On their authors' desktop, Bob
Kaiser and Leonard Downie, Jr.
discuss "news that makes a
difference"--two important times
when newspaper journalism made a
direct impact on society in recent
years. Read what they have to say
about the two pieces of journalism
and visit the newspapers' sites to
read the actual articles as they
appeared in their respective
newspapers the day they were printed.
You can also take a look at the excerpt
portion of the Kaiser/Downie author pages to read what they have to say
about the internet's impact on journalism -- with links to
take you directly to the sites they discuss, such as MSNBC.com and the
News That Makes a Difference
THE ARTICLES DISCUSSED BY THE AUTHORS:
Scientology's Puzzling Journey From Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt
New York Times
March 9, 1997
By Douglas Frantz
D.C. Police Lead Nation in Shootings Lack of Training, Supervision Implicated as Key
Sunday, November 15, 1998
By Jeff Leen, Jo Craven, David Jackson and Sari Horwitz
A Risky Story
READ THE ARTICLE (Thanks to
nytimes.com for access to their archives.):
Scientology's Puzzling Journey From Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt
New York Times
March 9, 1997
By Douglas Frantz
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by a writer named L. Ron
Hubbard. For years Scientology sought to persuade the Internal Revenue
Service that it was a religion and deserved the same tax deduction given
to traditional religious groups. Scientology took in hundreds of
millions of dollars, and for decades the IRS insisted that it was a
business, not a religion. In October 1993 the IRS reversed course and
gave Scientology the tax status of a church. Just a year before the IRS
reversal, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims had upheld an earlier IRS
decision to deny tax-exempt status to Scientology's Church of Spiritual
Technology, citing, among other things, "the commercial character of
much of Scientology."
The IRS's decision, announced in 1993, was a one-day story at the time.
Following its normal policy and laws protecting taxpayers' privacy, the
IRS did not explain why it had changed course on Scientology. It didn't
even reveal the terms of its final agreement with the newly blessed
church, though it could have done that. Scientology itself has always
been aggressive about protecting itself from public scrutiny, and it too
disclosed very little information.
Three years later, in 1996, Doug Frantz was looking for a story to
investigate. Frantz, then forty-six, was a newcomer to the New York
Times national staff, whose editor at the time was Dean Baquet, then
forty (in 2000 Baquet became managing editor of the Los Angeles
Times). The two men were old friends; they had worked together in
the 1980s at the Chicago Tribune. Frantz, an ordinary-looking man
with close-cropped hair, and Baquet, a compactly built African American
with a steady gaze and an easy manner, could be mistaken for a pair of
FBI agents or police detectives. But they were ambitious journalists,
eager to make a mark.
"Doug and I sat down and said, let's find something . . . that's big and
that's compelling and that's risky, with an emphasis on risky," Baquet
recounted four years later. "In an odd way I think newspapers have moved
away from taking risks. . . . So I told him to just go take some time
and scout around and come back with something."
Frantz did. A lunch with an old friend produced a tip. "He mentioned
that he had heard a story about a private investigator who worked for
Scientology going after some IRS officials," says Frantz. "And I thought
it sounded really interesting. He sort of dropped it in passing. And so
I came back and talked it over with Dean and said you know I'd like to
just . . . take a few weeks and see if there is anything here. . . . The
context right away was that these private investigators might have
played some role in the IRS reversal over the church's tax-exempt
Reading "the clips"--earlier stories about the Scientology tax
deduction, which these days are in electronic databases rather than the
old files of paper clippings--Frantz found a mystery. "We actually had
it on the front page of the New York Times back in October of
'93, when the IRS issued its decision. But nobody had explained it in
any way that I could find what really happened, I mean, why the IRS
would abandon a position it had held steadfastly for twenty-five years.
"The first thing I did after [reading] the clips is the first thing I
always do, just to see what documents are available. You often start out
with a story that will turn out to be unprovable or unwritable, and
nobody wants to go too far down that road. So I went down to the IRS
library, where they have a place set aside in the reading room
specifically for Scientology documents and there are about twelve linear
feet of these documents there, and I spent a week going through those
documents. . . . I also gathered some court opinions that had upheld the
agency's denial of this [tax-exempt] status [to Scientology]."
Frantz's friend who had given him the original tip also gave him the
name of a private investigator who had worked for Scientology, Michael
Shomers. "I had a devil of a time tracking him down," Frantz recalled.
"He was in Maryland when he worked for Scientology, but he had given up
his license as a PI and he had moved out of state somewhere. I found
somebody who had worked with him in Maryland, who thought he'd gone to
Florida, and then, by looking through publicly available phone records,
I found a couple of Michael Shomerses in Florida, and I tracked this guy
down in Jacksonville."
After a couple of conversations on the phone, Frantz flew to
Jacksonville to take Shomers to dinner. The private detective turned out
to be an excellent source, direct and forthcoming about what he had done
for the Scientologists. He said he had gathered personal information
about IRS agents who might be vulnerable to pressure in 1990 and 1991,
taken IRS documents from a conference the agency held in California and
investigated conditions at apartment houses owned by IRS officials to
see if they violated the local housing codes. He said he later developed
second thoughts about the Scientologists and how they might be using the
information he had acquired. Most helpful of all, he had kept documents
that Frantz could use to double-check what Shomers told him.
