Cross: Brad Heath, Where Legal Journalism And Investigative Reporting Meet

December 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg  cross USA Today investigative reporter and lawyer, Brad Heath, who won the Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism on prosecutorial misconduct.

Q. You studied poli sci at Colgate in upstate New York, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and at the top of your class. The cool thing about poli sci is that it’s flexible, a good springboard for a number of careers. So what made you want to choose the daily grind, penury and lack of appreciation of a journalist’s life? Why not go to DC, or do an MBA, or go directly to law school? What was it that attracted you to the Fourth Estate?

A. Honest answer: Being a reporter always sounded like more fun.

I started in newspapers when I was in college, and was lucky to work at small papers that let me cover things interns had no business covering. I went to crime scenes, interviewed politicians, chased storms and firetrucks, and once ended up dragging a date to an arson and a murder arraignment. I couldn’t imagine giving that up. I still can’t.

But I also have different – and probably better – reasons for staying with it now. The press does important work. At our best, we hold those in power accountable for how they wield it. We reveal the decisions they would prefer be kept secret. We show the consequences of those decisions, for good and ill. We help people see and experience the world in which they live. Those things strike me as important and worth doing.

But it’s still fun.

Q. You cut your teeth at the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, New York, a local paper serving a metro area of about 250,000 people (then as now). As head investigative reporter, you were responsible for covering major national stories, but you also instigated investigations of your own. We keep hearing that small-town papers are beleaguered and struggling to compete with the big nationals, but do local papers have competitive advantages of their own?

Did the local focus of a paper like the Press & Sun-Bulletin allow you to devote time and attention to stories that would otherwise get lost in the noise? Was there, perhaps, more recognition for your journalism than you’d have gotten in a massive newsroom? Or was it all bad? That early in your career, was it intoxicating to be responsible for presenting the news to your slice of America? Or were you eager to move on to the big leagues?

A. I loved working for a small paper in a small city.

First, opportunity was there for the taking (and – attention young journalists! – it still is). The Press & Sun-Bulletin hired me as a health reporter, and I probably wrote a dozen health stories before my editors let me go off and cover Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign. They let me dream up investigative projects that took six months to execute. They sent me to New York the day after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. They let me borrow a radar gun from the local baseball team to try to catch speeding cops. They didn’t use the word “no” a lot.

Second, local connections really matter. It helps to know the people you’re covering, and the readers for whom you’re covering them. It helps to be able to get in the car and go talk to people. (These days, there’s a good chance I’ll have to book a flight.)

Third, local institutions matter. The national government is huge and powerful. But it was local housing inspectors who failed to stop a landlord from letting his low-rent apartments deteriorate to the point that they became a danger. Local police have a lot more impact on a lot more people than the FBI does. Local politicians control the property taxes. Some of those institutions work really well; others don’t.

One of the last investigations I worked on in Binghamton showed that local property taxes were badly out of balance, meaning many people paid far too much because their neighbors paid too little. Our readers devoured it. And they showed up in town halls and used our research to challenge their tax bills. I was too young and too naïve when I started as a reporter to understand just how important that kind of coverage is. I’m still learning.

Small newspapers – all newspapers – really are struggling now. They still put out a pretty good paper in Binghamton, but it’s a fraction of what it was when I left 14 years ago. Like everywhere, there are fewer reporters and editors to cover a more complex world. Local papers’ competitive advantage is that they’re not competing with The New York Times or USA TODAY. In a lot of places, they’re still the only source for timely and reliable information about your schools, your taxes, your roads, and your mayor. When I worked in Binghamton, our main competitors were a pair of local TV stations, and a lot of what you saw on their evening news was based on what they learned in the morning paper.

Q. In 2002, after two years at the Press & Sun-Bulletin, you moved to the Detroit News. There, you got your first taste of the power of journalism when an expose you wrote on dangerous drivers led to the passage of a law that mandated harsher penalties for drivers with bad records. Did you expect that kind of reaction? Was passing a new law the right response? Your previous work, covering federal, state and local malfeasance at the Press & Sun-Bulletin, presumably taught you the risks of kneejerk government intervention. It’s gratifying for a journalist’s work to have real impact, but were you at all mindful of the potential downside of drawing attention to something that could result in the passage of a bad law?

