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The first time I meet up with Russ Ptacek, he says I’m exactly what he’s looking for. “I can’t believe how white you are,” he tells me. “This is perfect.”
On this early evening a few days before President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, I’m the perfect control subject in Ptacek’s latest on-camera experiment for WUSA9, Washington’s CBS affiliate. Tonight, Ptacek wants to see if District cab drivers are more likely to pick up white passengers than black ones. He’s done similar tests during the daytime, rushing into the streets to confront successfully stung cabbies, and tonight is one of a series he’s filming after sunset. The working theory is that the darkness will stoke cabbies’ prejudices—and make for some great TV.
With a wallet full of $5 bills provided by WUSA, I prepare to hail cabs in front of the National Gallery of Art. Ptacek, 49, waits across the street with a camera and a smartphone equipped with a stopwatch app, ready to time how long it takes me to successfully flag down a ride. A block away, Ptacek’s producer, cameraman, and two would-be passengers who are black are running the same test. Ptacek waves his hat at me, and the sting is on.
Eventually, several hours of taxi-baiting will be whittled down into a few seconds of footage in Ptacek’s series on racist cab drivers, airing just in time for February sweeps. While the operation wouldn’t pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal, Ptacek at least has the right hunch: It never took me more than six minutes to catch a cab in at least 10 tries, while my black counterparts had to wait as long as 15 minutes.
On another night, Ptacek recruits a group of young black men and women who are walking in Georgetown. When a driver tells one of them to get out of his cab, Ptacek and his camera suddenly pop up by the passenger window. “You’re going to leave this kid here?” Ptacek says, pointing his finger at the driver. “Ugh!”
The taxicab series doubles as a promo for WUSA’s new smartphone app, which allows passengers to record their drivers and send evidence of any lawbreaking to Ptacek. The app’s called WUSA9 iAlert, but Ptacek has his own name for it: Ptacek in Your Pocket. “I think of a lot of things people don’t think of,” Ptacek says of his idea to enable citizen reporting via iPhone. “Which drives them crazy.”
Washingtonians are getting Ptacek in their pockets, and they should expect to see more and more of him on their TVs. Since he was hired in February 2012 to build an investigative team for WUSA, Ptacek has begun to make a name for himself by being outraged by the kind of humdrum injustices that other reporters might find too obvious to tackle, like racist cabbies and dirty takeout storefronts.
Ptacek is mad about the state of things in D.C., and he thinks you should be too.
Ptacek may fume on television, but off the air, his wrath has a surprising target: Anderson Cooper.
Cooper and Ptacek have a lot in common. They’re both TV reporters. Both are gay, both seem to have a thing for form-fitting black shirts, and both have a full head of white hair. But for Ptacek, similarity has bred contempt—or at least minor frustration and a slightly winking one-sided feud. Ptacek, after all, hears all the time how much he looks Cooper. He shudders to imagine how many times the opposite has happened to the son of Gloria Vanderbilt.
The Cooper issue got worse last year, when a young fan of the CNN anchor on the Metro asked Ptacek to pose for a photo. The admirer tweeted the picture and—to Ptacek’s consternation—it eventually landed in a segment of Cooper’s daytime talk show devoted to the host’s lookalikes. They’ve never met, but for Ptacek, Cooper is the big brother he’s never wanted.
But Cooper’s long shadow hasn’t stopped Ptacek from vying to be the second most famous silver fox on TV news. Ptacek has honed his broadcast style since the 1980s, when he dropped out of the University of Kansas to report for a Topeka TV station. After running a news service out of Lawrence, Kan., throughout the 1990s, Ptacek sold his business in 2001, went back to college to finish his degree, and in 2006 went to work at a Kansas City station as an investigative reporter. That’s where he perfected what I like to think of as the Ptacek Formula.
Not every Ptacek story follows the formula: His more straightforward work includes an investigation of a General Services Administration office complex where hundreds of people were made ill or killed by toxins.
The Ptacek Formula is something different: First, Ptracek will find a mundane-sounding news story—one involving neighborhood animal attacks, for example—and head to the scene with a cameraman who’s not afraid to get a little bruised. Then, in a high-dramatic newsman cadence in which he seems to indiscriminately emphasize every other word, Ptacek confronts wrongdoers. Ideally, a story following the Ptacek Formula exposes Ptacek to an unspecified level of danger.
Take the case of the vicious dog in Kansas, prominently featured in Ptacek’s demo reel. Ptacek is shown talking through a door to the dog’s owner. A gun cocks from inside the house, and a quick cut later, Ptacek and his cameraman are crouching behind a car. No gunshots are heard.
Ptacek is also proud of the time he confronted a manager accused of stiffing his employees. In the segment, from Ptacek’s time in Kansas City, the news crew finds the electric wheelchair-bound manager, and Ptacek asks him about the missing wages. When Ptacek’s cameraman won’t turn off his device, the manager surges forward and rams the cameraman’s knee. “You have just assaulted this man!” Ptacek says, getting in between the wheelchair and the camera. The segment concludes with Ptacek saying the cameraman declined to press charges.
