On April 6, the DeWitt Wallace Center awarded its annual Futrell Award for Outstanding Achievement in Communications and Journalism to Craig Whitlock (T’90), an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. Here is his acceptance speech:
It is a just a terrific honor to be here and be recognized with the Futrell Award. Although Duke doesn’t have a journalism school, it has always boasted a very deep roster of alumni who have distinguished themselves in the field of journalism – nationally, internationally and locally.
Few have affected the public good than the Futrell family, former owners of the Washington Daily News in Beaufort County, North Carolina. In April 1990, the spring of my senior year at Duke, the paper in Little Washington became the smallest daily newspaper ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
To this day, the story behind the story is amazing – and inspirational. Even if you have heard some of this before, it bears repeating.
The Daily News, which had a grand total of 4 reporters in its newsroom, exposed a longstanding conspiracy in the city government. For many years, senior officials at city hall knew that Little Washington’s drinking water supplies were badly contaminated by a carcinogen. But they hid that information from the public.
City officials lied repeatedly about what they knew, and when they knew it. But the Daily News kept catching them in the act by digging up public documents and unearthing contradictory evidence.
At first, the Mayor said the city council had only known for about a week that test results showed high levels of a carcinogen. In fact, city leaders had known for eight years.
The city manager went on live TV to drink a glass of water and swear that it was completely safe. In fact, as the Daily News soon reported, state officials had come to the opposite conclusion. The paper also reported that the local Coca Cola bottling plant – unbeknownst to the public — had been tipped off years earlier to use filtered water.
Later, city officials said risk of getting cancer from drinking public water was only 1 in 10,000. The Daily News came back with documents that showed the cancer risk was one in 250 – an astoundingly high ratio.
Needless to say, none of this made the Daily News very popular at City Hall. The Futrell family withstood enormous pressure from the mayor, city manager and other officials to suppress the truth.
The mayor became so desperate that he went to state environmental officials and pressured them to stop releasing public information about water test results to the Daily News. Here’s how an official with the NC Division of Environmental Management responded: “The state was responding to direct questions from a reporter who knows what questions to ask. The state is not going to lie when questioned by a reporter.”
Within a matter of days, the town’s drinking water was finally declared unsafe. The military brought in water trucks. Eventually, the city cleaned up its water supplies – all thanks to the Daily News.
But the Daily News had also made some real enemies. After the paper won the Pulitzer for public service, one city council member wrote the Pulitzer board asking it to rescind the prize. When that didn’t work, the council voted not to recognize the paper for winning journalism’s highest honor.
Today, more than a quarter century later, those old council members and other elected scoundrels like them are probably happy. That’s because the kind of heroic, public-service investigative journalism practiced by the Washington Daily News is at serious risk – not just in Eastern North Carolina, but across the country.
We’re in the midst of a painful period of wrenching change in American journalism. The old business models have imploded. The industry is struggling to survive.
In 1990, when Daily News won its Pulitzer, there were 56,900 people working in newsrooms around the country, according to an annual census by the American Society of News Editors.
By 2015, that number had dropped by more than 40 percent. In fact, the decline has been accelerating so much that the American Society of News Editors got depressed and stopped conducting its annual census.
The bottom line is this: we have far fewer journalists than we used to. Far fewer foreign correspondents, far fewer investigative journalists, far fewer statehouse reporters, far fewer reporters working the beat at city hall.
We’re in a high stakes moment for other reasons.
We have a president in the White House who has openly declared war on the news media. He has threatened to change the law to make it easier to sue journalists for libel. He and his administration try to discredit critical coverage by labeling it as fake news – and then declaring obviously false or erroneous stories to be the real news.
Journalists who report the truth today can find themselves suddenly under attack from an army of online trolls. Journalists who report the truth can also find themselves suddenly under investigation by powerful national security agencies determined to hunt down a reporter’s confidential sources.
The pressure can get immense. It’s harder than ever for journalists to stand up and resist it.