A. Last part first: No.

Part of this is an institutional bias. I think you’re right that reporters like to see people act on the information we provide. I do, because it means somebody thought the story was important. Good journalism can stir people to outrage, kindness, or even legislation. But we should pause more often to evaluate that impact. But that gets to an even bigger (and, in my view, appropriate) institutional bias in favor of telling people about things.

We provide people information; what they do with it is up to them. I have a hard time imagining a circumstance in which I’d even contemplate not reporting on something because politicians might respond by passing a law I don’t like. What we should do – and often don’t – is follow-up, and try to figure out whether the government actually fixed the problem, and at what cost.

I don’t know the answer to how Michigan’s bad-driver law worked out. Somebody should probably find out.

Q. You arrived in Detroit while the “9/11 Changed Everything” trope was still very much in effect. What impact did that have on the stories you covered, the view toward law enforcement, who enjoyed the reflected heroism of police and firefighters who lost their lives at the Twin Towers? You covered areas like anti-terrorism measures in a major city. Was there serious scrutiny at the time? Was it acceptable to question or challenge Detroit’s handling of terrorism issues? Did you? Looking back now, would you have handled it differently?

A. I’ll say at the outset that I was a small player in our coverage of anti-terrorism issues. This was a huge issue in Detroit, where the government brought one of its first major terrorism cases after the September 11 attacks, and The Detroit News was already covering it aggressively when I arrived. Some of the paper’s top reporters were watching the Justice Department’s tactics pretty aggressively, and asking smart questions about who they were targeting and why. That led to an impressive investigation of how the federal government was looking for terrorism suspects in the local Arab community.

I got involved later, when one our reporters wanted to follow the legal trail to city court in Dearborn, Mich., where Arab residents complained that they were being targeted by local police. We reviewed the court’s electronic dockets, matched surnames against lists of Arab and Muslim names, and talked to a lot of people. There weren’t many rocks we didn’t turn over. I was involved in some of that coverage; I learned a lot by watching skeptical work by excellent reporters.

Q. Unlike the vast majority of journalists who write about the criminal justice system, you’re an honest-to-god lawyer with a fancy degree from Georgetown. But you didn’t go to law school until 2007, one year after you started at USA Today. What made you want to subject yourself to that particular torture? A more in-depth knowledge of the field you were covering? But plenty of dilettantes without an education to speak of manage to turn out criminal-justice copy. Standards too high for legal journalism a la Slate and Gawker? Or were you secretly planning on a legal career? What gives?

A. True story: I actually liked law school. Or at least most of it.

My editors were nice enough to let me go at night. A few times, I filed stories from the back of the classroom. I analyzed foreclosure patterns in Denver during torts. But somehow I still ended up learning a lot about a lot of things, in no small part because Georgetown’s night program attracts a fascinating mix of people working in DC. I learned intelligence law in a class full of intelligence officers. I learned about detainee reviews in a class whose students had previously run detainee tribunals in Iraq. (The torture was realizing that we’d be graded on the same curve.)

I went to law school in part to make myself a better journalist, and in part because newspapers were struggling and I wanted to have an escape hatch if I needed one. Then, about halfway through, a friend from college emailed to tell me he’d been laid off from his law firm and to ask whether it would be a good time to get into newspapers. Some escape hatch.

Q. Coming out of law school, big-time national reporter that you were, you still managed to be at the top of your class, magna cum laude and, ahem, Order of the Coif. With a pedigree like that, did you consider monetizing that effort and going to a big law firm to make it pay? If you had chosen to practice, would criminal law have been your thing or would a cushy gig at mergers & acquisitions have suited you well? You’re admitted to practice in state and federal court in Virginia? Have you given it a try? Do you want the chance to make a federal agent cry on cross?

A. By the time I got to my last year of law school, I wasn’t really thinking about going to practice law. But one day, a career counselor emailed to tell me that Georgetown had assigned me a career counselor, and to recommend that I apply anyway. I did, and I talked to a couple litigation firms.

