KTBC Reporter Caggiano's Guerrilla Tactics Cost Him
By Lee Nichols, Fri., Aug. 8, 1997
But unlike the famed general, Caggiano, 39, didn't return. Instead, he was summarily dumped by KTBC three days later. If he had been right -- if he had been reinstated -- it would have been to the great consternation of many of his coworkers, as well as many of his colleagues around Austin.
Until his firing on July 28, former "Fox-7" reporter Caggiano was very likely the most hated man in Austin television journalism. A few phone calls here and there can certainly make one believe so -- very quickly, one finds colleagues who complain that he is rude, unprofessional, sexist, belligerent, hot-tempered, and more than a little scary. Channel 7 reporters, former co-workers, journalists from rival stations, even Austin correspondents from non-competing stations in other cities -- all nearly fell over themselves in rushing to complain about Caggiano. And all, except one, asked to remain confidential, often citing a fear of physical violence from Caggiano.
Ridiculous nonsense, says Caggiano, but the volatile TV reporter's temper was approaching legendary -- even by his own admission -- and his penchant for screaming tantrums angered a long list of his fellow reporters, as well as his superiors. Incident piled upon incident, and Fox-7 management took notice. Finally, after questions were raised regarding the impartiality of Caggiano's coverage of possible gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro, Channel 7 last month decided that it was through with its controversial reporter.
Naturally, the world looks quite a bit different through Caggiano's eyes. What others describe as unprofessional, he views as aggressive reporting; what some call a short fuse is, to him, perfectionism. Caggiano admits he isn't the most congenial type in the world, but, he insists, it is the result of being surrounded by a multitude of idiots.
Prima Donna Chowderhead?
"I've worked alongside that jerk for years," one Austin correspondent for a Houston station blurts out upon hearing Caggiano's name. "I first encountered him during the Gulf War at Fort Hood, and at Fort Davis during the Republic of Texas standoff. I'm uncomfortable cutting another reporter, but if anybody deserves it, it's him. He's everything people hate about TV reporters."
The Fort Davis standoff was a defining moment in Caggiano's career -- exemplifying both what made him a pariah and what gave him so much frustration during his year-long stay at KTBC. Joe Nick Patoski's story on the standoff in the June issue of Texas Monthly carried a brief mention of Caggiano going into one of his fits, relating that "KTBC-Channel 7 reporter Gabe Caggiano... amused onlookers by screaming via cellular phone at his producer back in Austin."
While the temper tantrum provided a colorful vignette for Patoski's story, it also served as a window into Caggiano's world.
"Fort Davis was an example of why Gabe is not one of the most well-liked reporters around," says the Houston television journalist, who asked not to be identified. "Gabe seemed oblivious to the needs of anyone other than Gabe. The DPS briefings were formatted, and you can walk a fine line between aggressive and annoying. [Department of Public Safety spokesman Mike Cox] would be in the middle of a good quote, and Gabe would jump right in. In situations like Fort Davis, some reporters are remembered for their journalism, some for getting in the way.
"Frequently he would yell at his producer over the satellite while the conference was ongoing. You shouldn't distract other reporters. Gabe was loud. He would raise his voice at inappropriate times. It was as if he was more interested in his own performance, rather than imparting information. Several television journalists from around the country asked if I could speak to him and get him to change his demeanor, I guess because I'm from Texas. I didn't do it. It's not my job to teach other adults how to be adults."
What Patoski didn't explain in his story was why Caggiano exploded -- the correspondent was besieged by a series of technical screw-ups compounding an already difficult situation in which Fox-7 had sent Caggiano to the Davis Mountains underequipped and understaffed. "The station sent him to Fort Davis with only himself and a photographer," said a Dallas station's correspondent. "He shouldn't have acted like he did, but he was under a lot of pressure. He shouldn't have been put in that position."
Still, when this seemingly sympathetic reporter was asked whether he would want to work with Caggiano, the reply was, "Absolutely not.
"Walking through a media crowd, he has no friends. The other reporters back away from him," this Dallas source explained just days before Caggiano's firing. "The mentality on [KTBC's] staff is to get rid of him. I think he's a good reporter, but he has this uncontrollable temper.... We called him `Gabe Chowderhead,' partly because he's from Boston, but it fits on several different levels."
Responding to the charges of unprofessionalism, Caggiano would only say, "He has me mistaken with someone else.
