WNBC’s investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst is a native of the tri-state area, originally from Teaneck, New Jersey and is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has worked behind the scenes at Newsday, and got his start in television at WSAV-TV in Savannah, Georgia where he worked for about half a year. He then had the opportunity to return to the city as NY1 was starting up and eventually moved to WPIX. Dienst has been the first reporter to break some major stories such as the "Mafia Cops", Bernie Kerik’s mafia ties and most recently the Fort Dix Terror Plot and the Kennedy Airport Pipeline Plot.
You got your start in the city at NY1 when it was just getting off the ground. Do you feel that being a one man band getting stories out there on the ground then helped you develop some of the sources you have now?
NY1 was a great training ground. It was really a great experience. Covering New York City twenty-four hours a day and you look at some of the stories that took place during our time there: we have the first World Trade Center bombing, the sheik terror conspiracy plot, the crime wave and the crackdown on crime. So yeah, it was an incredible experience.
It was going out and getting to know the city inside and out, because you were in every neighborhood, all the time from Bed-Stuy to East New York to the Upper East Side covering and meeting all the who’s who. So it was great because it was like a fishbowl. All you had to worry about was New York City, the five boroughs, and I had the law enforcement beat there – the police department, the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys, the prosecutors, a lot of the defense lawyers in town I really got to know. So you really got to know a lot of people and you realize what a small world it is and what a great community it is.
Is there any one particular story that you are proud of?
I think there are a lot of stories. Certainly covering the first World Trade Center bombing was an extraordinary experience. The magnitude of that story, of that event at that time was tragic and also incredible in terms of the investigative response and tracking the suspects. That was an incredible story to have been a part of and to have covered. The sheik conspiracy plot was another one.
In my time here at channel 4, I would say the investigation Senator Torricelli’s alleged corruption. It was an extraordinary exercise in journalism going out and spending about six months on that story working almost non-stop digging and digging, trying to find corroboration to allegations that the senator had an improper relationship with a convicted felon. So we were out meeting with merchants, meeting with defense lawyers, meeting with investigators, members of Congress, and meeting with anyone who might have information about the senator’s alleged wrong doing.
We obtained documents, tapes and materials and it was at a very important time. The election was coming up, the balance of power weighed in the balance and the fact that we were able to show and highlight some of the senator’s activities so that the voters knew. That was an incredible story to be a part of.
And also of course, 9/11 and anthrax. Those stories speak for themselves in terms the impact and what it was like living through and working through that. It is a privilege every day. Every day you come into this building and you could be involved with, meeting with, interviewing everything from the best to the worst and everything in between.
You have two producers people who work with you on the investigative team.
I have Joe Valiquette, a former FBI official, spent 30 years at the FBI; he works part time and Alice McQuillan, a former Daily News police reporter, who works part time. Between the two of them it is almost like a job share. I think they work about three days a week, but the count as one person on the head count issue. I count on them in terms of their expertise, their guidance, their digging. They work hard and they are people I trust absolutely. If they tell me it is so, I know I can go on the air with it because they are very experienced at it and very good at what they do. We have a very good team here. We have local issues covered, we have federal issues covered, and everything in between thanks to their help and experience.
Is there anything that attracted you to crime and investigative reporting in particular?
I would say it was the first World Trade Center bombing. . . Actually in Savannah, Georgia I first got into that because that city had an extraordinary crime rate. At the time I was there it was either number one or number two in per capita crime and murder rate in the entire nation. So it was extraordinary what was going on those streets. As bad as New York was in terms of the crack epidemic and the violence, what was happening in Savannah, Georgia on a per capita basis was even more extreme and more severe. And at the same time there was police corruption going on. Just working and exposing that. There were these officers who were making twenty grand a year driving around in Mercedes and living in huge homes. How could that be? And we did some work on that.
So that whetted my appetite and also after the World Trade Center bombing. Working, watching, learning, as you saw with some of The New York Times reporters were getting and what some of the networks were getting, and trying to compete with that as a one man band really honed your skills and worked towards it and have been doing it ever since.
Do you have any strange New York story that you have covered?
