Kidnapping the News

How 20/20 repackaged my investigation of infamous “welfare queen” Linda Taylor and billed it as an ABC exclusive.

Linda Taylor, 40, walks with her attorney T. Lee Boyd as they leave the Chicago Civic Center Tuesday, March 8, 1977 during a recess in her trial.

Linda Taylor walks with one of her attorneys on March 8, 1977 during a recess in her trial.

Photo by Charles Knoblock/AP via Corbis

Last December, Slate published my long feature on Linda Taylor, the notorious “welfare queen” who Ronald Reagan made famous on the 1976 campaign trail. Taylor, it turned out, was doing a lot more than stealing public-aid checks. In addition to several alleged homicides, I detailed the kidnapping of a newborn named Paul Joseph Fronczak. There is strong circumstantial evidence, if not definitive proof, that Taylor snatched the infant Paul from his mother’s arms in Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital in 1964. Her son Johnnie Harbaugh told me that his mother was always nabbing children that didn’t belong to her, and that she would often wear a nurse’s uniform, just as the kidnapper did. Jack Sherwin, the Chicago police detective who investigated Taylor for much of the 1970s, says her station wagon matched the description of the getaway car. She was “guilty as hell,” Sherwin told me.

Three months after my story, ABC News unveiled its own report on Linda Taylor and the Fronczak kidnapping. On March 14, the network issued a press release touting its “exclusive investigation.” In a subsequent 20/20 special and a report on the ABC News website, correspondents Barbara Walters and Brian Ross claimed that a “cold lead has come back to life in the half-century-old case.” That lead: an anonymous note received on the “20/20 tip line” that the “baby was stolen by a lady known as the ‘Welfare Queen.’ ” Ross told viewers that “Linda Taylor died 12 years ago, but we found her son living in a Chicago suburb, prepared, he said, to finally tell what he knows about his mother and the stolen baby.”

As my former colleague Jack Shafer wrote recently, the term “exclusive” doesn’t mean what TV people think it means. “[M]ost pieces billed as an exclusive interview,” Shafer wrote, “are usually no more exclusive than a seat in a public commode.” It also isn’t news that TV networks, especially newsmagazine shows, aren’t particularly magnanimous when it comes to using other people’s reporting. But it’s still worth noting that this kind of credit-grabbing has been standard practice for ABC News throughout the Fronczak investigation. Over the last eight months, ABC has been latching onto other people’s work, then repackaging it as a series of phony scoops.

George Knapp, the chief investigative reporter for KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, first brought Paul Fronczak’s story to the attention of television viewers in April 2013. After their baby was stolen in 1964, Dora and Chester Fronczak adopted a child they believed was their missing son. That man—who goes by Paul Joseph Fronczak—recently discovered that he is not the Fronczaks’ biological child, and he’s now on a quest both to find the real stolen baby and to ascertain his own origins. Knapp reported on all this on TV and on the Web, and set up a Facebook page to help chase down potential leads.

Four months later, thanks in part to Knapp’s reporting, the FBI reopened the Fronczak kidnapping case. On Good Morning America, ABC’s Josh Elliott reported this reopening as “an ABC News exclusive,” a development that was “coming to light now thanks to months of work by our Barbara Walters and so many of our colleagues here at ABC News.”

Knapp doesn’t want all the credit for getting the FBI to take a fresh look at the case—he says the Chicago papers also deserve recognition for bringing attention to the story. “It’s not about getting credit,” he told me. “It’s about being honest.” In a November piece for Las Vegas CityLife, Knapp wrote that ABC’s self-congratulatory claim “was an absolute lie, a self-serving pat on the back.” At the point that the case was reopened, Knapp explained, “ABC News had done nothing on the story other than to record an interview with Paul in a hotel suite.”

