By Lee Nichols
AUGUST 11, 1997:
On July 25, KTBC/Channel 7 reporter Gabe Caggiano was suspended pending an internal
investigation and, in accordance with station policy, was escorted out of the office
building by security guards. Before he exited the newsroom, he turned to his fellow
reporters and, in a MacArthurian vow, declared: "I'll be back."
But unlike the famed general, Caggiano, 39, didn't return. Instead, he was summarily
dumped by KTBC three days later. If he had been right -- if he had been reinstated
-- it would have been to the great consternation of many of his coworkers, as well
as many of his colleagues around Austin.
Until his firing on July 28, former "Fox-7" reporter Caggiano was very
likely the most hated man in Austin television journalism. A few phone calls here
and there can certainly make one believe so -- very quickly, one finds colleagues
who complain that he is rude, unprofessional, sexist, belligerent, hot-tempered,
and more than a little scary. Channel 7 reporters, former co-workers, journalists
from rival stations, even Austin correspondents from non-competing stations in other
cities -- all nearly fell over themselves in rushing to complain about Caggiano.
And all, except one, asked to remain confidential, often citing a fear of physical
violence from Caggiano.
Ridiculous nonsense, says Caggiano, but the volatile TV reporter's temper was
approaching legendary -- even by his own admission -- and his penchant for screaming
tantrums angered a long list of his fellow reporters, as well as his superiors. Incident
piled upon incident, and Fox-7 management took notice. Finally, after questions were
raised regarding the impartiality of Caggiano's coverage of possible gubernatorial
candidate Garry Mauro, Channel 7 last month decided that it was through with its
Naturally, the world looks quite a bit different through Caggiano's eyes. What
others describe as unprofessional, he views as aggressive reporting; what some call
a short fuse is, to him, perfectionism. Caggiano admits he isn't the most congenial
type in the world, but, he insists, it is the result of being surrounded by a multitude
Prima Donna Chowderhead?
"I've worked alongside that jerk for years," one Austin correspondent
for a Houston station blurts out upon hearing Caggiano's name. "I first encountered
him during the Gulf War at Fort Hood, and at Fort Davis during the Republic of Texas
standoff. I'm uncomfortable cutting another reporter, but if anybody deserves it,
it's him. He's everything people hate about TV reporters."
The Fort Davis standoff was a defining moment in Caggiano's career -- exemplifying
both what made him a pariah and what gave him so much frustration during his year-long
stay at KTBC. Joe Nick Patoski's story on the standoff in the June issue of Texas
Monthly carried a brief mention of Caggiano going into one of his fits, relating
that "KTBC-Channel 7 reporter Gabe Caggiano... amused onlookers by screaming
via cellular phone at his producer back in Austin."
While the temper tantrum provided a colorful vignette for Patoski's story, it
also served as a window into Caggiano's world.
"Fort Davis was an example of why Gabe is not one of the most well-liked
reporters around," says the Houston television journalist, who asked not to
be identified. "Gabe seemed oblivious to the needs of anyone other than Gabe.
The DPS briefings were formatted, and you can walk a fine line between aggressive
and annoying. [Department of Public Safety spokesman Mike Cox] would be in the middle
of a good quote, and Gabe would jump right in. In situations like Fort Davis, some
reporters are remembered for their journalism, some for getting in the way.
"Frequently he would yell at his producer over the satellite while the conference
was ongoing. You shouldn't distract other reporters. Gabe was loud. He would raise
his voice at inappropriate times. It was as if he was more interested in his own
performance, rather than imparting information. Several television journalists from
around the country asked if I could speak to him and get him to change his demeanor,
I guess because I'm from Texas. I didn't do it. It's not my job to teach other adults
how to be adults."
What Patoski didn't explain in his story was why Caggiano exploded -- the correspondent
was besieged by a series of technical screw-ups compounding an already difficult
situation in which Fox-7 had sent Caggiano to the Davis Mountains underequipped and
understaffed. "The station sent him to Fort Davis with only himself and a photographer,"
said a Dallas station's correspondent. "He shouldn't have acted like he did,
but he was under a lot of pressure. He shouldn't have been put in that position."
