CHICAGO — The Al Jazeera documentary crew was hanging out in a once-fire ravaged low-slung brick building on the edge of an underserved South Side neighborhood. It’s a stone’s throw from the elite University of Chicago and not far from the seven-figure house President Obama maintains.
The austere nonprofit called the Experiential Station includes Blackstone Bicycle Works, a youth education program and bicycle shop. There are thus lots of bicycles and, somewhere in the two-story mix, is a journalism nonprofit and Jamie Kalven, its heart and soul.
Al Jazeera is following Kalven, a freelance journalist-human rights advocate, for a piece on policing. He’s an expert and won this year’s George A. Polk Award for Local Reporting for exclusives and analyses of the 2014 police cover-up of the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald. That work is also a reason the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating the Chicago Police Department.
Even before that work, which brought national attention to the son of a late and prominent university law professor Harry Kalven, he was laboring on an investigation that’s less shocking only because there’s no McDonald-like video of a police officer shooting an innocent civilian.
But “The Code of Silence” is not just a mix of “The Wire,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “The Shield.” Yes, it’s a stunning tale of two honest cops watching the corrupt daily ways of colleagues, and risking much by going undercover and then being outed. It’s also an object lesson for journalists in how the most high-minded professional values can conflict with a great story.
His four-part, 20,000-word saga in The Intercept is about about two rank-and-file officers who stumbled upon a sweeping criminal enterprise among colleagues, and were then “hung out to dry” by the department and FBI. But it wasn’t originally intended for The Intercept, which provided sanctuary after deals with three other prominent outlets failed due to inherent challenges of what Kalven aimed to deliver.
In sum, what do you do when your sophisticated gut tells you a whistleblower’s story is on the mark but you just corroborate it in the traditional ways? What if everybody who knows its truth might be lying and you can’t find empirical, independent verification of key elements?
In most cases, newsroom leaders might both voice empathy and spurn the tale. That conundrum — truth and problems with verifying it in traditional ways — dogged Kalven in his latest odyssey. But his solution found an answer, even if it’s one that will enthrall some and bother others.
As the Al Jazeera crew head to lunch, I chatted with Kalven about how he found a voice and resting place for “Code of Silence,” an epic on institutional corruption that reflects partly his more than 100 hours of interviews with the central cop, Shannon Spaulding, now suffering what’s been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder after years of emotional abuse of professional isolation after she and her partner were outed by the department’s internal affairs division (Hollywood producers, you best read this).
When you realized you had a potentially terrific piece here, how did you envision its structure and its final resting place?
After several extended conversations with Shannon Spaulding, the central whistleblower, it was apparent that she was an extraordinary source, a remarkable storyteller and had a body of experience and perspective that interacted with my own experience — on the ground reporting and in public housing before it was demolished on the South Side.
I found myself with a rich, complicated story that hadn’t been told that was essentially about the internal operation of the (Chicago Police Department) with respect to forms of corruption and abuse that I had been reporting on the ground for years. But here was an opportunity through Shannon and others to understand how the machinery worked on the other side of the wall, inside the department.
So it was a long, complicated story. I realized it was an extended narrative and it became more and more apparent that it was a propulsive narrative, with thrust and force and kind of lived in its details in evoking conditions on the ground and the culture within the department. So there was, from the start, some clarity that it was a long, narrative inquiry.
Why was this a tricky story?
It was apparent that it was a tricky story because first it implicates, and alleges wrongdoing by a lot of individuals within the department and FBI, some at high levels. But it’s also fundamentally a complicated story because, contrasted with the Snowden papers where the whistleblower delivers to journalists a trove of documents we then harvest stories from, this was an isolated whistleblower taking great personal risk, coming with a story that in its nature couldn’t be corroborated, as a whole, only at certain isolated points.
It was also a story about an institution we have a reason to believe misrepresents, falsifies and lies. Since I started to work on it, we have had mayor’s task force on police accountability describe the code of silence as official policy at the department. And document instances, like in the McDonald case, of tremendous institutional incentive in selling a false narrative.
So you have an isolated individual with a compelling story that can’t be corroborated for the most part and double-sourced. So question for me as a journalist is: How do I responsibly tell this story?
Before we go onto your thinking, just give me an example of the sort of thing that obviously caused you problems, an example of the sort of thing that might have had the ring of truth but you couldn’t in any traditional way corroborate.
So if you look at the piece, part of the challenge was created by the fabulous capacity for storytelling of my principal source. She could recreate an encounter with a senior police officer, or somebody on the street, allowing me to render that encounter as dialogue in a narrative. But I could only rarely locate, or even if I located the person, get them to talk about the exchange. So it could be an exchange among her, her partner and the head of Internal Affairs; an encounter on the street with a drug dealer. These were necessary stories to tell, not as god’s truth, but as Shannon’s truth.
And the other journalistic convention I believe in — giving those named or the focus of allegations of misdeeds a chance to respond. I wanted to honor that core value of journalism while telling a narrative that wasn’t impeded in every graph by official denials. And this is ultimately a story about officials denials, the code of silence and narrative control of the police department. (The challenge was) to satisfy journalistic rigor without overselling the story, but allowing it to breathe in such as way so readers could make their own assessments of credibility, while keeping in sight the blanket official denials,
But, at heart, obviously, you got to a point, as a veteran journalist, that you just sense that this account by her had the ring of truth.
I had unique knowledge of some part of the story given my years of immersion in high risk public housing and reporting on policing and police abuse. I had unusual sources, among residents, drug dealers and others. I also spent well more than 100 hours in conversation with her and then in conversation with others in the story. So I’d go over the same incident multiple times, looking for inconsistencies, and coming back again to the same set of themes. And to a remarkable degree she was consistent. And when I found some (inconsistencies) in my own notes, it was invariably something that I had wrong.
