BOOK REVIEW: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker’s Busted
Warts and all. That’s what you see of the Daily News’ crack reporting duo, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, in their new book, Busted. These are the women who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Tainted Justice,” a 10-month series about a corrupt narcotics squad. Because of the work, they’ve been called dirty names and threatened by anonymous commentators online. But, with journalism in their blood, they have risked their lives pursuing leads and writing stories that shock and inform.
Their long road to the Pulitzer Prize started when Benny Martinez entered the Inquirer/Daily News building on North Broad in December 2008. He’d been sent by one of Ruderman’s regular sources to talk to the reporter about his work as a police informant, and how he now feared for his life. Ruderman, feeling that she needed “someone to help steel up my backbone, an ally in the fight,” raced across the newsroom to usher Laker, an editor at the tabloid paper, back to the table where Martinez sat.
Over the following 10 months, Ruderman and Laker reported and wrote 10 pieces about a narcotics squad that ransacked bodegas in Kensington, destroying the livelihoods of the often-immigrant owners, and raided the homes of drug dealers Martinez betrayed. One of the cops even molested women during drug raids.
Ruderman and Laker’s work garnered vitriol at a time when cops were slain across the city in record numbers. Anonymous haters said they hoped the women got raped and beaten, that they’d call the police and go unaided. But their work also led to the investigation of several questionable criminal cases and an FBI probe into the squad’s activities. It was the kind of muckracking journalism that Laker and Ruderman had aspired to since the days of Woodward and Bernstein.
Subtitled “A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love,” Busted is not the book Ruderman and Laker’s readers expect. That’s what Ruderman told me when she handed over a paperback galley of the work. (Ruderman and Laker visited a journalism class I took while at Temple and I stayed in touch through Facebook.) I, too, expected something different, maybe a narrative re-telling of the events and realizations in the “Tainted Justice” series.
While the book starts with some third-person narration of Martinez’s situation, it quickly shifts into first-person from Ruderman’s perspective and that’s how the book continues. Busted is a memoiristic exploration of the reporting process. In it, authors throw out j-school lessons on objectivity and removing oneself from the story.
It’s a personal journey through the newsroom, and Philly’s drug war-torn streets. And because it is so personal, the reader really gets to see the journalists, warts and all. There are tales of Ruderman’s seemingly supportive husband (they’ve since divorced) and her spirited kids, and tales of Laker’s dating adventures and the toll of her mother’s death.
It’s a captivating story that I tore through in two days. There are moments that inspire riotous laughter and quiet awe, and some that will make your skin crawl. It gives as much proof to the importance of hard-working reporters in a one-party town as it does the importance of chasing your dreams, even when they seem preposterous.