A storied reporter’s Pulitizer-winning tale

Jeff Gottlieb stood in front of us holding a lined notepad with a spiral binding on the top edge. He had jotted key pieces of his story there: important numbers, engaging quotes and descriptive details. And by “his story,” I mean the entire saga of Bell. And let me tell you, it’s a ringer.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal awardLast week Jeff, a Pulitzer prize winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times visited Madison. As he spoke to my journalism cohort, I hoped to hear a few reporting tips and what it felt like to bring down Robert Rizzo, the dishonest, exorbitantly paid city manager of Bell, CA. And in fact I got both of those things, but even better, I observed a master storyteller at work.

There are good stories everywhere Jeff told us. And that may be, but you need a storyteller to do them justice. Watching and listening to him lay out the details behind his Pulitzer quality work, it was clear that Jeff was just the person to capture audience attention.

He wasn’t showy, he was deliberate. I especially noticed his well-placed repetition of phrases. To give an idea of both his oral style and the level of detail he shared, here are three pieces of the tale. They are not verbatim of course, but they’re close.

In the first and only meeting with Rizzo, Jeff and another L. A. Times reporter, Ruben Vives, worked up to the big question: how much was he paid by the city? And then I asked, how much money do you make? And he said $700,000. I said, what? Maybe I had heard him wrong, maybe he said $7,000 a month, I don’t know. And he said $700,000 a year.

Jeff and Ruben also asked the other people present at that meeting how much they made. Turned out they all made far more than they should have. One of the council members was pastor. He had been appointed to fill a seat and told us he hadn’t known how much he would be paid when he joined the council. I asked him what he thought when he saw his first check. He said “I thought it was a gift from God.” And I thought, no, the gift from god is that quote because it’s going in the story.

They left the meeting with a stack of contracts and documents about a foot high. After scouring the multiple contracts under which Rizzo was being paid and adding them all together for a final annual salary, Jeff came up with $787,637. Rizzo had said $700,000. That’s not even a rounding error. I called Ruben and asked him to go through the contracts and check the math. He came up with the same thing. Then I called Rizzo and told him what I got. He said “I think it’s a little high but that’s okay.” So I said to Ruben, I’m willing to publish the correction if we’re wrong that says: his salary is $750,000, not $787,000. And in fact we were wrong. It turns out he made a million and a half.

In all three examples, Jeff emphasized crucial pieces of the story with repetition. His delivery was incredibly effective. I actually listened to him twice when he was here. The second time, he threw in a bonus at the end.

He was explaining his relationship with the citizens of Bell and mentioned a short, elderly actress in the community. She came to Rizzo’s trial and Jeff was surprised to see her there. He walked over to talk to her and she told him why she’d come. Jeff’s recreation of that moment was the cherry on top of his whole oration. He tucked his elbows into his ribs, hunched his back to reach her stooped height, and scrunched up his face and told us: She said, I came because I wanted to see his face.

If you don’t know the string of stories published by the L. A. Times about Robert Rizzo and his manipulation of public funds in Bell, CA, you can find them here. They are worth the read. Not only is it great journalism, you’ll learn about important checks and balances in city government and experience the shocking tale just as it unfolded.

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6 thoughts on “A storied reporter’s Pulitizer-winning tale

  1. Fun story Emily! Gottlieb also kept promoting the movie “All the President’s Men,” which is a classic investigative story. It’s exciting to see a journalist’s passion for what they do come through in the oral presentation of their work just as much as it does in print.

    • Great presentation, Emily. And I agree that Gottlieb’s work represents the most useful and attractive element of journalism: the watchdog role. It protects democracy, or what’s left of it.

      The one part of his speech that I wasn’t sure if I could stand behind was his comment on how he feels he can manipulate, “orchestrate” a room, to use his words. Far be it from me to contradict a Pulitzer prize winner, but it seemed just a tad arrogant. If a reporter is going into a room with a sense of control, or an idea of what he wants out of people, how much listening is he really doing? It’s an interesting question of where the reporter’s duties lie. Is it in being an authority–while you’re still there to learn–or is it in being there to learn something about the characters you’re writing about?

      Gottlieb said someone once called his work “gotcha” journalism, and Gottlieb seemed to flinch a bit when he used the word. But isn’t that what this is? Scoop journalism at its most effective?

      This, or course, isn’t a problem, if that’s what the journalist is after. Woodward and Bernstein on down the line, some of the most notable reporters have scooped the biggest stories of the century. But Gottlieb also asked us if we’d read any Gay Talese. Talese was probably the most famous anti-scoop writer to make a name for himself, and something of a personal hero of mine. He thinks writers get the true story by hanging out, listening, staying curious and respectful. In this way, he said, you create an end product with an unending shelf-life. One of my favorite quotes of his was that he’s never written about anyone, either positively of negatively, whom he couldn’t look in the eye the next day.

      So I guess for me, I’d like to learn how it’s possible to take some of Gottlieb’s investigative skills and match them with my personality, not try to control a room or feign authority while I’m still learning about a story.

      I wonder what it is for you that you’d like to take from Gottlieb, and how you might “reconcile” that with personality or philosophical differences you may have?

      • Thanks for reading the post Mario. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I like your idea of letting respectful curiosity tease out a story. You asked what I’d like to take from Jeff’s style and how I might modify it. I feel I’m so green in my reporting style that at a very basic level I am building my confidence rather than tweaking my technique. Jeff has the confidence of a great reporter and I think confidence amplifies a style that we naturally gravitate towards. I remember he also mentioned that as a reporter you need to be deadpan. That’s one thing that I am working on with each interview. I often feel pulled to make it more of a friendly conversation, which might be useful in some cases, but a journalistic interview requires a different set of skills than an informal conversation.

  2. Thank you for the nice words, Emily. However, I think Mario misunderstood what I meant when I talked about a reporter acting like an orchestra conductor during an interview. I went into that meeting having no idea we even had a story, so there was no way I could have in there with a plan to orchestrate it. Certainly, though, I had questions ready.
    As Rizzo and the others revealed what they knew were damaging details–although they had no idea how damaging–I could feel the intensity crank up. I wanted to keep the pressure high to keep them on edge, but there were times I wanted to bring it down a bit to give people a chance to catch their breath before I asked them another question, one that could cause the tension to shoot up again. I think sometimes it’s easier for people to talk when you don’t keep the gas on every single second.

    • Jeff-
      Thanks so much for reading! I remember your comment about orchestrating the tension in the room. I wrote down the tip because it struck me as a valuable skill. I have heard a similar suggestion from many journalists, though not so nicely articulated. Everyone mentions starting with the soft questions and building up, which is, in a basic way, what you were describing. It happened that the interview you were sharing was a long and tension-filled one, so the energy in the room rose and receded several times it seems.
      Hope you enjoyed Madison!

  3. Thanks for the reply, Jeff. I can only imagine that it might be frustrating to write a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, come to tell the story behind the story, then be question by some rookie journalism student. But thanks for fielding the question so professionally, and thanks for coming in to speak to our class. Best of luck on your future stories.

    -Mario

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