An Interview with Thomas Peele – Author of “Killing The Messenger” – by Bill Dahl
Thomas Peele (from his website) is an an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, publishers of The Contra Costa Times, The San Jose Mercury News, The Oakland Tribune and other papers surrounding San Francisco, where he specializes in data collection and analysis. He’s also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, co-teaching a class on public-records reporting. He’s won more than 50 journalism awards, for long-term investigations of government corruption, the environment, casino gambling and murders to a story in the first person voice of a Christmas tree waiting to be bought on Christmas Eve. Thomas Peele is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience on both coasts. Since 2000, he has been an investigative reporter for the 23 newspapers of the Singleton-owned Bay Area News Group.
He has won numerous awards for his work, including the 2007 Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Renner Award for the Chauncey Bailey Project, and from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his pursuing Freedom of Information inquiries. He is a winner of the McGill Medal of Journalistic Courage. You can read the McGill Award article here.
He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Long Island University and a master’s in creative writing from the University of San Francisco.
Truly outstanding works of literature spawn curiosity, questions and spontaneous dialog. The stories of story-tellers (the great one’s anyway) – emit certain mysterious energies that impact me as I am reading — and somehow — stick with my soul after I have finished. Thomas Peele’s “Killing The Messenger” is distinctly one of those rare works of investigative journalism possessing both these attributes…and MORE!!!
A few weeks after consuming this book, it continued to ricochet through my soul. I contacted Tom. He gracefully agreed to the following interview with me – that illuminate a few of the myriad of issues that this work lays bare. As you can see from the interview below, Peele’s work has tremendous practical application and implications regarding a number of complex and challenging issues that are alive and well today. I hope you enjoy the following interview with Tom Peele. BUY THIS BOOK!!!
Q-1 — Every author receives a ton of questions regarding their most recent work. Oftentimes, the questions are terribly redundant. What is the one (or two) question(s) that people have not asked about “Killing The Messenger,” that you have wished they would. Please share the question(s) and your response(s):
A1A – (Q) What was your writing process like?
My deal was not structured so that I could take a book leave from my newspaper job. I also work as a part-time university lecturer, so every minute counted. I got up most mornings and 5 and worked until 9 and then went to my regular jobs. I tried to squeeze out an hour or two every night. Weekends were pretty much devoted to the project, at least all day Saturday and half of Sunday. But as any writer knows, the process is never really turned off. I was constantly writing notes to myself wherever I went. It was intense. No vacation for three years – at least not a legitimate vacation that was not a research trip or just days holed up in my writing room. There is an old saying that writers must learn to write when they don’t want to write. It is, of course, quite true.
(Q-2) As a first time author, what is your impression of the book publishing industry?
A better question might be what is the book publishing industry’s impression of me? I work in newspapers, where things are pretty much a constant state of rough and tumble and where people communicate with each other with great amount of intellectual honesty, if not brutal honesty. I learned the hard way how off-putting it is to people in book publishing to be addressed bluntly, or unenthusiastically. I regret not adapting more quickly to their world than bringing mine with me. I certainly made mistakes I hope to avoid on another book. My deal occurred when the publishing industry is under tremendous strain. Borders went bankrupt. Amazon bulled its way into E-book publishing, not just sale. It is a tumultuous time. I think it is a very open question as to whether print books will survive in a meaningful way. I live in a house full of books and I rooting openly, against E-books. Traditional book publishers like mine, Crown, which is wonderful outfit, need to survive, as do independent bookstores.
Q-3 — The murder of Chauncey Bailey occurred on August 2, 2007. “Killing The Messenger” was published in 2012. It seems that you began doing research on the possibility of this book in 2007 (p.367). It appears you made the decision to move forward with the book after your dinner with Lisa Catherine Harper and Kory Heinzen in January 2009 (“write the Bailey book” – p. 367 – Acknowledgments). Thus, one might surmise that it took you 4+ years to conduct the research that culminated in the book. Please comment on what “inhabits the being” of investigative journalists like yourself, to dedicate such a span of one’s lifetime to telling a story. Please talk about the internal debates you had with yourself, how you may have been “Unable to shake it,” times you felt overwhelmed, THREATENED, afraid, difficult to live with, the sacrifices one has to make (including family members) etc.
