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by Cary O'Dell

The year was 1990.  And, all in all, it seemed like the perfect, made-to-order series of special news reports for local Denver station KCNC’s nightly newscast, especially during an upcoming “sweeps” period (those few times a year when advertising rates are set and high ratings are of maximum importance to stations).

It would be a series of stories on the local and very illegal world of competitive tooth-and-claw dog fighting.  And few topics ignite more public outrage than the barbaric world of dog fighting
--remember Michael Vick?

The dog fight story was the idea of KCNC’s respected investigative reporter Wendy Bergen.  A native of Connecticut, a graduate of the University of Utah, and a three-time Emmy Award winner, Bergen had worked in local TV news in various parts of the country before joining KCNC in 1983.  Earlier, at the station, she had gained acclaim for a series of on-air reports she did where she and a fellow male reporter posed as a homeless couple on the streets of Denver in order to see what extreme poverty in the Mile-High City was truly like.

It was in 1989 that Bergen first pitched the dog fight story to her bosses at KCNC claiming that the illegal, underground “sport” was big business in many of Denver’s most populated suburbs.  Intrigued, KCNC’s news chiefs gave Bergen the go-ahead.

The first installment of Bergen’s four-part series aired on Sunday, April 29, 1990.  To add a little extra sizzle, the series was given the provocative title “Blood Sport.”  By all accounts, the video package that Bergen produced and that KCNC aired was graphic and disturbing and did not shy away from depicting the most violent aspects of this so-called contest.  The only thing obscured in the reports were the faces and names of the dogs’s handlers and owners. 

Not surprisingly, the televised reports garnered an extraordinary level of attention and controversy--sometimes surprisingly so.

In fact, for Bergen and KCNC, in covering the story at all, they were, actually, potentially, violating the law.  In Colorado at the time, not only was staging a dog fight a felony so was attending one.  Hence, for her on-site reporting, Bergen, her camera crew and KCNC could have all faced prosecution.  So, because of that, ever so briefly, the subject of Bergen and her “Blood Sport” coverage ignited a passionate and fascinating debate about journalistic ethics and the possible limits of the First Amendment. 

Over the years, of course, news camera have, by happenstance or whatever you want to call it, been presciently present at places and times when major news stories have occurred.  The way a camera happened to be at the site of the great Hindenburg disaster—it was just supposed to be there to cover the routine docking of the great airship.  The way that cameras happened to be on the ground in Charlottesville, Virginia, to cover the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally/march, when protester Heather Heyer was killed by a car driven by one of the white nationalists at the scene.

But was this situation different?  Is it different when a reporter engages with an individual in advance to purposefully meet at a predetermined place and a predetermined time, to observe a bona fide criminal act and film it?

It would have been a fascinating debate to have--for both the courts and the public--but very soon Bergen’s story transitioned into being about something quite different.
The final installment of “Blood Sport” aired on KCNC on May 2.  Only days later, on May 9th, an area newspaper reported allegations that the footage of the dog fights in the newscast were not only fake but had, in fact, been staged and paid for by Wendy Bergen.  According to a local humane society, three different KCNC employees had supposedly all come forth stating that they had overhead Bergen talking at the station about fabricating the footage.

Furthermore, a simple review of much of the story’s footage itself also raised certain questions:  if betting on dog fighting was such a big, underground industry in the Denver area, why did the matches in this footage look so sparsely attended?  Also, why did it seem to be only the same two or three dogs in every frame of the footage?  (Later, it was also noted that for the past 10 years in Colorado, there had only been two dog fight-related arrests which did not seem to suggest that this was such a thriving endeavor at all.)

Local animal protection organizations quickly called for a boycott of KCNC’s sponsors and also began to picket the station’s studios.

But even as the story and accusations spread (the rising controversy was soon being reported in newspapers in Chicago, California and other places), Bergen stood by her story and KCNC stood by their reporter.  In fact, the station seemed ready to go the mat, maybe all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, on behalf of Bergen and her news story, citing First Amendment and Freedom of the Press protections as well as a reporter’s right to protect the identity of their sources.

Besides, as Bergen noted in the broadcast herself, the majority of the footage shown in the news series was not shot by her or her crew anyway but had arrived to her on an anonymously sent VHS videotape sent to the station in a plain brown envelope.  The tape arrived, according to Bergen, unprompted, once her inquiries into the dog fighting scene became known.

But Bergen was not able to stick to her story for long.

Not long after the first public allegations of falsity were printed, a 28 year-old one-time telemarketer named Mark Labriola came forth and said he had been Bergen’s accomplice and that all of the “Blood Sport” series had been a charade. 

Labriola had once been a source of Bergen’s for another story and she returned to him for possible insight into any local dog fighting enterprises. 

Even today, 30 years after the fact, it remains unclear if Bergen knew that the very first dog fight she attended and shot with her crew was a fake or not.  Bergen always mainatined that, originally, she had been set up.

Without question, however, is the fact that Bergen knew that all the subsequent footage was staged.  In fact, not only did Bergen know, so did her two TV crewmembers, cameramen Scott Wright and Jim Stair.  In fact, some of the footage had been shot in the basement of Stair’s home.  Additionally, Bergen paid for some of the muzzles seen over the snouts of some the dogs.  And that anonymously mailed videotape?  Bergen mailed it to herself.

As her story unraveled, not surprisingly, KCNC quickly withdrew its one time all-in support of Bergen.  Not long after that, Bergen separated from the station (officially, she resigned).  Her two cameramen/cohorts also departed.  Soon after, KCNC announced that they were planning to go back and vet all of Bergen’s previous on-air reports, including one on the topic of Xanax addiction which featured, as a talking head, Mark Labriola.

In September of 1990, Bergen, Stair and Wright (and a man named Gary Wright, owner of two of the dogs filmed) were all indicted on various charges.  In August 1991, after an 11-day trial, Bergen was convicted of staging a dog fight but was cleared of a perjury charge.  Though she faced a possible ten-year prison sentence for her actions as well as a fine of $300,000, Bergen was sentenced to only paying a fine of $20,000.  At the time of her sentencing, Bergen announced that she was planning to appeal.

In 1991, Bergen was quoted as saying about the scandal, “It was just one small, bad decision after another.  I knew it was wrong, but no one ever believed it would get to this level.”

Not unexpectedly, Bergen never returned to broadcasting.  For a time, she worked in corporate video production and, later, found a second act running a charity organization.  Remarkably, Bergen remained a resident of the Denver area and, ironically, a portion of her very successful charity work was devoted to animal welfare.  She passed away in May of 2017.  Many Colorado-based newspapers noted in their obituaries of her that she had, via her later humanitarian work, redeemed herself and her legacy from her once besmirched past.

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