At the same time, the American public is telling us that it has a renewed hunger for high-quality journalism. Especially for old-fashioned investigative journalism. The kind of news that exposes injustice, that reveals secrets, that holds government and corporations and other institutions accountable. The kind of news that inevitably invites blowback from people in power.
As it always has, this kind of journalism requires determination, courage and stubbornness. Oftentimes, reporting the truth can be very unpopular. You have to be willing to take it on the chin.
During my journalism career, I’ve ticked off all sorts of people and institutions with my reporting. The White House. Members of Congress. The Pentagon. The CIA. The FBI. Foreign governments. Governors. Police chiefs. It comes with the territory.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to work for two of the best news organizations imaginable for investigative reporting: The Washington Post and the News & Observer. Both newsrooms hold themselves to extremely high standards. Their cultures are marked by an obsession with digging for the truth and getting their facts straight.
But for me, it all started at Duke University.
During my first few days on campus, like many of you, I walked up the stone stairs to the 3rd floor of Flowers Building. The first thing I saw when I entered was a big poster board taped to the front of an old metal desk.
In big letters, someone had written out a quote:
“This is no place to be nice. This is a newsroom.”
It was attributed to a guy named ROCKY. No last name.
I had no idea who Rocky was. But wow, was I impressed. Back then, before the World Wide Web was in vogue, The Chronicle published a pretty fat print newspaper five days a week. In the morning, the entire student body scrambled to the news bins to devour that day’s edition.
They had a newsroom in a killer location on campus. And one of the guys in charge was some badass named Rocky.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about Rocky. Months later, I found out that the sign with the quote — “This is no place to be nice, this is a newsroom” — had been put up by someone who was poking a bit of fun at Rocky. Somebody who thought maybe he was taking things a little too seriously.
And while the name Rocky conjures up all sorts of images, it turned out that this Rocky was thin, kind of pale, with a voice that squeaked a bit when he got excited.
But let me tell you a bit more about Rocky Rosen. He was a real bulldog of a journalist. He was always polite and respectful, but when it came to an interview, he didn’t hold back. He was fearless. And smart as hell.
He also taught the rest of us, in no uncertain terms, the importance of getting it right. I remember another saying of his about how you should feel if, God forbid, you ever made a factual error in a story and had to publish a correction.
Rocky said: “it should feel like you have to plunge a dagger into your stomach, and then pull it slowly upward into your chest.”
To this day, on the rare occasion I screw up a fact in an article, that’s exactly how I feel.
Like many of you, I quickly got hooked on The Chronicle. I ate, slept and, occasionally, studied there. By my senior year, I was lucky enough to get elected editor.
In many ways, it was the best job I’ve ever had. The thrill of breaking news to the whole campus was intoxicating. And sometimes we broke news to the whole country.
One of the best stories was about a European aristocrat who was enrolled as a Duke undergraduate. His name was the Baron Maurice Jeffrey Locke de Rothschild. As far as the Duke administration knew, the Baron was an heir to the fabulously rich de Rothschild banking family from France.
One day, a reporter at The Chronicle got a tip from one of the Baron’s fraternity brothers that he wasn’t exactly who he said he was. Our staff started digging, and sure enough – he wasn’t a Baron at all. Nor was he French. Hell, he couldn’t even speak French. Nor was it true, as he claimed, that he was close to the Kennedy family and spent weekends at their compound on Cape Cod.
Somehow, we got his Social Security number and found out he was in his late 30s. He was from El Paso, not Paris, and his real name was Mauro Cortez – though he had legally changed it years before to de Rothschild.
After verifying all our facts, we published a series of stories unmasking the Baron. And as you might expect, this caused quite a sensation. It was harder for a story to go viral in those days, but the national news media descended on campus to report their versions of this irresistible story, and how ridiculous it was that an older guy who grew up poor in El Paso had duped Duke into believing that he was a French nobleman.
As you might imagine, the Duke administration was not especially happy with what The Chronicle had wrought. But what could they do? It was all true, every word.
