Interview: Thomas Peele, Investigative Journalist

by Joshua Goldfond

Thomas Peele is an accomplished author and investigate journalist with three decades of experience in his field. He has worked for numerous publications all around the United States and has served as a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. He is also a major participant in The Chauncey Bailey Project, dedicated to finishing the pending investigative assignment of the assassinated Bay Area journalist after whom the project is named. It was Peele’s work on this that inspired him to write his acclaimed first book, Killing The Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist, which was published in 2012 by Random House.

This gripping work of nonfiction follows the parallel paths and violent convergence of Bailey and an Oakland business called “Your Black Muslim Bakery”, founded and operated a charismatic community religious leader named Yusuf Bey. Ostensibly a legitimate, albeit racist and radical, black nationalist enterprise providing jobs and support to the city’s most vulnerable citizens, the bakery was in truth a private fiefdom where Bey indulged in all manner of criminality and depravity. Ruling as the supreme leader of a cult, Bey spent decades sexually, physically, and psychologically abusing his followers in every way imaginable, siring over 40 offspring from among the women; many of which were underaged and some of whom were his own daughters. It was only his death from cancer in 2003 that saved him the consequences of DNA tests that would prove that he had raped  and fathered a child with a thirteen-year-old under his foster care.

A chaotic power struggle then saw Bey’s empire taken over by one of his sons, Yusuf “Fourth” Bey IV, a violent 20-year-old with a messianic sense of entitlement and invincibility. Fourth ran the bakery as a nakedly criminal enterprise, shedding even the last threads of its respectability. His recklessness reached its peak when he ordered the aforementioned murder of the 50-year-old Chauncey Bailey in 2007. Bailey, then Editor-In-Chief for The Oakland Post had followed the Beys for decades and was preparing a story regarding the bakery’s involvement in violence and financial fraud. It was the first time since 1976 that an American journalist had been murdered for his work. In response, The Chauncey Bailey Project was soon established by fellow journalists around  the country, sending the message that violence would never succeed in killing a story. This network of journalists spent the next few of years uncovering not only the full, sordid facts of the Bey cult, but also the corruption and indifference of Oakland city and police officials in regards to its crimes.

Peele spoke with me in mid-June of 2012, in the midst of his book’s publicity tour.

 

Can you talk a bit about your professional background? How did you get into journalism and what have been some of your career highlights?

I started working for a very small weekly newspaper when I was 22 and have managed to keep at journalism for nearly 30 years. As for highlights, I have always been proud that a few years later my reporting for a newspaper in New Jersey helped put a slew of corrupt officials from a little town in jail. Later, I covered Atlantic City for six years, which was never dull and quite nerve-wracking in a good way. Since 2000 I have reported in California and conducted major investigations of state government, Indian casinos, and, of course, Chauncey Bailey’s murder.

How long did “Killing the Messenger” take to research and complete? Have you been pleased with how it has been received by critics and the Oakland community?

It was 37 months between the start of work on the book proposal until publication. I had already been reporting on Bailey’s death for more than a year, which served as the platform for the book.

Critics have been kind, although there was one who wrote a major review who I am convinced didn’t read the entire book. Although the book is largely set in Oakland, it isn’t about Oakland. The response from the community has been good, a lot of people have told me they are happy to see all the veils about the Beys and the city’s leadership pulled away and the truth told. It’s been a good response.

What was the reaction in the Bay Area when the full scope of Yusuf Bey’s sexual and psychological abuse towards his followers became known? Was it largely downplayed by media and political figures due to the high profile influence that he enjoyed while alive?

As I wrote in the book, Bey received a standing ovation at a community meeting shortly after being charged with rape. What this illustrates, I think, is the level of utter distrust so many in Oakland have for the city’s notoriously abusive police force. People’s default position was that any arrest must be false. But it eventually sunk in that the man was a monster. It was well covered in the media, a major story. Political figures distanced themselves because the DNA evidence was conclusive. Even though Bey died before he could be convicted, there was no doubt of his guilt. It was quite strange. He claimed he wasn’t guilty, but fully acknowledged that he was the father of children born to teenage mothers. The children acknowledged he was their father, but said he never raped anyone.

Since the publication of your book, have you had any contact with Devaughndre Broussard or any other member of the Bey organization? Has there been any further fallout from the case?

I have not had contact with Broussard since I interviewed him a year ago. I did run into Bey IV’s half brother Joshua Bey several weeks ago. I’d visited him in jail once, so he knew me. We talked for a few minutes. He didn’t make any threats.

What remains is that Bey IV’s former lawyer is being suspended from practicing law because she smuggled some documents out of jail for him and was caught. Prosecutors said the documents were a hit list. The lawyer claimed it was a love letter from Bey IV to his common-law wife. The lawyer wasn’t charged with a crime, but the bar association recommended a two-year suspension that is pending before the California Supreme Court. And of course Bey IV will eventually file an appeal of his three murder convictions.

Your book depicts Chauncey Bailey as a professional in the decline of his career, whose sliding ethics reflected the financial strain of a middle aged man working in hyperlocal journalism. And while journalism has rarely been a field that one realistically pursues for wealth, the economics of small and mid-tier newspapers have never looked as bleak as they do now. Do you believe that there is future for professional hyperlocal journalism in the United States? Or, will this sort of coverage fall to part-time bloggers and concerned citizens?

Hyperlocal is a journalistic buzzword. It is local reporting, mostly on the web that requires a constant churn of content to the point where most of that contest is of very poor quality. AOL’s Patch websites are a great example of this. Their journalistic quality is often extremely poor – one source stories, puff pieces, citizen photos. Bailey, for all his many faults, was a bit more discerning in the local stories he would pursue. He had an understanding of what local stories mattered. While his writing was not great by any means, his story judgment was pretty good. To some hyperlocal sites, anything is a story, creating and endless string of babble.

Along those lines, how would you describe the state of contemporary investigative journalism in the United States? As the lines between news and entertainment have become ever more blurred, what are some remaining sources that you trust for your own information?

I am answering your questions after just spending three days with 1,200 investigative reporters at a four-day conference in Boston. So I am pretty high at the moment on the state of investigative reporting in spite of the ongoing changes in American media. There are some incredibly talented investigative reporters at work today. I trust the New York Times, ProPublica, the Washington Post for investigative journalism.

One of the most striking and encouraging facts of your book is how infrequently investigative journalists have been harmed in this country. What are some steps that can taken to better safeguard the lives and institutions of journalists in places like Russia or Mexico, where their murders have become an epidemic?

I am not sure what the solution is to Russia or Mexico. In Mexico the cartels have become so perverse it seems as if no one is safe and the government can’t do anything about it. It is at a point where reporters might have to hire full-time security, but who can really do that? Russia needs meaningful press freedom laws, but I can’t see Putin ever doing that. The problem in both countries is the culture of corruption within them. Until those change – somehow – the lives of journalists will remain at risk.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d care to mention?

I have begun very preliminary research for another book, but it is very early and I don’t know what will come of it, if anything. My main focus right now is the continuing promotion of Killing the Messenger.

 

Thomas Peele’s website, with all revenant information regarding Killing the Messenger, can be found here.

The Official website for The Chauncey Bailey Project, containing extensive information regarding the case, can he found here.