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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Hidden Cameras, Gone to the Dogs

November 16, 1998

Gotcha! news continues.

It was last November when KCBS-TV made its most spectacular news splash in years with a hidden-camera expose of gross conditions at a number of Los Angeles restaurants. The report sensitized viewers and embarrassed the Los Angeles County Health Department, whose kitchen-sanitation ratings were shown to be highly suspect in some areas.

A year later, KCBS is back with a related undercover story, again spearheaded by reporter Joel Grover, again with pluses in its coverage--and minuses.

The opening shot came last Monday with KCBS airing hidden-camera footage of a county health inspector appearing to ask a restaurant owner--who had agreed to be wired by the station--for $200 in exchange for an automatic A rating. Cut next to the Gotcha!, with the inspector approaching his car in a parking lot some time later and being confronted by Grover and informed that he'd been taped allegedly soliciting a bribe. The man initially denied it but, when faced with the video goods, appeared to cave in.

"Inspector," Grover charged dramatically, "you've been busted!"

It was a grand line--right out of your basic cops-and-robbers on TV--and one Grover had probably rehearsed 10 times in front of a mirror.

And is this hidden-camera thing contagious or what? Not to be outdone, KNBC-TV the same night used a hidden camera to blow the lid off of bargain carpet cleaners, catching them on tape not breaking the law.

To pull off this shocking expose, titled "Tricks of the Trade," KNBC hid a camera in a house so that it could tape various carpet cleaners to see if they would match what they had promised in their ads. With anchor Colleen Williams narrating, KNBC revealed that these firms negotiated their published prices like auto dealers and provided only a "maintenance" cleaning instead of a costlier "deep" cleaning, which consumers would know if they bothered to read the ads' fine print.

The message, then, was read ads carefully.

Well! You could imagine how KNBC viewers must have gasped over this report, which captured merchants on tape red-handed in the act of doing nothing illegal.

But there was more.

Later in the evening, KNBC used what appeared to be a hidden camera to reveal what pets do when their owners leave the house. The camera had to be hidden, of course, so that the pets wouldn't know they were being taped.

And it worked.

A cat misbehaved. A dog viciously tore off a bedspread. At that point, you half expected Joel Grover to come out of a closet and bellow, "Doggie, you've been busted!" But wrong station.

Meanwhile, this scenario didn't add up from the start. Because few pets are destructive when humans aren't around, how did KNBC know where to set up its cameras? Unless . . . these were home videos or KNBC somehow knew ahead of time which pets would act up, in which case this exclusive news report would be invalid.

Back to KCBS, which later in the week came back with another of its own hidden-camera exposes, this time of dry cleaning firms that don't get out all the spots.

The reporter was Lonni Leavitt, who was on the scene when a customer flew out of a dry cleaner's shop with her clothes and huffed angrily: "They're still dirty! And there's still cat hair on this stuff." Hair, perhaps, from a cat that deposited its fur balls on clothes while she was away? Where were KNBC's sleuths when you really needed them?

Anyway, Leavitt trotted right in and confronted the owner: "We took a look at this, and it doesn't even look like it was cleaned." Then she got tough, demanding to know about "this blob of ice tea."

Just why she had been posted outside this dry cleaner was unclear, unless it was one of those that KCBS earlier had invaded with its hidden camera, showing merchants accepting clothes to be cleaned, hanging clothes in plastic bags, making excuses for unremoved spots and also arguing with a KCBS operative about damage to a garment that the station claimed the cleaner had caused. There was also secret footage of another patron complaining about the work of one cleaner.

The upshot of this story, Leavitt reported, was that "there are plenty of people running dry cleaners who, it seems, don't know what they're doing." That, genuinely, was valuable information, as was the fact that 43 of 52 dry cleaners where KCBS left soiled clothes to be cleaned for this story failed to remove spots on the first try and that 35 of those failed on the second attempt.

That was a good consumer story, yet hardly one meriting hidden cameras, which were very theatrical and voyeuristic but which contributed only a tone of criminal wrongdoing that wasn't born out by anything Leavitt reported.

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