Still, when this seemingly sympathetic reporter was asked whether he would want
to work with Caggiano, the reply was, "Absolutely not.
"Walking through a media crowd, he has no friends. The other reporters back
away from him," this Dallas source explained just days before Caggiano's firing.
"The mentality on [KTBC's] staff is to get rid of him. I think he's a good reporter,
but he has this uncontrollable temper.... We called him `Gabe Chowderhead,' partly
because he's from Boston, but it fits on several different levels."
Responding to the charges of unprofessionalism, Caggiano would only say, "He
has me mistaken with someone else.
"You gotta understand something about KTBC," says Caggiano. "We
used to be number one in the market, we are now number four. My frustrations from
day one have been the lack of commitment to high standards. I would say what happened
in Ft. Davis really is the perfect representation of my entire frustration. KVUE
sent 10 people to Ft. Davis. They sent a satellite truck, they sent a field producer,
they sent three reporters, and three shooters. [KTBC] sent me and a cameraman. And
the people at my station wanted me to do as much work as [KVUE's] Walt Maciborski
and the other highly qualified, skilled technicians who were out there covering Ft.
Davis. We were in the middle of the May ratings, mind you too, an international story
that had the implications of being another Waco. So I'm outgunned five-to-one.
"Seven of my live shots did not make it on the air because of technical ineptitude
by our staff. That was an atrocious, atrocious thing to have happen in the middle
of a huge national story in the middle of ratings, to have seven live shots not make
it onto the air because people could not technically get their act together. The
people at our sister station in Dallas, KDFW, felt sorry for me. And [KTBC] made
it clear that they were not going to send out any extra help for me... and I carried
my weight; I went toe-to-toe with Maciborski and my work looked almost as good.
"And when I came back from Fort Davis, I got a reprimand for being abusive
verbally to my co-workers back in Austin. I was screaming things like, `Why the heck
can't we get this shot off the air?' I covered the Gulf War. I was in Iraq, Kuwait,
and Saudi Arabia for five weeks; I didn't have one satellite shot that crashed. At
Ft. Davis we had seven. Midland TV was better technically than us. And I get a reputation
as being an unstable hothead because my work at the end of the day doesn't air? Because
people at the station don't have the technical ability to tune in a satellite shot?
Who wouldn't get upset over that? And when I get upset I get labeled abusive. I'm
not going after anybody personally; I want them to do their jobs. If they can't do
their jobs, fire them."
Calling for the heads of those who cross him is nothing new for Caggiano. As soon
as the Texas Monthly reference was published, he called up the magazine's
editors in a typical lather. "The funny thing was," recalls TM deputy
editor Evan Smith, "he wanted to tell us he hadn't been yelling and screaming
and so he called us up and yelled and screamed at us."
"As I said to the writer of that article," Caggiano said in his defense,
"`If you're going to put my name in and you're going to write that, don't you
think it's incumbent upon you as a reporter to come over and ask me what I'm upset
about?... The way you left it, it makes me look like a prima donna hothead....' Can
you imagine working from 8:30 in the morning until 11 o'clock [at night] every day
for seven or eight days straight in 95-degree heat in a tense standoff situation
only to have your work not air at the end of the day seven times?"
Caggiano demanded a retraction, but says he received a scolding from his superiors
at the station instead. "My news director [Rob Martin] said, `You see this article?
This is embarrassing.' And I said, `You know what's embarrassing, Rob? Our technical
performance in Ft. Davis, that was embarrassing.'"
In the final Fort Davis fallout, in what is the contradiction that defines Caggiano's
career, the fiery reporter was praised for his work and lambasted for his style.
"I get back and I get one memo that thanks me for the work I do, and another
that says `Your abusive behavior won't be tolerated; this is your last warning.'"
The War's Over
Even Caggiano's critics contradict themselves at times. Is he an embarrassment
to the profession, or a good reporter who has simply stepped on a few toes? Caggiano
can indeed lay legitimate claim to being a good reporter -- the Associated Press
gave him an award for a Gulf War piece called "Texans at War" while he
was at KMOL in San Antonio. Caggiano also keeps in his resumé a letter of recommendation
from NBC national anchor Tom Brokaw, whom he met during the war.
