Stories that start with a toothache … and suburban cops selling cocaine — day two at the Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

Every year the Logan Symposium begins with a session called “How the sausage is made.” That’s a phrase that reporters and political observers usually use to describe how legislators make laws — it’s not always meant as a compliment. In this case, it’s applied to investigative journalism. As documentary producer Lowell Bergman said when introducing the morning’s panelists, we were going to hear “what actually goes into the making of these stories.”

Note what we ate for lunch after the session on sausage making.

Note what we ate for lunch after the session on sausage making.

The first presenter was Megan O’Matz, an investigative reporter at the Sun-Sentinel. She and fellow reporter John Maines spent six months looking into records about Sunrise, Florida’s undercover narcotics unit. Pretty soon after they started the investigation, O’Matz said she knew she had a good story.

“I have the cops selling cocaine at the mall,” she said she thought at the time. (Editorial comment: That is not a sentence that one hears very often. Which means it’s just the kind of thing an investigative reporter is looking for when considering doing a story. You don’t get many investigative stories that can be summed up as “Regular people doing normal everyday things.”) And not only were the cops selling cocaine, they were offering incredible deals on packages of the drug, like “buy one, get one free.”

Of course, the sales were sting operations and the buyers were nailed by the police. Here’s a long excerpt from the story, Cops. Cash. Cocaine: How Sunrise Police Make Millions Selling Drugs (it’s so good I couldn’t cut it down):

Undercover detectives and their army of informants lure big-money drug buyers into the city from across the United States, and from as far north as Canada and as far south as Peru. They negotiate the sale of kilos of cocaine in popular family restaurants, then bust the buyers and seize their cash and cars.

Police confiscate millions from these deals, money that fuels huge overtime payments for the undercover officers who conduct the drug stings and cash rewards for the confidential informants who help detectives entice faraway buyers, a six-month Sun Sentinel investigation found.

Police have paid one femme fatale informant more than $800,000 over the past five years for her success in drawing drug dealers into the city, records obtained by the newspaper show.

Undercover officers tempt these distant buyers with special discounts, even offering cocaine on consignment and the keys to cars with hidden compartments for easy transport. In some deals, they’ve provided rides and directions to these strangers to Sunrise.

This being western Broward County, not South Beach, the drama doesn’t unfold against a backdrop of fast boats, thumping nightclubs or Art Deco hotels.

It’s absurdly suburban.

Many of the drug negotiations and busts have taken place at restaurants around the city’s main attraction, Sawgrass Mills mall, including such everyday dining spots as TGI Fridays, Panera Bread and the Don Pan International Bakery.

A photo by Vivian Maier, part of an exhibit of her photographs on display at the Graduate School of Journalism, which hosted the Logan Symposium.

A photo by Vivian Maier, part of an exhibit, "Vivian Maier's Newspaper Portraits," on display at the Graduate School of Journalism, which hosted the Logan Symposium.

Another panelist, ProPublica’s Jeff Gerth, illustrated how reporters can find big stories lurking behind everyday things. He told how the story he co-authored on the overdose dangers of acetaminophen, Use Only as Directed, began when he had a tooth pulled and was prescribed a painkiller by the dentist. That investigation found that “during the last decade, more than 1,500 Americans died after accidentally taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety: acetaminophen, one of the nation’s most popular pain relievers….Tens of millions of people use it weekly with no ill effect. But in larger amounts, especially in combination with alcohol, the drug can damage or even destroy the liver.”

And panelist Sarah Stillman said that her New Yorker story on the use of young offenders as confidential informants, The Throwaways, was in part motivated by the desire to describe “the intersection of personal story and systemic injustice.”

Here’s an excerpt from Stillman’s story:

Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others, like Hoffman, are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.

Lisa Song of InsideClimate News told us about how she and her colleagues pulled together the untold story of The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, about a thousand-gallon oil spill into the Kalamazoo River. That story was made all the more significant by the fact that the oil was Canadian diluted bitumen, which is the kind of oil that could be transported through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil. With Enbridge’s costs already totaling more than $765 million, it is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968. 

I wish I could go on and describe Megan Twohey’s account of how she put together her remarkable story about how some American adoptive parents of children from overseas give away those children via the Internet. But it’s past my bedtime, so I’ll just give you the link to that story and tell you that it’s a must-read. And it will probably make you cry: The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Underground Market for Adopted Children.

Oh, and in last night’s blog entry, I promised to tell you whether the “Preposium” I was heading out to was an event where reporters got together and thought about going for a drink — as opposed to a “Symposium,” which in ancient Greece was a gathering of aristocratic men who drank together through the night.

Here’s my answer: The margaritas were delicious.

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