Here’s the deal with Brett Shipp: everybody likes him. The people who worked with him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he honed his investigative reporting chops, like him. Co-workers at WFAA Channel 8, where he has worked since 1995, like him. Other media types in town, me included, will tell you he’s a great guy. It’s hard to find anyone who says otherwise. After I wrote a blog post critical of Shipp’s recent coverage of Dallas ISD, I got a call from one of his former interview subjects.
“Why are you being so mean to Shipp?” he asked me.
“What do you mean? You told me how biased his reporting was.”
“Oh, it was completely one-sided,” he replied. “But he’s a good dude.”
Here’s another thing about Brett Shipp: he’s a very good reporter, at times a fantastic one. When he was at KDFW Channel 4, he broke so many stories that Channel 8—the place where his legendary father had worked—had no choice but to hire him, if only so he’d stop scooping the station. His reporting on faulty natural gas couplings that led to fatal explosions at houses resulted in new statewide regulations. His reports on the treatment of Mexican immigrant women and children in Texas federal prisons were haunting and powerful. And, more than a decade ago, he broke and owned the fake drug scandal, in which he found that Dallas Police Department narcotics officers were routinely planting ground Sheetrock (to look like cocaine) on Mexican immigrants and arresting them. It’s one of the most important Dallas investigations in the past quarter century.
All that is context for what I’m about to say. It’s the sort of context Shipp—and most every other TV reporter in town—doesn’t feel is necessary in a story. But it seems fair to lead with that here. Especially since, after much back and forth, he declined to talk to me for this column.
The most important thing about Shipp: he’s a bully.
I’m not sure how he got to this point, but that’s the word most often used to describe him by those he’s covered. Over the past several years, the stories from those who’ve come under the harsh light of his TV camera sound similar, shot through with blustering righteousness, stubbornness in the face of contradictory evidence, petty arguments. A small, telling example: Rene Martinez, a longtime Hispanic activist, showed me a series of text messages between the two wherein Martinez criticized a Shipp story, then Shipp responded with a stern warning to cease texting because from that moment on, the communiques would be considered on the record. To which Martinez, of course, replied with words to the effect of “Quote me saying how much you suck all you want.”
I’m not sure when this transformation from “Just the facts, ma’am” reporter to media-bully-with-a-pulpit occurred. Maybe it was in the wake of his multiple national awards, such as three George Foster Peabody Awards and a 2008 duPont-Columbia Award, the first time a local TV station won the award. Perhaps they not only made him bulletproof within the walls of Channel 8 but also eroded the idea that his stories should offer the context needed to get a more nuanced, grayer picture.
I first noticed his transformation when Shipp reported stories saying that DISD teachers were wasting taxpayer dollars with questionable vacation-like excursions, expensing items like lobster during a conference. It turned out that the lobster in question was part of a $20 all-you-can-eat buffet dinner, but no matter. It was lobster.
I was also confounded by stories he did (and promoted on Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket) suggesting that the Dallas Cowboys weren’t selling enough high-priced “club level” seating a year and a half prior to the opening of the new stadium in Arlington. Turns out, not only was he way too early, as they sold out easily before the season began, but he’d also underreported the sales at that point by a factor of four (which he later admitted on air).
Again, here’s some context: those are just a few stories of the hundreds he’s done. That doesn’t show a pattern. Everyone overreaches.
But his recent reporting on DISD, to me, has shown months of media-style bullying. In fact, the instances where he has told half a story in support of anti-Mike Miles forces are so numerous that it’s hard to summarize with any sort of context.
The highlights: Shipp has declared as legitimate the résumé of any Miles critic willing to call for his head on camera. Shipp traveled to Santa Fe to talk to a supposed representative of the Dallas business community named J. McDonald Williams, someone who hasn’t been involved in day-to-day businessing since he was Trammell Crow CEO in 1994. (Sorry, but sitting on the Belo board doesn’t count; in fact, it is a qualification demerit.) Shipp championed Williams as an education-reform advocate. Although he may technically be chairman of an education advocacy nonprofit, Williams stepped down from an operational role nearly four years ago.
Shipp gave airtime to Bruce Parrott, former DISD board member, so that he could criticize Miles. That’s one-term member Bruce Parrot, someone who earned a “D” report card on his school-board work from the education PAC Dallas Kids First (and who lost a board race as a sitting member, which almost never happens). And Shipp quoted a former DISD purchasing agent who says Miles was involved in a questionable $24,000 consulting contract, but he neglected to mention that the purchasing agent was forced to resign amid a $10 million purchasing-department cock-up.
I could go on. Shipp has aired multiple stories supporting the view of former DISD communications director Rebecca Rodriguez, usually neglecting to mention that the two were once co-workers, and that Rodriguez, after she left her post at the district, threatened to get back at Miles through the media. Shipp has used heavy-handed tactics to suggest Rene Martinez, a one-time Miles critic, was paid off to support Miles—ignoring Martinez’s own story of how Miles won him over. And on and on.
Choosing which facts you highlight and arguing persuasively for your worldview can be considered good opinion-making, in the right forum. But using your station as the No. 1 investigative hound dog in the market to push such a narrative is bullying.
More context: I like bullying. I’m a bully. I pick a controversial subject, give you my take on it, and make an argument as to why I’m right and anyone who believes otherwise is wrong. The difference is that I’m a columnist. You understand that going in, and you have online forums to disagree. Also, as with this column, I always try to acknowledge the arguments of those who disagree—i.e., context. Shipp has done none of this. Not that I have seen.
Why call him out now? Because getting a story wrong about Jerry Jones’ ticket sales doesn’t hurt anyone. It isn’t important. But DISD is important. Fixing its faults is one of our most crucial missions. If we don’t fix it, if we run off yet another superintendent, then those whose money and influence are needed to fix the district may well leave the city.
The way to call attention to this problem is to cover the big DISD story right in front of us. Not whether Mike Miles criticized the school board or leaked information. Who cares? The story that needs telling is the one that shows Miles, while a flawed leader, trying to improve. Miles is not the problem. The forces aligned against him are making it impossible to enlist smart, reform-minded executives in the fight. If this trend continues, running Miles out of town for the sake of a nightly news narrative very well could doom the reforms to failure.
DISD is a tough story to cover. There are very few aspects of this story that are black and white. The villains are well-meaning, and the good guys have tremendous flaws. Gray everywhere. It’s the sort of story that cries out for a great reporter who has a big audience. I know a guy, in fact. Great reporter. Good dude. I hope he’s reading.