"You gotta understand something about KTBC," says Caggiano. "We used to be number one in the market, we are now number four. My frustrations from day one have been the lack of commitment to high standards. I would say what happened in Ft. Davis really is the perfect representation of my entire frustration. KVUE sent 10 people to Ft. Davis. They sent a satellite truck, they sent a field producer, they sent three reporters, and three shooters. [KTBC] sent me and a cameraman. And the people at my station wanted me to do as much work as [KVUE's] Walt Maciborski and the other highly qualified, skilled technicians who were out there covering Ft. Davis. We were in the middle of the May ratings, mind you too, an international story that had the implications of being another Waco. So I'm outgunned five-to-one.
"Seven of my live shots did not make it on the air because of technical ineptitude by our staff. That was an atrocious, atrocious thing to have happen in the middle of a huge national story in the middle of ratings, to have seven live shots not make it onto the air because people could not technically get their act together. The people at our sister station in Dallas, KDFW, felt sorry for me. And [KTBC] made it clear that they were not going to send out any extra help for me... and I carried my weight; I went toe-to-toe with Maciborski and my work looked almost as good.
"And when I came back from Fort Davis, I got a reprimand for being abusive verbally to my co-workers back in Austin. I was screaming things like, `Why the heck can't we get this shot off the air?' I covered the Gulf War. I was in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia for five weeks; I didn't have one satellite shot that crashed. At Ft. Davis we had seven. Midland TV was better technically than us. And I get a reputation as being an unstable hothead because my work at the end of the day doesn't air? Because people at the station don't have the technical ability to tune in a satellite shot? Who wouldn't get upset over that? And when I get upset I get labeled abusive. I'm not going after anybody personally; I want them to do their jobs. If they can't do their jobs, fire them."
Calling for the heads of those who cross him is nothing new for Caggiano. As soon as the Texas Monthly reference was published, he called up the magazine's editors in a typical lather. "The funny thing was," recalls TM deputy editor Evan Smith, "he wanted to tell us he hadn't been yelling and screaming and so he called us up and yelled and screamed at us."
"As I said to the writer of that article," Caggiano said in his defense, "`If you're going to put my name in and you're going to write that, don't you think it's incumbent upon you as a reporter to come over and ask me what I'm upset about?... The way you left it, it makes me look like a prima donna hothead....' Can you imagine working from 8:30 in the morning until 11 o'clock [at night] every day for seven or eight days straight in 95-degree heat in a tense standoff situation only to have your work not air at the end of the day seven times?"
Caggiano demanded a retraction, but says he received a scolding from his superiors at the station instead. "My news director [Rob Martin] said, `You see this article? This is embarrassing.' And I said, `You know what's embarrassing, Rob? Our technical performance in Ft. Davis, that was embarrassing.'"
In the final Fort Davis fallout, in what is the contradiction that defines Caggiano's career, the fiery reporter was praised for his work and lambasted for his style. "I get back and I get one memo that thanks me for the work I do, and another that says `Your abusive behavior won't be tolerated; this is your last warning.'"
The War's Over
Even Caggiano's critics contradict themselves at times. Is he an embarrassment to the profession, or a good reporter who has simply stepped on a few toes? Caggiano can indeed lay legitimate claim to being a good reporter -- the Associated Press gave him an award for a Gulf War piece called "Texans at War" while he was at KMOL in San Antonio. Caggiano also keeps in his resumé a letter of recommendation from NBC national anchor Tom Brokaw, whom he met during the war.
Caggiano's friend Brian Karem, a former KMOL coworker and now a freelance writer, paints a picture completely opposite from the detractors. "I wouldn't take any other human being into a war zone other than Gabe Caggiano," Karem says. "When the chips are down and you need someone to cover your back, Gabe was there. I know some people think of Gabe as abrasive, and he can be, but that's his charm. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he pours his heart into a story. Gabe's problem is that people hear his bark and get afraid of his bite."
Debora Daniels, the co-anchor of KMOL's evening newscasts, echoes Karem's comments. "I found working with Gabe very stimulating, very enjoyable," Daniels says. "Maybe I just take things differently. He can be so intense, he can have such an edge, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He's never abided mediocrity.
"The waters were not placid when he worked here, but the waters ought to be choppy in a newsroom. I think a little friction is necessary. I think we do a better job with friction. Most of the people I admire in reporting are not my favorite people, or the most congenial. Gabe is not without personality or charm; we had laughs together, and we butted heads. That's how it should be. And," she laughs, "Gabe's from the Northeast."
However, not everyone is so quick to downplay Caggiano's outbursts. Fox-7 photographer Erica Hintergardt, who would not comment for this story, got a taste of his temper last Thanksgiving at the Salvation Army -- a favorite photo-op of local newscasts at holiday time. According to one source who was present, in an incident that was witnessed by several onlookers, Caggiano stood in the middle of a dinner for the homeless and screamed at Hintergardt.