"Corroboration is essential when dealing with any source, but
particularly when you're dealing with a source who's making allegations
involving both the IRS and the Church of Scientology," said Frantz.
"Corroboration is better than gold."
He began meticulously to assemble a picture of Scientology's efforts to
put pressure on the IRS. He had Shomers's account of efforts to find
exploitable weaknesses in the lives of various IRS agents. With the help
of former church officials, who spoke on the record, and participants in
these efforts, Frantz established that Scientology had created and
funded an organization called the National Coalition of IRS
Whistle-blowers, which was active "for nearly a decade," beginning in
1984. Its greatest success was to provoke a 1989 congressional
investigation of IRS enforcement activities.
Altogether Frantz spent several months looking for and talking to
private investigators and others who had worked for Scientology on
IRS-related matters, and then checking out their stories independently.
He even found residents of apartments owned by IRS officials who
confirmed that a man had visited their homes looking for housing-code
Not every lead produced new facts. Frantz had difficulty tracking down
another private investigator who had worked with Shomers for
Scientology. When Frantz finally got him on the telephone, the
investigator said he would have to check with his client and call back.
He never did.
"By that time," Frantz recounted, "I'd figured out where he lived, so I
drove out to his house late one afternoon out in Rockville [a Maryland
suburb of Washington, D.C.], and it was a very nondescript tract house.
And I went up and knocked on the door and nobody was home. So I sat out
in my car for a couple of hours in front of the house waiting for him to
come home. And a next-door neighbor came out and was angry that I was
sitting on their street and wondered what in the hell I was doing there.
I apologized and said I was waiting for [the private investigator] to
come home and he said, 'Well, he's never here.' I don't know whether
that's true or not, but I figured it was a long shot that I would catch
him at home anyway. So I left."
A dramatic moment in Frantz's reporting came about four months into his
investigation, when he felt ready to talk to officials of the Church of
Scientology. This is an important step in most investigative reporting
projects, when the reporter confronts his subject with questions that
have arisen during the investigation. It gives the subject an
opportunity to respond to the reporter's findings. For good reporters,
this is important both to ensure accuracy and fairness and to
Baquet did not want Frantz to go alone to Scientology headquarters in
Los Angeles, because of Scientology's reputation as a highly litigious
organization, so he took along a colleague from the paper's Los Angeles
bureau. Throughout the reporting project, Frantz and his editors did all
they could to minimize the risk of lawsuit.
When they arrived, Frantz recounted, "We announced ourselves and were
taken to a very small upper-floor conference room, fifteen by twenty
[feet] at the most, with a big table surrounded by nine people. That
made me realize right away--if I was ever na•ve enough to think it was
going to be just another interview--that it wasn't. . . . It remains the
most difficult interview I've ever had."
The meeting began with a forty-five-minute attack on him, Frantz
recalled, with the Scientologists and their lawyers working from a stack
of his past stories. Frantz said the Scientologists had concluded he was
hostile to them "before I had written a word." One Scientology lawyer,
Gerard E. Feffer, a partner in the big Washington law firm of Williams
and Connolly, told Frantz the questions he was asking demonstrated that
he was practicing yellow journalism. Scientology officials and lawyers
emphasized that the IRS decision to change course and declare
Scientology a tax-exempt religion represented nothing more than the end
of an unfair IRS campaign of harassment against Scientology. "To say our
relations started off on the wrong foot is an understatement," Frantz
Eventually Frantz established that Scientology had indeed made extensive
use of private investigators to scrutinize the IRS and its officials. In
his story he quoted Feffer: "The IRS uses investigators, too." Feffer
said the IRS had used its Criminal Investigation Division "to put this
church under intense scrutiny for years with a mission to destroy the
church." Scientology was responding in kind.
Scientology had also used the courts to pressure the IRS. At one time,
Frantz found, it had more than fifty suits pending against the IRS and
individual IRS employees.
Frantz was also reporting on a second track to find out what had
happened in the direct dealings between Scientology and the IRS that led
to the sudden reversal of IRS policy in 1993. He found considerable
information about this in published statements of Scientology officials,
particularly the group's leader, David Miscavige. But he got very little
help from the IRS.
According to Miscavige's account in a Scientology publication, he and
another church official were walking past IRS headquarters in Washington
in October 1991 when they decided to drop in on Fred Goldberg, the IRS
commissioner. They told a guard at the door they did not have an
appointment but they were certain Goldberg would want to see them.
According to Miscavige, the commissioner did indeed meet with them. Soon
Goldberg had appointed a special committee of IRS officials to negotiate
a final settlement with Scientology.