Ptacek is willing to put his own body on the line, too, which he proved when he investigated 28-year-old William Norris, an auditor for Clay County in Kansas. Norris, already in trouble for lying about his qualifications, had also allegedly dabbled in blackmailing women with nude photos of themselves on the picture-sharing site Photobucket. The auditor dodged Ptacek for weeks, forcing the reporter to park a news van in front of his car and eventually run after Norris as he left his house. “I just have a few questions for you!” Ptacek yells, jogging after the car. Norris eventually resigned.
“He would pick out stuff that other news media wouldn’t pick up,” says Tony Botello, who writes a lively media and politics blog called Tony’s Kansas City. Ptacek shook up the cozy relationship between Kansas City’s political establishment and its media, according to Botello, leading the blogger to declare him a “legend” and “the very best in the biz.” When Ptacek announced he was leaving for Washington in February 2012, Botello illustrated an article about the news with a picture of a mushroom cloud.
So far, Ptacek hasn’t made as big an impact in Washington. He’s continued his Kansas investigation of the GSA but hasn’t nabbed that many serious scoops in his year in D.C. But his two main focuses in Washington fit perfectly with his talent for drama: restaurant health inspections and the taxi industry.
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Ptacek says his taxi stings were inspired by a staffer for Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on the Environment, Public Works, and Transportation. The original idea was for WUSA to conduct the investigation in conjunction with Cheh’s office, but the staffer dawdled, according to Ptacek. When it looked like WRC, Washington’s NBC affiliate and the city’s top-rated news program, was in talks with Cheh’s office, Ptacek rushed to get it done first.
“We beat Channel 4, we beat Mary Cheh,” Ptacek says.
Taxi-cab stings, of course, aren’t new. In 1997, two Washington Post reporters, one black and one white, tried a similar test. Still, Ptacek’s story paid off. WUSA aired the racism sting first, and Ptacek was able to crack down on yet another minor villain. After a cab driver locked his doors when a black passenger asked to be taken to Southeast, only to pick up a white passenger who wanted to go to the same destination, Ptacek strolled into the middle of the street and stuck his mic through the passenger window. “Hi, so I’m curious,” Ptacek says. “Why wouldn’t you pick up the black guy?” The cab driver, who is black, says he didn’t notice either passenger’s race.
The food-service stings can be even juicier. Using Department of Health inspection records, Ptacek hits several restaurants and grocery stores a week to confront managers about violations. In these segments, Ptacek is notably class-blind, shaming both pricey restaurants that have been shut down for their incongruously unhygienic conditions as well as divier shops where the filth is less surprising. In one memorable segment, he shames the barely comprehending manager of a dingy takeout for having an empty bottle of liquor on the counter. He tweets the worst offenders along the way.
For restaurant stories, Ptacek tones down his shtick, since most of the employees aren’t as nefarious as some of his other targets. Instead of bursting into an establishment with a cameraman, now he enters alone. “I want to go into these places unannounced without being a dick,” Ptacek says.
The relatively toned-down Ptacek hasn’t made restaurant employees any more eager to talk, of course. In one clip, Ptacek chases the manager of an Adams Morgan Subway down 18th Street NW and into a neighboring bar, which refuses to let the camera in.
Ptacek’s dominance of the health-inspection beat has paid one major dividend so far. In January, when anonymous neighborhood blogger Titan of Trinidad broke the story that Councilmember Vincent Orange intervened in a health inspection that eventually shut down a wholesale produce store owned by a campaign donor, Ptacek already had footage of the store’s sorry condition. (Ptacek says he was working on Orange’s connection to the store weeks before Titan of Trinidad published his report). The D.C. Board of Ethics has launched an inquiry into Orange’s role in the inspection.
Still, racist cabbies and health-code violations are a far cry from discovering poison in a federal building. “I don’t know how terribly relevant it is,” says Dave Hughes, who runs the Washington media website DCRTV. “It’s kind of more like fun stuff, you know, he walks in the restaurant and finds the rat feces.”
Ptacek claims this is all part of his plan. The prestigious investigations, the kind that require dozens of interviews and months fighting for Freedom of Information Act requests, run on unpredictable timetables, he says. He needs to file restaurant investigations regularly while he works on longer stories. A report about, say, rats at Georgetown’s tony Dean & DeLuca will inspire viewers to send in tips about more serious corruption, Ptacek says.
It sounds like a longshot, but Ptacek’s mix of low- and high-stakes investigations worked in Kansas City, at least enough to get him a gig in the larger Washington market.
“I have similar aspirations to take over this town,” Ptacek says.
In order for Ptacek to fulfill his ambitions, he’ll have to win over a middle-aged viewer named Sally. Unfortunately, Sally isn’t a real person.
Sally represents the ideal viewer of WUSA. Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Sally decorate the station’s cavernous Tenleytown newsroom. A fact sheet at the station’s entrance contains detailed demographic and market research data about Sally, who is alternatively black and white, and in her 40s. White Sally, for example, is worried about national security, while Black Sally is more focused on the economy. A sign in the newsroom urges employees to “speak to Sally.”
