Reporter’s Early Exclusives Triggered a Media Frenzy
He was an aggressive, award-winning investigative reporter--and, at times, an ombudsman paid to criticize his own television station, publicly, on his own television station. But Wayne Satz will always be best known in local journalistic and law enforcement circles for breaking the McMartin Pre-School molestation story.
Satz had been working on a general story about child sexual abuse for a couple of months in late 1983 when he first heard about McMartin. He vigorously pursued the story, then delayed his first broadcast three weeks, he says, when then-Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian told him that premature disclosure of the investigation could jeopardize the case.
Satz’s first McMartin broadcast aired on KABC Channel 7 on Feb. 2, 1984--the beginning of “sweeps” month, when local television stations traditionally broadcast their most attention-getting programming in hopes of attracting the high ratings on which local advertising rates are based.
Satz denies that the sweeps were a factor in the timing of his early stories, and he is equally insistent that other, even harsher criticisms of his McMartin coverage are also unjustified. But Satz was unquestionably the most important and most controversial media figure in the early stages of the case and now, six years later, with the verdicts finally in, his role is worth examining in some detail.
Satz, who left KABC in mid-1987, is not just the reporter who broke the story; he is also the only reporter to be sued by former McMartin defendants and he is the reporter who, while covering the story, became romantically linked to the social worker at Children’s Institute International whose interviews with McMartin children became the controversial early crux of the prosecution’s case.
More important, it was Satz’s early coverage that triggered a feeding frenzy in the media, both locally and nationally.
Los Angeles television reporters in particular were immediately under pressure from their superiors to match--or surpass--the exclusive McMartin stories Satz was broadcasting night after night.
“There was hysteria in the newsroom,” says Ross Becker of KCBS. “I remember the news director . . . sitting there watching . . . Satz and coming to me and saying, ‘Ross, we got killed again.’
“The story took on a life of its own,” Becker says. “We didn’t even think at the time . . . about what we were doing. . . . It was ‘We gotta get s omething new on McMartin; look how big this thing is getting. . . .’ ”
Unlike many other local reporters interviewed for this story, Satz makes no apologies for his coverage. Most of the others say they are embarrassed by, even ashamed of, their lack of early skepticism and their initial eagerness to believe even the most unlikely prosecution allegations in the case.
Not Satz. His coverage, he says, was “fair-minded,” not “unquestioning or uncritical at any point.”
“There’s almost nothing (in my coverage) I would change,” he says.
But a review of that coverage over two years’ time (reports dotted with words like “grotesque,” “nightmarish,” “chilling,” “horrific,” “bizarre,” “amazing,” “depravity,” and “mind-blowing”) and interviews with others involved in the case (participants and other journalists alike) leaves little doubt that Satz’s early stories were largely instrumental in establishing the hysterical tone in both the media and the general public that is now loudly decried on all sides.
Even prosecutors and some parents and children in the case agree that Satz’s coverage was both sensationalized and, at least implicitly, pro-prosecution.
“Channel 7 coverage was outrageous. . . . Wayne was so pro-prosecution,” says Christine Johnston, a prosecutor who withdrew from the case when she developed doubts about the guilt of the defendants.
Johnston says she was especially offended when Satz telephoned her at home on the day The Times published a story quoting another, unnamed prosecutor as expressing similar doubts. She says Satz wrongly accused her of having been the prosecutor in question; as subsequent events made clear, it was actually Deputy Dist. Atty. Glenn Stevens. The implication of Satz’s alleged call, she says, was that she had damaged the prosecution’s case and he was angry about it.
‘Nasty Tone of Voice’
“The tone of voice he used . . . was a really nasty tone of voice,” Johnston says.
Satz will neither confirm nor deny having called Johnston at home, but he insists that he never said anything to her that could be construed as his being angry that she had damaged the prosecution’s case.
Some McMartin parents say Satz did make clear to them, though, that he genuinely believed their children and supported their cause.
One parent, Diane Carter, described Satz’s coverage as “very inflammatory” at a time when parents, having been accused by the defense of being hysterical, were trying to “project an aura of being credible, reasonable.” Other parents even began giving information to another television reporter because they thought Satz’s overheated approach might ultimately undermine their cause.
In fairness, Satz must be credited with some very good work on McMartin; just as he won a Peabody Award, broadcasting’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for his 1977 stories on police shootings of civilians, so his McMartin work earned him two Golden Mikes, awards similar to Emmys for local TV news. Although he broke the first story on charges that the McMartin children had been forced to indulge in satanic rituals, for example, he ultimately paid far less attention to the Satanism charges than did many others in the media.