Miscavige and Scientology also provided some details of the two-year
negotiation that ensued, ending with the IRS announcement in October
1993 that it would grant Scientology tax-exempt status. Miscavige
announced the final agreement five days before the IRS did in a speech
to thousands of Scientologists in Los Angeles. He called it a victory in
"the war to end all wars" between Scientology and the IRS. A subsequent
article in a Scientology magazine elaborated: "Our attack was impinging
on their [the IRS's] resources in a major way and our exposés of
their crimes were beginning to have serious political reverberations. It
was becoming a costly war of attrition, with no clear-cut winner in
The IRS was less contentious in its dealings with Frantz, but it offered
him few facts for his story. Invoking laws and rules requiring it to
protect the privacy of taxpayers, the IRS provided no explanation for
its policy reversal on Scientology, and no details of its final
agreement. Frantz noted that the IRS, in other disputes with religious
organizations, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell's Old Time Gospel
Hour, had required public disclosure of a negotiated settlement of tax
disputes. There was no similar requirement for the Church of
Using the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires
government agencies to make much information about their activities
public, Frantz petitioned the IRS for Director Goldberg's office
calendar. He got it, but found no reference to the meeting Miscavige had
described between himself and Goldberg that led to the final settlement
with Scientology. Goldberg, by then a partner in the Washington office
of the giant law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, refused to talk
Frantz did find a lawsuit filed by William Lehrfeld, a Washington tax
lawyer, on behalf of a nonprofit group called Tax Analysts that
publishes material for tax lawyers and accountants. The suit sought the
texts of the IRS's agreements with Scientology and other organizations
that had been granted tax-exempt status. The Tax Analysts lawyers were
able to take depositions from IRS officials, a helpful source of
information for Frantz, as court depositions often are for investigative
As Frantz neared the end of his reporting, the IRS finally made
available two officials for interviews, but Frantz had to accept "ground
rules" that prevented him from identifying the officials by name. These
"background" conversations helped Frantz confirm that Goldberg had
created an unusual special committee--bypassing his agency's
tax-exempt-organizations branch--to negotiate with Scientology. A
retired IRS official named Paul Streckfus, who had worked in the
exempt-organizations division, told Frantz that Goldberg's creation of
this committee signaled the IRS's willingness to change its policy
Ultimately Frantz's meetings with the IRS were more frustrating than
illuminating. Frantz recalled the most substantive background meeting he
had with an IRS official who was involved in the Scientology
negotiations. "He was a nice guy, [but] there were just more questions
he couldn't answer than he could answer," Frantz said, "and I left that
meeting still convinced that I didn't understand the logic behind the
Frantz decided it was time to talk through the story with an editor.
This is another requirement of good investigative reporting that can be
satisfied only in news organizations with the staff, time, experience
and culture that can support accountability journalism.
"[When] the first images of the picture begin to form, then I'm lucky to
have somebody like Dean [Baquet] to sit down with," Frantz said. "By
'somebody like Dean' I mean not only that he's my friend, and therefore
I trust him, but because he's somebody who's done this before, he was an
investigative reporter. Even the smartest editor I think has difficulty
understanding how the investigative process works unless they've done it
before. The danger of working [by] yourself on a long, complex project
is that you get lost and you miss the forest for the trees."
Baquet usually asked his reporters to begin the writing process by
composing a long memo, a narrative describing what the reporting had
uncovered. Frantz liked this approach: "It is a very good process, it
clarifies the story in my mind as well as providing him with a progress
report. It also buys me some more freedom and some more time if I need
A narrative memo also fit Frantz's habit of keeping a detailed
chronology as he reports a story. This is a tool used by many
investigative reporters as a way to see how the bits and pieces fit
The biggest question in this case, Baquet said, was "How much
[reporting] is enough?" Baquet used a test of his own, developed when he
was an investigative reporter, to decide whether a reporter had finished
doing the research. "When you start to hear the same stories over and
over again, when there are no new incidents of what I would call
harassment, when there were no new documents that we were going to get,
when Doug felt comfortable and I felt comfortable that we had gone up
and down the chain of former Scientology people . . .
"As an investigative reporter," Baquet continued, drawing on his own
experience, "you make yourself a list . . . of like twenty things that
you've got to do for a story--eight people inside, former
Scientologists, defectors, the last four or five IRS commissioners who
are now retired, my freedom-of-information requests for these ten
documents--once all that stuff is exhausted, which was the case . . .
there wasn't anything outstanding, then to me that's nut-cutting time."
The memo Frantz wrote in narrative form was at least 8,000 words
long--enough to fill two full pages of the Times without any pictures or
headlines. Baquet read it. So did Joseph Lelyveld, then executive editor
of the Times, and Gene Roberts, then the managing editor. Baquet
collected their thoughts on the memo and conveyed them, with his own, to
Frantz. They talked about how to make the memo into a story, and Frantz
began to write it into his computer.
"I do what I always do. I sit down and I write it all. I have to write
the lead first"--a reference to the first paragraph of the story, which
can occupy a reporter's mind for a long time. Frantz thought he had "the
lead from heaven" in the anecdote of Miscavige, the leader of
Scientology, telling thousands of cheering Scientologists that "the war
is over" with the IRS. "Then," said Frantz, "you go back and review how
they won the
Frantz's story began:
On October 8, 1993, 10,000 cheering Scientologists thronged the Los
Angeles Sports Arena to celebrate the most important milestone in the
church's recent history: victory in its all-out war against the Internal
For twenty-five years, IRS agents had branded Scientology a commercial
enterprise and refused to give it the tax exemption granted to churches.
