For a week and more, all the world’s major media wrote about Three Mile Island. But none of them came close to matching The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“We usually put two teams on big stories,” says executive editor Gene Roberts, “one to do daily stories and one to dig.” Roberts has a reputation as a reporter’s editor; if the story is good enough the checkbook is open. For T.M.I. he had not two teams, but three. Reporter Rod Nordland headed the investigative group; associate managing editor Steve Lovelady coordinated a special Sunday chronology; reporter Susan Stranahan moved to the desk to work on the technical story under metropolitan editor John Carroll, who cooked up the daily diet of sidebars. Roberts drained his suburban bureaus to staff the teams. “I had a contingency plan to close down some of the city beats and put sports reporters on it if it got worse,” he says, “but we felt we had it saturated.” All told, there were twenty Inquirer reporters at T.M.I., a score more in Washington, Hershey, and elsewhere. Counting editors and desk people, Carroll estimates that sixty Inquirer journalists worked the story.
Nordland’s investigative team concentrated on Metropolitan Edison. What did he hope to uncover? “The worst we could,” says Nordland, “that Met Ed knew what was wrong but didn’t care, that it acted irresponsibly. I don’t think the story came out that way. But we did make a case that there was negligence by a lot of high-ranking plant officials and that the problem was systemic, not isolated.” The major investigative piece appeared April 16, when the story was winding down at most other papers. It documented a Met Ed cost-cutting campaign that had led to postponed maintenance, quick-and-dirty repairs, and fatigued employees.
The Inquirer team went directly to the workers to get the story. Reporters took down license plate numbers at each shift at the plant, got the names and addresses from the state motor vehicle department, then sent each a mailgram. The Inquirer, it read, would like to hear “any observations, complaints, or compliments you have about the construction, operation, or repair of Unit 2. Please call or write us, confidentially if you wish.” It gave four local phone numbers and the address of the Inquirer’s Harrisburg bureau.
Two hundred mailgrams went out (some to reporters or N.R.C. officials who happened to be parked at the plant). Then the Inquirer started knocking on doors. Many employees were belligerent, most were exhausted, but fifty agreed to interviews. The paper also tracked down former employees, using union lists on file with the Department of Labor. One man was traced to British Columbia by reporter Mary Bishop, who called the land records office there with an approximate last name and a wrong first name. He turned out to be an important source.
The daily technical coverage, meanwhile, was coordinated by Susan Stranahan, the Inquirer’s former environmental reporter, whose beat had been dissolved by Roberts at the beginning of March. Four months earlier she had toured T.M.I.’s Unit I; she had done a long piece on low-level radioactive wastes that ran buried in the Thanksgiving Day paper. Now she pieced together the technical angle from accounts by science writer Joel Shurkin, other reporters in Harrisburg, and her own nuclear sources. “I expect an expert could pick out errors in each story,” she says, “but I hope they would be minor ones.” Stranahan scored a scoop from the desk on Thursday, after reporter Bob Frump called in notes from a briefing at which Denton casually mentioned that Met Ed had found a valve problem in Unit I the day before the accident. Stranahan called the N.R.C. to confirm that the same valve, unrepaired in Unit 2, had played a role in the T.M.I. event. It had. No one else had that story.
While Stranahan struggled with this story, Carroll directed the rest of the daily coverage. He went heavily with psychological effects, reporting on children’s dreams, gun sales, the tenor of church services. The blanket coverage turned up two interesting exclusives: the fact that Met Ed wouldn’t pay two pregnant secretaries who wanted to leave the area (the policy was changed after the story ran) and a scaremongering ad in the Patriot-News offering radiation badges at $4.98 each (the Consumer Protection Bureau investigated the scalper’s price and the firm pulled out).
The Inquirer sometimes reached for its color, as when it assigned its education writer to cover the reaction at Dickinson College in Carlisle, some twenty miles from the plant. And it published not one but three inadequately balanced stories about farmers who complained that their animals had been dying of cancer since Unit I opened in 1974.
On Tuesday, six days into the story, Roberts decided to shoot for a definitive reconstruction of the accident and its aftermath for Sunday’s paper. Steve Lovelady was put in charge. By putting together chronologies for Met Ed, the N.R.C., state officials, and the workers, then weaving them together, Lovelady planned to resolve the conflicting stories into a clear picture of the event. “We had the suspicion that no one knew what they were doing,” he says. The big questions on his mind were these: Did Met Ed know how to handle the situation? Did the N.R.C. respond properly? Was the governor in the dark about what was going on? (The answers, he says, were no, no, and yes.)
Reporters filed long memos — interesting tidbits, many of which could have stood alone as stories; lots of behind-the-scenes, who-knew-what-when material; and juicy exclusives like the late-night discussion between Met Ed officials and their newly hired Hill & Knowlton PR consultants on how to polish their tarnished image while hiding from reporters. Jonathan Newman and Julia Cass listened outside Met Ed’s door at the Hershey Motor Lodge to get that one.
The result was a breathless, engrossing tale that ran nine full pages in the paper — 20,000 words in less than five days. Though some reporters resented having their nuggets swallowed by the monster story, Lovelady insists that this is what made it work. The rush to deadline was motivated by competition. The A.P., the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post were all preparing chronologies. The Post’s story also broke on Sunday (it ran over four days), but it contained less new information. And it lacked the Inquirer’s focus on the experts’ confusion.
Though the Inquirer’s coverage would easily win a “best job” contest among reporters at T.M.I., some complained that the paper overplayed what it found to justify the expense (Nordland alone accumulated six weeks’ worth of comp time in his month at Three Mile Island). Not so, says Carroll. He thinks the exclusives deserved even bigger play than they got, and says he has a stack of additional stories that were winnowed out. It’s hard to imagine what they could be about.
Copyright © 1979 by Columbia Journalism Review
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