Media and Criminal Justice Issues-National Public Radio’s Laura Sullivan-DC Public Safety Radio

See http://media.csosa.gov for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2012/01/media-and-criminal-justice-issues-national-public-radios-laura-sullivan-dc-public-safety-radio/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  We really have a wonderful guest, ladies and gentlemen, today Laura Sullivan from National Public Radio.  I invited Laura to be on the program to talk about media in criminal justice issues.  It’s my contention that the coverage of crime and criminal justice issues by both the national media and the local media has declined and declined dramatically within the last ten years.  Laura Sullivan is an NPR news investigative correspondent.  Laura Sullivan joined NPR in 2004 as a correspondent on the national desk for six years.  She covered crime and punishment issues with reports airing on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and other NPR programs.  Over the years, Sullivan’s work has been honored by many of journalism’s highest awards including two Peabodies, two, and two Alfred DuPont Columbia University Silver Batons with that lofty introduction, Laura Sullivan, National Public Radio.  How are you doing, Laura?

Laura Sullivan:  Good.  Thanks so much for having me.

Len Sipes:  Laura and I go way back.  Laura was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and she came over to National Public Radio, and my first question before we get into the crime and criminal justice issues is, what happened to become, you know, to leave the print world behind and to go in front of the microphone?  That had to be a pretty scary operation.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, you know, I used to drive down to the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun in DC where I covered the Justice Department and terrorism after 9/11.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And I used to listen to NPR all the time in my car.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  And I would drive – it was a long way.

Len Sipes:  Doesn’t everybody?

Laura Sullivan:  I think – we hope so.  We certainly hope so.  And we would – I would always listen to Radio Expeditions with Alex Chadwick.

Len Sipes:  Oh, yes.

Laura Sullivan:  And I would sit in my car in the morning, and I would think that he would be like, you know, you’d hear the crunch, crunch, crunch, we’re hiking through the woods to find the rare spotted owl, and it was just this clichéd quintessential NPR story, and I used to think, God that guy has the best job in the whole world, and you know, it’s funny, even as I was listening to all these stories in NPR, I never thought that I would go become a radio journalist.  I thought once you join print, you’re in it for life and that’s it.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And then all of a sudden an editor from the Baltimore Sun jumped ship and went to NPR.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And it was like this: it was like the clouds cleared and I said, “Well if he can do it, why can’t I go to NPR too.”

Len Sipes:  I’d do it.

Laura Sullivan:  And it helped because I knew him, so I could kind of – I mean he was helpful in sort of getting, passing my resume around, and you know sort of getting it in the door, which is always helpful.

Len Sipes:  But it’s not just being a good reporter.  You have to work the mike.  You have to project a certain personality through that microphone, and you don’t know whether or not you can do it until you do it.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, they radio test you.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  They did.  They radio tested us, and you had to go in – they have to see if they can turn your voice into the NPR voice.

Len Sipes:  The NPR voice.  This is NPR.

Laura Sullivan:  This is NPR.  So you have to lower your voice a couple octaves and have that voice and sound –

Len Sipes:  And a quasi-British accent.  Never heard –

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  Sound very calm, and it also helps if you have a very unique name, which I don’t unfortunately.  I should have changed it to something else, but like Ned Ulaby.

Len Sipes:  Joe.

Laura Sullivan:  Or, you know,  Snika Verache or Kojima.

Len Sipes:  Yes, yes, yes.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s always helpful to have a really great name.  You know, Yuki Naguchi, which, she sits next to me, and I always tell her, she’s very fortunate to have a great NPR name.  I do not.  I have a very standard Irish name, but I guess it was okay.

Len Sipes:  But you come from a wonderful investigative background.  You did a lot of stuff with the Baltimore Sun.  You did a lot of stuff in terms of national stories that got a lot of attention, and this is Mr. Marina we’re talking about.  He brought you, he brings you over and so you go through this process, and at what point do you feel accepted by the NPR staff?

