Friday, February 29, 2008

One of Their Own

TV anchor/reporter Suzanne (Page) Wangler, in a promotional shot from her last station. (WLAJ-TV photo via the Detroit News).

Outside of Michigan’s lower peninsula, few people had ever heard of Suzanne Wangler. But in Detroit, Traverse City, Lansing, Cadillac and other cities around that region, Ms. Wangler was a well-known local TV news reporter and anchor for more than 20 years.

For a while, Ms. Wangler seemed to lead a storybook life. She married a former star quarterback for the University of Michigan, began a family, and bought a large house in the suburbs. Her television career was also moving along nicely. By the early 1990s, she was reporting for Channel 50 in Detroit, then a Fox affiliate.

A few years later, Wangler moved up to WDIV-TV, the local NBC outlet, where she worked primarily as the station’s helicopter reporter. Personally and professionally, her future looked bright.

But just as quickly, Ms. Wangler’s life began to spiral out of control. Her marriage faltered, amid allegations of domestic abuse and personal protection orders that were later dismissed. After her divorce, Wangler’s personal woes only multiplied; Mike Martindale of the Detroit News continues the sad narrative:

She quit her $73,000-a-year job at WDIV with 18 months still on her contract. Both Wanglers were ordered to undergo counseling. She was later ordered into psychiatric counseling but the findings of those sessions were kept confidential.

She had a series of career changes, including as a financial adviser to investors. In November 2002, she sold the Greenleaf house for $629,900, and was later sued for not paying the Realtor his contracted 6 percent commission. Along the way she was evicted from a Birmingham apartment for non-payment of rent, bounced checks and was subject of several lawsuits. She later moved into a $1 million home on Vinsetta Boulevard in Royal Oak, a few doors down from her ex-husband's home, but she quickly fell behind in payments and the house went into foreclosure.

In 2003 she worked part-time at WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) on a $200 a day contract, and also as a financial planner, but eventually filed for bankruptcy.

The reporter found herself the subject of a news story in 2005 after she was arrested, accused of stealing more than $600 in groceries from the Westborn Market in Berkley. Workers, who got the license plate number off her Lexus, told police it wasn't the first time she had walked out without paying for food.

In December 2005, Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews ordered a forensic evaluation of Wangler's stability and ability to parent and a psychological evaluation for purposes of determining custody of her children.

Last summer Wangler was placed on probation after she was convicted of drunk driving and child endangerment involving an incident in Royal Oak, but in September landed a TV anchor job in Lansing as Suzanne Page and was putting her life back together.

Then, Wangler’s last station in Detroit, WXYZ, learned of a new scandal involving its former reporter. Investigative correspondent Heather Catallo discovered that Wangler had been accused of embezzling almost $150,000 from a man who hired her as a financial planner. Catallo’s heavily-promoted report on her one-time co-worker aired prominently last week, part of the February “sweeps” period, when TV audience ratings are closely watched.

Shortly after the segment aired on Channel 7, police arrested Wangler at her home. At the time of her arrest, the utilities at Ms. Wangler's home had been cut off and the temperature inside the dwelling (according to her attorney) was 32 degrees. Released on bond, she subsequently failed a sobriety test, one of the conditions for her probation on previous DUI and child endangerment charges. After flunking the court-ordered alcohol test, Wangler returned home and hanged herself.

She was 43 years old.

WXYZ’s report--and its aftermath--has ignited a minor firestorm in TV news circles, particularly among those who knew and worked with Suzanne Wangler. Defenders of the station note that Channel 7 has a well-deserved reputation for tough reporting. Steve Wilson, the station’s senior “investigator” has been at the forefront of exposing an on-going sex scandal and secret “whistle-blower” arrangement that may end the career of Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick.

As for the Wangler story, WXYZ clearly had its facts straight and gave her ample opportunity to respond. After declining to discuss the matter with Ms. Catallo outside her TV station in Lansing, Wangler subsequently called the reporter and claimed that the client had “given” her the money and was stalking her.

Shortly after that, Channel 7 aired its story, triggering the final sequence that culminated in Suzanne Wangler’s suicide.

Friends of the late TV anchor claim that WXYZ’s “investigation,” was overblown. Financial planners bilking clients is nothing new, they argue, and without Wangler’s status as a public figure, the story would not have aired.