In fact, as we kept digging, the story only got crazier. We also learned that Maurice had tried pulling a similar identity scam with other schools. We interviewed a dean at Harvard who revealed that the baron had tried to transfer there but they rejected him immediately because he was obviously a fraud. The Harvard dean couldn’t believe that Duke had actually allowed Maurice to enroll, so he never bothered to alert folks in Durham.
On top of all that, we found out that the feds had opened a criminal investigation into Maurice for embezzling money from charity. And that he owed Duke money. So it just kept snowballing.
Just when things started to quiet down on the Baron de Rothschild story, The Chronicle made national news again. Or more accurately, Coach K did.
This story is really getting to be ancient history, but I understand from Bill Adair and Phil Bennett that there’s some lingering interest from their students. So please indulge me while I retell it from my point of view.
About halfway into the men’s basketball season, the Chronicle’s sports staff received an invitation to meet with the Coach at Cameron. It was billed as a get-to-know-you-better session. I remember that the sports reporters were excited about it.
The meeting turned out a little different than they had expected. Coach K gathered them in the locker room, brought in the players, brought in the managers, the assistant coaches, the whole crew. Then he proceeded to chew out the Chronicle reporters, in very plain English, for some stories and columns that had been mildly critical of the team’s performance. Calling the sports reporters out by name, he told them they were full of shit. He told them to get their heads out of their asses. Bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep. After a while he had nothing more to say and kicked them out.
So the sports staff comes back to 3rd Floor Flowers, and they’re kind of in a daze, blindsidee by the whole thing. They come into my office and tell me what happened.
I start raising my eyebrows, acting a little skeptical. Coach K really did that? But then one reporter, Andy Layton, said, “Bruiser! (the sports staff always called me Bruiser – but that’s another story) Bruiser, we’re totally serious. We’re not making any of this up. I got it on tape!”
It turns out that Andy, like a good reporter, thinking he might get to interview the coach, had brought his tape recorder. He had it in his bookbag, and when the Coach started yelling, he switched it on. And he had a very clear audio tape of the whole encounter.
So we had an intense discussion. We decided pretty quickly that this was news, and that we had an obligation to cover it as a straight-news story. It was nothing personal. Here was this highly regarded young coach with a squeaky clean reputation, and he had gone on a tirade. The encounter was on the record – the whole team and sports staff was there. If Coach K had done this with other journalists, it would immediately be all over the news. So why should we treat this any differently?
We did a fair, thorough and exceedingly accurate story. We called the athletic director, Tom Butters, for comment. He said, “If the Chronicle chooses to make an issue of this, I will look into it very, very closely. And somebody is gonna come out the loser.” It was clearly a threat, but more importantly, it was a newsworthy quote. So we put that high up in the story. We also printed Coach K’s blue language, verbatim. We also disclosed to readers up front that one of our reporters had a tape recorder in his bookbag. We knew people might criticize us for all sorts of things, so we were going to do this story by the book and be completely transparent.
As you might expect, this story went viral too. Even more so than Baron Maurice. The athletic department was furious. Coach K was furious. Many in the Duke administration were furious. To the administration’s credit, the folks in Allen Building sat back and didn’t try to interfere with our coverage. But nor did they ever stand up and say publicly that Duke supported a free press and free speech, and that they weren’t going to let the athletic director or Coach K bully student journalists.
So it was a challenging time. Neither side was backing down – Coach K wouldn’t apologize. It was pretty obvious that if this were a simple popularity contest between Coach K and the Chronicle, that we’d get crushed. The phone calls into the newsroom and letters to the editor ran 10-1 in favor of basketball.
Duke, as now, didn’t have a journalism school. There were no professors of the practice of journalism. Almost nobody at the Chronicle had ever had a journalism internship. We didn’t have a lot of people to look up to, to ask for advice or counsel. We were pretty much on our own.
But not entirely. At the time, I was taking a public-policy class on media-and-reporting something or other. It was taught by an adjunct professor, Katherine Fulton, co-founder of the Independent, now IndyWeek. And she was great at organizing dinners and seminars with some crackerjack visiting journalists.
