DETROIT, MI — They’re a reporter duo who have 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” easy to report. The reporters mined records and knocked on literally hundreds of doors to confirm Martinez’s 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.
“Tainted Justice” won the big prize; it also launched a still-open—though seemingly stalled—FBI investigation into Philadelphia’s police department. And this month, Ruderman and Luker published their investigation as a book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love. In a nod to the story’s roots, the first page of each short chapter is designed like a column in a newspaper.
“We decided to write the book because we wanted to have ownership of the story,” said Ruderman said. (CJR interviewed both reporters via email.)
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 tells a story of police corruption, but also the story of modern-day reporting: their scrappy home paper, both in 2009 and today, struggles to survive, let alone invest in high-stakes journalism. The precariousness of the institution that employs them adds an alarming dimension to the story.
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.
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 badgered for legal support on their series. They were having difficulty accessing search warrants, which the city claimed were not part of the public record.
“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 said. “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 for the book stretches well beyond the paper’s Philadelphia readership. And the new medium presents new stylistic choices. Busted is told in Ruderman’s voice—which is a little jarring for a co-written book (Laker is a third-person character), but does avoid the flattening effect of a “we” voice stretching for hundreds of pages.
The reporters suggest that the introspective, first-person approach was important to creating a balance between the storytellers and the story. “Since we have many characters in the book—drug dealers, bodega owners, drug informants, women who say they were sexually assaulted, police officers, attorneys, and editors—it was only fair we share our personalities, flaws and all,” Laker said.