Others accuse Channel 7 of hounding a clearly-troubled woman, with a heavily-hyped report. Someone posting under the moniker of “Zoomtoblack” offered these thoughts on TV Shoptalk, an on-line forum for broadcast journalists:

I question the accuracy of WXYZ's reporting. Did they mention Suzanne was their former employee?

Viewers also question the reports. Mostly they question whether WXYZ pushed Suzanne over the edge. They're viewers, not journalists. They see that one day Suzanne was the target of their highly promoted investigation. They see that within hours she was dead.

They wonder. As do all of us who look at the case without blinders. WXYZ was determined to spin the facts. If they were simply reporting facts they would have reported her earlier DUI, of which they had "exclusive video." They had an angle on her they wanted to support. They did. With gusto.

Ms. Wangler was buried earlier this week and debate over how her story was covered will gradually fade, even in the heated world of television news. But that won’t change the fact that four children are without their mother, and what’s left of Wangler's reputation is forever in tatters—largely because of the choices that she made.

But we’re also cognizant that Channel 7’s “expose” was a marginal story at best, the “news value” largely rooted in Wangler’s status as a local TV news star. Compared to the Kilpatrick controversy, the case of Suzanne Wangler was relatively small potatoes.

And, there are at least a couple of ironies in all of this. First, we’ve always found it a bit odd that (some) media types plead for privacy when one of their own is facing scandal, or is going through a rough patch in life. Are they more entitled to refuge in times of crisis than the other, unfortunate souls that find themselves in the media glare?

A few years ago, we watched a Memphis TV reporter ask relatives of a murdered teenager if they knew the young woman was dead. That particular “journalist” is still employed by the same station that sent him on that ghoulish assignment. Broadcast news types who believe Channel 7 was unfair to Suzanne Wangler might demand the same rights for the target of their next, exclusive “investigation” or ambush interview.

We also find it ironic that the task of reading Ms. Wangler’s obituary on WXYZ fell to none other than Heather Catallo, during her regular shift as an anchor. By all accounts, Catallo handled the assignment without any mawkish emotions, or displays of personal feelings—assuming she had any.

“She did her job,” said one poster on Shoptalk. “I’d hire her.”


DebbieKinIL said...

So sad. This woman really needed help and it is tragic how her life got out of control.

OT- I read about your blog being banned y the AF Cyber Command today. Really a sign that your stuff is excellent, (as if we, the readers didn't know that). Congratulations!

I saw it here-

AF Air Force Blocks Access to Many Blogs

"One of the blogs banned is In From the Cold, which examines military, intelligence and political affairs from a largely right-of-center perspective. It's written by "Nathan Hale," the pseudonym for a former journalist and Air Force intelligence officer, who spent more than two decades in the service. He tells Danger Room, "If knowledge and information are power -- and no one disputes that -- then why not trust your people and empower them to explore all sides of issues affecting the service, air power and national security?"

Richard Heddleson said...

It certainly is sad, but so is what the media do to thousands of ordinary people in cities all over the country every day. They should do it to their own more often and then maybe it would happen to normal people less often.

James W. Weirick said...

That is a riveting story. So sad for the children.

SwampWoman said...

It seems pretty obvious that this woman had mental health issues and substance abuse problems, and this report unfortunately made her feel that her life was completely ruined and not worth living.

On the other hand, I don't think this woman should have been given any special consideration and allowed to continue to steal from the public just because she had been a television reporter.

If she was able to be involuntarily committed to a treatment center when she began her downward spiral, perhaps we would not have had such a sad ending for a beautiful yet troubled woman searching for a dream life that was always just out of reach.

crosspatch said...

Sounds like something a friend went through with a wife having a personality disorder. Things seemed fine until their relationship went downhill then her entire life came apart. She died too.

Yeah, I feel for the kids. I hope they have some strong family around them. News organizations are such vultures.

jamminedward said...

Sounds like a fairly severe case of bi-polar disorder coming head to head with a chronic case of misanthropy on the part of the press. Your point is well taken--this is a tragedy, mostly of Ms. Wangler's own making, but it offers quite a lesson to the press about the human cost of their blood-lust for ratings above real news.

Peter said...

sorry jamminedward.

I can not accept your statement "... this is a tragedy, mostly of Ms. Wangler's own making ..." with your observation of bi-polar disorder.

Bi-polor disorder is a chemical disorder -- it is not by choice.

tcidda said...

At the very least i would say she was in need of professional help