The refusals had been upheld in every court. But that night the crowd
learned of an astonishing turnaround. The IRS had granted tax exemptions
to every Scientology entity in the United States.
"The war is over," David Miscavige, the church's leader, declared to
Frantz then told us how he wrote the story, describing a classic
investigative reporter's view of his work. "Before I showed it to
anybody else, I would go back through and take an adjective out of every
paragraph. Then I'd go back through again and take another adjective out
of every paragraph, until I get out most of the adjectives, because I
don't like them. Sometimes my stories may read a little flat, but I'd
rather be flat than not, I guess, in these stories."
Good investigative reporters often pride themselves on finding the
cleanest possible language to tell their stories--no flourishes, just
the story, clean and crisp, with the facts speaking for themselves, and
without hint of opinion or argument.
"Then," said Frantz, "the last thing that I'd do is make a printout and
sit down and check the facts of every single paragraph against the
documents and the interview notes that I had and the notes that I'd
taken, because I don't want to have to turn a story in to my editor and
have him say, 'Boy, this is great stuff, where'd you get this
paragraph?' and have to say to him, 'Oh, shit, I got that wrong, it
wasn't quite like that.' Because that sets up doubt in the editor's
mind, and you don't want the editor to doubt your story, and I don't
want to get something that's not exactly right in any form going to
anybody outside of myself. And invariably . . . on a story that long . .
. you're going to have some nuances that are wrong, and maybe some quote
that's wrong. . . .
"And then I would probably turn it in to Dean. And later in the process,
after we figured out which quotes were going to go in, I would call back
almost everybody, or everybody who's quoted, and run the quotes past
them, to make sure that they're accurate. That doesn't mean I'm going to
change every quote, because if somebody says, Well, I didn't mean to say
that, or That's not really what I said, or I couldn't have said that,
I'll go back to my notes and see, and we may have an argument."
Baquet read Frantz's draft story carefully, inserting questions into the
text, suggesting language changes and looking for ways to shorten it.
After that, the story got more polishing from other editors and careful
scrutiny from the Times's top editors, and from the paper's
lawyers. Frantz was impressed and delighted by the attention that
Lelyveld paid to his story. He said Lelyveld had good suggestions for
strengthening it and insisted the story contain two references, one near
the beginning and one near the end, to the fact that granting the tax
exemption overturned twenty-five years of precedent for the IRS. Frantz
said he complained that this was repetitive, "and Joe said--I'll never
forget--he said, 'Repetition for the sake of emphasis is acceptable.'
Because really, that was an important element of the story, no doubt
And it was a reminder that Frantz, despite months of hard work, had
failed to find out why Goldberg decided to reverse that twenty-five-year
IRS position on Scientology, or what the terms of the final agreement
were. So Frantz's story, published on March 9, 1997, beginning on the
Times's front page and continuing on two inside pages, gave
readers a detailed narrative from which they could draw their own
After a summary of his principal findings, Frantz quoted Goldberg's
predecessor as director of Internal Revenue, Lawrence B. Gibbs, who
called the IRS reversal on Scientology "a very surprising decision. When
you have as much litigation over as much time, with the general
uniformity of results that the Service had with Scientology, it is
surprising to have the ultimate decision be favorable [to Scientology].
It was even more surprising that the Service made the decision without
full disclosure, in light of the prior background." Obviously, this is
an unusual way for a former government official to talk about a decision
made by his successor.
Nine months after the Times published Frantz's story, more
details of the agreement between the IRS and Scientology did appear--in
the Wall Street Journal. The Journal posted the text of the
seventy-six-page agreement on its Internet site. Frantz said he also
obtained a copy from his own sources, after its disclosure by the
Journal, and wrote another story about the agreement that appeared in
the Times on the last day of 1997. Frantz wouldn't say where he
got the document or why he thought it finally came out. He speculated
that the Journal might have gotten it on Capitol Hill, where a
congressional committee had recently subpoenaed a great many IRS
The IRS-Scientology agreement required Scientology to pay the agency
$12.5 million and make an annual report for the next three years showing
that Scientology remained in compliance with the tax laws. The IRS
appeared to be concerned that Scientology's revenues go to religious or
charitable purposes, not to church officials.
For Scientology $12.5 million was a lot less than the IRS had been
claiming it owed in back taxes. Miscavige once said the total could have
reached $1 billion. In addition, by granting Scientology tax-exempt
status, the U.S. government gave it the legal standing it had been
seeking for years--as a church.
In the end the Times's investigative reporting had proved
compelling and enlightening, but it had no dramatic impact on
Scientology or the IRS. Frantz's largely solo effort was relatively
inexpensive for investigative reporting, costing the Times less
than $150,000 in reporting hours and expenses. Was the Scientology story
worth the expense and effort that went into it? Why work so hard on a
project that leads to an ambiguous result?