What I was doing since Aug. 2, 2007 was newspaper reporting on Mr. Bailey’s death with a consortium of other journalists. The book grew out of that massive effort and much of it was based on. When I decided in January 2009 to write the book, a great deal of the research was done in the form of the reportage.
I think what “inhabits the being” of an investigative reporter is a sense of righteous indignation, if not outright anger. In this case, I and others were angry that a reporter had been killed and intended to something about it, just as journalists did something about the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. We felt duty bound to send the message on behalf of our profession that “you can’t kill a story by killing a reporter.” If we were going to be true to journalism and the First Amendment that protects it, we really had no choice but to do the work and see the story through. Bailey’s murder burned at the souls of the reporters who investigated it.
In a similar way, I believe I had a duty to write the book. It was not really a choice, it was a responsibility. As I said earlier, my book deal was structured as such that I could not take a leave of absence from my newspaper job, so I got up at 5 a.m. seven days a week to research and write. I suffered a repetitive stress injury to my left arm that left me nearly unable to lift it. My health suffered in other ways. My marriage suffered greatly to the point it nearly ended. My twin daughters, who were born a few months into the book-writing process and only days after Yusuf Bey IV was finally charged with Bailey’s murder, went without me for significant pieces of time. I was an incredibly difficult person to deal with, to be around, and also wracked with self doubt (could I possibly write a book on tight deadline that would be any good at all?) and fear that the subjects of the book would retaliate against me the way they retaliated against Mr. Bailey. I had a lot of nightmares, to be honest, often nightly.
My wife is incredible. She got through it, somehow, with twins in tow. A lot of lesser people would have split, there is no other way to put it. We fought a lot, she went through an extended period of hating the book. So did I. Not everyone survived unscathed. My agent recently informed me she won’t represent me on another project, which is a tremendous loss to me. I was hard on everyone.
Q-4 — It has been said that “hopelessness is the birthplace of every form of extremism.” Can you opine on this phrase as it relates to what you learned in writing “Killing The Messenger – A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assassination of a Journalist?”
The people who formed the Nation of Islam in Detroit during the early 1930s had no hope. As the depression tightened around them like a noose around a neck, they suffered repeated dehumanization and indignities. Michigan had more than 100,000 active Klansman. Food and jobs were scarce. And here came this con man, W. D. Fard, challenging everything that people in the ghetto believed, who their true God was, where their lost roots could be found, even what they ate. He told them to hate their oppressors. But his religion, which he claimed to be Islam, was a false one. It was extreme to the point of tales of space ships and fables about made scientists who created Caucasians and Jews through genetic experiments. Had people any other form of hope, humanity or dignity available to them, I doubt they would have embraced the belief system Fard foisted on them.
Q-5 — There is an ongoing debate about the nature of man (good v. evil duality). After writing this book, did your view concerning the nature of man shift considerably? If so, how so? Did you ever “meet evil face to face?” during the research/writing of the book? “I could hear him laughing” (Broussard p. 366).
Yusuf Bey IV was as close to evil as I got, interviewing him once in jail and observing him closely for hundreds of hours in court and listening to hundreds of hours of his jail phone calls after obtaining recordings of them. I tried not to let my delving of his life and beliefs change any of my opinions about the human race. People have committed evil acts from the beginning of the human race and will continue to do so. Yet a tremendous majority of us live lives in which we don’t steal and kill and maim.
Q-6 — In my view, Your Black Muslim Bakery could be accurately characterized as a cult. What, in your opinion, are the essential ingredients required to produce a cult of this nature?