Indeed, Satz was more responsible and evenhanded than most in his handling of several aspects of the case--consistently interviewing defense attorneys and spokesmen; asking tough questions of the prosecutors and of the most outspoken McMartin parent; saying that some allegations “could have been planted” in the children’s minds by “well-intentioned questions” from parents; acknowledging on the air that, if a child witness fantasized about some charges, it was legitimate to ask if he might have fantasized about others.
Early on, Satz was ahead of all the other media, day after day, on each new development in the case. He also broadcast the first interview with Virginia McMartin, the founder of the school, and the first interviews with McMartin parents. He and his camera crew even managed to be on the scene to shoot exclusive footage of the arrest of prime suspect Ray Buckey.
There was widespread speculation among those who competed with Satz on the story that he and Dist. Atty. Philibosian had cut a secret deal--that in exchange for delaying his first story, Satz persuaded Philibosian to give him primary or exclusive access to later developments in the case. Philibosian and his top aides at the time deny that.
Satz says he can’t even discuss the accusation without violating both the confidentiality of his relationships with news sources and the integrity of the news-gathering process. He also says any such discussion might be deemed in court to constitute a waiver of the privilege that California law grants reporters to “shield” their sources.
Criticisms of Satz, on this and other aspects of his coverage, may well be just the resentful grumblings of beaten competitors. But rival reporters--including Becker of KCBS--say they had never before chased a story on which another reporter had every important source locked up so tightly. In fact, Becker says, he still has “a sinking, ugly feeling in my stomach” that the D.A. might never have filed charges in the McMartin case had it not been for Channel 7’s stories and the public attention they generated.
Several McMartin parents, all of whom were angrily determined to have those charges brought, agree with Becker.
Philibosian denies that, too, but prosecutor Stevens, who left the district attorney’s office under fire after telling reporters of his doubts about the guilt of the defendants,says Philibosian was clearly pressured to act by Satz’s persistent, challenging questions.
Philibosian was facing a difficult reelection campaign against the better-known Ira Reiner, then the Los Angeles city attorney, and a public opinion poll conducted for Philibosian identified child abuse as a potential “cutting edge” issue in the campaign.
Although Philibosian denies that there was any pressure from Satz, Satz did break the story; and the story did say the district attorney had subpoenaed witnesses to appear before the grand jury; and Philibosian did play an unusually visible, public role in the early stages of the case. Satz continued to beat every reporter in town on the story for months to come.
Maybe Satz was just a better reporter. Certainly, he had better sources, a big head start and a team of reporters out in the field, questioning everyone they could find.
A lawyer himself, Satz also had “far and away . . . a better grasp of McMartin than any other journalist,” Stevens says.
Others also say Satz’s understanding of the legal system made his coverage of what happened in the courtroom better than any other reporter’s, but these same people almost invariably found his coverage of the early stages of the case in particular both sensationalized and pro-prosecution.
To be sure, Satz’s behavior may have been no different from that of any other hard-driving reporter who gets a big jump on the competition on what seems to be a remarkable story. Nor can he ultimately be held responsible for what other reporters did in their effort to keep pace with him.
Moreover, others at his station contributed to the general perception that KABC was on a crusade. A news anchor several times made inflammatory comments on the air while chatting with Satz, and KABC management ran two full-page newspaper advertisements trumpeting its coverage, featuring photos of a battered teddy bear and leaving little doubt that the station seemed to believe the charges against the defendants.
But Satz, who is critical of the KABC ads and of the anchor’s comments, said more than enough on the air himself to prompt the criticism directed at him.
In his very first story, he reported that more than 60 children--maybe many more--"some of them as young as 2 years of age,” had been telling authorities a “grotesque secret”; they said that they had been molested by their preschool teachers, that they had been “made to appear in pornographic films” and that they had been “forced to witness the mutilation and killing of animals” to scare them into staying silent.
Satz’s subsequent stories told of children’s tales about druggings, airplane rides, the brandishing of guns, satanic rituals, the “mutilation of corpses,” the drinking of blood and the sacrifice of a live baby in a church.
Satz says he was merely reporting what his sources were telling him, and he insists--correctly--that his stories included “more defendant/suspect denials . . . than any other media working the story.” He repeatedly said in his stories that the defendants “vigorously” or “categorically” or “steadfastly” denied all charges. Once he even told viewers the defendants sounded “extremely convincing” in their denials, and on several occasions he said, “They may be entirely innocent.”
Unlike some other local television reporters, Satz did not broadcast interviews with McMartin children, an act he considered “exceedingly exploitative.” Although other stations showed the children with their faces in shadow and their voices disguised, Satz thinks they were still recognizable to people who already knew them.
