From Channel Five--troubling revelations. From Oak Park--charges of treachery.
"NBC and the BGA took a potentially good public service story and made it a farce," a village publicist writes us.
"I guess they sent somebody in here and grabbed a water sample," muses Bill Hamilton, manager of Oak Park's Ridgeland public pool.
Indeed, Channel Five went in on the sly and made off with a bottle of Ridgeland pool water. Days later reporter Allison Rosati returned to the scene to dip a hand into the pool and pronounce on camera, "There's less chlorine here than there is in the drinking water in the city of Chicago."
So John Hedges wants to know, "Why would they wait eight days to tell us if they thought something was wrong here?" Hedges is executive director of the Oak Park park district.
Publicist Karen Kelly declares, "But the sleaziest part was the way the pictures for the segment were acquired."
Hamilton again: "Channel Five called me and told me they were interested in doing a fun-in-the-sun-type story. Could they come out and take some shots over here? The next day Allison Rosati and a cameraman came out and gave me this whole spiel that that's the story they were doing. I went back to work. They went to the pool and she talked on camera. I wasn't paying any attention. On the way out she said, 'Thanks. Great facility! Great staff!' The next day someone from Five called and said Five was running a story about pool safety--and we were part of it, and on July 11 we'd failed to meet state standards for chlorine content."
On July 18 Channel Five brought all Chicago the worrisome news. Its probe of the pools our children swim in had turned up "some disturbing results." You know what unspeakable things kids do in water--they drool, they pee, they wipe their noses. Not enough chlorine, warned Channel Five, "and the local pool water can turn into a germ-laden soup."
Lacking a polio epidemic to make its expose truly boffo, Channel Five spoke in dire generalities of "germs" spreading in underchlorinated water and "ruining any swimmer's summer fun." According to the guidelines of the Illinois Department of Public Health, chlorine levels of swimming-pool water belong in the range of 0.5 to 2 parts per million. Channel Five reported that nearly 60 percent of the pools visited by a Unit 5/BGA investigative team failed to meet those guidelines.
One of them was Ridgeland Pool.
And before our horrified eyes, Channel Five showed innocent children frolicking in Ridgeland's potentially lethal waters on a blazing summer day.
Allison Rosati was the on-air "reporter" of this Unit 5/BGA expose, but she had little to do with it. Better Government Association investigators collected water samples at 24 pools and sped them to Enviro-Test/Perry laboratory in Downers Grove for spectrophotometric analysis. Investigative reporter Doug Longhini handled the project from Channel Five's end.
"Oak Park was very upset that we had snuck into their pool," said Longhini after talking to Hamilton and Hedges. "I said we left that up to the BGA. But I didn't duck it. We would have snuck into their pool."
We told Longhini that what Oak Park is really upset about is Allison Rosati's cock-and-bull story that she was out there to take pictures of happy kids splashing in the water.
"We did take pictures of happy kids splashing in the water," Longhini said indignantly. "We definitely wanted to have people in the swimming pool. But if they feel sandbagged, I apologize to them here."
Let's try to sort the good news from the bad. A 60 percent failure rate--that's the bad news. The good news is that the bad news--like a six-ounce steak surrounded by boiled potatoes--was made to look much bigger than it was.
Take the 60 percent. One of the things you learn in investigative journalism is how to maximize the dimensions of a scandal. The BGA visited 24 pools. The number of pools with a chlorine count below 0.5 was four. In other words, one pool in six flirted with becoming a "germ-laden soup." Ten had chlorine counts above 2.0--although the worst the station could say about too much chlorine was that "it can leave swimmers with sore eyes and mild skin rashes." Whether it will or not depends on the acidity of the water. Acidity is expressed as a pH value, and acidic water has a pH below 7.0. The state wants a pH of 7.2 to 7.6. Above that and your eyes might not get sore, but the chlorine won't disinfect as effectively.
The state tests for pH. Channel Five ignored pH. "Measuring chlorine alone won't tell you its effectiveness in water," Dr. Ross Goodrich, the Cook County health department's program manager for swimming pools, told us. "We don't feel [Channel Five] did a complete test and got a good picture of what the water was like."