Isolation and a charismatic leader, yet one who is both loved and feared. It also requires extremely damaged, or plainly ignorant people. The Beys attracted very poor, embittered people who suffered lives of poverty and dehumanization. Yusuf Bey (the elder) also ruled his followers with absolute authority. Several women later testified that they feared he would kill them if they disobeyed his orders, which included presenting young girls to him for sex. Bey was once observed committing a rape and two days later the person who made that observation was found dead. Cult members both loved and feared him, that was the key to his power.
Q-7 — There are those (particularly Baby Boomers who lived through the civil rights movement in the U.S.) – who suggest that the state of racism in the U.S. is vastly better than it used to be. There are others who suggest that the current expression of racism (behaviors, depth and breadth) has simply become more veiled, maintaining its breadth and depth in the U.S. Can you comment on what your view of the current state/character of racism in the U.S.?
I believe that racism, especially in veiled forms, remains, very real in the U.S. One has to look not just at the death of Trayvon Martin killing but it’s aftermath to see it. The right attacks immediate criticism by people of color about Martin’s death, stereotyping him as a thug because he was wearing a hood. Yet, Martin’s killing was, in many ways, just another sorry occurrence in hundreds of years of oppression and terror.
Q-8 — Bart D. Ehrman Ph.D. has recently said in an interview “If I am opposed to anything, it is fundamentalism in its various guises.” In terms of the Bey’s organization and “faith” how would you characterize the genesis of this form of “fundamentalist faith?” In other words, was the faith produced a product/outgrowth of primarily racism, power, struggle for identity, control, ego, acceptance, hatred, and money? Or did the former (‘nature of faith’) produce the latter? Can you talk about your view of the interaction of these variables as it relates to the Bey’s “faith development” in “Killing The Messenger?”
Bey’s faith was the faith of opportunity. It was his path to power, wealth and sex, the things he craved. To achieve those things, he stuck to the very fundamental dogma that the founders of his religion had employed 70 years earlier. I interviewed a Nation of Islam historian who had viewed tapes of Bey’s sermons. His response was what “a throwback” Bey was – how his teachings had never progressed beyond the NOI’s fundamental dogma. Fueling hate made it easier for Bey to maintain control over his followers and ensure their loyalty. Their loyalty, in turned, allowed hm to accumulate wealth and power. The more fundamental within his teachings he remained, the more he achieved.
Q-9 — According to David Garrow in his book, “Bearing The Cross – Martin Luther King Jr. and The Southern Christian Leadership Conference” – Dr. King met with Elijah Muhammad in Chicago (p.465 — Taylor Branch characterizes the same meeting in his book, At Canaan’s Edge pp.440-441). Although Dr. King had condemned the Nation of Islam’s “anti-white rhetoric” – Garrow characterizes their meeting as “cordial” and contends that Elijah Muhammad reacted favorably toward the civil rights movement’s efforts to “eradicate slums” (P. 466). This meeting occurred in 1966. Chauncey Bailey was murdered in 2007. Fourth and Mackey were sentenced in August 2011. Here’s the question; What is the state of the slums in Oakland, CA today, in your view?
Oakland is a sprawling, dysfunctional city. Slums continue to exist, especially in East Oakland. The city lacks the funding for full basic services – enough police on the streets, the repair of potholes – let alone the eradication of poverty. California remains in a deep budget crisis that will only worsen the plight of its poorer cities and school districts. Oakland’s police department could soon fall under federal control because of years of mismanagement. None of these things are going to help the slums.
Q-10 – Elijah Muhammad (formerly Elijah Poole) and Dr. King were both the son’s of preachers from Georgia. Taylor Branch describes Elijah Muhammad’s early years as an admitted “whooping Baptist.” (At Canaan’s Edge – p. 441). King became the champion of non-violence and racial equality while Elijah Muhammad advocated violence and characterized Caucasians as “white devils.” How can two people who come from distinctly similar childhoods become so diabolically dissimilar adults?