One was Eugene Patterson, the recently retired editor of St. Petersburg Times. He was a member of the Duke board of trustees. Today, as you know, an endowed chair here is named in honor of him.
Not long after the Coach K flap erupted, Gene Patterson came to Katherine Fulton’s house to have dinner with our class. About 10 of us. She’s at one end of the table, he’s at the other. Now, these are two extraordinarily intelligent, highly principled journalists – real heroes. There was nothing going to get between those two and a story, or the truth.
Gene Patterson was the commander of a tank platoon in World War II, under General George Patton. I later found out that he had a nickname in the St Pete Times newsroom — “Treads” – which was not entirely meant to be, though I thought it was. To be honest, he kind of looked like a tank – compact, strong, shoulders back, jutting jaw. He was very pleasant and lacked pretension, but clearly not the kind of guy who would back down in a fight.
At dinner, he told us about all the hate and anger he generated with his columns during civil rights era for the Atlanta Constitution. Fury over desegregation and the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King Jr. He told us about how he came to write a column in 1963, after the Klan firebombed the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls at Sunday School.
Gene Patterson, who grew up on a farm in south Georgia, addressed his column to the Constitution’s white readers. He wrote about the grisly scene at the church and described a shoe found in the rubble, a little dress shoe that belonged to one of the dead girls.
“Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” he wrote. “It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite . … We are the ones who have ducked the difficult, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable and created the day surely when these children would die.”
That took guts. Took courage. He knew his readers were going to be furious. He knew what was coming: Cancelled subscriptions. Death threats. All sorts of trouble.
So you can imagine the impression a guy like that had on a young, 22-year-old undergraduate who was awfully proud to be editor of The Chronicle, but was also wrestling with the reality that his editorial decisions had turned him into one of the most unpopular people on campus.
One of my last acts as editor was to cover a meeting of the Duke board of trustees. It was awkward to say the least when a few of the trustees stood up and started hollering about the Chronicle’s coverage of Coach K. How dare these ungrateful student journalists report such awful things about our esteemed and highly valued basketball coach. What was the administration going to do about it?
As I mentioned, one trustee on the board at the time was Gene Patterson. He was probably the only journalist. I’ll always remember how he fixed his eyes on those other trustees, reached out with his arms, jaw set, and said something to the effect of: “I would hope that the administration of this great university would never interfere with the freedom of the press, or try to punish the student editors of The Chronicle for reporting the facts and doing their job.”
That ended the discussion right there. Patterson had a determined look on his face, as if he was ready for a brawl. The chairman of the board of trustees couldn’t move onto the next item on the agenda quickly enough and nobody dared bring up The Chronicle or Coach K again. Inside, my heart was pounding and I let out a big sigh of relief.
Not long after that I graduated. And things were looking pretty gloomy for Craig Whitlock. I had put all my energy into the Chronicle. I had zero job prospects. The economy was starting to hit the skids. I hadn’t given the slightest thought to graduate school. And I was persona non grata with a lot of people at Duke.
On a whim, I applied to a summer program for liberal-arts students at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. It was a really competitive program, with only about a dozen slots available.
Miraculously, I was accepted. Only after I arrived in St. Petersburg did I learn why. The director of the program told me that someone – without my knowledge – had written a recommendation on my behalf and urged Poynter to make room for me.
It turns out that person was Gene Patterson. He apparently told the director of Poynter that he didn’t know if I could write or not, but that I had shown a little backbone as editor of the Chronicle, and that maybe, with coaching, I could amount to something.
That kindness, that intervention, made all the difference in my career. I spent two glorious months in St. Petersburg with some of the best writing coaches and journalists in the profession. That enabled me to get hired at a crackerjack family-owned newspaper in Alabama, and then in turn at another crackerjack family-owned newspaper in Raleigh, and finally at a crackerjack family-owned newspaper in Washington, DC. Each stop along the way has been a version of journalism heaven, especially for an investigative reporter.
Gene Patterson died a few years ago. But I’d still like to take this moment to thank him publicly, along with the DeWitt Wallace Center, and the Futrell family, for the honor of being with you today. Thank you very much.