A photographer from another station said, "I was setting up my shot, and I turn around and he's yelling at Erica. It was an argument about the lighting -- he's very sensitive about that, but there's not much you can do inside a building. He's taken it out on a lot of the photographers, and he's very degrading, especially to women. He said, `I can't believe I have to work with a woman.' It was in front of the public, and it was very embarrassing.
"Working with someone shouldn't have to be that way. He's very unprofessional, and it's bad for journalism. Channel 7 has kept him despite losing others. They would back him before the photographers. It really hurts me to see someone like him representing our field."
Caggiano, who says he never commented on Hintergardt's gender, defends his actions: "Erica Hintergardt was brand new at the station, and I wasn't happy with the way she was setting up the lights," Caggiano says. "I said to Erica, `I would appreciate it if you would move the lights in closer.' Her reply was to me, in a very disdainful way, `If you don't like the way it's lit, Gabe, maybe you should just do it yourself.' And I said in a tense voice, `No, Erica, I don't want to do it myself, I want you to do it, and I want you to do it right.' It didn't take much of any kind of tension to appear like there was a major blow-up, because it was a Thanksgiving dinner and it was in fairly small confines. I don't appreciate the unprofessional remarks she directed towards me when all I wanted to get was for her to move the lights closer. And having 15 years experience -- and she was just brand new from Wichita Falls -- I don't feel I should be questioned about how I want something lit.
"I called the Salvation Army PR person and apologized... and I subsequently went back and covered the Christmas dinner at the Salvation Army and did [other stories on the Salvation Army] without incident." (A Salvation Army spokesperson declined to comment on the alleged incident).
Reports on the blow-up were exaggerated, Caggiano says, and the photographer who complained "is somebody looking for a reason to damage my good name... I don't feel I should apologize for wanting a shot done a certain way and having the photographer smart off; but for some reason, I come out of it the bad guy. In the field, the reporter calls the shots. The photographer works for the reporter... but he should treat the photographer with respect. But somebody has to be in charge."
Caggiano takes exception to the fact that the Chronicle tapped unnamed sources for this article. "You're not getting this information first-hand. I question the motives for even doing this story. I would want more attributions from more people... to put an article out. If Erica wouldn't comment -- somebody else is doing her talking for her?"
Although Hintergardt would not comment, she may have had good reason. The day that station managers learned that the Chronicle was pursuing this story, they issued a company-wide memo reminding staff that station policy forbids Fox-7 employees from commenting on internal matters to other media. The next day was when Caggiano was suspended, and three days later, he was fired.
Some critics say that the Salvation Army explosion is indicative of Caggiano's alleged tendency to single out women for his vitriol. "One time he was assigned to cover a bomb threat," says another Fox-7 reporter, "and someone asked him if he was afraid to go. He said, `I'm more afraid of working with a female than of a bomb.'"
"Obviously that's a joke," protests Caggiano. "I don't even remember saying that, but if I did, I think it's kind of funny. I'd say that females are probably as likely to explode as bombs. I'd say the people here are dangerous. But I've worked with many females in the newsroom, and many of them, I don't have a problem with at all. There are many competent females in journalism, and I won't accept that sexist remark at all. I'm not sexist... I believe they belong in news as much as men."
Delusions of Grandeur
Photojournalist John Pertel worked with Caggiano at WMTW in Portland, Maine, shortly before Caggiano came to Austin in 1996. According to Pertel, the station had gotten wind that General Colin Powell, whose name was still being bandied about as a possible presidential candidate, would be landing at a Portland airfield, along with former First Lady Barbara Bush. Caggiano and Pertel headed for the landing, with Caggiano hoping to get an interview with Powell. However, Secret Service officials had made it clear that while long shots would be acceptable, no one would be allowed onto the tarmac. Caggiano directly disobeyed them, recalls Pertel.
"The plane comes in, and Gabe jumps on the tarmac and says `Come on, come on!'" says Pertel. "I said `No!' He comes back and says, `This is bullshit. You're a pussy.' "
After grabbing the camera from Pertel, Caggiano ran out onto the tarmac again, but by then the secret servicemen were upon him and escorted him off the field.
"He started lashing at me," says Pertel. "He said, `This is small-market bullshit; we could have had an exclusive interview with Colin Powell.' All year long, Powell had been refusing to comment on whether he would run for the presidency, and I said, `What did you expect, Gabe, that he would say, "You know, I haven't told anyone else this, but I'm running for president"?'"
Actually, that's almost exactly what Caggiano was thinking.
