A Sept. 15 poll showed Republican Doug Forrester and Democrat Robert Torricelli in a statistical dead heat for the New Jersey Senate seat. Incumbent Torricelli was in a real race, largely because of his admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for improperly accepting gifts from a campaign contributor.
Last week, Torricelli dropped out, some say because of a nearly 40-minute report by WNBC(TV) New York's Jonathan Dienst, finding corroboration for convicted felon David Chang's claims to have given cash, jewelry, clothing, antiques and a big-screen TV to Torricelli. Chang also accused Torricelli of trying to intimidate him, and WNBC aired a surveillance video in which the senator, accompanied by a man identified as a local garbage hauler, entered a convenience store shortly after Chang—although they did not interact with him.
"Bob was, in effect, toast" after the report, said a New Jersey Democratic leader, according to the Bergen Record. Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News Channel, called the WNBC report "devastating."
Just before Dienst's report aired, a federal court made public a letter from federal prosecutors seeking leniency for Chang, who, despite "serious credibility problems," had "greatly advanced" their investigation of Torricelli.
WNBC had led a media coalition, which included The New York Times, several other papers and ABC, in seeking release of that memo.
"We were aware of the impact this story could have," says Dienst. "We didn't necessarily believe that Torricelli would withdraw, but we thought it would force him to sit down and answer questions." Torricelli would not agree to an interview, but the story opened with his defense that Chang is a liar and convicted felon.
The lengthy report came during some upheaval at WNBC: News Director Dianne Doctor had left the newsroom for WCBS-TV, and Dan Forman had returned after a few years at WABC-TV, bringing with him executive producer Barbara Johnson to be WNBC news director. Dienst credits all the news managers—as well as station attorneys—with backing the story.