Baquet responded that the story did prove that Scientology "had launched
an aggressive campaign against the IRS." And, he said, the IRS secrecy
had to be challenged. "I think that when decisions like this get made by
a big government agency and they're done in a very secretive fashion,
they involve hundreds of millions of dollars, affect lots of people--it
affected the IRS bureaucrats who were working on it, it affected the
church and its future and its standing around the world. I think when
something like that happens and nobody wants to talk about the details,
you're almost obligated to try to figure out the details." Because the
Times pursued this story, Baquet said, "I have a feeling that the
next time the IRS does one like this, they're going to be aware of this
in the back of their minds, that there might be a big look at it, and
they ought not do it in secret."
How does the Times pick a target like this for a major
investigation? Lelyveld said it isn't as though the Times has
some kind of "hit list."
"It's typically more a balancing of targets of opportunity," Lelyveld
said. "I mean, it wasn't that anybody thought that . . . it was time to
do the Scientologists, nobody had done it for a decade or something. It
was that here was something that had never been explained and had
happened rather suddenly and had never been much remarked upon, and it
cost the federal treasury a considerable amount of money. So it was easy
to say, Yes, it was big enough and important enough to do it. But you
always have to balance it against the stuff you know that's going to
need to be done."
Asked if he thought ordinary newspaper readers understood how
investigative reporters worked, Frantz said, "I think people don't
understand the difficulty in getting information. They really think that
the press conferences they see on TV are the way everybody gets every
story. But nobody's ever held a press conference for investigative
reporters. People really don't know--and there's no reason they should.
. . . People don't understand the lengths to which we go to get stories.
And I'm not just talking about readers. I think there are editors at
this newspaper and other newspapers who don't understand how very hard
it is to really get at reporting that answers questions and doesn't just
"My definition of an investigative reporter," Frantz continued, "is not
somebody who charms sources into leaking. To me an investigative
reporter is the person who gets someone to say something that they don't
want to say. To get somebody to tell you something that they don't want
to tell you . . . takes a lot of spadework, a lot of hard work, and too
many people in this business and out of this business don't understand
Good as Frantz's story was, it had no visible consequences. No
congressional committee called hearings to explore what had happened
inside the IRS, or why Goldberg made the decision he made. No politician
or official suggested the issue of Scientology's tax status be reopened.
Journalism can take an issue like this only so far. The New York
Times had no way to compel Goldberg or the other IRS officials
involved in the case to explain why they did what they did.
That does not undermine the value of Frantz's work. The journalist's job
is to find out and explain what took place, not to make things happen.
It is up to those who hold power to follow up with appropriate action.
READ THE ARTICLE (Thanks to
washingtonpost.com for access to their archives.):
D.C. Police Lead Nation in Shootings
Lack of Training, Supervision Implicated as Key Factors
Sunday, November 15, 1998
By Jeff Leen, Jo Craven, David Jackson and Sari Horwitz
The Washington Post's investigation of shootings of civilians by
Washington police officers was another example of accountability
journalism, but it went beyond the usual forms of investigative
reporting. The Post's research uncovered a situation unknown even to the
commanders of the Metropolitan Police Department. The newspaper's
articles described a horrifying reality that would never have been
understood without the Post's investigation. Once that reality
was obvious, the police department itself moved quickly to rectify it.
The Post project involved three reporters, three researchers, two
graphic artists and three editors. The basic enterprise was similar to
Frantz's: find facts not previously known; use those facts to pry more
information out of people involved in the events being investigated,
including people who had no desire to reveal that information; bring a
huge body of facts and anecdotes under literary control to produce
readable articles. The final product, a series of stories covering
seventeen newspaper pages over five days in late 1998, could have filled
a small book.
The story began with a powerful new reporting tool--the computer--which
has opened new vistas for investigative reporting. Many newspapers have
hired or developed computer specialists to exploit the fact that much
information, especially information collected by governments, is now
available on computer tapes or the Internet, and can be analyzed by
computer to reveal significant patterns.
The Post hired one such specialist, Jo Craven, on a temporary
contract in late 1997. Craven had worked at the University of Missouri's
journalism school, training students in the techniques of
computer-assisted reporting. She told Post editors that she had a
hunch the FBI was collecting information on "justifiable homicides" by
police officers. She came to this conclusion after examining the annual
crime statistics the FBI put out on computer tape. Using database
technology to look at the figures in different ways, Craven thought she
had discovered that the FBI had a category--number 81--for justifiable
homicides by police officers, but no statistics from this category were
included in the numbers the bureau released to the public.
Craven began to pursue her hunch with the FBI, which was not eager to
provide the data she wanted. It took several months of negotiations and
the filing of several formal requests under the federal Freedom of
Information Act to produce computer tapes that included those category
81s. They were worth waiting for.
Craven's first analysis showed that the Washington police "had the
highest rate of justifiable homicides per capita of any [big-city]
police department in the country" between 1991 and 1995--three times the
rate of Los Angeles, four times that of New York City. She provided
these numbers in an initial memorandum proposing that the Post pursue
this story. The editors then in charge of the Post's
twenty-year-old investigative reporting team, Rick Atkinson and Marilyn
Thompson, were impressed by her first memo and decided to assign their
new star reporter, Jeff Leen, to work with Craven.