Caggiano's friend Brian Karem, a former KMOL coworker and now a freelance writer,
paints a picture completely opposite from the detractors. "I wouldn't take any
other human being into a war zone other than Gabe Caggiano," Karem says. "When
the chips are down and you need someone to cover your back, Gabe was there. I know
some people think of Gabe as abrasive, and he can be, but that's his charm. He doesn't
suffer fools gladly, but he pours his heart into a story. Gabe's problem is that
people hear his bark and get afraid of his bite."
Debora Daniels, the co-anchor of KMOL's evening newscasts, echoes Karem's comments.
"I found working with Gabe very stimulating, very enjoyable," Daniels says.
"Maybe I just take things differently. He can be so intense, he can have such
an edge, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He's never abided mediocrity.
"The waters were not placid when he worked here, but the waters ought to
be choppy in a newsroom. I think a little friction is necessary. I think we do a
better job with friction. Most of the people I admire in reporting are not my favorite
people, or the most congenial. Gabe is not without personality or charm; we had laughs
together, and we butted heads. That's how it should be. And," she laughs, "Gabe's
from the Northeast."
However, not everyone is so quick to downplay Caggiano's outbursts. Fox-7 photographer
Erica Hintergardt, who would not comment for this story, got a taste of his temper
last Thanksgiving at the Salvation Army -- a favorite photo-op of local newscasts
at holiday time. According to one source who was present, in an incident that was
witnessed by several onlookers, Caggiano stood in the middle of a dinner for the
homeless and screamed at Hintergardt.
A photographer from another station said, "I was setting up my shot, and
I turn around and he's yelling at Erica. It was an argument about the lighting --
he's very sensitive about that, but there's not much you can do inside a building.
He's taken it out on a lot of the photographers, and he's very degrading, especially
to women. He said, `I can't believe I have to work with a woman.' It was in front
of the public, and it was very embarrassing.
"Working with someone shouldn't have to be that way. He's very unprofessional,
and it's bad for journalism. Channel 7 has kept him despite losing others. They would
back him before the photographers. It really hurts me to see someone like him representing
Caggiano, who says he never commented on Hintergardt's gender, defends his actions:
"Erica Hintergardt was brand new at the station, and I wasn't happy with the
way she was setting up the lights," Caggiano says. "I said to Erica, `I
would appreciate it if you would move the lights in closer.' Her reply was to me,
in a very disdainful way, `If you don't like the way it's lit, Gabe, maybe you should
just do it yourself.' And I said in a tense voice, `No, Erica, I don't want to do
it myself, I want you to do it, and I want you to do it right.' It didn't take much
of any kind of tension to appear like there was a major blow-up, because it was a
Thanksgiving dinner and it was in fairly small confines. I don't appreciate the unprofessional
remarks she directed towards me when all I wanted to get was for her to move the
lights closer. And having 15 years experience -- and she was just brand new from
Wichita Falls -- I don't feel I should be questioned about how I want something lit.
"I called the Salvation Army PR person and apologized... and I subsequently
went back and covered the Christmas dinner at the Salvation Army and did [other stories
on the Salvation Army] without incident." (A Salvation Army spokesperson declined
to comment on the alleged incident).
Reports on the blow-up were exaggerated, Caggiano says, and the photographer who
complained "is somebody looking for a reason to damage my good name... I don't
feel I should apologize for wanting a shot done a certain way and having the photographer
smart off; but for some reason, I come out of it the bad guy. In the field, the reporter
calls the shots. The photographer works for the reporter... but he should treat the
photographer with respect. But somebody has to be in charge."
Caggiano takes exception to the fact that the Chronicle tapped unnamed
sources for this article. "You're not getting this information first-hand. I
question the motives for even doing this story. I would want more attributions from
more people... to put an article out. If Erica wouldn't comment -- somebody else
is doing her talking for her?"
