The Austin Chronicle

KVUE Gets Meat

Reporters Groogan and Guest Uncover Station Backbone

December 8, 1995, News

by Hugh Forrest

How refreshing to see our local daily finally put a little pressure on Jim Bob Moffett, the Freeport-McMoRan CEO whose name will apparently grace the University of Texas' newest academic building. Not restricted solely to the news department, the spotlight on Moffett has also made its way to the op-ed pages. In two hard-hitting Sunday columns (November 19 and 26) addressing the appropriateness of this man's UT connections, new Statesman editor Rich Oppel has at long last made good on the many accolades that accompanied his hiring several months back. A few more installments such as these and Austinites may become spoiled into believing that a Cox-owned newspaper serves some higher function than simply a convenient wrapper for so many brightly colored holiday advertising supplements.

But can the fever for good, aggressive journalism spread throughout the local media? We're usually very doubtful that the five television stations now providing news coverage for the Austin market will ever receive this inspiration. On the other hand, a few outstanding reports making it to the airwaves in recent weeks leave some degree of optimism for a brighter future in which local television newscasts take a leading role in exposing lies, greed, corruption, and hypocrisy from the powers-that-be while protecting the rights and privileges of the public at large.

Perhaps the most impressive of these was an exposé regarding Riverbend Baptist Church pastor Dr. Gerald Mann that initially aired November 21 (and was re-broadcast December 3) on Austin ABC affiliate KVUE.

The report by the KVUE investigative team of Greg Groogan and Scott Guest contends that Mann has not paid property taxes since 1990 on the $500,000 Rob Roy estate at which he resides. Why? Because that year, Mann sold the property to Gerald Mann Ministries, a non-profit organization for which he serves as president and which is affiliated with his nationally televised religious program. Shortly after the sale, Mann declared the Rob Roy house the official parsonage for this group. By law, the home was therefore eligible for exemption from all local property taxes -- a ruling Mann fought for and successfully achieved. KVUE clinched the story by uncovering a "990" federal tax return for Gerald Mann Ministries, a tax return that showed neither a mention of the parsonage as an asset nor the outstanding debt on the property as a liability.

As for Mann's perspective on the issue, the station alleges that he refused their repeated requests for an on-camera interview when they first contacted him about this topic in October. The only comment about the parsonage he would provide them at that time was this one: "I don't make the laws -- but I certainly live within them." Mann was away from Austin during the Thanksgiving week when the KVUE report first aired. Nonetheless, his attorney, Travis Phillips, provided this response for Groogan and Guest upon being confronted with the evidence of the faulty tax return: "Dr. Mann relies on professionals. He is not an accountant and does not understand the intricacies of the process. If this issue requires a public hearing, we'll be glad to comply."

Whether or not the KVUE exposé somehow fulfills this definition of public hearing is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, the station's position as the city's best local newscast was clearly reinforced by this exemplary investigation. In the tepid television market called Austin, would any other news team have devoted the time and energy to a story challenging one of the community's most visible religious leaders? Probably not. Nor might others have resisted early efforts by Mann to use his influence to kill the story, a course of action confirmed by one source close to the station. While reporter Groogan offers no comment on the efforts to squash this segment, he stresses that KVUE's commitment to the story was never in doubt. "I've got to give a lot of credit to (Station Manager) Ardyth Diercks," he says. "She maintains a very hands-off policy in terms of the news department."

An equally essential factor in the Mann report was the luxury of time. "I was given three months to pursue eight or nine stories," Groogan relates. "We eventually whittled that number down to five. Those who long for depth in television reporting need to realize that one of the biggest problems is too little time." He says that an article in U.S. News & World Report about the trillions of potential tax dollars non-profit organizations are exempt from paying inspired his investigation. After reading this, he asked the Travis County Tax Appraisal District for a list of all local tax-exempt properties, the result being a double-sided printout almost ten inches thick. Then came the task of sifting through the entries line by line. Comments Groogan: "I figured that with that many people getting this big a break, someone was probably pushing the limit of what's legal."

A five-year veteran of the Austin market, Groogan feels that labor-intensive reporting such as this is a better way to win an audience than fancy news sets and splashy graphics. "Good stories and solid journalism are what attracts viewers. Unless you have this, all the bells and whistles are like an appetizer with no main course." He adds that one reason the Austin market often swings towards these superficial trappings is that local reporters are traditionally underexperienced -- and underpaid: "I think the strength of the market equals the strength of the reporting pool. One of the problems that Austin has is that it is a tremendous feeder to other markets." In other words, once local reporters gain enough experience to begin producing quality work, they tend to move to cities where the financial rewards are significantly higher.

Speaking of finances, Mann could be having some difficulties with his as a result of the KVUE investigation. A day before the story aired, the County Tax Appraiser revoked the tax exemption on the Rob Roy parsonage after reviewing the federal tax return on which the property was conspicuously absent. At that point, Mann was given 30 days to reapply for the tax break. The KVUE report says that if Mann does not reapply for the exemption or if the exemption is not approved, he'll owe about $75,000 in outstanding property taxes to cover the last five years. The IRS may also have some questions for him. Hey, a fellow could probably get used to this kind of journalism. n

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