KXLY TV in Spokane, Washington is taking heat from some viewers for exposing supposed do-gooder as a criminal.
Sunday afternoon, a man called the KXLY newsroom with an offer. “The caller told our weekend anchor Aaron Luna that he wanted to help Spokane’s homeless population so he was going to hand out thousands of dollars in the next few weeks and that we could come along,” said News Director Jerry Post. “After he called, he sent emails with several videos showing himself handing out cash.”
Monday, Luna took a ride with the man who said he didn’t want to be identified and KXLY got video of the “donor” handing out twenty dollar bills to homeless people.
But staff at the TV station was suspicious. “This guy said he wanted to be anonymous but still he wanted attention,” Post said.
“I am skeptical of everyone,” said Melissa Luck, the station’s Executive Producer. “I had an uneasy feeling about this, but he was handing out money, he was doing it in full view of the public in public places, we felt like we had to report this was going on.”
The station had covered other stories about Spokane charities who warned against handing out cash to panhandlers. Post included voices from those charities saying it was a bad idea for their nameless benefactor to be handing out wads of cash. The station’s promotions included that same skeptical cautious tone, including the charities warnings.
Then the story got even more sketchy.
Reporter Aaron Luna reported that the man handing out the money wanted the station to give out his Twitter address and if people sent in photos of themselves handing out money as he did, he would pass along secret clues to those followers about where they could find an even larger wad of cash that he would plant somewhere in downtown Spokane.
Luna said the station decided not to include the Twitter address because they did not want to pass along anything that implied KXLY was endorsing the guy.
Viewers were not happy. They took to social media to criticize the station for being so skeptical. But the real firestorm was yet to come.
“On Tuesday, I found time to start looking through the raw video that Aaron shot,” Luck said. “We knew this man’s name from the email he sent us on Sunday. I started pecking around on law enforcement websites, in Washington State and then Idaho.” She was startled to find there was not one criminal booking photo of the man they rode with the day before, there were six. (See the gallery here.)
“He’s been convicted several times of writing bad checks from accounts he knew were closed, as a way to get cash from banks,” Luck reported Wednesday. “Each time he was released from prison, court records show he began operating a similar scheme. According to the Idaho Department of Corrections, he was released to supervision in July and allowed to live in Washington.”
So the man who was passing out all of that cash owed more than $10,000 to Idaho courts and was on parole. Despite his claims that he was loaded with money, he had filed bankruptcy and owed tens of thousands of dollars to creditors. Idaho prosecutors said Jarzabek had written $100,000 in bad checks, was a chronic liar and would say whatever he needed to say to get what he wanted.
The station went back to Jarzabek to confront him about his prison record and he admitted it was all true. He had been in a lot of trouble but he said he was turning his life around and wanted to help others. He could not say exactly where all of that money came from though. KXLY didn’t go for the sensational “chase the bad guy down the street while shouting at him” interview. They sat down in an office and gave him a chance to tell his story.
KXLY was surprised to find that people were upset with their reporting. People posted angry messages on the station’s website supporting Jarzabek’s “charity.”
KXLY responded to critics on Facebook by presenting factual responses.
Jarzabek jumped on Facebook to say KXLY broke its promise to him that he would not be named in their story. The station said they did keep their word on the first story, but when the criminal history emerged, Post said the station felt it had an obligation to identify him and Jarzabek agreed to the on-camera interview. After the second story aired Jarzabek wrote on KXLY’s Facebook page:
It would be fair to criticize KXLY for not discovering Jarzabek’s criminal background before airing the first story. But the reporting was appropriately skeptical and fair. The followup was thorough and accurate and the station’s social media response was a model for what a station should do when some of the public turns on it.
“We found there are three camps that came up around this story,” Post told me. “There are those who see us as big bad media trying to destroy this man, there are people who accept that he is a criminal but think it is OK for him to give money away even if we don’t know where the money came from and there are people who see him for who he is.”