Breaking the story that ultimately led to the resignation and jailing of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick required basic watchdog reporting, according to Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Schaefer of the Detroit Free Press.
“This was not some miracle story. It was basic watchdog reporting,” Schaefer told nearly 70 attendees during a Better Watchdog Workshop at Wayne State University in Detroit. Filing public records requests for documents involving public officials are “techniques that all of us on beats should be doing the whole time,” he said.
Schaefer and reporting partner M.L. Elrick obtained 14,000 text messages, appointment calendars, petty cash fund records, credit card receipts and other records involving Kilpatrick and other public officials. The newspaper was the first to report that the mayor and his aide and lover, Christine Beatty, had lied under oath during the civil trial of a police whistle-blower. The newspaper won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
Kevin Dietz, an investigative reporter with WDIV-Detroit who also covered the scandal, encouraged journalists to follow their instincts and stand firm in the face of harassment from elected and appointed officials. “I firmly believe that without investigative reporting, Kwame Kilpatrick would still be mayor of Detroit,” he said.
Steve Wilson, an investigative reporter for WXYZ-Detroit, credited Schaefer and Elrick for sticking to the story and working sources to obtain the critical text messages. Getting records isn’t enough, though. “Once you get the documents, you need to know what to do with them,” Wilson said.
Schaefer referred to the rolling investigation as “machine-gun journalism.” The newspaper broke the story on its Web site at 10:30 p.m., promoted the story during the 11 p.m. local TV news and ran the full exposé in the paper the next morning. Some days, Schaefer and his colleagues pumped out six or eight short follow-up stories on the newspaper’s Web site.
The trio spoke during the daylong workshop, sponsored by IRE and hosted by the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Wayne State University Institute for Media Diversity.
— Doug Haddix, IRE training director