So there is that cumulative, almost drip-by-drip establishment of credibility. That doesn’t mean you accept it uncritically. But you have a conviction it is a story worth telling and that there must be an avenue to tell it.
A lot is arrayed against a whistleblower. There is the ability of the department to line up shoulder to shoulder and say this woman is delusional. First Amendment law, this judicial era, is hostile to whistleblowers. Part of my concern was that important and journalistic standards of care also aided and abetted the code of silence and muffled the voice of the whistleblower.
But I had reached a threshold conviction that this had the ring of truth. But how to give her story enough oxygen, and those of other voices, to contextualize the story in appropriate ways and provide links to the official denials?
So, the architecture of the piece is really directed toward the final passage in the fourth section that sharply raises the question: if Spaulding and others are telling the same story, if she is telling the truth and you have now read a novella length article, then a large number of senior officials are lying in concert. And in the whistleblower suit she and her partner brought (settled by the City of Chicago for $2 million just before trial), the city was willing to offer a defense that was the embodiment of the code of silence.
There is no way that she can be telling the truth and they are not lying. You as a reader, due to the length and detail and structure, can come to a tentative assessment of your own, then entertain the question I pose at the end.
What happened when you took this story to Slate, The Guardian and the Center for Investigative reporting?
Who will take a piece of this length and this character, containing allegations of wrongdoing on this scale, with the principal source not being documentary but the reports of several individuals? I first spoke to the Center for Investigative Reporting. I was grappling with the question of how one told this story responsibly. I feel like a 19th century novelist conscripted to be a reporter. So I was looking for help from the pros. I have friends there and it went back and forth and never really got down to the point of an editorial process. At that point, with some frustration, I took the piece and went to The Guardian.
In the interim I had published my Slate piece (disclosing the autopsy results) on Laquan McDonald. They were very serious at The Guardian, and I conveyed my vision and desire for help on how to tell the story. They were all in but ultimately came to a point that we could only do this if we edit it in a way that everything can be supported by what’s in the public record.
There was much in the discovery process of the whistleblower suit, but it was still fragmentary. And my interviews were so much richer than the deposition testimony. They wanted to scale back to due to understandable legal anxiety and for journalistic reasons related to what could be corroborated by legal documents. I then withdrew it.
Editors at Slate expressed interest. I talked to them, and we had the same conversation on how I imagined telling the story. And the editors with whom I had really good experience with, they again — and I don’t know this for a fact — but the shadow of legal department was there. So I withdrew it, again, with regret on both sides.
So I went to The Intercept, and it proved to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my professional life. They had the same threshold concerns. What were the legal implications? But their commitment was to realize and embrace my vision of an extended narrative, regardless of length. We would figure out other ways of prominently acknowledging official denials without just having to braid them through the piece, paragraph by paragraph.
It ended up being a very rigorous process. Weeks of fact-checking and legal vetting. We strategized together on how to tell the story and over journalistic conventions. But I want to emphasize that it was their dual commitment to the vision of the story, how the story needed to be told, and a significant institutional investment. I can’t imagine the man-hours at their end, in thoroughly vetting the story and thinking through, sentence by sentence, how we phrased the most intense allegations in the piece.
What are any final lessons of all this?
Part of it, as was true with Laquan McDonald stuff, part of the answer is there was no effort to finesse or do an end-run around journalistic conventions of rigor. But if the journalistic task is to tell the story of someone who has taken great risks to bring a story to the public, how does one responsibly do that and frame it so the reader understands that this is what you are doing? There are a number of junctures where we refer to the official denials. We have the full corpus of deposition testimony. We are in no way hiding that or obscuring that.
For me, in telling these stories, and I don’t want to suggest this is a recipe, but it is a strategy, how to tell a compelling story that allows the reader to travel the same narrative arc you have as a reporter in investigating the story, but to also ultimately deliver the reader to a set of questions that the story sets in play. As opposed to landing too conclusively. The other part of is to remember that even a story as long and extended as this one is part of a process. I have already learned things since it came out. I suspect the ultimate measure of the reporting will be somewhere downstream when we know a lot more.
There are things that are knowable, in FBI files that could go public, and known via further investigation of the office of internal affairs. It’s a part of a process. That doesn’t absolve you of all the requirements for rigor and care. But I am looking forward to learning more and filling in some of the blank spots.
I recently had an extraordinary experience of what can happen when that process runs true. The original reporting I did for Slate on Laquan McDonald raises questions. And, over time, the process was advances and now we know a vast amount about that incident and the institutional.
In the responses to those people who have compared the piece to “The Wire,” “Serpico” and other things, I think that is revealing. If you think of police procedurals of various sorts, like “The Wire,” they are a huge part of our culture. The rogue cop — “Training Day,” “The Shield,” endless examples.
As with your point about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert occupying a space that has been defaulted to them, and doing striking work, one of the things that has happened with stories like this is that they end up being told in fiction and films. So we have other spaces in which certain commentary take place.
I’m trying to ask whether we, journalists, are not abdicating too much space to these other modalities of storytelling. This is also just an expensive piece to do. It has cost me a lot, cost Shannon a lot. It cost The Intercept a lot. This kind of storytelling doesn’t come cheap.
So one question I hope it bequeaths is what is the value of this kind of reporting? Downstream events will be part of the answer. This could become quite a big deal. It could also be a story that people think well of but has limited impact in the world. That affects our assessment of whether it was worth the cost.