King seized opportunities to become an educated person, Poole did not. King’s father was an established minister within a formal church structure. Poole’s father was traveling lay preacher in the back woods. Poole ended up in the dehumanizing ghetto’s of Detroit, grasping for any answer to explain his plight. It should also be noted that physiological examinations of Poole (by then Muhammad) when he was in prison in the 1940s showed he had the cognitive abilities of an 11 year old.
Q-11 — The myriad acts of brutal, senseless, horrific violence (in all its forms) characterized in “Killing The Messenger” – committed by the Bey’s or their followers shocked me. Honestly, I had to put the book down and walk away for a bit to clear my soul…I was also shocked about the culture of the Oakland Police Dept. – their lethargy. Can you please talk about how the culture of the Oakland P.D. at the time – contributed to the willingness to take the violent risks that were taken by the Bey’s and their cult. Can you opine about how things have/have not changed at the Oakland P.D. since say, 2011?
The Oakland Police Department did not challenge the Beys for years. It is a department with a brutal and intolerant culture, a legacy of the sixties and seventies when Oakland was ruled by an ultra-conservative political oligarchy. It is also a department that historically lacks the number of personnel and equipment needed to adequately police the city. A recent reform minded police chief quit mid-contract in frustration. The threat of a federal takeover remains real. And the police’s conduct during Occupy Wall Street protests have resulted in assaults and injuries to members of the public. In truth, little has changed.
Q-12 — Have you received any threats to your safety since the book came out?
No, I haven’t received any threats.
Q-13 — What are the two primary lessons you hope your journalistic work in “Killing The Messenger” sends to those who are contemplating a career in investigative reporting?
That documentation is the key to all good reporting and that this particular line of work is not for everyone drawn to journalism. It takes time, patience and resourcefulness.
Q-14 — News coverage, reporting, journalism, writing, investigative reporting and the entirety of the publishing industry is in the midst of tremendous change. Clay Shirky Distinguished Writer in Residence in the Journalism Dept. at the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program (also contributor to the NY Times, WSJ, The Times (London). Wired, Business 2.0 and the Harvard Business Review) has written “And today, the revolution is centered on the shock of the inclusion of amateurs as producers, where we no longer need to ask for help or permission from professionals to say things in public.” (The Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity In A Connected Age – 2010 – The Penguin Press NY,NY p. 52). While Mr. Shirky’s observation is clearly valid, it is a two-sided coin. In terms of your interaction with students at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism or SFSU (and elsewhere) – what concerns do you have (if any) about the future of your craft ( learning the creative disciplines of research, writing, and reporting ) whereby many are no longer seeking the skill development they require from either formal education or mentorship by persons in your field?
Now, everyone thinks their smartphone makes them a journalist. Some students view journalism as easy, as if they don’t have to think their way through each moment and that they don’t require cornerstone skills – such as the ability to dig through public records – to be successful. While the delivery method of journalism have changed, the basic who, what, when, where, and why have not. Yet there is not the same emphasis on basic journalistic skills as there was a decade ago. Students also don’t seem be to be able to differentiate (or care) about the difference between opinion and fact.
Q-15 — When will we see the book about your “tour of duty as a reporter in Atlantic City, NJ (also your Master’s thesis)?”
I haven’t really given it a lot of thought. I am not sure it is a book I remain interested in publishing and my energies right now are concentrated on promoting Killing the Messenger.
Q-16 — In your opinion, do conditions currently exist in the U.S. where cults like YBMB can still be spawned?
Yes. Unemployment, poor public schools and the way college has become unaffordable for so many all contribute to such conditions. As the poor grow poorer and class warfare becomes more common, the possibility of extremism grows. So do high levels of intolerance for the opinions, conditions and even the ethnicity of others which appear, sadly, to again be on the rise.
From Bill Dahl: Again, this book exudes Pulitzer Prize throughout each and every chapter! Buy this book!!!
P.S. Hollywood Major Motion Picture Studio Execs – Whoever garners the movie rights to Killing The Messenger has a blockbuster on their hands…Wake up and call Thomas Peele or his agent!!!
My most sincere thanks to Thomas Peele.