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 . . . .”)
The introspective, first-person approach allows Ruderman and Laker to present themselves as characters in their story, warts and all. We read about Laker caring for her mother in her long dying days, spoon-feeding her roast chicken while watching Law & Order reruns. Shortly after her mother’s death, “Barbara fell into a deep depression that she tried desperately and unsuccessfully to hide. It was the beginning of the end of her marriage.” Meanwhile, Ruderman reveals the tensions in her own marriage, as well as the challenges of raising her young kids: “At work, I wasn’t afraid to take on the law,” she writes. “At home, I was totally unable to lay down the law.”
That openness adds richness to the tale, though the reporters’ personalities are sometimes communicated awkwardly in the text, particularly when it comes to recreated dialogue. When the duo get their Christmas Eve breakthrough, for example, we read:
“Woo-hoo!” Barbara yelped.
“Yaaay!” I said.
The genuine excitement of journalistic discovery doesn’t quite come through on the page.
But where Ruderman and Laker excel as storytellers is in their sense of detail: The sharp eye for the observable world that makes them excellent newspaper reporters also makes for strong book writing. Busted stands on their prose and paraphrase, not their dialogue. When interviewing a drug dealer in the company of her protective son, for example, they note the teenage boy’s appearance:
Ricky was shirtless, with low-slung black pants. He had a goatee, combed his short hair forward, close to his scalp, and had a space between his two front teeth. His arms, chest, and back were adorned in tattoos. Stretched across the top of his back were the words ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME above an unfinished cross.
In four sentences, this character has become fascinating. He only becomes more so when he starts questioning Laker about her home, her marriage, and, finally, invites her to take a cruise with him. “You need to get out more and live your life,” he tells Laker. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
And while the shift from serial to book strips the story of some urgency, it offers the reporters the perspective that comes from time and distance. The portrayal of Benny Martinez, the original informant, takes on an markedly different shade after the reporters come to see the ways he played them: He misled Laker and Ruderman about the extent of his drug use and his motives for sharing his story, and exploited the responsibility they felt for his wellbeing. “He was convincing,” they write. “He was good, real good.”
There is a letdown at the end of the Busted narrative, but one that was out of the reporters’ hands. At the crucial last act of the investigation—accountability—there is, unfortunately, little to report. The City of Philadelphia has paid $2 million to settle 33 lawsuits filed by bodega owners and two of the victimized women, but federal prosecutors recently announced—after the book went to press—that none of the police officers would face charges. None of the assaulted women were interviewed by the FBI. José Duran, one of the bodega owners raided by the police, had a video of five police officers cutting the surveillance camera wires at his shop. He has since lost his business and had to sell his home—a circumstance the reporters suggest is a particularly unfair when the cops he caught on video remain working with the police department. Duran now rents a smaller space and works in the meat department of Costco. It’s hard not to wonder, along with the reporters, whether events would have unfolded differently had the victims been from the suburbs.
While the police story is now closed, the future of the Daily News remains open-ended. Two years after a group of owners bought Philadelphia’s biggest papers, they are now battling each other for control while accusing one another of backhanded dealing. The question of whether or not to close the Daily News keeps coming up. One small sign of the dysfunction: Links to the “Tainted Justice” series on Philly.com, where Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer stories are published online, are broken. (A side benefit of winning that Pulitzer is that 10 of the stories are collected and still available to readers on the prize site.)Like many papers with shrunken newsrooms, the Daily News has to pick and choose the stories it chases. Some reporters crank out three or four stories a day, so journalists like Laker and Ruderman can keep chasing big investigations. For now, they’re still digging up dirt in Philly. How long will they have a chance to do that? The Daily News can’t afford to make promises.
This article was updated after the print version went to press to reflect news that prosecutors have declined to file charges against police.