|About Killing the Messenger | Blog | About Thomas Peele | The Chauncey Bailey Project | Media | Selected Source Documents|
Thomas Peele interviewing Norman Mailer, January 2007.
Photo by Karl Mondon
My journalism career began at a weekly newspaper in Bridgehampton, New York in 1983, an endeavor so small, the printing press was powered by a Ford Pinto engine mounted on blocks. From that humble beginning, I've worked for seven daily newspapers, starting in Newsday's sports department, and had scores of stories in others and in magazines and journals. Today, I'm 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 I specialize in data collection and analysis. I'm also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, co-teaching a class on public-records reporting. I've 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. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from Long Island University and a master's in creative writing from the University of San Francisco.
I moved to Northern California in 2000 after six and a half years covering Atlantic City, N.J., for the Atlantic City Press. I'd also worked for The Ocean County Observer and, briefly, The Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, a state where I had started my post-Newsday career after deciding I didn't want to write sports. I wanted to learn how to dig. (I also wanted to hang out with Bruce Springsteen). What better place, then, than the Garden State? My first assignment was covering a sleepy town, Manchester, home to tens of thousands of senior citizens clustered in retirement developments. As uneventful as the place seemed, it wasn't. I soon found its government was deeply corrupt, the leaders siphoning away millions to spend on prostitutes and gambling in Atlantic City. (The Manchester scandal is recounted in my award winning essay, "Oligarchies I Have Known," published in Controlled Burn.)
Manchester, as I wanted, taught me to dig, to use documents, to be relentlessly aggressive. Thirteen people were convicted of corruption and theft; most served prison time. A few years later, after brief stints in Delaware and upstate New York, I moved to Atlantic City. It was the time of the so-called "second wave" of casino development and of a deep social upheaval. In other words, it was a hell of a time to be a reporter in that gambling city, one where Donald Trump considered himself king. (Trump once began a phone interview with me by saying, "You fucking twerp.") From my City Hall beat I wrote a seemingly endless run of surreal stories - from a city councilman who was an electrician who decided to steal electricity by secretly tapping power lines and burned his house down with bad wiring, to the endless get-rich-quick schemes of grifters and con men disguised as everything from radio talk-show hosts to school superintendents to casino executives.
In 2000, I joined the Contra Costa Times as an investigative reporter, writing about nursing home abuses, corruption, Indian gaming, anti-war protests, pollution and politics. I also carved out a niche reporting about freedom-of-information issues and pursuing lawsuits against governments blocking the public's right to know. In 2005, we sued Oakland to force it to disclose the salaries of government workers. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled unanimously for disclosure; it's been called the most significant open-government victory in the state in a generation.
My work life changed radically after the 2007 murder of a man I'd never met. Chauncey Bailey, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Oakland, was working on a small article about a business and supposed religious institution called Your Black Muslim Bakery and the cult behind it. "We gotta take him out before he write that story," is how its leader ordered the assassination. But after Bailey's 19-year-old killer confessed, it became apparent that others were involved and that authorities were not aggressively pursuing them, including one who'd d fled the state.
Working on stories about Bailey's death, the people responsible for it and the flawed investigation surrounding them, eventually dominated years of my journalism and the journalism of others. The Chauncey Bailey Project, as the group of journalists I worked with called itself, was unwieldy, diverse, difficult, to manage. It was united, though, around a single point crucial to a functional democracy - that news reportage cannot be killed by killing a journalist.
I live in Northern California, where my spare time is filled with books, music (my friends joke that I like both kinds, Springsteen and Southside Johnny), and baseball, a sport in which I sentenced myself to a mostly miserable lifelong love of the New York Mets when I was eight years old.
The book I couldn't live without is Robert Caro's, "The Power Broker." What's yours?
From reviews of the book:
"A complex, carefully constructed story of the development of the Black Muslim Movement and one of its most notorious leaders" - Kirkus Reviews
An "eye-opening narrative about radical religion and its consequences.Peele renders characters and scenes with rich detail and his chronicle of events surrounding Bailey's death unfolds with the seamlessness of a fictional thriller, would that were the case" - Publisher's Weekly
A "riveting account. Peele examines the broader context of the Black Muslim movement; the troubled socioeconomics of Oakland, where the cult recruited young black men , particularly ex-offenders looking for jobs; and the courage of a Black journalist willing to take on the Beys" - Booklist
A "riveting odyssey ... The intersection of three powerful stories:" the Beys, Chauncey Bailey, and the police - Essence Magazine
"This is totally chilling, incredibly strange material, and the book is sweeping, site-specific, and compulsively readable." - The Observer's Very Short List