|English | Español||February 1, 2015 | Issue #67|
The Art of Authentic Journalism According to Bill Conroy
“In a better world, his reporting would be given awards,” says Charles Bowden. “Of course in a better world, the US government would not be conspiring to murder Mexican citizens.”
By Candice Vallantin
Bill Conroy at the inaugural dinner of the 2011 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. DR 2011 Tyler Stringfellow
But unlike the regular guy, for more than a decade, he’s been leading two lives. By day, Conroy works full time on a weekly mainstream publication in Texas. By night—and sometimes weekends —he’s doggedly pursuing disgruntled sources from various US government bureaus and poring through court documents to break stories no one else in the mainstream dares touch. Conroy has covered the dark trail of narco-trafficking since 1999, long before President Felipe Calderon declared the War on Drugs in 2006.
Published exclusively in Narco News, Conroy’s investigative series have exposed numerous cases of corruption that leak from the streets to the very top branches of government on both sides of the Mexican-US border. In a series dubbed The Bogotá Connection, published since 2006, he describes how Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents on drug traffickers’ payroll were assisting Colombia’s infamous paramilitary death squads to launder drug money. In The House of Death, a series published since 2004, he unravels the twisted tale of a United States informant who participated in the murders of at least nine Mexican citizens in Ciudad Juarez with the full complicity and approval of his supervisors at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and the head of the United State’s Attorney’s Office.
His detailed, feature-length stories come out at least once a week, pro-bono. According to Charles Bowden, an award-winning investigative journalist and author who relied heavily on Conroy’s reporting for his latest book, Dreamland, the Way Out of Juarez, the gravity of his work is grossly underappreciated. “His assets are clear: a toolbox of investigative skills, patience and passion,” writes Bowden. “He has single-handedly kept The House of Death story alive and he has done this without any recognition from the mainstream press which has almost completely ignored the story. This is no small matter since the story clearly documents the involvement of the US government in murders in Mexico. In a better world, his reporting would be given awards. Of course in a better world, the US government would not be conspiring to murder Mexican citizens.”
Bowden is almost right. Within the last year The House of Death story finally did grab the attention of U.S. press, but it’s only because the UK weekly The Observer sent a journalist to Mexico who reported on the story, but without crediting Conroy’s prior coverage. The editors eventually amended the story to give credit —but not until Narco News went online to point out their arrogance.
Bill Conroy interviewed by scholar Ingrid Morris at the school. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
This is a man who knows the power of a recorder and doesn’t like being on the opposite end of it. It’s not just his humble nature; it’s a survival strategy. He has a wife and four kids to feed. “Freedom of press is better than a paycheck,” he says, “but you need both.”
It’s a fine line he’s walked for a long time. Back in 1988, he quit his first mainstream media job to join an alternative paper in his hometown, The Shepherd Express. Back then it was an irreverent rag which featured investigative reporting on Milwaukee’s city politics mixed with coverage of the local music and arts scene. Their offices were in an old two story building with large pane windows, a former bar and flophouse, in Milwaukee’s artsy, scrappy River West district. “Financially it was a stupid decision but I still miss it,” says Conroy. “It was a dream job.”
The Shepherd Express is where Conroy fine-tuned his art of investigative reporting. He learned to nurture sources, develop trust and find his niche. Through a former colleague at the paper who drove cabs, Conroy discovered the ins and outs of the local drug trade in the black ghetto. “I had a close friend who helped me see things white guys just hadn’t seen before. There were 14-year-olds guarding doors with shotguns and huge mounds of cocaine on the table. It was an eye-opening experience.” Once he was held up at gunpoint. He was hooked. “I was young and it was edgy and exciting,” says Conroy, “I did it for the adrenaline”.
Now that he’s stayed on the same trail for years, Conroy’s contact with some of the continent’s most secretive professionals—agents with the FBI, the DEA, or undercover informants—is nearly unparalleled. It’s no wonder Al Giordano dubs Conroy his MIP: Most Important Person. “A lot of law enforcers of conscience realize this Conroy guy will never give up a source,” says Giordano, “Bill is like dialing 911 for agents of conscience who see their bosses aren’t doing things in a correct manner.”
But tips from insiders are only a starting point. From there, says Conroy, “I triangulate facts from different sources who wouldn’t know each other. It’s like police work.” Stories don’t get published until he has court exhibits, government memos, or other official documents obtained through freedom of information (FOI) requests to confirm the facts and cover his back. “Mostly it’s just persistence. It’s knowing what you have and checking up on it,” says Conroy. “You’re only lucky because you strike out nine times and you try a tenth time.”
The stories Conroy unfolds require more than patience and detective skills. Nearly each sordid tale he’s penned for Narco News involves multiple characters from different agencies, often with various alliances, smuggling guns, drugs and money across many borders. These are not simple stories to tell. “The way he reveals many different things to tell a greater truth—you need a special kind of coherency to be able to piece all these details together,” says Narco News investigative reporter Erin Rosa. “His coherency is something I really respect.”
The other secret to Conroy’s success is the community that backs him up. In 2005, following the publication of two different stories involving the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency on Narco News, two ICE agents came knocking on Conroy’s door. First they went to his house to intimidate his family. Then they went to his office at the mainstream rag where Conroy worked full-time on completely different stories to pressure him—and his publisher—to reveal his sources. “I thought, well, it’s my last day here,” says Conroy.
But he was lucky. For one thing, his mainstream publisher was understanding. For another, he was writing for Narco News and the reaction was swift. Al Giordano posted a story about the ordeal online and sent it to all his contacts the very next day. Within a month, Cynthia McKinney, then a member of the US Congress, wrote a letter to the US Attorney’s Office and the head of Homeland Security denouncing the ICE agents’ actions as a violation of the First Amendment. It wasn’t the first time Narco News stepped in to protect Conroy and he knows it won’t be the last: “If someone else were to try and mess with me in Texas, I know they’d be all over it in a heart beat,” he says.
Although his work could likely earn him a pretty penny elsewhere, it’s this sense of community that keeps Conroy faithful to Al Giordano’s Narco News. “It’s not about selling stories or getting bylines it’s about putting faith in stories that can actually make some impact,” says Conroy. “If you only write to make money then there are certain stories you’ll never write. It’s like lawyers who do pro-bono work on the side. As a journalist, I consider it my responsibility.”
Despite his passion, Conroy has not come out unscathed from covering the continent’s darkest underbelly for years on end. When asked to rationalize why he keeps at it, covering a subject with no happy ending in sight, he seems perplexed: “I don’t know, I ask myself that all the time. I don’t do it for the adrenaline anymore, that’s gone. It just pulls you in you know?” His eyes well up and he turns away. “You can’t just drop it, you can’t just forget what you know. So you do it because you care. Some people get cold and just shut off. I can’t do that. I do it for myself, to try and find a solution. I just…keep on hoping.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism