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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Martyred for Pursuing a Story   

Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racismís Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist

By Thomas Peele

Crown Publishers

464 pages; $26

Thurs., April 5, 2012.


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Chauncey Bailey was a rarity in American journalism, a reporter martyred over a story that never got published.

His 2007 murder drew national attention, from then-Sen. Barack Obama, among others. But the matter never leaped to the top of the public agenda.

Now, this book by a seasoned investigative reporter offers full treatment to the dramatic saga and its movie-worthy cast.

The premise seems unlikely: a 21st century American reporter, tracking a complex scandal, gunned down in broad daylight on an Oakland street. According to author Thomas Peele, Bailey was "the first reporter slain in the United States in pursuit of a domestic story since 1976, when Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic died in a car bombing." (See "Recalling the Arizona Project," August/September 2008.)

Unlike Bolles, Bailey was not, as the book puts it, "a white reporter for a major metropolitan paper." He was a "minor journalist..his career sloping downward," working for the Oakland Post, a free black- oriented weekly.

Bailey had briefly considered joining the Black Panthers, then reported for local TV, the Hartford Courant, the Detroit News and the Oakland Tribune, where he was fired after complaints about his ethics.

In June 2007, he was named editor of the Oakland Post, a weekly Peele calls "devoid of serious journalism" but "an institution within African American Oakland."

There he followed a story he had covered off and on for years: controversies surrounding Oakland's Your Black Muslim Bakery, which Peele terms "part health-food store, part ministry, and part front for wide- ranging criminal enterprises."

Peele spends most of this book laying out a sordid story of murder, intimidation, sex abuse and financial corruption tied to the bakery and its founder, known as Yusuf Ali Bey and part of an extreme Black Muslim offshoot. By 2007, Bey's son, Yusuf Bey IV, known as Fourth, had taken over.

At some point, Bailey was approached by a disenchanted brother-in-law of Fourth who had inside information on corruption. Bailey drafted a story, but his publisher wouldn't run it. Author Peele, given a glimpse of the story but forbidden to take notes, remembers it as about 500 "poorly written" words, lacking "attribution and subtlety...It would be surprising if it took Bailey longer than 30 minutes to write it."

But rumors spread about the story. And, the evidence shows, it got Bailey killed.

Here is how Peele recounts what happened, based largely on court records:

"On Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007..Fourth woke up and decided that he needed to kill Chauncey Bailey...

Somehow, Fourth thought that killing the messenger might still save the bakery." As he told two of his "soldiers," "We got to take him out before he write that story."

The next day, on a city street, a man in a ski mask fired fatal shotgun blasts into Bailey's shoulder, abdomen and face.

Tragically, police had just delayed raiding Bey's operation because key officers were on vacation. The two-day delay, Peele writes, "cost Bailey his life."

But it also left police ready to move fast after the murder. Within 24 hours, they raided the area, confiscated the murder weapon and arrested 19-year-old Devaughndre Broussard.

Eventually, Broussard turned state's evidence, confessed to the shooting and gave statements helping convict Fourth and an associate.

Although the story never got the full traction of a First Amendment cause, it did, like the earlier Bolles case, generate a collective investigative reporting project to complete Bailey's work. (See "The Oakland Project," August/September 2008.)

Peele helped spearhead the project and here relates the tale in convincing narrative fashion. But several disclaimers are necessary. First, Peele relies heavily on court statements and other materials from witnesses, such as Broussard, who told conflicting stories and whose credibility isn't high. Second, some of the cases remain under appeal. So this book may not represent the end of the story. But it remains a powerful and moving refusal to let murder stop an investigation.

Chauncey Bailey wasn't a hero. He was personally, financially and professionally troubled. But he knew a good story and somehow got on top of this one.

You shouldn't get killed for that.