WUSA is going to need a lot of Sallys to compete with Washington’s current ratings king, WRC. But Hughes says that WRC’s long-tenured talent line-up, including anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, could simply be too well-liked to beat.
Not that WUSA isn’t trying. When I visited the studio in January, the station had just redesigned its local news set and logo with a more dynamic red and blue motif. In April ratings provided by DCRTV, WUSA came in second to WRC for early morning broadcasts, but the station came in fourth behind all other local newscasts for its 5 p.m, 6 p.m., and 11 p.m. shows.
The station topped the ratings pile in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Hughes, but hasn’t seen that success since. “It seems like they’ve also been an also-ran for many years now,” says Hughes.
The station hired Ptacek as part of an investigative reporting arms race, which started when WRC recruited investigative reporter Tisha Thompson from Fox affiliate WTTG, according to TVNewsCheck, a TV industry site. Soon after that, WUSA hired Ptacek to launch what he calls “the ultimate investigative unit.”
WUSA brass publicly expects that the investigations will lead to ratings. “That’s what people in the community want and that’s what’s going to keep them watching,” Fred D’Ambrosi, the station’s news director, told TVNewsCheck.
Ptacek’s investigations aren’t unique in Washington’s TV news operations. Hughes compares Ptacek’s style to an earlier WUSA reporter, Mike Buchanan, who was ousted from the morning anchor spot in 2003 following low ratings. Among Ptacek’s contemporaries, WTTG’s Paul Wagner brings Ptacek-esque incredulousness to his public safety reporting, while WUSA’s Andrea McCarren made headlines last year with stories on underage drinking.
Ptacek hopes his upcoming investigations will raise the stakes even more. “We are working on stuff right now,” he says, “that I anticipate will save lives.”
Gravity of subject matter, of course, is only one part of the Ptacek Formula. Another component just might be irony.
Unlike his peers, Ptacek seems to both embrace and wink at the archetype of the self-serious, suavely dramatic TV newsman. He does investigations but is conscious of the comedy of being rammed by a motorized wheelchair. In April, he tells me that Ptacek in Your Pocket hasn’t notched as many downloads as he had hoped. He’s returning to the air with a new series about taxi cab discrimination—this time, it’s about handicapped passengers—and he’s upping the rhetoric, too. “My big goal is that people have this kind of magic saber in their pocket to defeat taxi racism,” he says.
Still, Ptacek’s deep capacity for outrage is real—and that’s what’s made him a uniquely compelling character in Washington’s television landscape.
It’s certainly not an affectation. When Ptacek he was a junior in high school, his family moved from the Midwest to Fairfax County. (His mother worked for a U.S. senator.) While researching school, one white Fairfax County principal pulled Ptacek and his mother aside and promised that the student body “looks like us.” Ptacek’s mother left convinced that was one school her son would not attend, he says. “In 1981!” Ptacek says. “In Northern Virginia!”
Ptacek had a more personal brush with bigotry when he returned to Kansas. Working as a reporter in Lawrence, he encountered Fred Phelps, the then-obscure patriarch of the town’s anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. In 1991, Ptacek aired a story on the church’s use of children in its protests during a freezing Kansas winter—what Ptacek called “these itty-bitty picketers in these outrageous weather conditions.”
Not long after the story ran, one of Phelps’ daughters called Ptacek to tell him to report a positive story on her father—or else. When Ptacek refused, the church, still years away from its incendiary protests of soldiers’ funerals, launched a fax-machine campaign. One day, Ptacek came in to his newsroom to find his co-workers, along with the station’s general manager and news director, gathered around a piece of paper that said “Russ Ptacek’s a fag.”
Ptacek says he felt like he was in middle school again. “Some big bully was coming up and accusing me of being a fag,” Ptacek says. Ptacek shot back at Phelps by running for Lawrence City Council on an anti-Phelps platform. He lost to a popular incumbent, but he says the campaign helped him work out his “venom” toward Phelps.
Living in Dupont Circle, Ptacek says he’s found a more welcoming environment for gay people. Still, his work at WUSA has kept him too busy to date. “My mother hopes,” he says, asked if he’s seeing anyone.
His ironic touch and eye for the slightly amiss is evident as he shows me around the WUSA studio. We stop by the set of PBS’ The McClaughlin Group, which is filmed at the station. One of the teal armrests has turned dark with use.
Ptacek runs his fingers over the greasy armrest, wondering aloud which pundit’s oily fingers are responsible.
Around 10 p.m., the taxi sting is over for me, but Ptacek and his crew are just taking a break before they head back out in search of discriminatory cabbies. As we lug equipment past the Federal Trade Commission Library on Constitution Avenue, Ptacek’s health-inspection instincts go off. There’s a dull brown mark where two marble walls near the library meet. That’s how you can tell rats are nearby, Ptacek says. As they squeeze into cracks, he says, their fur leaves grease stains behind.
On the way back to WUSA’s studio, Ptacek is excited to have the footage I helped him get. “I’m so fucking glad you froze your ass off,” he says.