It’s Always Crummy In Philadelphia

27 Mar

wendy-ruderman-barbara-laker-busted-bookIn some ways, Busted is about Philadelphia, the city in which authors Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker expose a corrupt ring of police officers while reporting for the bankrupt Philadelphia Daily News. After all, it is Philly’s abandoned houses and resigned drug pushers who serve as the backdrop to Ruderman and Laker’s investigation. It is the City of Brotherly Love that offers up Busted’s memorable characters: Benny, the informant-turned-source who raises the first red flag about a Philly narcotics cop; George Bochetto, that cop’s combative and boxing-obsessed attorney; Jose Duran, a local bodega owner whose innovative surveillance system turns the women on to a series of store lootings by police officers. It’s not that Busted couldn’t have taken place outside of Philly—corruption is nothing if not equal-opportunity—but Philadelphia is very much a presence in the book, a city of both blight and beauty, struggle and charm.

More than anything, though, Busted is about journalism, about how the seismic shift in media over the last decade has played out at your average metropolitan daily, and for your average (and increasingly unemployed) newspaper reporter. The book is not so much a call to arms as a window into reality, a frank look at how the real work of reporting—already up against online aggregation and viral cat videos—is doubly challenged by the newspaper industry’s rapid desiccation.

As heroines go, Ruderman and Laker are an endearing pair. The former, who narrates the book, is a pixie-ish 4-foot-11, and dubs her kid-like appearance a “secret weapon” against skeptical sources. Ruderman talks about the buzz she gets when she’s working on a good story, and calls the anticipation of a promising interview “one of life’s teeny pleasures, like that first sip of coffee in the morning or the gradual dim of lights at the start of a movie.” When the duo ultimately [spoiler alert] win a Pulitzer for their series on police corruption, Ruderman drinks celebratory newsroom champagne out of her dirty sneaker. She’s adorable and formidable, self-deprecating and impressive as hell, and I love her.

Barbara Laker is the perfect foil to Ruderman: older, put-together, calm, kind. Together they are unstoppable, and near fearless. Their first story earns the ire of the Philadelphia Police Department; their second, hate mail and threatening phone calls. But they soldier on, traversing the city’s worst neighborhoods, often on foot, in search of anyone—addicts, dealers, prostitutes, pimps, criminals—who might provide the next thread to pull. In the era of laptop reporting (as in everything done from a) it’s inspiring to watch two people unearth a story this way, with tenacity, resourcefulness and boots on the ground. The crimes exposed in Ruderman and Laker’s “Tainted Justice” series—Busted is both a retelling of those articles and a behind-the-scenes look at their creation—would have been impossible to expose without this kind of reporting, and the book is a stark reminder of its value.

Indeed, it would be hard to overdramatize the financial state of most daily newspapers, both at the time of Tainted Justice and now. In 2009, midway through their series, Ruderman and Laker find out that the Daily News is headed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, along with The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is owned by the same company. At the time of the filing, Ruderman explains, “The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and the Journal Register Company … all were in bankruptcy protection.” In March of the same year, Time magazine had named the Daily News—the irony of magazines publishing media doomsday listicles notwithstanding—No. 1 on its list of the “10 Most Endangered Newspapers in America.” And since 2009, the trend has only continued: Major dailies in Denver, Seattle, New Orleans and Detroit are all defunct or on deathwatch. Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for just a quarter of what Facebook paid for Instagram in 2012, or an eighth of what Facebook paid for Oculus VR this week. The Washington Post has been publishing since 1877; Oculus has existed for less than two years.

It’s because of this—this rapid unresolved evolution in How To Be a Profitable News Company—that Ruderman and Laker are the heroines of Busted as much as its narrators. Theirs is a triumph over circumstance, a dedication to the craft of journalism, and a near-comic refusal to look up from their work long enough to worry about the industry crumbling around them. Their perseverance makes you root for them as reporters, and as people, and it makes you think about our role in this shift, about why we’ll fork over money to listen to albums on demand and binge-watch old cable shows, but not to read journalism uncompromised by cost-cutting and traffic-whoring and native advertising. “Newspapers had become ‘quaint,’ like the milkman or the paperboy,” Ruderman writes. “We had trained a whole generation of readers to get their news for free on the Internet while drinking $4 lattes.” A few paragraphs later, Barbara turns to her as they’re heading home after a midnight deadline: “What if the paper closes before we’ve finished the Tainted Justice series?'”

In a way, it’s the most important question in the book.

TITLE: Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love
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AUTHOR: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
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PAGES: 256 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: n/a
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SORTA LIKE: Erin Brokovich meets The Departed meets the last season of The Wire
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FIRST LINE: “Ventura ‘Benny’ Martinez hadn’t slept in days.”

One Response to “It’s Always Crummy In Philadelphia”

  1. Pat Bindrim March 27, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    I immediately thought of the last season of The Wire as well… and also House of Cards. I think I’ll tackle this one because a) I think this kind of journalism is one of the few things standing between the citizens of any democracy and our total abdication to some form of dictatorship; and 2) being a native daughter, I’m sure I’ll hear the ring of truth in the corruption of the Philadelphia Police Force. Sad to say, it’s probably better today than under Frank Rizzo…

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