Leen, then forty-one, had come to the Post two months earlier
from the Miami Herald, where he had been an investigative reporter for
ten years, often writing about the drug culture centered in Miami. He
had discovered the existence of the Medellín and Cali drug cartels
in Colombia and exposed how drug dealers laundered their ill-gotten
millions into legitimate-looking capital. He was a Pulitzer Prize
winner, and had become an expert in many aspects of law enforcement.
Leen was stunned by Craven's memo; the number of fatal shootings by
police in Washington suggested a very serious problem on the force. "The
first thing I did was to read the Post clips on police shooting
incidents religiously, from 1986 to the present," Leen recalled. The
clips--which included accounts of specific shootings and earlier
Post investigations of the poor screening and training of
Washington police officers, particularly those brought onto the force in
1989 and 1990--convinced Leen that an investigative reporting project
He was especially struck by the story of Sutoria Moore, an unarmed
teenager shot to death in a car in 1994 by a police detective. Then he
saw stories on two other fatal shootings by police of people in cars. "I
recalled what I had heard from Miami cops: they raised their eyebrows at
the mention of an officer who shot at a car to defend himself," Leen
recounted. "They told me that shooting at cars could always be justified
by claiming the car had 'attacked' the officer. It was, they told me, a
variation on the throw-down gun, the infamous practice of officers
carrying extra weapons in order to throw them down next to a suspect to
justify any shooting."
The best reporters have memories like Leen's. The reporting for one
story informs them for the next. Over a long career they accumulate both
wisdom and instincts that prove invaluable at moments like that one.
Leen, an intense journalist with a soft-spoken but determined manner,
described another crucial episode in his first two weeks on the story in
a memo he wrote after the articles were published:
I called up the lawyers who had sued police over the Roosevelt Askew
shooting [the victim was Sutoria Moore]. They were brusque and
non-responsive when I called. The case was pending, they were busy and
they didn't want to talk to me. I called back several times, trying each
of the two lawyers, and finally the younger one in the firm gave me what
I needed . . . the name of the expert they turned to when they needed to
know about police procedures. I called him. For a week he didn't call me
back. Finally the expert called and I convinced him to meet with me for
lunch. [This was Bob Klotz, a former deputy chief of the D.C. police
In my first conversation he said several things that were crucial to the
project. First he said that he felt the subject was important and should
be written about. He said he felt there was a problem with police
shootings in the District [of Columbia]. If he had said there wasn't,
I'm not sure what I would have done at that point.
He also told me that police officers were more apt to shoot because over
the years the cases had gone from officers shooting when they saw a
weapon in the suspect's hand to officers shooting at shiny objects to
officers shooting at furtive movements. He also said he felt training
and the introduction of the Glock handgun [a high-powered,
hair-triggered weapon adopted by the Washington police in 1988] played
into the pattern. Then he talked about car shootings. He said he noticed
a problem and pattern there, too.
Finally, he talked off-the-record about the police shooting cases he had
testified on in the District. Several of them were very bad shootings,
he told me. After that conversation, for me, the outlines of the project
clicked into place: an overall pattern of a high number of shootings,
sub-patterns of car shootings, questionable shootings, poor training and
A well-informed source with a coherent overview of your story is a
reporter's dream. Former deputy chief Klotz, part of whose livelihood
came from appearances as a paid witness in cases involving his old
department, gave Leen expert confirmation of the pattern Leen thought he
Leen used an FOIA request to obtain a list of cases from the city's
legal office in which the government was defending police officers in
citizens' lawsuits involving a shooting. To his amazement, this list,
which covered a five-year period, had thirty-one entries. Craven, who
began pulling the courthouse files on those thirty-one cases, found that
several involved policemen shooting at moving cars. Leen began calling
lawyers involved in the thirty-one lawsuits. Many would not return his
call. One who did, however, gave Leen and Craven "the crown jewels"--a
police department document listing every occasion when a police officer
had shot his or her gun between 1994 and 1997--a total of 464 shooting
incidents involving 576 police officers who fired 2,271 bullets.
Then, in one of the court files for a police shooting case, Leen and
Craven found another unexpected document, "a computer printout of the
lawsuits in excessive-force cases over a four-year period. It was just
sitting in a court file," Leen said. "The attorney [in the case] . . .
didn't even know about it, and we were never able to figure out why it
was filed there." There were more than 600 lawsuits on the printout. The
city had already settled nearly half of them. Another gold mine of
information found by chance, but only because the reporters were so
Atkinson and Thompson began to hold weekly meetings with the reporters
and researchers, making suggestions for future reporting. At Leen's
urging, first one and then two additional reporters were added to the
team. The first was David Jackson, another newcomer to the Post,
whom Atkinson had hired from the Chicago Tribune, a slight,
wisecracking forty-year-old who was what journalists call a gifted
street reporter, able to chat up just about anyone. The second was Sari
Horwitz, then forty-one, a Post reporter since 1984, who had covered the
police department from 1986 to 1991. Although many of her best sources
had retired from the department, Horwitz, with her earnest charm, still
had good connections and a reputation among cops as a reporter who
By summer the scope of the project had become daunting. The team had a
web of promising leads not only on incidents of shootings by the police
but also on scores of cases in which citizens had accused police of
using excessive force--brutality. Data from the FBI and other sources,
fed into computers and analyzed comparatively, proved informative yet
inadequate. It had too many holes that needed to be filled to present a
complete, accurate picture. "The problem with the computer was you
couldn't trust it for anything but a lead," Leen said later. "It gave
you the surface, but no depth."
