Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love is the true story of two crusading female reporters for an underfunded newspaper, who exposed massive corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department and won the Pulitzer Prize for their work.
True tales of journalism appeal to me. And the book has blurbs from two writers I admire, Mark Bowden and Edna Buchanan. So I added it to my wish list when I first heard about it, and my beloved and indulgent brother and sister-in-law picked it up for me as a birthday present. (Thanks, guys!)
Given that it was something I asked for, and received as a present, this review may seem kind of churlish. But, while I appreciated the gift and enjoyed the book, it has some problems. And it would be unfair to my readers not to mention those problems, family matters aside.
The book is listed as by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Lasker. Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker are the two reporters who did the Pulitzer-prize winning “Tainted Justice” series for the Philadelphia Daily News, and were officially credited with the prize. I do find it odd and interesting that Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker do not mention that they actually shared the “Investigative Reporting” prize that year with Sheri Fink of the NYT. I do remember that there was some controversy over that; Ms. Fink’s work was originally in the “Feature Writing” category, but the Pulitzer board moved it to “Investigative Reporting”. It doesn’t diminish Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s accomplishment that they shared the prize, but not mentioning that fact makes me wonder.
Additionally, while the book carries both bylines, it appears to have been entirely a Ms. Ruderman production. When Ms. Lasker is mentioned, it is always in the third person as “Barbara”, while Ms. Ruderman narrates the book in the first person. Ms. Ruderman is a talented writer, but I feel the book would have benefited from more of Ms. Lasker’s perspective in the first person, rather than Ms. Ruderman’s recounting of her thoughts and feelings after the fact. For example, I’d love to hear Ms. Lasker’s account of being slapped by a source, and getting upset afterwards, because she lost her pen, from her own mouth rather than Ms. Ruderman’s. (The Daily News, being a broke newspaper, provided reporters with cheap pens. Ms. Lasker sprang for the “four for $3.99″ ones at the grocery store and losing one was “a big deal”. As well it should be. Crappy pens suck. Don’t buy pens at the dollar store, either. Just saying.)
It is possible that I may be mistaken, and this is just an authorial device. If so, it seems to me to be an unusual one; most collaborations of this sort that I’ve read set off the individual contributions by name, for example “Barbara” and “Wendy”.
Busted seems like a short book. It comes in at 242 pages (including acknowledgements) but it feels even shorter than that. And this leads into two more problems with the book. The first one is that it feels padded, and not in a good way. I would have liked more descriptions of the journalistic process Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker followed; but I have to face the fact that their journalistic process was dogged, unrelenting, boots-on-ground going through search warrants and talking to people work. (As opposed to the “reporter with a database” model that seems to pervade much of modern journalism.) Instead, there’s a lot of discussion of the precarious finances of the Daily News and of Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s personal lives.
And that’s the second problem. Ms. Ruderman spends a lot of time discussing her difficulties striking a balance between being a good wife and parent and pursuing a good story. I get that, I sympathize with that, but lots of women have that problem. Granted, not all of them are spending their days searching for crack dealers, but a little bit of the work/life balance whinging goes a long way.
There’s also some stuff that I think flat out doesn’t belong.
Barbara had long, wavy highlighted blond hair and a tangerine slice of a nose. Her big green eyes, flecked with caramel, reminded me of top-of-the-line granite kitchen counters. She rimmed them with dark olive eyeliner and a hint of grayish blue eye shadow. With her coral lip gloss, silver hoop earrings, snug skirts, and candy-colored blouses, Barbara came off all bubble-gum–wifty and gee-whiz. But that was just her facade.
What the frack? If I was Ms. Ruderman’s editor, I’d have cut everything except maybe the last two sentences, and I would have cut the first half of the second to last one. This isn’t the only paragraph in which Ms. Ruderman dwells on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker. And there’s also quite a bit of material about Ms. Lasker’s misadventures in the dating scene, including failed Match.com dates and her relationship with her neighbor “Hutch”.
