By Marina Weis, Point Park News Service:
When a confidential informant for the Philadelphia police narcotics squad walked into the Philadelphia Daily News and asked to speak with reporter Wendy Ruderman, she and her colleague Barbara Laker had no idea they would uncover the biggest police corruption scandal in the city’s history.
The women worked with few resources at a newspaper facing bankruptcy. They knocked on drug dealers’ doors and chased down witnesses to get the story. Their tenacity and hard-hitting journalism in the 10-month series Tainted Justice won them the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. They became the first female investigative team to win the investigative reporting award.
“Suddenly we were like this hot ticket, and it came as a surprise,” Ruderman told the Point Park News Service. “It’s usually like a man’s game, and even then if a woman wins, it’s usually on a team.”
Ruderman and Laker plan to appear at Point Park University on March 27 to discuss their book, “Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.”
Pulitzer winners Wendy Ruderman
& Barbara Laker
What: Book signings and presentations
Sponsors: Point Park News Service and Press Club of Western Pa.
When: 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27
Where: JVH Auditorium, Thayer Hall, Point Park University, 201 Wood Street, Downtown
Cost: Free and open to the public; refreshments will be served
Contact: News service director Andrew Conte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7835
Books: On sale now at Point Park University bookstore
The stories of police corruption started with the fabrication of search warrants and grew to include the looting of immigrant-owned businesses and allegations of sexual assault. Ruderman and Laker feared being stalked by police in the newspaper’s parking lot after long hours at the office. Laker was even slapped in the face and chased down the street by a woman she tried to interview.
“Both Wendy and I are very stubborn and driven and not give-up-type people when we want a story and our gut tells us that something is there,” Laker said. “We just keep going.”
As middle-class working mothers, Ruderman and Laker said they found it easier to gain reluctant victims’ trust. During their presentation at Point Park, they plan to show a video of one of the female victims talking about how she felt after an officer assaulted her.
“It’s very moving,” Laker said. “Each time I look at it, I still tear up because her pain just resonates.”
Laker, a journalist since 1979, and Ruderman, reporting since 1991, still work almost exclusively together at the Daily News. Ruderman worked briefly at The New York Times as the police bureau chief from June 2012 to June 2013, but returned to Philadelphia for family reasons.
Currently, they are working on a new series called Perfect Prey, which aims to uncover an underground market of people of taking advantage of those with disabilities such as mental illness or the elderly. In extreme cases, the victims are locked into basements with only the bare minimum to survive as their Social Security money is funneled into someone else’s pocket.
“When you are chasing something, and then you end up getting it or someone tells you a secret that could lead to a great investigative piece, it’s almost like a high,” Laker said. “It’s like a real thrill, and I always told myself that if I don’t have that thrill anymore then it’s time for me to leave the business. But I still have it, and there’s nothing like it.”
The Daily News still faces an uncertain future. This year will be the sixth time in eight years that the paper is headed toward auction.
“The staff is sort of numb to it,” Ruderman said. “We’ve been threatened with extinction for so long that it doesn’t really have any meaning.”
Both women said that even with the changing media landscape, young journalists should not be discouraged. Reporters today have more opportunities than when Laker and Ruderman started out, the women said.
“Everybody is looking for nimble, young journalists who are very comfortable with the web, blogging, video, Tumblr, Instagram,” Ruderman said.
And internships, they said, are the secret to getting a job.
“A good reporter always has fire in his or her belly,” Laker said. “You can’t really be taught how to do it or you can’t learn in the classroom how to do it. You actually have to do it and make mistakes along the way and figure out how to get people to talk to you, get the documents you need. How to be a reporter is something you learn on the job.”
They both said they hope to open up a dialogue with students at Point Park to inspire them and discuss the value of journalism in an open, free society.
“In a democracy, I think it’s essential,” Ruderman said. “It makes incredible change. It’s an incredibly powerful profession.”
Ruderman admitted to taking remedial reading writing classes when she was younger. Later, in 1997, she graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“Don’t let your elementary and high school years haunt you,” she said. “Fight for your ability to do whatever you want to do.”
Despite their success, the women don’t see themselves as famous. Maybe only somewhat in certain journalism circles. As Ruderman puts it, she and Laker are “down to earth” and “free spirits.”
Laker said her grown daughter, who lives in Pittsburgh, is proud of her, and “it’s really touching to see that.”
Ruderman added that her young children tease her, saying she is “only a little bit famous.”
But what’s great, she said, is that “they have a pride for me, a pride in themselves, and they see first-hand what hard work can yield.”