Thursday, August 09, 2007

Will Chauncey Bailey's Death Prompt Other Reporters to Get the Full Story?

When investigative journalist Don Bolles was murdered by the Mafia in 1976 in connection with a story he was reporting, dozens of his friends vowed not to let his death stand unchallenged. They convened in Phoenix, Arizona and took up where Bolles left off, eventually producing a 23-part series on organized crime dubbed “The Arizona Project.”

Bolles’ murder and the response of his colleagues made journalism history and is now part of journalism lore. Right now reporters have another opportunity to avenge the murder of a colleague.

Chauncey Bailey’s death last week apparently came about because of his investigation into the Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, a long-standing institution that served as a sort of training ground/boot camp for young, troubled black men and women. Those involved with drugs or violence would enter the bakery or related spin-off businesses, such as Uhuru House, and reemerge dressed in suits and bowties or long gowns with head coverings. They seemingly went from troubled to respectable in a short period of time.

Reporters in the Bay Area got used to seeing members of the bakery community, led by Yusef Bey, show up at meetings of the Oakland City Council or Alameda Board of Supervisors. They were always polite and remote and definitely not particularly interested in talking to white reporters.

In 2002, Chris Thompson wrote a long piece for the East Bay Express about the reality behind the fa├žade, and it including accusations of rape of underage girls, intimidation and violence, and misuse of county and city funds. Still, officials continued to support Bey and his businesses, according to Thompson. In Oakland, a city with an African-American majority, black officials are eager to help what they perceive as successful black organizations. In exchange, they get votes. It's a complicated relationship and a sensitive one to write about for a newspaper.

Bailey apparently looked into the Black Muslim Bakery years ago, and was threatened for his attempts, according to Thompson. He was taking another look when he was gunned down last week by a young man connected to the bakery,

Will history repeat itself? Will the reporters at the Chronicle and Tribune (at least the few who are left) now go out and report the story that Bailey was trying to get? Will the mainstream press set aside its snobbishness about the quality and advocacy of the Oakland Post, the paper Bailey edited, to go hard after the story?

It certainly isn’t an easy story to get, but the atmosphere is a lot safer now that the police and politicos and the public are paying attention. But so far, a week after Bailey’s murder, all I have seen are stories that play up his death, but don’t take a close look at the inner workings of the Bey empire. (The elder Bey died a few years ago, but some of his family run his businesses.) While the articles are good, the pieces don’t go far enough, don’t unveil the polite mask that obviously concealed a gang of thugs.

I think – and hope – that some serious investigations are in process, and that their absence is a timing matter rather than a reflection of the massive cuts that have taken place in recent months in newsrooms around the region.

The response of the papers in the Bay Area will reveal just how damaging the recent cuts actually are. It will take time and many reporters to uncover the truth behind this story. Let's hope today's reporters and editors are as loyal as Bolles' colleagues and do justice to Bailey. Let's hope the bosses decide to spend the money it takes to do the job.

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