Leen filed an FOIA request with the city's legal authorities for a list
of all lawsuits charging excessive use of force by police officers that
the city had settled out of court. Using this list, five reporters and
researchers camped out in the civil division of Washington's Superior
Court to sift through case "jackets" that held the records of those
civil suits. They found every case on the list from the FOIA request and
filled out a form, devised by Post researcher Margot Williams,
for collecting information from each one. Later, she used these forms to
enter the details of each case into the computer.
Finding and reading these cases "went on for days," Horwitz recalled.
"It was important because it gave me a real feel for what was out there.
Some frivolous suits from prisoners and the like, lots of petty
incidents escalating into arrests . . . and classic 'contempt of cop'
scenarios." She was referring to the reporting team's discovery that
violent cops sometimes lashed out against civilians for no better reason
than the citizen's failure to show them the respect they thought was
Ultimately the reporting team created its own databases of police
shooting and brutality cases, using the information acquired from the
FBI and the city. Because one goal was to compare the Washington police
with the forces in other cities, they decided to talk directly to other
departments about their numbers, "a task requiring infinite persistence
and patience," in Atkinson's words. Figures provided by government
agencies could never be accepted without further checking. In nearly
every case, the team's own reporting changed or added to the official
statistics. Once Craven and her colleague Ira Chinoy, then the Post's
director of computer-assisted reporting, had the raw material they
thought they needed, they spent hundreds of hours putting the statistics
in order and then analyzing them.
The reporters and editors realized they could be vulnerable to
accusations that they did not appreciate the conditions under which
Washington's police had to work. The city had become one of America's
most violent in the mid-1980s, when crack cocaine first appeared on
Washington's streets. Nine policemen had been killed in the line of duty
between 1993 and 1998. So the reporters rode in squad cars with
Washington police officers, often on the overnight shift. They even went
to the police shooting range to test-fire the standard-issue Glock
Horwitz had the assignment of finding a policeman who had been involved
in a shooting who would share with Post readers the experience of firing
his police revolver. Three times she asked for an interview with officer
Keith DeVille, who had killed a man who had killed his partner in a
shoot-out; three times department officials said he wasn't interested.
Finally, Horwitz got to DeVille directly and explained what the paper
was trying to do. He agreed to talk. His moving account gave the final
articles a valuable police viewpoint.
Each aspect of the story had to be reported with care. "There was a lot
of refinement of everything," Leen recalled, describing "a very slow
process of circling the subject." He himself constructed, by hand, the
final list of shootings by police, drawing on all the data the team had
assembled by reporting and computer analysis. In the end, Leen concluded
there had been forty-two fatal shootings of citizens over four years,
though the police department's own database recorded only twenty-eight.
Leen established that seven cases never got into the police database,
and seven more, which were mislabeled, did not show up as fatal
By examining the criminal records of those involved in these incidents
and interviewing police officers and lawyers, the team established that
in nine of those forty-two cases, an unarmed person had been shot dead
by police gunfire. Lawyers representing citizens suing the city as a
result of some of these incidents proved to be particularly useful
sources. They extracted hard facts from the police department during
pretrial discovery proceedings, when a plaintiff's lawyer can subpoena
official data under court order.
The statistics proved conclusively that Washington's police force was
dangerously trigger-happy. But the impact of the Post's articles
came less from these disturbing numbers than from old-fashioned
reporting and interviews. The voices of shooting victims and their
relatives, eyewitnesses, police officers who shot or saw their
colleagues shoot, and lawyers and prosecutors brought the story to life,
making its themes palpable and real. So did vivid graphics, which
depicted several shooting incidents so clearly that a reader could
imagine the entire scene.
Atkinson kept driving the project with weekly meetings. His colleagues
referred to him as their commanding officer or field marshal, in part
because of his brisk and efficient military bearing. His father was a
career Army officer, and Atkinson had written a best-selling book on the
West Point Class of 1966. A key meeting in August, where a final outline
of the project was mapped out, required four hours.
Atkinson was proud of the ingenuity of his reporters, and boasted about
them in a memorandum written after the project was published:
For example, when Sari [Horwitz] tried to find former Chief Larry
Soulsby, who had disappeared after resigning from the department [under
a cloud] in November, 1997, she and [researcher] Margot [Williams]
learned through an online public records databank that his ex-wife lived
in Spotsylvania County, Va. Suspecting that Soulsby had gone back to her
and knowing his passion for golf, Sari drove to a nearby public course
and chatted up a few duffers who confirmed that the former chief was a
regular. She then waited for him outside the ex-wife's house--wary
neighbors, spotting Sari's D.C. tags, called the state police--until
Soulsby eventually drove up. The chief agreed to talk for the first time
since leaving office, confirming for us that police shootings were "not
a hot topic among police officers during his tenure."