Dan Leighton, an independent reporter, worked with Satz on the McMartin story, as he has worked over the years on investigative stories for “60 Minutes,” “20/20" and public television; he says Satz “agonized over every single little piece of information (he broadcast). He was overly conscious of getting every little piece of information right and trying to be fair.”
All this notwithstanding, the overwhelming implication of Satz’s early, daily drumbeat of charges and disclosures, his inflection and tone of voice on certain words (“lit-tle children”), his frequent promises that the case would get bigger and bigger and his juxtaposition of various elements in his stories was that monstrous crimes had indeed taken place at McMartin.
Sometimes Satz’s broadcast message was more than implicit:
He showed defendant Babette Spitler--against whom all charges were later dropped--saying she loved children and “always enjoyed being around children”; then Satz himself chimed in to say, “Yes, and if you believe the grand jury, she didn’t mind assaulting children sexually either.”
He accused Virginia McMartin, founder of the McMartin school, of speaking “disingenuously” on one occasion and asked her, on another, “So, you think you’re just being framed, huh?”
He said society should “move ever so slightly toward being ready to believe that kids do not talk explicitly about sexual matters unless they really occurred, which is what experts say"--a statement that Satz himself now concedes came “dangerously close to commentary.”
He identified by name several suspects who were never charged and showed videotape of a man he said had “reportedly been described by children as molesting them and taking pornographic pictures of them.” The man was never formally accused of anything, but Satz says it was appropriate to identify the man on the air because “a significant number of children” had alleged that he had taken pornographic photos of them, because he was “named in court” as a suspect in the case and because other media, including The Times, also identified him.
And what of information Satz didn’t broadcast?
When the prosecution charged in March, 1984, that the McMartin Pre-School was, in effect, a front for a massive child pornography ring, the story was blockbuster news in most media.
Did Satz and his team of reporters investigate that charge?
He says they did, thoroughly, and--like the district attorney, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service and various local law enforcement agencies and task forces--they did not find a single one of the “millions” of photographs and films that Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Barrett had said were taken.
Did Satz report that on KABC?
“No. No. No,” he says. “It’s really a silly question.”
The news media doesn’t have the same powers as law enforcement authorities, Satz says, so KABC’s failure to find any pornography didn’t really mean anything.
But if he had found some McMartin pornography, he would have broadcast that story, wouldn’t he?
“You bet. You bet.”
Such comments, on and off the air, help explain why many other journalists say, in the words of Barbara Palermo, who covered portions of the case for the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Wayne Satz was an advocate for the prosecution. I don’t care how many attributions he hid behind or how many disclaimers he issued.”
Satz’s romantic link with Kee MacFarlane, the social worker at Children’s Institute International who conducted many of the original interviews with McMartin children, contributed significantly to this perception.
Satz now refuses even to acknowledge that there was a romance, invoking his concerns about source confidentiality, about the integrity of the news-gathering process and about the risk of appearing to have waived his reporter’s privilege under the California shield law.
He does say, however, that he “never had any conflict of interest” on the McMartin story, no relationship that unfairly influenced his coverage in any way.
Tom Van Amburg, general manager of KABC at the time, declined to be interviewed for this story, but he told the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley in 1985 that Satz had informed station management of his relationship with MacFarlane and that management had concluded there had been no breach of journalistic ethics.
But Satz’s single most skeptical piece of reporting on the case--a lengthy, tough-minded analysis that left no one, not even MacFarlane, unscathed--was not broadcast until January, 1986, after his relationship with MacFarlane had apparently ended. Moreover, MacFarlane--clearly a key source for Satz on the McMartin story--testified in court that she and Satz had a “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship beginning about two months after his first story was broadcast. Yet he continued to cover the story for almost two years after that.
Superior Court Judge William Pounders ultimately ruled that there was no evidence the romance began before Satz’s first story and that testimony on the romance would not, therefore, be presented to the jury. But many journalists would ask for a different assignment if they became involved with so important a figure on a story they were covering, if only to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“If you continue the relationship, you get off the story,” says Furnell Chatman, who has covered the McMartin case for KNBC. “You just can’t have both. They don’t mix. . . . That’s a big question of reportorial ethics.”
KNBC’s Jess Marlow, who was anchor at KCBS during the early stages of McMartin, says he has long admired “much of what Wayne Satz has done” and he realizes how wrenching it would be for a reporter to remove himself from a big story, especially if he had special access to a key figure. But Marlow thinks Satz should have done so anyway.
Doug Conner of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.
Eat your way across L.A.
Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.