Chauncey Bailey Project

Journalists press on for slain colleague

Police work the scene of Chauncey Bailey's slaying (D.RossCameron/OaklandTribune)
Police work the scene of Chauncey Bailey's slaying (D.RossCameron/OaklandTribune)

Police work the scene of Chauncey Bailey's slaying (D.RossCameron/OaklandTribune)

By Tim Reiterman, Los Angeles Times


OAKLAND — When a masked man fired three shotgun blasts into Chauncey Bailey in August as the newspaper editor walked to work, the slaying sent a powerful tremor through Bay Area journalism circles.

Mary Fricker, a longtime business reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, was about a year into retirement when she got word.

Lisa Pickoff-White was driving cross-country to start her journalism studies at UC Berkeley.

And Bob Butler, a member of the National Assn. of Black Journalists’ board, was freelancing after nearly three decades of reporting for radio stations.

All later joined the Chauncey Bailey Project — a collaboration of dozens of journalists from newspapers, broadcast stations, universities and nonprofit groups who came together with a shared determination to not let the black community newspaper editor’s slaying stop his work.

At the time of his death, Bailey had been looking into Your Black Muslim Bakery, a politically connected group that once epitomized black economic empowerment in Oakland but has been buffeted by financial problems, infighting and allegations of sexual abuse and violence.

Police believe that Bailey was killed over his coverage of the bakery, and project members have probed deeply into the organization’s history. Recently, the project reported that its inquiries had prompted Santa Barbara police to reopen an investigation into the unsolved 1968 slayings of a couple who belonged to a mosque that was a forerunner of the bakery.

The Bailey Project is believed to be the first broad-based effort in more than 30 years to pursue the work of a journalist killed in this country, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.

“You have to let the community know you can’t kill a story by killing a reporter. You’re going to bring the press down on you like gangbusters,” said Fricker, who has been working on the project four days a week while living in a bedroom above a friend’s garage.

Although Bailey received one of U.S. journalism’s most prestigious awards after his death, he was working outside the mainstream when he was killed. And the 57-year-old editor of the Oakland Post — a free weekly with a circulation of 50,000 — did not fit neatly into the mold of a classic investigative reporter. He had been fired two years earlier from the Oakland Tribune for undisclosed ethical lapses.

Still, colleagues say Bailey, notebook constantly in hand, passionately covered his home turf. Though they say he had an in-your-face manner that put off some city officials, he could blend sensitivity with outrage, as he did in an article in the San Francisco-based Sun Reporter newspaper, lamenting Oakland’s black-on-black homicide toll in 2002 and profiling a 19-year-old who was shot on Bailey’s own block.

“Chauncey was very well known; he was synonymous with Oakland,” said Tribune Managing Editor Martin Reynolds, who was Bailey’s editor and friend. “Some liked him and some not. Some thought he was a crackpot, and some people liked what he did. He was a great guy who brought great value to the Tribune.”

Your Black Muslim Bakery was also very well known in this rough-edged port city of about 400,000 residents. Housed in a red brick building, the bakery sold pies and breads through outlets around Northern California. It hired young people and former convicts who needed a break. Its charismatic founder, Yusuf Ali Bey, once ran for mayor and was a fixture in Oakland until he died of cancer in 2003 while facing rape charges.

After his death, factions of his extended family wrestled for control of the bakery’s enterprises. Now Bailey’s slaying stands as the latest violence allegedly linked to the bakery. Police say 20-year-old bakery handyman Devaughndre Broussard confessed that he killed Bailey over his coverage of the organization, which is not part of the Nation of Islam.

A judge ordered him to stand trial even after Broussard recanted, with his attorney saying the bakery’s current leader, Yusuf Bey IV, had pressured Broussard to take the fall. Bey, who is charged with kidnapping and torturing a woman in an unrelated incident, has denied involvement in Bailey’s death.

In the last three decades, 13 journalists have been killed in this country, according to Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Bailey, father of a teenage boy, was the first since 1993. The Bailey Project has produced numerous stories about the bakery, some concerning the arrest record of its leader, its bankruptcy filing and real estate dealings, and the police response to past incidents involving members.

Although more high-tech and multimedia-oriented, the effort is reminiscent of the Arizona Project after the 1976 killing of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, whose car was blown up in Phoenix.

Investigative Reporters and Editors sponsored a probe by reporters from across the country that yielded a 23-part series on Arizona corruption.

“The idea was to buy an insurance policy on the life of every reporter who goes to expose wrongdoing,” recalled retired Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday reporter Bob Greene, the Arizona Project’s director. “There are times we should pool our efforts to achieve great good.”

The Bailey Project was launched by New America Media, an association of 700 ethnic media groups that Bailey helped found, and by the Maynard Institute, where he once attended a summer program for minority journalists.

Those signing on to the project came not just from the Tribune and its sister papers but from an alternative weekly, an investigative reporting nonprofit, a local public television station and Bay Area journalism programs.

The project is financed by more than $150,000 raised from media organizations and in-kind labor contributions. The core reporting team works out of the Tribune newsroom in a high-rise near the Oakland Coliseum.

One of the project’s few full-time reporters is Thomas Peele of the Contra Costa Times, who was a teenager delivering newspapers on Long Island when the Arizona Project was underway.

“Chauncey got shot, and the immediate reaction among reporters was . . . this is another Don Bolles, and something should be done,” said Peele, who told his editors he wanted to be part of any Bailey Project.

At the newly assembled team’s first meeting, reporters were told to check their egos at the door. Cooperation was paramount.

“In this case, we’re sharing what we do with other people,” said Fricker, the retired business writer. “Normally, we’re competitive.”

Robert Rosenthal, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was between jobs when he was asked to help guide the eclectic group and now heads the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“You had people going in multiple directions,” he recalled. “It’s running more smoothly now.”

The day after Bailey’s memorial, Neil Henry, new interim dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, visited Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb at the newspaper’s offices.

“We talked about students providing content to his newspaper because of the huge vacancy left by Chauncey’s passing,” Henry said.

Student volunteers were soon writing stories for the Post. Students were also sent to government offices to retrieve property records and court files for the Bailey Project.

Pickoff-White, 25, had done political reporting in Washington but had never seen a real estate transaction. Yet she came to love the paper chase.

“You spend hours working . . . and every once in a while you would find this document, or someone next to you would,” she said. “A nugget.” She is now working with other students and New America Media on a documentary about Bailey.

Before Bailey died, he was looking into financial upheaval and alleged violence and police corruption surrounding the bakery, according to Cobb of the Post. But Cobb held Bailey’s first story because he said it had inadequate sourcing and balance.

Since Bailey’s slaying, Cobb said, his advertising has declined and he has been unable to replace Bailey.

“I can’t get an editor,” said Cobb, who himself received police protection after an apparent death threat. “One guy said he would do it for $60,000, but he wanted a $500,000 life insurance policy. You talk about hazard pay. . . .”

Last month, the Bailey Project won an Investigative Reporters and Editors award for crime reporting. In February, Bailey posthumously received a George Polk Award for local reporting — an honor named after a war correspondent killed 60 years ago while doing his job.

Bailey “is snickering right now, with a great smile,” said his former editor, Reynolds. “He would get a kick out of all the attention being paid to his legacy.”

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