Although Hintergardt would not comment, she may have had good reason. The day
that station managers learned that the Chronicle was pursuing this story,
they issued a company-wide memo reminding staff that station policy forbids Fox-7
employees from commenting on internal matters to other media. The next day was when
Caggiano was suspended, and three days later, he was fired.
Some critics say that the Salvation Army explosion is indicative of Caggiano's
alleged tendency to single out women for his vitriol. "One time he was assigned
to cover a bomb threat," says another Fox-7 reporter, "and someone asked
him if he was afraid to go. He said, `I'm more afraid of working with a female than
of a bomb.'"
"Obviously that's a joke," protests Caggiano. "I don't even remember
saying that, but if I did, I think it's kind of funny. I'd say that females are probably
as likely to explode as bombs. I'd say the people here are dangerous. But I've worked
with many females in the newsroom, and many of them, I don't have a problem with
at all. There are many competent females in journalism, and I won't accept that sexist
remark at all. I'm not sexist... I believe they belong in news as much as men."
Delusions of Grandeur
Cameramen appear to have had the biggest grievances with Caggiano. "None of
the photographers like to work with him," says a Fox-7 staffer. "Nobody
wanted to go with him to Luckenbach" for Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic.
Secret service agents grab Caggiano's shoulders in order to restrain his access to
Hillary Clinton at a campaign stop for her husband in Austin (2). Caggiano (lower
left) with mike thrust forward (3).
Photojournalist John Pertel worked with Caggiano at WMTW in Portland, Maine, shortly
before Caggiano came to Austin in 1996. According to Pertel, the station had gotten
wind that General Colin Powell, whose name was still being bandied about as a possible
presidential candidate, would be landing at a Portland airfield, along with former
First Lady Barbara Bush. Caggiano and Pertel headed for the landing, with Caggiano
hoping to get an interview with Powell. However, Secret Service officials had made
it clear that while long shots would be acceptable, no one would be allowed onto
the tarmac. Caggiano directly disobeyed them, recalls Pertel.
"The plane comes in, and Gabe jumps on the tarmac and says `Come on, come
on!'" says Pertel. "I said `No!' He comes back and says, `This is bullshit.
You're a pussy.' "
After grabbing the camera from Pertel, Caggiano ran out onto the tarmac again,
but by then the secret servicemen were upon him and escorted him off the field.
"He started lashing at me," says Pertel. "He said, `This is small-market
bullshit; we could have had an exclusive interview with Colin Powell.' All year long,
Powell had been refusing to comment on whether he would run for the presidency, and
I said, `What did you expect, Gabe, that he would say, "You know, I haven't
told anyone else this, but I'm running for president"?'"
Actually, that's almost exactly what Caggiano was thinking.
"When you're dealing with the Secret Service, it's a cat-and-mouse game,"
Caggiano says. "If you can get to a candidate and get an interview, the Secret
Service is negated; once you're engaged in the conversation, the Secret Service can't
pull you away, it's in the domain of the candidate... I'm thinking to myself, `What
if Powell has decided to join the Bob Dole ticket?' Do you realize the power this
man had at that time? Dole-Powell beats Clinton-Gore. Dole and anybody else, Clinton
wins. Powell singlehandedly controlled the outcome of the race. There's no other
media at the event; this is what we call a clean-kill exclusive. What is Powell doing
getting off a private plane in an obscure terminal with a member of the Bush family?
Was this an effort to get him on the ticket to save it?
"You can't blame a reporter for wanting to get this interview.... This is
a worldwide exclusive, big news. Pertel is laughing about this; he thinks this is
funny. I had to take the camera back over to get him to show me how to turn it on,
and by then the Secret Service sees me. The window of opportunity had closed. Pertel
made up his mind an hour earlier that he wasn't going to move. Did he tell me that?
No. He waited, so that he could pull this stunt, so that he can watch with sadistic
joy while my attempts to get this interview were blocked." Caggiano says that
WMTW's chief photographer agreed with his judgment to go for the interview.
Pertel says that Caggiano told another reporter that "he would gouge my eyes
out with a pen if I did it again."
Caggiano laughs at this comment, and says, "I think what I said was `I wanted
to stick him in the eye with a pen.' It was just a figure of speech. Never once did
I physically assault John Pertel. However, I don't regret getting angry about it."