Laura Sullivan:  It took about a year, and I remember it took a long time because the structure of print stories is so different, and I had done print for ten years, and it’s – you go out on to a story, and you know before you even walk into the door how your story is going to be structured, how you’re going to start.  What’s the middle? What’s the end?  You know what quotes you’re looking for.  You hear that quote, you’re like, “Okay.  Check mark in my head, done.”  I don’t even need to interview this person anymore.  You have half written the story on your way back to the office, and because you’ve just done it, it’s just so routine, and so I got to print, and it was a complete – the stories are on their heads, you know?  There’s a nut graph in a print story which is the intro, and it confused me to all end, and it took me a long time to just – I felt like a basic reporter again.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  Trying to figure out, what is the beginning, middle, and end of how to tell this story, and I remember some of the best advice I got from an editor was just get out of the way of your tape.  Find your best tape, what is the most interesting thing something said to you, and get out of the way.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, don’t try to write around it and everything.  So that was helpful, but I remember about a year, I had been at NPR at about a year, and we were having sort of one of our national desk conferences, and a reporter named Robert Smith was doing a segment on how to make the best use of your tape, and I said, “Well, I’m sort of new at radio.” and he said, “Enough with the new.  I now anoint you a radio reporter.”  So from there on out, I’m like, all right, I’m no longer a former, a rookie, a reformed print reporter.

Len Sipes:  Before getting into the jist of the program, I do want to ask: Does everybody over at NPR pause right before they say anything?

Laura Sullivan:  A little bit.

Len Sipes:  Laura.  How are you today?

Laura Sullivan:  I know.

Len Sipes:  This is NPR.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  It has to – you know, we don’t want to – we don’t ever want to upset people, you know, we like to keep it very calm, very civilized.  We like to take it slow.  It’s the NPR way. We call it Minnesota nice.

Len Sipes:  Minnesota nice.  Garrison Keillor would have appreciated that.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  Okay, so at the beginning of the program, I said that it’s my contention that coverage of crime and criminal justice issues has declined.  National Public Radio has always made crime and criminal justice issues a priority.  First of all, do you buy into my contention that crime and criminal justice issues?  I mean it’s NPR, CBS, and I’d be hard pressed to go beyond that in terms of maybe Christian Science Monitor.  Maybe papers like the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, are leading the charge, but everybody else seems to have backed of crime and criminal justice issues, so would you agree?

Laura Sullivan:  I think that’s absolutely true, and I think that that’s really just more of the symptoms of the decline of the newspaper industry.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, 10, 15, years ago, there were beats all over the country that covered crime as a topic.

Len Sipes:  Yep.

Laura Sullivan:  Not as a breaking news issue.

Len Sipes:  Yep.

Laura Sullivan:  And that all has gone by the wayside because nobody can afford it anymore.  Nobody can forward to have a reporter specializing in this topical area.

Len Sipes:  A 25, 30 percent reduction in the news staffs across the board.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  In the last ten years.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So the news organizations can no longer afford to have specialists.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  Especially not a specialist that – they have police reporters, but they’re so under staffed that the police reporter are covering the breaking daily crime news.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  And so are television reporters.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And then when crime gets above that and reaches the national news, it’s a crime event.  It’s like, you know, the Casey Anthony trial.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s an actual crime thing that happened.  It’s not, it’s very hard to cover it as a topical area where you’re looking at trends in crime, why things are did – why society is doing it this way or that way, why prisons are going this way or that way.

Len Sipes:  And much of it is entertainment.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  And so who out there is taking a hard long look at the criminal justice system.  I mean very few people are doing it.

Laura Sullivan:  Criminologists.

Len Sipes:  Well, criminologists, yes, but, I mean, NPR is doing it, so the question becomes why.

Laura Sullivan:  Why?  Well, I mean NPR had the money to do it because of a large grant from the Joan Kroc Foundation, which created this beat, actually for NPR.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Laura Sullivan:  So when I came to NPR, I actually applied for this crime and justice beat.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And because it was new, you could kind of make it what you wanted to make it.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And I knew from the very beginning that I did not want to run around the country and cover the Casey Anthony trial.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  Or this crazy thing, you know, drowning of whatever – mother drowns kids.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  I didn’t want to cover anything like that, or the Michael Jackson trial, or just, you know.

