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.
Last 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.