"When you're dealing with the Secret Service, it's a cat-and-mouse game," Caggiano says. "If you can get to a candidate and get an interview, the Secret Service is negated; once you're engaged in the conversation, the Secret Service can't pull you away, it's in the domain of the candidate... I'm thinking to myself, `What if Powell has decided to join the Bob Dole ticket?' Do you realize the power this man had at that time? Dole-Powell beats Clinton-Gore. Dole and anybody else, Clinton wins. Powell singlehandedly controlled the outcome of the race. There's no other media at the event; this is what we call a clean-kill exclusive. What is Powell doing getting off a private plane in an obscure terminal with a member of the Bush family? Was this an effort to get him on the ticket to save it?
"You can't blame a reporter for wanting to get this interview.... This is a worldwide exclusive, big news. Pertel is laughing about this; he thinks this is funny. I had to take the camera back over to get him to show me how to turn it on, and by then the Secret Service sees me. The window of opportunity had closed. Pertel made up his mind an hour earlier that he wasn't going to move. Did he tell me that? No. He waited, so that he could pull this stunt, so that he can watch with sadistic joy while my attempts to get this interview were blocked." Caggiano says that WMTW's chief photographer agreed with his judgment to go for the interview.
Pertel says that Caggiano told another reporter that "he would gouge my eyes out with a pen if I did it again."
Caggiano laughs at this comment, and says, "I think what I said was `I wanted to stick him in the eye with a pen.' It was just a figure of speech. Never once did I physically assault John Pertel. However, I don't regret getting angry about it."
Pertel "is an idiot," Caggiano says angrily. "He's a mind-game player. He's someone you don't want to turn your back on. If he doesn't like me, I feel better. I must be doing something right. Next opponent."
A Tussle With Hillary's Muscle
Still steamed from being roughed up, Caggiano directed his anger at Garry Mauro, who was then the Clinton campaign's Texas director. "[Caggiano] was upset with the secret service," recalls Joe Cutbirth, communications director of the Mauro campaign, "and wanted to talk with Garry. He seemed to think Garry had something to do with the secret service. We've never figured out what he wanted us to do. What worried us was that over a year later, he still seemed to have a grudge about it."
This long-simmering anger, which Cutbirth says resurfaced in recent conversations between him and Caggiano, seemed serious enough to give the Mauro campaign concerns about the impartiality of Caggiano's coverage. Cutbirth will not discuss the specifics of the conversations, but says, "We were concerned that we had a reporter approaching us with malice." Cutbirth took the matter to Caggiano's bosses, but claims, "It was not to undermine Gabe, but to make [news director] Rob Martin aware of our concerns." After an internal investigation, the station heads fired Caggiano. Channel 7's Martin would not comment on the official reason; Caggiano says he was simply told that the Mauro incident was the last straw.
Caggiano denies that he ever made a threat: He insists that he simply wanted an explanation of why he was physically attacked at the Clinton campaign stop before he began a planned three-part series looking at Mauro's bankruptcy and Mauro's hiring of Ruben Johnson, a convicted felon.
"I think it was asking a question that somebody didn't want to answer, so they figured they would go complain to the boss," Caggiano says. "At no time did Mauro or his people say [the agents were Secret Service]. All he would have had to say was `Hey Gabe, those weren't my people, they were Secret Service.' The guy who grabbed me wasn't dressed like Secret Service. At no time did Mauro ever respond to my handwritten note or my videotape. I just wanted to know who grabbed me."
"I'm not a 22-year-old rookie out of journalism school. I'm 39 years old, I've covered campaigns, I've been to the Gulf War, and nobody grabs me by the throat and intimidates me. It doesn't work."
Karem, Caggiano's friend from San Antonio's KMOL, says, "I know what happened with Mauro, but I can't imagine him slanting coverage to hurt someone. He's a good guy, but misunderstood."
Hasta La Vista, Gabey
Television news is a cutthroat business. It is the highest-profile of all news media, one where reporters become recognizable stars, image is often more important than substance, and ego is almost a prerequisite for success. The end of Caggiano's career at Fox-7 provided a glimpse of the field at its worst, mixing all of these facets in an ugly, but almost amusing, collision of incompetence, hotheadedness, and minor political scandal.
Was Caggiano really as out-of-control as so many of his colleagues (including more who weren't quoted for this article) claim? Or was he an aggressive journalist who fell victim to the "small-market" mentality of the less-ambitious?
By now, it's a moot point for everyone involved.
"I don't feel bad about leaving KTBC," concludes Caggiano. "I wanted to leave. This is just the inevitable occurring... I'll get another job, because I'm good. I'll get a better job. So, adios Austin."
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