8. Duitch, who has worked with Shipp in three "shops" (KDFW-Channel 4 in Dallas and KOTV-Channel 6 in Tulsa), says Shipp's success is simple to explain. "He takes time to do the research that's necessary. He has developed a style that makes it easy for sources to talk to him. He is someone who, when he gets onto a story, he doesn't let go of it. He just has a tremendous work ethic."

His road to Channel 8 was not preordained, contrary to popular opinion. When he attended Stephen F. Austin State University, Shipp decided he wasn't going to follow his father's career path. "I wanted to make more money than my old man," he says. After deadly dull business courses and a failed math class, Shipp realized that he was too hooked on the news junk to take a job that wasn't fun. He worked sidelines for a college radio station, but he realized that covering sports takes all the joy out of the games. So, he got a gig at a Lufkin TV station, taking classes in the morning and driving 45 minutes every day to do "three crap stories" from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. After that, it was jobs in Amarillo and Tulsa.

"Meanwhile, I kept sending audition tapes to Channel 8, saying 'I'm ready,'" he says. "Their response was always, 'Kid, you ain't ready.'" So, he went to work at Channel 4 for three years doing investigative work. Every time he broke a story, he was, in effect, hosing Channel 8. "Believe me," he says with a grin, "it felt good."

He finally landed at Channel 8 in 1995. He's broken several stories since, including some involving the Dallas Independent School District. To his credit, he can laugh about being beaten by the Dallas Observer a few years back covering former DISD head Yvonne Gonzalez: "I was calling her a 'fraud-buster,'" he says, chuckling. His easygoing, quick-to-laugh nature is even more appreciated when compared with some self-important TV goobs who have achieved far less than Shipp.

He turns serious, though, when I bring up a constant complaint from this corner: that Channel 8 no longer feels compelled to dance with the ones what brung 'em. I mention that more than one person has called and complained about specific managers and policies that seem to undermine the station's once-inarguable greatness.

"Let me start by saying, there are some people who aren't happy unless they're unhappy, OK?" he says, fixing me with a very un-Shipp-like stare. "Those people have the option of not renewing their contracts. They don't. They renew their contracts. Because they know this: I've got friends at every other station in town, and where you may have 25 or 40 percent of the newsroom upset at Channel 8, at the other stations you have 95 percent of people who are unhappy about the way things are done. They hate their news directors, they hate their owners, they hate their news product, they hate the sensationalism, they hate the live shots, they hate where they are. And any of them would take a pay cut to come to Channel 8. Any of them."

He's wound up now. "Friday, I fought with my news director all day long on a story. It started at the 9 o'clock meeting, because I thought he was trying to poison a story that I believe in, because he didn't like it for whatever reason. I didn't pick up the phone and call you. I fought. I spent all day fighting for that story. I could either roll over and let him have his way, let him win, or I could fight. And it was the lead story at 6 [p.m.]."

Fair enough. It's an argument for another day. I move on. But being Bert Shipp's son, wedded to the caustic world of exposés and blood-'n'-guts journalism, he can't help but edit me. "That all the Belo questions you got?" he says. "That was easy." As if to say, gosh, Brett Shipp wouldn't be such a wussy.