Len Sipes:  Right, right, right.

Laura Sullivan:  The stuff.  I wanted to do sort of the issues, the things that I found interesting.  The things that made me curious.  Why do we do it this way?  Why is it happening this way?

Len Sipes:  But even though NPR had the funding, NPR had to make a decision somewhere along the line that this was a very basic issue.

Laura Sullivan:  It was important.

Len Sipes:  Important to all Americans.  I mean we are talking about, in essence, what the criminal justice system does, has an impact on everybody.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  In terms of their public safety, in terms of their personal freedoms, in terms of the Constitution itself.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  That’s why I’m astounded to see the decline in crime and criminal justice, but somewhere along the line, NPR, regardless as to the funding.

Laura Sullivan:  They chose this.

Len Sipes:  As to the funding source, they had, yes, this is an important issue to cover.

Laura Sullivan:  Right, well it was just a bucket of money, and they got to choose what they wanted, what beats they wanted to create, and they created a business beat, and they created another arts desk reporter, and somebody – it was – they’re gone now, but the people at the time there said, you know, for this fifth beat that we have, we want to do crime and justice, and it’s funny, outside the prison they call it crime and justice, but inside the building, I’m the police and prisons report.

Len Sipes:  Police and prisons report.  Well that harkens back to your Baltimore Sun days.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly it really does, and for them, I mean, I think it was NPR’s answer to – I think that they say, well look, we’re not going to do the CNN or the – we’re not going to do sort of this large sensational crime drama type of stories.  What can we do instead?  And that’s why they created crime and justice because they decided it could be a good topic, you know, it could be interesting and fruitful.

Len Sipes:  It is something that affects every human being.

Laura Sullivan:  Everybody.

Len Sipes:  In the United States.

Laura Sullivan:  And that is the hardest thing to do with this beat.  Is you have to – the problem covering crime and justice, and I think this answers a little bit of your question is that, – for a reporter, it’s very easy to do.  I get pitches all the time, you know, we’re doing under water basket weaving in the prison and everybody’s reformed.  You should come do a feature about it, or we’re doing an art project in this thing, and it’s helping all the people make their lives better.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And the problem is that the public says, responds to that as often, why are you?  Why are we spending tax payer money on this?  How is this affecting me?  How is this?  This doesn’t have any effect on my life.  Why do we even care about people in prison?  And you always have to bring it back to this idea that most of these people are getting out.  This is your tax payer dollars, how do you want them used?  How do you want people to be rehabilitated?  Do you want people to be rehabilitated?  How?  And you have to remind people all the time that crime as a whole effects everything, and how we spend taxpayer dollars on criminal justice effects everybody.

Len Sipes:  Or I get back to the constitutional issue, I mean I’ve been a former police officer.  I’ve spent six years in law enforcement, and I always can maintain, contend that there’s nothing more dangerous than a bored young cop.  I mean we are talking about our basic liberties.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  So it goes beyond the crime issue.  It gets into a larger issue, a comprehensive issue about crime and criminal justice, but some of the stuff that I take a look at in National Public Radio, I’ve worked with you in the past year on burglaries.  Okay burglary, everybody is concerned about burglaries, so that’s almost a given, but let me go over some of the other stories.  The jail burden.  The US keeps jails stuffed with inmates.  Doubts rise in 1972, Angola prison murder, rape cases on Indian lands go uninvestigated, thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement.  These are extremely minute, very probing, very thoughtful issues that do not apply to a lot of people, and I imagine somewhere along the line folks at National Public Radio are saying to themselves, wait a minute, okay so fine.  We’re going to – I’m not saying that rape cases on Indian lands going uninvestigated is not important, but it doesn’t apply to 98 percent of our listeners.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah, I mean there’s always going to be some of that.  I mean there is some of that, but for the most part, if you – I mean what I look for – I think there’s a lot of trust.  You know at some point they trust you that whatever you’re going after isn’t going to be a complete dud, and if it is, I kill it long before it ever gets to the airway, so they know that there’s something about it that’s interesting.  There’s something about it that is – that should have other people in society care about it.  The rape on Indian – this is one in three Native American women are being raped on Native American lands, largely by people from outside the reservation.

