For two Polk Award winners, the paths crossed at Berkeley
In spring 2009, Robert Lewis and Ali Winston met to talk about investigative reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Lewis was about to finish the program, and Winston was weighing whether to enroll.
“He convinced me to come to Cal,” Winston said.
Fast forward eight years, and there’s a neat symmetry in their professional lives. After working under Professor Lowell Bergman at the Investigative Reporting Program during their time at Berkeley, both have spent a lot of time investigating city police departments on opposite coasts, and both were honored last month with the prestigious George Polk Award for their work.
Lewis (’08) was recognized for his series for WNYC on New York City cops’ disclosure of outside business interests—and lack thereof. Winston (’10) won with Darwin BondGraham for breaking open the criminal sex scandal that rocked the Oakland Police Department last year.
Lewis’ NYPD investigation started with a scramble to follow up on a major corruption bust that made headlines in spring 2016. Financial disclosure forms from top brass that detailed outside sources of income had contributed to other outlets’ reporting, so Lewis, who had just returned from paternity leave (he’s married to New York Times video journalist and fellow alum Emma Cott, ’09), started requesting the same documents for lower-ranking officers.
He was stunned by how hard it was to get them, and how little information they provided. He realized the documents themselves held a story all their own. “It’s the benefit of being late to the story,” he said.
Lewis didn’t start out as a public radio reporter. He came to Berkeley after a few years at Chicago-area print outlets, and worked for ProPublica, the Sacramento Bee and Long Island-based Newsday before landing at WNYC. Reporting records-heavy investigative stories with sound has been a challenge, he said, but “I’m of the school of thought that if it’s a good story, you can find a way to tell it.”
And he did.
After reviewing six years of disclosure forms from more than 200 high-ranking officers, he was able to show they were taking in millions of dollars from outside sources. His reports revealed big holes in the NYPD’s existing system of tracking side jobs: Only the top 130 officers in a department with some 35,000 cops have to file financial disclosure forms.
“The NYPD,” he said, “is really a unique animal,” a massive, tight-lipped organization that operates more like a federal law enforcement operation than a local department. As a New York reporter, if you’re not at The Times or “the tabs,” said Lewis, top officers care little about keeping you informed.
“But there’s something freeing in not having access,” he said. “I’m not getting hand-fed.”
Ali Winston’s first memorable experience on the cops beat unfolded just across the Hudson River from Lewis’ current office at WNYC. It was 2006, and Winston, a couple weeks shy of his twenty-second birthday, was a general assignment reporter for The Jersey Journal. He wasn’t exactly green at that point—he’d already been writing stories about street protests in New York since he was 16, helped launch an alternative publication at the University of Chicago as an undergrad and interned at The Nation. But this assignment was a new one.
“My editor got a call and told me, ‘You need to drop everything you’re doing and go to Jersey City Heights,’” Winston said. A daytime robbery had gone wrong, and a female store clerk had been shot.
In the years since that first homicide story, he’s covered police work from a number of angles. As a recipient of the Mark Felt Investigative Reporting Fellowship at Berkeley, he investigated officer-involved shootings in California and the laws that keep those officers’ records private. His time at Bay Area public radio station KALW kept him working the phones and establishing relationships in local departments.
It’s thanks to those source relationships that he was tipped off to a bigger story behind the 2015 suicide of an Oakland police officer last year, he said. The investigation he conducted with BondGraham led to their bombshell report: O’Brien was one of at least two dozen area officers who had had sex with a teenage prostitute. The girl was underage when the sex began, and some officers shared confidential information with her. A string of resignations and a flurry of successive leadership changes at OPD followed.
In the meantime, Oakland officials investigated the leaks that led to the journalists’ reporting. “They’re still trying to get our sources,” Winston said.
Like Lewis, Winston said good police reporting doesn’t require a front-row seat at a press conference. “Having access to the people at the top of the department doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’ll tell you what they want you to think is important. It’s better to develop sources further down the pecking order.”
Investigative Reporting Program Director Lowell Bergman is unsurprised that both his former protégés are getting attention for their reports. The two have the character traits that lead to success in their line of work, he said: They’re “compulsive, dedicated and never take no for an answer.”
And Winston and Lewis have similar advice for journalists diving into investigative reporting: Be hungry, even for the unglamorous work. “You just plug away,” Lewis said. “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”By Graelyn Brashear (‘17)