One of the strangest was when I was at channel 11. Remember the Yankee game where the kid reached out and interfered in one of the playoff games? I was invited to go sit in the luxury box to watch that game and it was about the fourth inning and of course the phone rings and it is the assignment desk – You gotta go. You are in the Bronx and a massive python snake just strangled a man in a housing project. Wait a minute, I got a Yankee luxury box. From a luxury box watching that great game as a little reward and within ten minutes I was in this housing project reporting on a man who came home to a massive python that strangled him. It was a very strange story to be involved with.
So have you just answered the quintessential New York question – Mets or Yankees with that?
I am a Met fan. Jon Matlack, Tom Seaver. I grew up watching and rooting for the New York Mets. My father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and his heart was broken when they left. So he was always a National League guy. I think that rubbed a little bit off on me. So yes, I am a New York Mets fan, although I don’t follow it as closely as I used to.
You seem to have broken a lot of big nationally important stories. Do you feel more connected to them or exposing things locally?
It depends. When you do a story that impacts on someone’s life, for example there was a couple years ago, I think it was around Thanksgiving time or so, about a gentleman who had been killed, a father of five or six children. I did the story and did the follow-up. Not only through our web [site] but also through what was on the air, people were sending money, people sent clothes. When you know that at least your reporting can have an impact and can make a difference, even if it on that personal level, that is really touching. It makes you feel good about what you did.
When you expose a senator who is engaged in apparent wrong doing and you can keep the system honest and have done your job alerting the public to wrongdoing, that is great satisfaction as well. You have done your job. So yeah, there is a whole range.
Almost every day you wake up, and you are excited to come to work and you are looking forward to it. It is tiring work it is long hours. I do not stop reporting a story. If I am involved in a story I stick with it through the end. So that doesn’t mean at six o’clock, boom, I did my six o’clock version, I am going home. Very often I will often stay through the eleven; I’ll come back and do it for the morning. There are long hours because stories are constantly progressing, constantly changing, constantly being updated. I am a little type A that way, but I really push and see things through. Yeah, it is a rewarding job. It really is a privilege to come in here every day and be a part of this, covering my hometown, the community I love. As I said seeing the best and the worst and everything in between.
Would there be any circumstances that you would leave the city?
There is always opportunities out there. Never say never. But right now I am very happy where I am doing what I do. I not only report for WNBC, on occasion I do CNBC, Nightly News and Dateline. NBC affords me an opportunity to grow and showcase our work and what we come up with, not just for WNBC and our internet site WNBC.com, but also for various other channels. Look, I sit here I do a story – the JFK terror plot. Not only did I do that for WNBC, I did it for the cable channels, I did it for the affiliates around the country – Florida, Chicago – and I did live shots for all of them. So sitting here at this station, the flagship station for the NBC family, the opportunities are there.
Would maybe some day I would like to go down to Washington and cover that? Maybe, but I love New York. It is a great town. It’s got everything. Everything is here. So for now I am very happy here and they treat me very well and it is a nice place to work.
What would be your perfect day of recreation in the city?
Spending time with my kids. I am fortunate I have a Monday through Friday schedule, so I make weekends all important. That is my kid’s time, that is my family time. That is when I really try to spend time with them. Teaching them, watching them, learning with them, laughing with them – that is my perfect day.
If you could change something about the city what would it be?
I would like to see public schools improve. No matter what neighborhood you are in for your child to have a quality education so that families are not left with the choice of you are super rich and private school or you need to leave the city to go to a very good public school system because there are such limited middle school and high school opportunities for some families in terms of the options in this town whether that is Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens. So if there is one thing I like to see changed, and I think it is going in the right direction, but I think a lot more can be done. It would make a big difference for a lot of kids in the city if our schools were really ratcheted up. It is not just the school system, families have responsibilities. There are a whole mix of issues that are associated with improving the public school system, but I think that is something that I would like to see.
It would make a huge difference in this city. The economy has bounced back, public transportation exists, great housing, you have a lot of good things, but the schools are getting better but still needs marked improvement.
Do you have a favorite subway line?
Well, I ride the 6 train so. . . I don’t know if that is my favorite, but it is the one I am most familiar with the 4, 5, and 6. Probably because if you got to get downtown real fast, the police headquarters, the courts, city hall or to this job I can just zip on the train.