But I ran into two problems I couldn’t get over. First, I’ve been lucky in my career that my editors have let me go after pretty much any subject or story I wanted. It’s rare when they tell me what to do, and rarer still that I listen. So doing what the client wanted wasn’t totally appealing. Second – and more important – is my time. I remember interviewing with a partner at a litigation firm who was a couple years older than I was. He had a picture of his son on his desk. And he told me that although he typically worked insane hours during the week, and on Saturdays, his wife knew that Sunday afternoons were usually for her. It was a clarifying moment.

I’ve never really practiced. I do my own administrative appeals when the government turns down my Freedom of Information Act requests, but I don’t litigate them. I work for a big company that can afford lawyers who are much better than me.

But thanks for the questions that are making me look at the balance on my checking account.

Q. You’re noted for the deep dives you take into some of the most serious issues confronting the legal system, investigative reporting in its truest sense. Of your more recent efforts, your work on fugitive extradition was exceptional, and garnered you quite a few awards as well. What made you go there? It wasn’t the trendy issue of the day, and while others were focused on drug war, sentencing reform and police demilitarization, you chose to do serious investigation instead. How did you come to the story? What made you decide where to put your efforts? What tells you, “this is where I really need to dig”?

A. The part of my job I like most is that I have the freedom to read the newspaper, wonder how something works, and spend some time figuring it out. The extradition investigation is a pretty good example. I started looking into it because I saw a story in The New York Daily News about the man who murdered NYPD Officer Peter Figoski in 2011. Before Figoski’s murder, his killer had been accused of another shooting in North Carolina, arrested in New York, and set free because the authorities didn’t want to come get him.

I read the story and wondered how often that happens. I didn’t know there’d be a story in it; I guessed that it was probably pretty rare. I called around to local sheriffs and jails. Eventually, I asked the FBI for a copy of their database of wanted fugitives, and – I’m still surprised about this – they sent me part of it. It listed 186,000 felony warrants for which the police had decided not to pursue someone out of state. That surprised me. It surprised the people who sat near me. That’s often my first test for whether something’s worth a deep dive.

And I’m still learning how to find the best and most important stories. A few years ago, a lawyer tipped me off to a case in which the Justice Department had acknowledged that a man convicted of illegally possessing a firearm was “legally innocent” and urged the judge to keep him locked up anyway. A cursory check of court records turned up dozens of federal prison inmates in a similar situation. This was obviously a story. But I still spent the better part of a week getting over the fact that it was only happening in North Carolina. A good editor set me straight.

Q. You started out at a time when newspapers still, for the most part, relied on dead trees. But things have changed overwhelmingly in the past fifteen years, and you were consistently one of the people to see it coming. Throughout your career, you’ve helped the outfits you worked at adjust to the new world order, ranging from helping the Press & Sun-Bulletin develop databases to creating apps for USA Today.

First off, where’d a poli sci major – cum – lawyer get those tech chops? How’d your employers feel about the intrusion of new tech into an industry that, for decades, was a byword for “staid and settled”? And what about us alternative media outlets? Can blawgers hope to approach the mainstream media’s level of journalistic sophistication? Are we an annoyance, a thorn in your side? Or do we have some kind of weird, symbiotic relationship?

A. I was – am – a nerd about this stuff. So I taught myself enough about databases and writing code to get by. I’ve been fortunate to work for editors who have been supportive and thoughtful about the role tech can play in our work. And they’ve grasped the need to innovate to serve our readers better.

When I worked in Binghamton, I got an electronic copy of the county’s payroll and we tried to put it online. Our website wasn’t great, so the only place we could figure out to do that was on the company’s email server. That got us some angry phone calls from corporate IT. A couple months later, we got a much bigger database of property assessments and ran it out through the same setup. That got us a corporate award.

I couldn’t do my job without basic tech skills. To investigate extradition practices, I had to merge big, ugly datasets with millions of records, and download millions of court dockets. I have robots that mine federal court dockets for things that might point to bigger stories. At first, that kind of thing let me find stories my competitors couldn’t. Now it’s the price of entry for even having a chance of figuring out how big, complicated institutions actually work.

I’m a fan of law blogs, and a lot of other alternative media. In general, I think we benefit from hearing more voices – and especially from practitioners. I don’t read them expecting dispassionate coverage. I don’t expect law bloggers to spend a year investigating prison discipline in New York, or to match thousands of FBI fugitive records to court documents. But law blogs that explain how things work, or how they should work, or where some court got something wrong, are helpful – to readers trying to understand the law, and to journalists looking to explain and investigate it. So are law blogs that tell journalists where we get it wrong. (It’s especially annoying when you’re right.)