That interview confirmed the reporters' suspicion that one reason the
shootings had become so common was that senior officers had ignored
By late August the team had mapped out a plan for a series of articles,
which Atkinson sent to his bosses--Downie, the executive editor, and
Steve Coll, who had succeeded Kaiser as the Post's managing editor two
months earlier. Ultimately the project was organized around five days of
stories. The writing tasks were divided up among the reporters, who
began to work on drafts.
The process of turning research into newspaper stories is the chemistry
of journalism. As in chemistry, there are formulas that journalists can
follow to create a story. The classic formula is a story in the
"pyramid" style, beginning with a first paragraph (the "lead") that
tells the reader the five w's: who, what, when, where, why. The idea of
the pyramid is to put the most important facts as near to the beginning
of the story as possible, so that hurried readers can stop anywhere
after the first paragraph and still carry away important information
from the story. In chemistry the scientist sticks with the formulas or
gets into trouble. In journalism we consider the old formulas a starting
point for thinking about the material in any specific case. The most
striking works of journalism often depart, in some creative and readable
way, from traditional patterns.
Jeff Leen drafted the first part of the series on police shootings. It
was his job to summarize what the team had learned and to lay it out as
clearly and enticingly as possible. If the first story failed to
interest a lot of readers, the Post would be squandering a huge
amount of newsprint and ink over five days.
The hardest paragraph to write, Leen said later, was the second one in
the first-day story. "It came very close to being an editorial
judgment," something appropriate for the editorial page, not the front
page, Leen said. But in the end, he and his editors felt they could make
a strong summary statement of their findings that was totally supported
by facts and required no leap of faith. "We had marshaled so much
evidence, it freed us to write a very strong day one," Leen said.
That story, spread across the top of page one on November 15, 1998,
The District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department shot and
killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large
American city police force.
Many shootings by Washington police officers were acts of courage and
even heroism. But internal police files and court records reveal a
pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the
streets with inadequate training and little oversight, an eight-month
Washington Post investigation has found.
Washington's officers fire their weapons at more than double the rate of
police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami. Deaths and injuries
in D.C. police shooting cases have resulted in nearly $8 million in
court settlements and judgments against the District in the last six
"We shoot too often, and we shoot too much when we do shoot," said
Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance W. Gainer, who became the
department's second in command in May. . . .
That was the essence of the investigation. The five days of stories
spelled out what had happened in numerous specific episodes. They
recounted the experiences of both police officers and citizens they had
shot. They explained shortcomings in police training for handling
difficult situations and for the use of their guns. The stories
demonstrated that the police department did not properly investigate
shootings by police officers. They showed how the Glock pistol, recently
purchased by Washington police to respond to the heavy weaponry drug
gangs had brought to the city's streets, had aggravated the problem with
its light trigger.
The impact of this investigative reporting was immediate and
substantial. When confronted with its findings, Washington police chief
Charles H. Ramsey, recently hired from Chicago to try to rescue
Washington's troubled police department, and his top deputy, Gainer,
immediately promised improvement. Neither man had understood the full
scope of the problem of shootings by police until the Post laid it
before them. They seized on the series of articles and its impact in the
city as an opportunity for promoting reform.
Gainer, a former deputy director of the Illinois State Police, wrote
Sari Horwitz an e-mail message on the second day of the articles'
publication: "Your series has been outstanding. The articles have been
balanced, well researched and useful. . . . Continue to hold us
accountable, we will do better for our officers, and, as a direct
result, for the people we serve. . . . I have never seen such in-depth,
honest reporting. . . ."
Police officials quickly instituted extensive new training for the
entire 3,500-officer force, and new procedures for investigating
shootings by police. Every officer was required to spend more time at
the shooting range to master the Glock pistol. All were taught a
"continuum of force" to encourage the use of actions short of firing
their guns to subdue unruly suspects.
In 1998 Washington police shot thirty-two citizens, twelve fatally. In
1999, with new training and procedures in effect, there were eleven
shootings, four of them fatal. In 2000, after most officers had been
retrained, just one citizen was killed by a policeman. The city had
deployed a twelve-officer team to respond to the scene of every police
shooting incident and conduct a full investigation. Ramsey said the
Post's series deserved the credit for pushing the department to change
. . .
Projects like this one and Frantz's on Scientology are rarer than they
should be. Yet when a news organization can do this kind of work, it
makes a powerful impression. The best accountability reporting
reverberates through the culture, reminding malefactors everywhere that
they may get caught and exposed. This is what freedom of the press
It is no coincidence that these two projects were conducted by two of
the country's best newspapers. With few exceptions--Frontline on PBS
television is perhaps the most prominent, the best work on CBS's
60 Minutes is another--television doesn't do this kind of work. Some
television journalists (usually off-camera producers, not the "talent"
that appears on the air) do investigative reporting, but usually on a
much more modest scale. The most intensive investigative journalism is
generally produced by the most ambitious, best-staffed and best-edited
news organizations. Those belong to newspapers.