They’re a reporting duo who turned an acclaimed newspaper series into a new book, so the Woodward and Bernstein comparisons are inevitable. But make no mistake: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker are an investigative team for the 21st century. Which means that they have insight, nerve . . . and insecure jobs.
The pair from the Philadelphia Daily News won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for “Tainted Justice,” a 10-month investigation that exposed an astonishing level of police corruption in the city—rogue narcotics cops who allegedly falsified warrants, sexually assaulted women, and systematically stole from immigrant-owned bodegas. The initial tip was offered to them on a platter. Benny Martinez, a drug informant, walked straight into the Daily News office, asked for Ruderman, a police beat reporter, and unleashed his story.
But that didn’t make “Tainted Justice” an easy story to report. The reporters mined records and knocked on literally hundreds of doors to confirm Martinez’ story. Publication of the series—which came out around the time a number of Philly officers died in the line of duty—led to fierce pushback; at a news conference, the reporters were called out by name by the local Fraternal Order of the Police. They received intimidating phone calls and emails.
And it was excruciatingly difficult to track down the people who had been victimized by Philly’s cops—many of them off the grid, with changing phone numbers and irregular addresses. But when Laker and Ruderman finally found them, they interviewed them on record with a healthy balance of scrutiny and compassion. Their voices and stories transformed the reporting, elevating a series of facts into a big-hearted narrative.
In addition to winning journalistic honors, “Tainted Justice” launched a still-open, though seemingly stalled, FBI investigation into Philadelphia’s police department. Now, Ruderman and Laker have revisited the story—and added a great deal of context—in Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.
In a nod to the book’s roots, the first page of each short chapter is designed like a narrow column in a newspaper. But Busted is more than a stitched-together collection of their old articles. Ruderman and Laker are cast as characters in a first-person narrative that’s about police corruption, but also about the challenges of modern-day reporting: their scrappy home paper, both in 2009 and today, struggles to survive, never mind invest in high-stakes journalism.
Not four pages in, we read that: “We subscribed to both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, even though I could get them for free at work. As fewer and fewer people bought newspapers—let alone had them delivered—I felt it was my duty to support the dinosaur of an industry that was mine.” The Washington Post circa 1972, it ain’t.
The shift to a book strips the story of some urgency but offers a perspective that comes from time and distance.
During the reporting for “Tainted Justice,” the Daily News was headed into bankruptcy. The one in-house lawyer for the company, which also owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, was absorbed in the associated legal proceedings, but nonetheless, Ruderman and Laker lobbied for legal support on their series. They were having difficulty accessing search warrants, which the city claimed was not part of the public record, and they needed legal muscle to break through the gridlock.
“Finally, we made our own case—Barbara and I—to the records custodian and he granted us access on Christmas Eve and we hugged him,” Ruderman recalls. “Once we got access to the search warrants, we were off and running. But that was a big hurdle for us at the jump.”
Turning serial reporting into a book is an act of translation. The reporters pull it off fairly well, though they hit a few snags. Five years after its initial publication, the story inevitably loses some of its timely urgency. The target audience now stretches well beyond the paper’s Philadelphia readership. And the depth of reporting means that a very large array of people wander through the book—crooked cops, bodega owners, drug dealers, even the reporters’ family members and colleagues. A “cast of characters” listing at the front would have been welcome.
The new medium also presents new stylistic choices. Busted is told in Ruderman’s first-person voice, while Laker is a third-person character. The effect is a little jarring for a co-written book, but it does have the immediacy that comes with first-person narrative, while avoiding the flattening effect of a “we” voice stretching for hundreds of pages. (For the record, Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men opted for a third-person narrator who knows the reporters’ thoughts, a choice that comes with its own idiosyncrasies: “ ’Oh god, not Bernstein,’ Woodward thought . . . .”)