Q. We live in a time of advocacy journalism, where reporters from either end of the political spectrum put political narratives ahead of facts, which have an inconvenient way of not fitting their ideologies. Is this as bad as it seems, or is it just a reflection of the times we live in? People gravitate to the media outlet that promises to confirm their bias. The next generation of journalists, currently at college, is learning that disagreement – however mild – is a major no-no and constitutes hate speech. The likes of Vox and Politifact were founded on the idea that it’s better to turn out propaganda than neutrally report the facts, which they claim are indigestible to the average reader.

Where do you, an old-school investigative journalist, stand on this? USA Today is still a platform for sane journalism. Will you, too, succumb to the insanity? Unlike many of your colleagues, you’ve got the chops to turn out quality reporting and a track record of doing so. But as of late, even law professors at Ivy League colleges are producing articles that are pure advocacy, things that have nothing to do with the law as it is and everything with how they think it should be. When the time comes to abandon reality and turn out clickbait, will you go gently into that good night? Or will you bear up against the storm of listicles, “fake news” and garbage?

A. We’ve always lived in a time of advocacy journalism. Newspapers, in particular, used to be tools of vicious partisan advocacy. Serious, straight coverage is a relatively recent innovation. And it’s a hard one. I know I can’t totally set aside my worldview when I approach a story, though I can try to be aware of it and keep an open mind.

I agree that advocacy and opinion proliferate online. And I basically think that’s good. The new twist, I think, is that advocacy, serious investigations, clickbait and deliberate lies all show up in your Facebook feed or browser looking more or less the same, and a lot of it is filtered to reflect your preexisting opinion. So it’s harder to be a discerning reader of the news now, and easier than ever to stay sealed up inside a bubble that comfortably reaffirms your views.

Clickbait isn’t in my future, and fake news – to the extent it’s populated by deliberate lies – it’s basically fraud. If that day comes, I’ll take up gardening. But we’ll have bigger problems than the demise of the news industry.

But we in the news media should also pay attention to what the clickbaiters and even the liars are doing, and how they’re doing it. They’re reaching readers. (We still reach more.) We’re being naïve if we don’t acknowledge that the way we tell stories and deliver information has to keep up with the ways in which our readers want to get their news. And we should listen to the people who are tuning us out or don’t trust us anymore, because there are lots of them.

I don’t think the challenge facing USA TODAY or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal is whether we will eventually succumb to lies, clickbait or partisan spin. We won’t. The challenge is how we build trust with readers while delivering the most reliable information we can in the ways they want to consume it. We should take those ideas wherever we can get them.

Q. Ordinarily, the final question asks what the future holds for the witness, but in this case, maybe the better question is what does the future hold for serious journalism? Is there any future for dead tree journalism? Is there money or interest to fund the sort of thorough investigative reporting you exemplify? Will the push to get words on a screen and clicks for advertising subsume accuracy and depth? Will there be any appreciation of a journalist with integrity in an age obsessed with advocacy? What happens to Brad Heath when it’s all kids at Huff Post who’ve never actually written in cursive?

A. I’m pretty optimistic about the future of serious journalism.

For all the clickbait and garbage, this digital revolution has also brought us ProPublica and The Marshall Project, both of which are producing some of the most sophisticated coverage of law and justice that you’ll find anywhere. The Huffington Post was on the streets in Ferguson, Mo. when unrest erupted after the death of Michael Brown, and it’s published a slew of thoughtful stories on prisons and sentencing reform.

I don’t know yet where the money will come from to pay for that. ProPublica and The Marshall Project are getting it from donors. That’s one way. But I also think that reliable information is valuable, and has a commercial future.

People crave strong, authoritative journalism. We see that at USA TODAY. We chase lots of breaking stories, and have lots of articles about whatever went viral on Twitter yesterday or whatever weird thing one politician or another said online. But it’s our original reporting – whether investigations or deeply researched pieces on executive power or diversity in tech – that our readers gravitate toward. A lot more people read those stories, they spend a lot more time with them, and they’re much more likely to share them with their friends. I take that as a sign of appreciation.