I can empathize. This past week’s 20/20 Fronczak investigation did not see fit to mention that it was Slate, not ABC, that uncovered that Reagan’s infamous welfare queen died 12 years ago. It was Slate, not Brian Ross and his investigative team, that found Linda Taylor’s son living in a Chicago suburb. And it was Slate, not 20/20, that reported that Taylor was the possible culprit in the Fronczak kidnapping.

I make no claim that I did all of this myself. Every story benefits from prior acts of journalism. My article, for one, wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of a passel of Chicago Tribune reporters, who wrote about the alleged Fronczak–Taylor connection in the 1970s, and who are credited throughout the piece Slate ultimately published.

But ABC, in Knapp’s words, lives in a make-believe land in which “no one else had reported anything about Paul [Fronczak]’s amazing story.” Slate scored a single mention on 20/20, but Ross’ voice-over made it seem like we were working in parallel—Taylor’s son “never volunteered what he knew about the Fronczak baby until he talked with us and a reporter for the online news site Slate,” ABC News’ chief investigative correspondent said—never indicating that my story filled in the gaps in ABC’s reporting, and that it appeared online many months before the ABC segment aired.

I do take ABC at its word that it received an anonymous tip about the welfare queen, and that the tip came in prior to the publication of my story. The network ran its first 20/20 special on the Fronczak mystery (a Barbara Walters exclusive, naturally) back in November. Though that special never mentioned Linda Taylor’s name, it’s plausible that a viewer wrote in and mentioned the welfare queen.

I find it much harder to believe that ABC pursued this lead—one among a huge number of tips that poured in to the network—in any significant way prior to my story going live on Slate. I contacted Paul Joseph Fronczak on Dec. 17, two days before my piece was published, to alert him to the revelations in my article. At that time—47 days after ABC says it received its anonymous tip—Fronczak told me that he had never heard of Linda Taylor. When contacted again this week, Fronczak said he believed that Slate’s story prompted ABC’s latest investigation.

Isaiah Gant, a defense attorney who represented Taylor in the 1970s, also told me that ABC did not contact him about appearing in its welfare queen report until months after my story appeared on Slate. Gant said that my article came up several times in his conversations with a producer.

Johnnie Harbaugh, Taylor’s son, told me that ABC News producer Rhonda Schwartz appeared at his house after my story was published. Harbaugh says the ABC producer told him that she had read my article. He believes the Slate piece is why—and how—Schwartz tracked him down.

A network spokesperson told me earlier this week that Schwartz, the chief investigative producer of the ABC News Brian Ross investigative team, was not reachable. [Update, 6:40 p.m.: I was finally able to reach Schwartz just prior to publication.] In a written statement, ABC News’ manager of digital publicity and communication Nicole Enberg said, “The Slate piece was very helpful and we acknowledged the article both on-air and online. ABC News received a legitimate tip from our anonymous tip line long before the Slate.com piece was published. ABC News conducted our own lengthy, independent investigation which included extensive archival research and interviews with numerous law enforcement officials, which furthered our on-going investigation into the stolen baby case.”

I am happy to acknowledge the ways in which ABC has pushed the story along. The 20/20 special included still photographs and video footage of Taylor that I’d never seen before, archival finds that will thrill any welfare queen obsessive. The 20/20 crew also revealed that they tracked the man Johnnie Harbaugh believes helped his mother abduct the Fronczak baby—a man who ABC and I have declined to name, due (at least on my part) to the lack of hard evidence implicating him in the kidnapping—to a town in Tennessee before the trail ran cold. That’s a tidbit I had not discovered. Harbaugh also told ABC that his mother called the Fronczak baby Tiger, while he told me that he wasn’t sure that Tiger and the Fronczak child were one and the same. (In fairness to him, it was surely difficult to keep track of which kid was which—Linda Taylor seems to have pilfered a lot of children.)

I will continue to work on this story in the months to come, and I hope ABC does, too. If you have any additional information on Linda Taylor, send me an email. And—credit where credit is due—if you think you may know something about Paul Fronczak’s mysterious origins, you should email George Knapp.