The (long) process of investigative reporting
A book full of investigative reporting is a living thing, one that lies fallow for a long time before it buds, and finally – if you’re lucky – blossoms and bears fruit. This can take a while. When I say “a while,” I’m referring to a time period considerably in excess of that required to produce a human child, a foal, or even an elephant calf. In the case of Crooked, it has been nearly four years. In general, my extended family and friends do not understand this. (My colleagues, in contrast, understand it all too well.) I’ve had people congratulate me on receiving a book contract, and then ask me, a few months later, if I’ve finished, and when the book will be published, because they need it very badly. They are innocent civilians in the publishing wars, and mean no harm. I am sure they don’t intend to suggest that there is something wrong with me (blocked?), my process (inefficient?), or the book itself (poorly conceived?) that is holding up the works, but this is often how it feels.
They don’t understand the process of discovery involved in an extensive piece of investigative reporting. It’s an unveiling, where the bandages are removed, layer after layer, and slowly, you find out what is underneath. Sometimes it’s not what you expect. When you have a book contract in hand and a completely unreasonable delivery date, this can be scary.
People often ask me how I do my research; how I find out where the bodies are buried, and how I get sources to talk to me, when they would be better off if they slammed the door in my face. I’ve been at it for 35 years, so I can tell you that it requires willingness to walk into alien environments with your tender parts exposed. As a journalist, rather than an expert in a particular field, it is inevitable that you will be an idiot at the start.
Of course, your source can’t know this. He or she has to believe that you know everything, including everything about him or her. There is seduction involved, and this involves tremendous preparation and sleuthing; dossiers prepared, studies analyzed and notes made of a person’s strengths, weaknesses and penetrable spots.
Inevitably, there’s a wasted stretch where, like a disoriented beagle, you spend a lot of time barking up the wrong tree, until you realize that what you mistakenly presumed was a tasty squirrel is actually an old sneaker.
Sometimes, the door does get slammed in your face in a way that bodes poorly for the future – and that’s where the fight begins.
When I first started researching Crooked, I became aware of an event called the Low Back Pain Forum that took place every other year, and would occur in Boston in June of 2009. Since I was writing about low back pain, this seemed like a must-do. I’ve attended dozens of scientific conferences, and I assumed that it would simple to obtain a media pass. Because very few reporters actually wish to speak with scientists – they’d prefer to publish the quasi-scientific dreck that comes out of a university’s public relations department – I’m normally greeted at such events with open arms, granola bars and juice for sustenance, and a pre-arranged, non-stop interview schedule.
I thought the Low Back Pain Forum would serve as an excellent introduction to what was going on in the field, and so, months in advance I wrote to the man who would chair the event. I heard nothing back. No problem, I thought – there was plenty of time. Several emails went unanswered, but I continued to write, with a tiny hint of irritation creeping into my “voice.”
Finally, there was a response, and it was resoundingly negative. No, I would not be granted media credentials for the Low Back Pain Forum. In fact, they’d decided that there would be no media at this conference.
Because I was still naïve about the back pain industry and the profound conflicts of interest involved, I found this surprising. What on earth could they be talking about for three days that didn’t require coverage? I wrote again to ask that question, noting that some of the most influential thinkers in the field would be attending, from all over the world. This would be an ideal opportunity for me to interview people from as far away as Australia and South Africa, making it possible to offer a global perspective in my book.
This changed nothing. On previous occasions, the chair noted, members of the media had made conference participants feel uncomfortable. I was not invited, the chairman wrote, and if I should be so bold as to attend, guards would escort me from the premises. I should be aware that I would not be permitted entrance to the building, to the cafeteria on the ground floor, or even to use the ladies’ room. The tone of the email was quite threatening, and it was obvious that the chair thought this would take care of the problem – me. Evidently, he did not know that this was like waving a red cape in front of a charging bull.
It had been some years since I’d been escorted from any premises, I responded, and the very fact that we were having this conversation – had he heard of freedom of the press? -- would make it necessary for me to fly to Boston. I would loiter for three days at the exterior of the conference venue, which happened to be the Harvard School of Public Health. It was unlikely, I told him, that guards would lay a finger on me, a middle-aged and scholarly type, and if they did, it would be interesting to see what happened next. I would, I assured him, interview anyone I damn well wanted to interview, on the sunny terrace outside the building, or in the case of foul weather, in the pub across the street.
That was exactly what I did. I wrote to most of the experts attending the conference to arrange meetings, explaining that I had been banned from the building, but would be available, nonetheless. The weather cooperated, so mostly we met on the flagstone terrace. Some of the participants, especially those hailing from the UK, preferred to bend an elbow in the cozy environment of the pub.
That I was banned from the conference worked in my favor. Participants were shocked. People couldn’t wait to introduce me to their colleagues, and I handed out business cards until I had none left.
An academic, the author of one of the most important studies of back pain prevalence to be published that year, walked me into the building after our hour-long interview, so that I could get some lunch and use the bathroom. The fact that I had no conference tags around my neck didn’t faze the guards; after all, I was deep in conversation with one of the most distinguished members of the group. I felt as good about this as if I had charged the gates of the Bastille. After I helped myself to a salad, I trotted over to what is know as the “poster session,” where the details of unpublished, but interesting studies, often by younger researchers, are affixed to the walls.
There, I ran into a person whom I recognized instantly as one of my own breed – a journalist of some kind, but how could that be, when no members of the media had been given credentials? He was writing as fast as he could in a steno notebook. I gave him my card. He gave me his, and I realized that he was that rare thing, a skeptical insider, with the back pain industry’s stamp of approval. I can’t identify him here, because I promised that I never would, but he was equipped with a critical mind, an encyclopedic knowledge of the medical literature, a fabulous turn of phrase and perfect access to the kind of sources I needed to get to know. Over the next several years, he would help me tremendously, clarifying trouble spots, pointing me to important new studies, and helping Crooked to bud and blossom. Often, I felt that he ought to have been the one to write this book, but he liked his job and was content to take an anonymous back seat.
I’ll never be able to name him, but as I approach the completion of this manuscript – not on human infant or foal or elephant calf gestation time, but on its own protracted schedule of four long years – I want to thank him for helping me peel away the bandages, layer by layer. I could not have done it without him.