Len Sipes:  Which is a tragedy.

Laura Sullivan:  Which is outrageous.

Len Sipes:  It is a profound tragedy.  It’s outrageous.  But NPR has a business sense.

Laura Sullivan:  It is outrageous, but what NPR is asking, and what I, as a reporter, is asking is not just to say this is happening, but why is this happening?  Who needs to be held to account?  Who is responsible for this happening?  And in that particular case, it was the lack of the federal government to prosecute cases because only they can prosecute cases.  So there was somebody responsible, and when you elevate the story from this is happening, or this exists, to why is this happening? and who is responsible for it? and what should tax payers know about how their federal government is responding to this atrocity?  That makes the story.  It elevates it to something that everybody go, that’s an outrage, and I’m kind of mad that this isn’t being taken care of.

Len Sipes:  And these stories by the way, 10, 20, years ago, that would have been filled with the CBS news and NBC, and Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  These are the stories that were pretty much run of the mill stories, these hard hitting investigative stories at NPR, and I think CBS are probably the only two that really – Christian Science Monitor really picking up.  You just don’t see it anymore.

Laura Sullivan:  You don’t see it anymore.  And the beauty about NPR, because we’re not covering crime on a daily basis, is that we can go deep.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And that’s – I mean you can’t do that if you’re trying to cover crime on top of all that.

Len Sipes:  We’re halfway through the program.  Very, very quickly.  Our guest today is Laura Sullivan.  She is a national investigative correspondent for National Public Radio.  Again, she’s been with NPR since 2004.  Over the years her work has been honored.  She has two Peabody Awards and two Columbia University Silver Batons for her reporting.  WWW.NPR.ORG, WWW.NPR.ORG.  Laura so we go into some of these others.  I must, again, get the same philosophy, I mean as people in solitary confinement, I would imagine if we ask the average American how much do you care about the fact that there’s an inordinate amount of people spending time in solitary confinement?  They’re going to say, I don’t care.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah, not my problem.

Len Sipes:  Not my problem.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So why does NPR choose that issue?

Laura Sullivan:  That’s the hurdle?  Well that’s – I mean I make a pitch for it.

Len Sipes:  That’s intriguing.

Laura Sullivan:  I make a pitch to my editors the same way I make a pitch to the public, and I say, 95 percent of the people in solitary confinement right now are going to be released into the public one day.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  What quality of person do you want being released into the public one day, so that’s why we want examined, exactly what was happening in solitary confinement.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  When I first told my editor that I wanted to do a three part series on bail bonding in the United States.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, that’s the other one.

Laura Sullivan:  He said you’re insane.  We’re not doing this.  This is crazy.

Len Sipes:  Okay, well – now that’s the conversation I’m looking for because the average person will say, I don’t care if they get out?  Why would I care?

Laura Sullivan:  Well, and so I, I had to tell him what I had just learned half an hour earlier, and I said, do you know that if you get picked up and you hire a bail bondsman, you don’t get your money back even if you show up for your court?  And he said, “I’d no idea.” and I said, “I didn’t either.  Isn’t that crazy?”  I had no idea how this worked, and then, “Do you know that it’s this multibillion dollar lobbying effort that keeps the system in place.  That is not in the best interest of tax payers?”

Len Sipes:  And it’s crushing in the budgets of county and city governments throughout the country, and there’s a whole mess of people there who could be safely released on their own recognizance or through pretrial supervision as we do here in DC.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So it becomes, again, a Constitutional issue.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  And, again, the philosophy of what you take from the poor, people caught up in the criminal justice system that can apply to you as well.  What you take from them, you take from everybody.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, I mean this, exactly.  I mean for me, this – that whole story idea.  They always – these story ideas come from the strangest places.  They’re always the last places you expect, but I was at a conference with criminologists at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, actually just right down the street.  It was mind numbing.  It was so boring, and I was sitting there, and they were talking about crime trends, I mean it was just really – and they had this coffee break and the Director of the Pretrial Justice Institutes came up to me and said “Hey, are you the one from NPR?” and that always makes me really nervous because I never know what’s coming next, I’m like, Oh, no –

Len Sipes:  Yeah.  You know you’re going to get a pitch.  Here comes the pitch.

Laura Sullivan:  Do they hate NPR?  Do they like NPR?  You just never know what’s coming, and –

Len Sipes:  My check bounced for the pledge.  What do I do about it?

Laura Sullivan:  Or, you know, they’re a liberal left wing, bla, bla, bla, and you have to, you know, answer all that, but he said, “I really think you need to do a story about the bail bonding industry in the United States.”

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And he starts going off on this whole thing about the percentage of costs per inmate, and the – and I looked at him, and I said, you know I work for National Public Radio, right?

Len Sipes:  And he said, “No, no, I really, really, mean it.  It’s a really good story, and he’s like look, I think if you looked at it, you’d find, if you crunch all the numbers that this is costing tax payers like 8 billion dollars a year.”

Len Sipes:  Oh, yeah.

Laura Sullivan:  And I looked at him and I said.  “Hmm.  Let’s go to lunch.”  So we went to lunch and he, you know, explained his sort of perspective on bail bonding.

Len Sipes:  But to those of us in the criminal justice system, we understand both the philosophical, the criminological points that you are making throughout these reports.  Extraordinarily well-done, extraordinarily well thought out.  They have applications to everybody, but I’m not quite sure everybody realizes it at first brush.

Laura Sullivan:  No, no, no.

Len Sipes:  And I – again I go back to NPR, like any other media entity, has a business case.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  And they want to attract as many as listeners as humanly possible.

Laura Sullivan:  That’s true, that’s true.

Len Sipes:  And somebody out there is going to go, when they first hear about bail, they’re going to say, “Okay, what?”

Laura Sullivan:  They’re like my editor.  What?  They hear Robert saying.  We have 20-minute story coming out on bail?  People were like, that’s insane.  I don’t want to hear 20 minutes on bail.  What’s there to know about bail?

Len Sipes:  What’s there to know about bail?  Keep the bad guys in.  Give them a high bail, and –

Laura Sullivan:  don’t worry about it.

Len Sipes:  Then don’t worry about them.

Laura Sullivan:  What’s the problem?

Len Sipes:  What’s the problem?  But again, it has a huge fiscal ramifications for cities and counties, and it’s only in the last ten years or so that all of us within the criminal justice system, all government agencies have had to reduce our amount of spending, have we taken a hard look in terms of who we’re keeping and why.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  And those constitutional and philosophical questions come up, so it is a public safety issue.  It is a fiscal issue.  It is a Constitutional issue.  Again – which is what you guys do, which is why it leads me to the next stories about doubts rise about 1972 Angola prison murder.  Now the story weaves this wonderful tale of Angola and the prison and how it’s in the deep South, and it’s huge, and it’s lush, and it’s a prison industry, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and inmates basically have run that prison for years, and it’s not just a story about a homicide.  It’s a story about corrections in America.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s a story about corrections in America.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And it’s a story about corrections in the South.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And a lot of, sort of the racial turmoil that, you know, tainted all – most Southern prisons for decades.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And they’re just sort of now coming out of.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  I mean, even now, Angola, the officers are largely white and the inmates are very – almost entirely African American.

Len Sipes:  But that’s not uncommon in many jurisdictions.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s true.  That’s true.

Len Sipes:  Especially those on the East Coast.

Laura Sullivan:  But they have a very, very difficult racial history at Angola that they’re sort of trying to overcome, and this murder of a white prison guard by allegedly by a group of Black Panther activists , African-Americans, was very telling of this transformation for this prison and what it had gone through, and the fact that there are a lot of questions about whether or not the two inmates in this story actually did it?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And they had been held in solitary confinement at this prison.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  For 36 years.

Len Sipes:  Right.  So it was not a story ostensively about an Angola prison murder.

Laura Sullivan:  No.

Len Sipes:  It was a story about corrections in America.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  In the south.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  With all the racial issues attached to it, with the solitary confinement issues attached to it.  I mean it was a profoundly moving story about much larger issues than one homicide, but then again, that’s how NPR advertises it, is that, as, you know, we’re going to take a look at a 1972 murder in a prison in the deep South and the average person is sitting there going, and that means what to me?

Laura Sullivan:  Why do I care?

Len Sipes:  But it tells – I mean it’s a transformational story about all these larger issues we’re talking about, and what I would imagine that is why you pick these stories.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  Because it’s not the narrow issue of women on an Indian reservation being raped, and people, specifically from outside the Indian reservation, are getting away with it?  It’s a larger issue about rape in America.

Laura Sullivan:  Right, and the lack of prosecution.

Len Sipes:  It’s a larger issue about corrections, about the lack of prosecutions and the lack of concern on the part of the criminal justice system.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  And what are we doing in corrections, and are we Constitutional? and are we moral? and by the way, race filters into this, and you have to examine race.  I mean these are the larger issues.  I’m not quite sure the average person sitting in their driveway, pulling into their driveway after a long drive home understands that when they hear a 1972 investigation of a –

Laura Sullivan:  Well, hopefully, if they get to the end of the story, they will get it.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, they may not get it when Robert Siegel comes on and does the intro, but hopefully by the end, if we’ve done our jobs right, they understand that this is not just one little thing.  We’ve not just covering one crime or one particular case, but we’re actually looking at a larger issue that is interesting to humans.

Len Sipes:  Yes, yeah.

Laura Sullivan:  And to society, and how we interact with each other.

Len Sipes:  How does this impact you, personally Laura?  I mean we were joking before the beginning of the program that many of the crime reporters that I knew years ago were hard-bitten, two-fisted, beer-drinking, foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking, you know, they were part of that life-style, they’re cynical, they viewed the word cynically.

Laura Sullivan:  I know a lot of them.

Len Sipes:  They view us in government cynically.  You know, you don’t investigate figure skating champions who come through endless adversity and win the big figure skating championship.

Laura Sullivan:  No, unless they’re a victim of a crime.

Len Sipes:  You’re dealing with the Angola murder of 1972, bail, rape on Indian reservations.  I mean you deal with these topics.  Has it affected you personally?

Laura Sullivan:  A lot of people tell me that they think that my job is really depressing.  I actually don’t agree with them.  I think that my job is very dramatic
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and I find I get very emotionally invested in these stories, and I throw sort of my whole sense of self into them, into trying to figure them out and trying to understand them, and for me, I mean the – yeah, there times I just spent a year doing investigation in South Dakota and a spent long time, many, many, afternoons on the couches of grandmothers, crying.  It was a story about foster care, and things that were happening in that arena, and I think that those are the times when it just weighs on you personally.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  Because you go to bed at night, and you think about them, and you think about how much pain and suffering some people are in, and it’s hard.  It’s hard to put that aside and still sort of get up and do your job, and I think that’s where the cynicism comes from.

Len Sipes:  You’re a mother of two young kids, and you’re married to a reporter, Washington Post reporter.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And somebody who I know well.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  Hi.  And I mean you’re away on these assignments.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  And you’re not going to Jamaica.  You’re not going to Hawaii.  You’re going to –

Laura Sullivan:  I’m going to the middle of South Dakota in the middle of winter.

Len Sipes:  And I’ve been there.  I know how desolate, and I know how isolated it is.  It’s not the garden spot of the world, although both of us find it enchanting and found the Native Americans there enchanting in many ways, and we could go on forever talking about those stories, but it is tough.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  You’ve picked tough topics.  You’ve picked a tough beat that takes you away from home for good amounts of time.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And that has to have an impact on you personally.

Laura Sullivan:  Oh, yeah, absolutely, and I think about that every time I get on a plane, which I try not to do too frequently, but I do a lot, and that’s because the stories have to mean something to me.  They have to be important enough for me to want to effect change, to want to share them with the world, to give up – sort of how hard it is on your family to make that happen.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  Luckily because it’s not a daily beat, it allows me to be here.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  Day in and day out, and sort of picking up the bulk of the weight when I am here, but then once – I would say I travel, well it depends, it goes in spurts, but if, you know, when I do have to hit the road, and then I’m gone, hopefully that makes up for the –

Len Sipes:  But you haven’t become cynical and morose like the rest of us who have surrounded ourselves with these issues for the last 30 years, 40 years.

Laura Sullivan:  Cynical maybe, morose, no.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Laura Sullivan:  But sometimes cynical.

Len Sipes:  Is being a woman an advantage or a disadvantage?  I apologize for asking.

Laura Sullivan:  Oh, it’s both.  No, I appreciate the question.

Len Sipes:  The criminal justice system is male dominated.

Laura Sullivan:  It can be both.

Len Sipes:  And sometimes I get the sense of Laura Sullivan walking into a criminal justice system that’s 85, 90 percent male.

Laura Sullivan:  Lots of prisons.

Len Sipes:  Lots of prisons, lots of cops, lots of prosecutors, lots of tough guys.  Does that have an impact?

Laura Sullivan:  I find it most in sort of the prison setting, and mostly with the inmates, and it’s either, you know, it’s either helpful because you don’t remind the inmate of the people that are looking over their shoulder, and you don’t seem like you’re one of them.  One of the hardest things when you walk into a prison is that you want the trust of the prison administrators, and you also want the trust of the inmates, and trying to establish both is almost impossible.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  So, on the one hand it’s helpful sometimes to be a woman.  On the other hand, it’s terrible because you can run into the wrong inmates, and they can make a good five minutes miserable for you.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  And so you just say, next, can we see a different inmate.  So, you know, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Len Sipes:  Is the criminal justice system any more open, any more transparent? or are we still the same sloppy, Oh, my God there’s a reporter at my doorstep, let’s run for the hills.

Laura Sullivan:  I mean there are few –

Len Sipes:  Have we gotten any better in the last ten years?

Laura Sullivan:  There are a few agencies across the board where I just think the world of, where I just think that you guys get it.  You are one of them.  I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting in your studio right now, that, where I just think, I wish that there were more agencies like you guys that understood that we’re not the devil.  We’re not coming in to do the hit job.  At least give us a chance to prove that we’re not coming in to do the hit job.

Len Sipes:  Right, right.

Laura Sullivan:  I’m sure there are some out there, but give us a chance, the opportunity to come in, and then there are others that are just the polar opposite, and I would say, I would say it’s actually worse than it used to be.

Len Sipes:  Really.

Laura Sullivan:  And I –

Len Sipes:  Seriously.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes, I really do.

Len Sipes:  And all this day and age of transparency, and social media it’s got –

Laura Sullivan:  Because I think that’s why.

Len Sipes:  Really?

Laura Sullivan:  That’s why.  I think it’s instilled a lot of fear, and I think that there’s a real fear to allow – people do not see any benefit to allowing a reporter into a prison.  You have to really – there’s no premise that yes, you can come in unless we decide not to.  It’s no you can’t unless you can prove that there’s a reason why we should do it, and you can argue the public interest and that these are behind closed doors, and that the public is paying for this, can we see what’s happening? and still you run up against this idea that whatever it is you’re after, it can be no good, and so we are just trying to make your life as miserable as possible.

Len Sipes:  I’ve got 30 seconds before we have to close.  The future of NPR crime coverage, anything you want to share with the rest of us in the next third seconds?

Laura Sullivan:  I think it looks really good.  I mean this is a priority for NPR.  This is something that the editors are interested in.  I’m interested in, and our listeners have really responded to.  So it’s going to keep going strong.

Len Sipes:  Laura Sullivan, an NPR investigative correspondent.  She, again, joined in 2004, has a whole slew of awards.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to go on the website, WWW.NPR.ORG and listen to Laura’s stuff, she weaves a story and information as beautifully as anybody I’ve ever heard.  Winner of two Peabody awards and  two Columbia University Silver Batons.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We appreciate your time, interest, your phone calls, your emails, your comments, and your criticisms, and I want everybody to have yourselves a very, very, pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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  1. Congratulations to all the excellent work!

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