(Side note about “Hutch”: “A gun lover, he kept a 9mm Glock in his bedroom dresser and stashed shotguns and hunting rifles in a locked safe. Barbara hated guns.” Yet later on, when Ms. Lasker and Ms. Ruderman are afraid the Philadelphia PD is targeting them, “Hutch” is the person Ms. Lasker looks to for protection. Odd, isn’t it, how people who “hate guns” don’t hesitate to turn to people who have guns for protection? Especially when you’re afraid of “the only ones” you think should have guns?)
I’m not going to throw around my feminist credentials here, because I don’t have any. I believe in equality of opportunity for women. I believe women have a right to go about their lives and make choices without being physically attacked or sexually abused. I think the best rape deterrent is two to the chest and one to the head, administered by the victim at the time of the assault. I support strong, intelligent women. If that makes me a feminist, so be it. I don’t claim the title.
But the dwelling on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker makes me uncomfortable. If it had been “Mr. Ruderman” instead of “Ms. Ruderman” who had written the paragraph above, would we be hearing complaints from women? “What do her physical attributes and her dating life have to do with her ability to do the job?” What, indeed?
(And how do green eyes remind you of granite kitchen counters, anyway?)
This is a shame, because Ms. Ruderman could have found other ways to fill space. I would have liked to hear more stories about their editor, Gar Joseph, to take one example. You have to like an editor who tells his staff, “I don’t give a shit about the parade unless a small child is entangled in the ropes of the Mighty Mouse balloon and choked to death, so don’t waste a reporter on it.” We could use more editors like that these days. Ms. Ruderman could also, perhaps, have filled in some more context on the Inquirer/Daily News war and the struggles of both papers in the new economy. And it would have been nice to see the “Tainted Justice” series put into the context of Philadelphia’s long history of police corruption.
That leads into my final issue with Busted. And, to be fair, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the writing (which is good) or the book’s narrative (which is compelling). But I feel like I have to ask this question of Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker:
In the end, what did you accomplish?
The only result that’s mentioned in the book is some reforms in the way the narcotics division operates, and most of those reforms seem (from Ms. Ruderman’s account) to be stronger restatements of existing policy rather than actual rule changes.
And these events took place after the book was published, so it may be unfair to drag them in here. However, there is an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored:
The officers involved in the “Tainted Justice” investigation, including Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, will not face any charges for their actions. As a matter of fact, while they may face some internal disciplinary action, most reports I’ve read say it is very likely that they will be allowed back on the street and awarded back pay including “lost overtime pay”.
Okay. So let’s set aside the sexual assault allegations against Thomas Tolstoy for a moment. After all, these allegations come down to “he said/she said”, and shouldn’t we give the benefit of the doubt to the accused? Even if there are multiple complaints from multiple women? Even if at least one of those women says she was never contacted by investigators?
Let’s set aside the falsification of warrants charges against Jeffrey Cujdik, too. After all, much of the case against him rests on the word of a convicted drug dealer and known drug addict turned informant. Should we trust someone like that? Even if his charges are backed up by outside evidence, including the search warrants he allegedly lied on?
We still have the raids on merchants, where Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, among others, disabled surveillance cameras and took money and property from store owners. This is not a “he said/they said” situation: for God’s sake, these men are on video committing these acts! And those acts weren’t just violations of department policy: if you or I stole stuff from a bodega, we’d be prosecuted.
But Jeffrey Cujdik, Thomas Tolstoy, Robert McDonnell Jr., and Richard Cujdik (Jeffery’s brother) are walking away without charges and with back pay for right now.
Why do the good citizens of Philadelphia tolerate this? Why are the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police not being treated as criminal gangs? There’s evidence that both organizations attempted to intimidate witnesses to Cujdik and Tolstoy’s conduct; where are the RICO charges? Where are any criminal charges?
I know what Lawrence will probably say the answer is: the mayor of Philadelphia is an African-American Democrat, and the Obama administration is unlikely to bring charges against the police department that would embarrass him. Perhaps this is the case. I’m pretty cynical, but I haven’t quite reached that level of cynicism yet.
Busted is a good story. I just wish it was a more satisfying one, with a better ending.