The Arizona Project
In 1976, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, one of IRE's founding members, was called to a meeting in a downtown Phoenix hotel by a source promising him information about land fraud involving organized crime. The source didn't show up. Bolles left the hotel, got into his car parked outside and turned the key. A powerful bomb ripped through the car, leaving Bolles mortally injured.
Over the next 10 days, doctors amputated both Bolles' legs and an arm, but could not save him.
His shocked IRE colleagues reacted in an unprecedented and as yet uncopied way: They descended on Arizona for a massive investigation. They set out not to find Bolles' killer, but to find the sources of corruption so deep that a reporter could be killed in broad daylight in the middle of town. They were out to show organized crime leaders that killing a journalist would not stop reportage about them; it would increase it 100-fold.
The project was exceedingly controversial and remains so. The New York Times and The Washington Post, giants in the business, chose not to participate. Some journalists, including IRE members, disliked the idea of reporters on a crusade.
Bob Greene, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at Newsday, led a team of volunteers from 10 newspapers and broadcast stations for five months of cooperative digging. The resulting 23-part series was recognized with a special award by Sigma Delta Chi and a host of other prizes.
A place in journalism history
July 23, 1976
Dear IRE Member:
As you are all aware, one of our members, Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic, was killed in a bombing in June...
Chilling words in 1976 and chilling today. That a reporter could be blown up in downtown Phoenix was an outrage. The fact that Bolles was an investigative reporter who had exposed land fraud and organized crime made his murder a cowardly act. It had to be answered by a team of reporters.
In his pitch to the IRE board, Newsday's Bob Greene said, at the very least, the project would expose corruption "in a community in which an investigative reporter has been murdered. The community and other like communities would reflect on what has happened and hopefully would think twice about killing reporters."
"For all of us - particularly newspapers with high investigative profiles - this is eminently self-serving. As individuals we are buying life insurance on our own reporters. If we accomplish only this, we have succeeded."
They heeded the call. Thirty-eight journalists from 28 newspapers and television stations across the country descended on Arizona. Some came sponsored by their news organizations. Others used their vacation time. Some stayed for a month or longer. Others for just a week. Working under Greene, they set out not to find Bolles' killer but to finish his work of exposing Arizona's tangled underworld. There were many characters, to be sure, but none as colorful as the late Tom Renner, Newsday's mob expert who spent most of his time undercover working "deep and dirty."
The result of their efforts was unique in the history of American Journalism and critical to the survival of IRE.
The team-produced series made its debut on March 13, 1977, amid continuing controversy. Among those publishing the series: Newsday, The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, The Boston Globe, The Indianapolis Star, and The Denver Post. The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson was the sole newspaper in Arizona to publish the series. Many others carried reports from the Associated Press that began on March 18, five days after the first stories started.
It soon was clear to everyone that the team had done exactly what Bolles' killers had tried to keep him from doing.
For IRE, the murder of Bolles — a 47-year-old husband and father — and the resulting Arizona Project brought national attention and stature. The organization was born in 1975 when a small group of reporters meeting in Reston, Va., decided they needed a way to share ideas and techniques. They made plans to host their first conference the following year in Indianapolis.
What should have been a joyous gathering was marred by the shock that one of their members had been killed. The board authorized Greene to go to Arizona to see what could be done. The rest is now history.
A project that had a 50 percent chance of success was published. A tiny organization with little money flourished to become what it is today. Thanks to those who have gone before, IRE now has an organization that is strong enough to take on today's threats to investigative reporting.
Click Here to view the chronology of the major events in the car-bomb murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.