The Landmark-owned CBS affiliate in Las Vegas was awarded a Peabody for its extensive investigative reporting on the causes, effects and those responsible for the city’s mushrooming housing crisis. Bringing a number of the issues to light helped prompt the state to act faster to pass laws to ease the suffering of homeowners.
While most of the country inched toward recovery economic last summer, the housing crisis continued to plague Las Vegas, compounding the misery of a city built on good times and gambling.
With rampant unemployment, some 3,000 homes were falling into foreclosure every month. Neglected, empty properties marred even high-income neighborhoods, and shopping centers looked like ghost towns. Predators swarmed in. Some offered desperate people loan modifications that scammed them out of what little money they had left.
Suicide victims left notes saying they just couldn’t take it anymore.
From the outset, KLAS, Landmark’s CBS affiliate in the city, closely covered the recession, and the enormous toll it took on Las Vegas after decades of building and growth.
But by last August, the crisis hit such a critical point that the station decided that its piecemeal coverage was no longer sufficient. It set out to help residents the best it could by uncovering how the crisis started and who was responsible for it, as well as by answering the questions of whether the damage could be repaired and, if so, could another such catastrophe be prevented.
The result: Desert Underwater, a series of reports in November 2011 that was named a 2012 Peabody Award winner last week and a Sigma Delti Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists today.
“People didn’t know how this could happen to them,” says investigative reporter George Knapp. “These are people who had not done things wrong, had not been reckless. These are people who lost their jobs.”
The “shock to the system” was compounded by the widespread belief that Las Vegas was recession proof, he says. “We led the nation in growth for 20 straight years.”
Led by the station’s investigative team — three full-time reporters, including Knapp; three photographers; and three producers — much of the newsroom staff contributed to the enormous undertaking.
Desert Underwater covered every facet of the housing crisis and its reporting eventually yielded more than 30 TV stories, which aired during afternoon, evening and latenight newscasts over a two-week span. The team also produced a one-hour special that aired in primetime, and some 40 stories for the Web. (Click here to see Part 1 of Desert Underwater.)
The effort made some remarkable discoveries, including illegal robo-signing of foreclosure documents. With the help of a handwriting expert, KLAS also found one signature had been written five different ways — including a misspelling — on foreclosure documents. That person’s position also changed from notary public to VP throughout the paperwork.
The human side of the story was just as telling.
The team found one family who after being evicted from their home set up camp in their backyard while fighting the foreclosure.
Cameras captured the eviction of a wheelchair-bound woman with five beloved dogs who after 14 years in her home had nowhere to go. An officer who went door-to-door enforcing evictions relayed the story of a homeowner who shot himself rather than lose his home.
In tracing the paper trail of his mortgage, Knapp, the reporter, learned that, technically, he didn’t even own the foreclosed home he bought several years ago. The foreclosure done prior to his purchasing the property had not been done legally.
“There wasn’t a great deal of help,” says News Director Ron Comings. “The feeling we had is that people are absolutely desperate, they are losing their jobs, they can’t find jobs and their attempts to try to keep their houses only exposes them to criminal activity.”
“We could at least tell them what was going on,” he says.
Poynter’s Al Tompkins, who praised KLAS back in November for airing the series during a sweeps period some stations reserve for stunts, says Desert Underwater is an important piece of local journalism for exposing and explaining the layers of mortgage, short selling and foreclosure fraud that played roles in the disaster.
“This is not the kind of story that is going to generate ratings,” he says. “It was done because they did what they needed to do and they did it the way they should have — with great skill.”
“And what they reported is right, what they reported is accurate and it’s the kind of thing that ought to be congratulated for serving the public.”
Tompkins says he is equally impressed with KLAS station management for giving the news department the go-ahead. “That marketplace is in terrible shape and the stations no doubt are feeling the same economic pressure,” he says. “Despite that, the station trudges on anyway.”
Evidently, that’s something KLAS does somewhat regularly. The station’s investigative team won a 2009 Peabody for its half-hour special Crossfire: Water, Power and Politics, which exposed the “shenanigans” pulled by the Southern Nevada Water Authority in its insatiable search for water rights in the region.
The station also has won regional Murrow and Emmy awards.
Knapp says the housing series had an impact.
“We helped give people some hope because the resources we had gave them ideas of how to proceed,” he says. Exposing issues also helped prompt the state to act faster to enact laws that would ease the suffering of homeowners, he adds.
Comings says he suspects the reports encouraged more homeowners to pursue short sales that are preferable to foreclosure.
And the story continues to unfold. Earlier this month, KLAS reported on Hispanics being the latest target of loan modification firms that swindle struggling homeowners out of thousands of dollars.
The combustible mix of overbuilding, recession and fraud is bound to affect the area for years to come. “It was like a giant Ponzi scheme,” says Knapp. “It had to end. And when it did, it was bloody and it was awful.”