Pertel "is an idiot," Caggiano says angrily. "He's a mind-game
player. He's someone you don't want to turn your back on. If he doesn't like me,
I feel better. I must be doing something right. Next opponent."
A Tussle With Hillary's Muscle
It was another run-in with the Secret Service that may have finally led to Caggiano's
firing. The incident began last year, when First Lady Hillary Clinton came to Austin
to campaign for her husband. According to two sources inside Fox-7, all news
outlets were informed that there would be no media opportunities. So when Caggiano
attempted to gain access to the First Lady to ask about Whitewater, he soon found
himself in a shoving match with Secret Service agents, which KTBC camera operators
recorded (see photos). In vintage Caggiano style, the pugnacious reporter pushed
to have the tape of his bout with Hillary Clinton's bodyguards aired, as if it cast
him and the station in a good light. His producers disagreed.
A shoving match ensues between the guards and Caggiano as the woman in the middle
screams for them to stop because there is a baby to her left (4-5). Caggiano shoots
a last look (6) before bein seized by APD (7).
Still steamed from being roughed up, Caggiano directed his anger at Garry Mauro,
who was then the Clinton campaign's Texas director. "[Caggiano] was upset with
the secret service," recalls Joe Cutbirth, communications director of the Mauro
campaign, "and wanted to talk with Garry. He seemed to think Garry had something
to do with the secret service. We've never figured out what he wanted us to do. What
worried us was that over a year later, he still seemed to have a grudge about it."
This long-simmering anger, which Cutbirth says resurfaced in recent conversations
between him and Caggiano, seemed serious enough to give the Mauro campaign concerns
about the impartiality of Caggiano's coverage. Cutbirth will not discuss the specifics
of the conversations, but says, "We were concerned that we had a reporter approaching
us with malice." Cutbirth took the matter to Caggiano's bosses, but claims,
"It was not to undermine Gabe, but to make [news director] Rob Martin aware
of our concerns." After an internal investigation, the station heads fired Caggiano.
Channel 7's Martin would not comment on the official reason; Caggiano says
he was simply told that the Mauro incident was the last straw.
Caggiano denies that he ever made a threat: He insists that he simply wanted an
explanation of why he was physically attacked at the Clinton campaign stop before
he began a planned three-part series looking at Mauro's bankruptcy and Mauro's hiring
of Ruben Johnson, a convicted felon.
"I think it was asking a question that somebody didn't want to answer, so
they figured they would go complain to the boss," Caggiano says. "At no
time did Mauro or his people say [the agents were Secret Service]. All he would have
had to say was `Hey Gabe, those weren't my people, they were Secret Service.' The
guy who grabbed me wasn't dressed like Secret Service. At no time did Mauro ever
respond to my handwritten note or my videotape. I just wanted to know who grabbed
"I'm not a 22-year-old rookie out of journalism school. I'm 39 years old,
I've covered campaigns, I've been to the Gulf War, and nobody grabs me by the throat
and intimidates me. It doesn't work."
Karem, Caggiano's friend from San Antonio's KMOL, says, "I know what happened
with Mauro, but I can't imagine him slanting coverage to hurt someone. He's a good
guy, but misunderstood."
Hasta La Vista, Gabey
Television news is a cutthroat business. It is the highest-profile of all news
media, one where reporters become recognizable stars, image is often more important
than substance, and ego is almost a prerequisite for success. The end of Caggiano's
career at Fox-7 provided a glimpse of the field at its worst, mixing all of these
facets in an ugly, but almost amusing, collision of incompetence, hotheadedness,
and minor political scandal.
Was Caggiano really as out-of-control as so many of his colleagues (including
more who weren't quoted for this article) claim? Or was he an aggressive journalist
who fell victim to the "small-market" mentality of the less-ambitious?
By now, it's a moot point for everyone involved.
"I don't feel bad about leaving KTBC," concludes Caggiano. "I wanted
to leave. This is just the inevitable occurring... I'll get another job, because
I'm good. I'll get a better job. So, adios Austin."