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How news sausage is made

Stories like Paul Fronczak’s don’t walk in the door every day. But 11 months ago, he contacted me, out of the blue, with a remarkable and compelling tale that has now captured public attention all over the world. Paul is still looking for answers to two distinct and perplexing mysteries.

Unfortunately, the search for truth has served to highlight the worst, most petty practices of modern news gathering.

Perhaps you have seen some of the many news accounts about Paul’s unusual situation. About a year ago, he received stunning confirmation that he isn’t the person he believed himself to be. The family he grew up with is not related to him by blood. He doesn’t know what his birth name is, what his ethnicity is, or even what his date of birth is. It’s like the fantasy that so many kids have while growing up—the idea that maybe they don’t really belong to their own family, that maybe someone dropped them off at the doorstep when they were young.

Since the very first email he sent to me last December, we’ve done our best to publicize his tale far and wide in hopes that it might ring a bell with some unknown blood relative out there. We’ve collected a lot of information, tracked down dozens of leads, but still have no solid answers.

Paul grew up in Chicago, believing he was the son of Dora and Chester Fronczak. It turns out that that he isn’t. In 1964, the newborn son of the Fronczak’s was stolen from a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. The kidnapping set off a nationwide manhunt and a media frenzy, but no trace of the missing baby was ever found. A year and a half after the hospital incident, an infant was found in Newark New Jersey. Authorities had their doubts about whether this was the missing Fronczak child, but they didn’t object when the Fronczak’s claimed the kid as their own. (They had to formally adopt him.)

As he got older, he began to wonder if he really was a Fronczak. He didn’t look like the rest of the family, and had different interests. He found a box of news clippings about the kidnapping and confronted his parents, but they assured him he was their true son and told him they didn’t want to talk about it further.

Last year, he finagled his parents into submitting to a DNA test while they were visiting him in Henderson. They told him they didn’t want him to submit the test, but he did it anyway. The results were not entirely a surprise, but they threw his life into turmoil nonetheless. The DNA confirmed he was not a Fronczak.

I worked with Paul for a few months before we put anything on the air, got to spend time with his wife Michelle and daughter Emma, and cast a wide net looking for answers to the TWO mysteries, namely, what happened to the real Paul Fronczak, and why had Paul’s blood relatives abandoned him on a New Jersey sidewalk.

Our stories generated an amazing response from the public. Hundreds of potential tips and leads poured into the website we created for the story, along with thousands of other comments from people who were moved by the story. Prior to going on the air, we had reached out to our network affiliates in New York and Chicago to see if they were interested in helping in the search. We also sent messages to CBS News. No one seemed all that interested in helping. We got zilch in the way of cooperation or info or even archival footage.

But once the stories were broadcast by KLAS, things changed. The CBS stations in Chicago and New York wanted us to send all of our material to them so they could put together their own stories using our material. Newspapers all over the country started calling. The Fronczaks in Chicago had reporters banging on their door, and it was the same scene at Paul’s home in Henderson. Network news shows were vying to get the “exclusive” and started promising the moon to Paul.

The best reporting—outside of our own—came from the two Chicago newspapers. They picked up the story, talked to Paul, and tried to get some answers. The CBS station in New York used our KLAS TV footage and interviews, put their own story together, and pretended as if they had discovered all of this information on their own, without so much as a courtesy for the material we had sent them. Chicago’s TV station did something similar, taking credit for work they didn’t do.

CBS News This Morning took a major interest in the case, and I convinced Paul they would be the best option for getting his story out to a larger audience. The story they put together was excellent, and generated a substantial number of new leads.

Things started going downhill from there. During a trip to New York to meet with CBS, Paul and his family carved out some time to also meet with ABC News icon Barbara Walters. Walters used her star power to convince Paul that he should appear on her 20/20 program, and he made the decision to give it a try.

You might think that the network news folks are way above the kind of small town bickering that takes place between news rivals. That certainly is not the case. We had shared much of the material and leads we had gathered over several months with the FBI in hopes the feds might re-open the case. The prominent stories published by the Chicago papers helped put pressure on the FBI to take a fresh look. So a few months ago, I got the word that the feds had in fact reopened the case. The day after I reported that story here in Las Vegas, it was picked up by the Chicago papers, and then by other media including wire services. ABC News had done nothing on the story other than to record an interview with Paul in a hotel suite.

Yet two days after we announced the FBI was taking a new look, ABC went on the air and claimed that it deserved the credit for getting the FBI to reopen the Fronczak case. It was an absolute lie, a self-serving pat on the back. In its congratulatory news release, ABC said it has been “following the case for months. “ That much is true. They were following what we and a few other journalists had been reporting.

Last week, ABC took the wraps off its investigation. The 20/20 broadcast was the highest rated episode in two years. It began with Walters claiming that her interview with Paul Fronczak was an exclusive. She said it a couple of times. I don’t know what “exclusive” means to network news folks but it doesn’t seem to have the same meaning that I have come to understand.

I have to admit, it was hard to watch the show. Every time Walters made some ridiculous grab for credit, it hit my ears like the screeching of a 1,000 ex-girlfriends yelling at me all at once. She even boasted during the broadcast about how ABC had located “archival news reports” from 49 years ago. My, what an accomplishment. The old newspaper clippings that were the source of her boast had been handed to us by Paul many months earlier and had been broadcast around the world many times by then. As far as ABC was concerned, no one else had reported anything about Paul’s amazing story.

In the end, ABC’s much vaunted investigative effort failed to solve either of the dual mysteries facing Paul. They regurgitated most of what we had already broadcast months earlier, and which had also been aired by CBS News, and practically gave themselves a hernia bending over to pick up an anticipated basketful of Emmy’s for all of their hard work.

These kinds of picky little grabs for credit happen all the time in local markets. TV stations argue among themselves about who broke a story first, and we broadcast folks regularly joust with newspapers about who pilfers more story ideas from the other medium. I guess I expected more of a network news operation.

I think Paul’s perspective is that he doesn’t really care who gets the credit…or blame. He just wants answers. ABC’s national broadcast certainly generated new leads, although most of them will likely mean very little in the end. The fact is, the central questions can be answered. Someone out there has information that will resolve the doubts that have already ripped the Fronczak family into pieces. If ABC News can somehow find the answers, more power to them. But I worry that no matter when the mysteries are answered, or who provides those answers first, ABC News will be right there, ready for their close up.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.