Out in Oak Park they're complaining about Channel Five's testing procedures. A BGA investigator put a bottle in the pool, filled it to the top, stoppered it, put it on ice, and raced to the Enviro-Test/Perry lab half an hour away. Time was of the essence; chlorine dissipates rapidly.
Ridgeland's lifeguards test the water at poolside by adding chemicals that change the color of water in a beaker and then comparing it to a color chart. Cook County performs basically the same poolside operation with somewhat more sophisticated equipment. Poolside gear is less precise than a spectrophotometer, but it's a lot quicker to use.
So all things considered, we asked Curtis Thompson, the state health department's program manager for swimming pools, which testing method is more accurate?
"Poolside is better overall," he said.
Thompson had been consulted by the Unit 5/BGA team.
Did you tell them that? we wondered.
"I was never asked," he said.
The BGA's Lisa Misher headed up the swimming-pool operation. We asked her why she didn't use poolside kits. "We're going to rely on a lab before we rely on ourselves at poolside," Misher said. "I don't feel we can post the results of our own poolside tests. I think a pool operator could understandably take issue with that."
In other words, using a lab dignified the results, even if it also compromised them.
Oak Park's last beef is that the probers ignored the results of other tests, although Hedges faxed them to Channel Five as soon as he was let in on what was going on. Ridgeland Pool's own records for July 11 show chlorine hovering at 0.5 ppm from 1 PM to 8 but never dropping below it. By coincidence, a Cook County inspector paid his annual visit the same day and measured a chlorine level of 1.0 ppm.
Longhini doesn't waver. "Any given sample has to stand on its own merits," he insisted. "We found pools where we found more chlorine than the pool records showed, which seems to argue against dissipation. It was pretty much a bell curve . . . "
Longhini did add a line to Rosati's script acknowledging that the four low-end pools denounced the probe's findings "as irresponsible and dead wrong."
Actually, Ridgeland Pool is on shaky grounds when it points to its own records for July 11. Eight consecutive hourly readings of 0.5 ppm look pretty suspect. What's more, the hourly pH values ranged from 7.0 to an acidic 6.8. Every one of the pool's own pH readings fell outside state standards.
But Channel Five paid no attention to pH.
In light of Channel Five's disregard for Ridgeland Pool's own data, Allison Rosati closed her report with an odd piece of advice. "If you want to know the chlorine level at your local pool," she told her viewers, "just ask the pool manager or a lifeguard."
The more the media think about the way they covered the war in the Persian Gulf, the less they like it. Seventeen top media executives have sent Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney a letter stating, "We believe it is imperative that the gulf war not serve as a model for future coverage." And on behalf of the 17--among them the presidents of CNN and of ABC, NBC, and CBS news, and top executives of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal--the president of the Associated Press is now trying to arrange a meeting with Cheney.
Along with the letter, Cheney received an anecdote-laden report on obstacles that confounded reporters who'd tried to cover the war. We've culled a few from Editor & Publisher.
Carol Morello of the Philadelphia Inquirer was in a press pool aboard the John F. Kennedy when the carrier's loudspeakers announced that fighting was about to begin. "There was euphoria about the ship. I began to cover it," Morello wrote. But then the reporters were ordered below decks and kept there for more than an hour, until the crew calmed down.
The AP's Edie Lederer said a public-affairs officer sat in on every interview at the Al Kharg airbase, "facing the person being interviewed and shaking his head yes or no as to whether a question should be answered."
ABC's Linda Patillo was forbidden to report she'd seen Marines listening to "Onward Christian Soldiers" on a boombox the first Sunday of the war "because of Saudi sensitivities."
Thanks to an elaborate chain of command and indifferent air-courier service, combat dispatches arrived back at the press center in Dhahran days late or not at all. Photos taken by the AP's John Gaps on February 24 reached Dhahran on March 30. Carol Morello described being led into an uncleared mine field to wait nervously for the chopper that was supposed to pick up her copy. It never came. "The entire 100-hour war had ended, and not a single story I had written had been picked up yet."
Retired Colonel David Hackworth, America's most decorated living soldier, went to the gulf for Newsweek. He wrote, "I had more guns pointed at me by Americans or Saudis who were into controlling the press than in all my years of actual combat."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.