Painstakingly pursuing paper trail's `tiny clues'

Probe leader made name with document reporting

April 23, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The man who led the student probe into the identity of Deep Throat is more polite scientist than swaggering interrogator. He is the classic documents reporter, say those who know Bill Gaines, maybe more at home with his head in a box of files than anywhere else - which made the four-year project at the University of Illinois a classic Gaines investigation.

It was all paper trail, a meticulous clue-by-clue journey that led the group yesterday to name Fred Fielding, deputy counsel to former President Richard M. Nixon, as the chief suspect.

"You would never in a million years think he was an investigative reporter," said Joel Kaplan, chairman of the newspaper department at Syracuse University's journalism school, who worked with Gaines at the Chicago Tribune.

"You wouldn't even know he was there. He could be anything. He played a janitor undercover at a [hospital] and played it perfectly. He looked like a dumb old guy - but he's brilliant."

Investigative work

Gaines, 69, worked for 27 years as an investigative reporter at the Tribune, where he won two Pulitzer prizes and was a finalist twice. In 1976, he worked undercover as a hospital janitor to chronicle unsanitary and unwanted surgeries. Gaines' second Pulitzer came in 1988 for a series reported by him and others about widespread corruption on the Chicago City Council.

Gaines is the author of Investigative Reporting for Print and Broadcast, a college textbook that has been adopted by more than 60 university journalism programs. He teaches investigative reporting at the University of Illinois, where he was awarded the Knight Chair in 2001.

As a reporter, he covered a wide spectrum of subjects, among them bank and insurance redlining, gun laws and the music industry's fleecing of Chicago jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton.

But the bedrock of his reporting was always documents. As far back as the 1960s, an era so tumultuous that all reporters had to do was look up to find a breaking story, Gaines was the master of the document room, former colleagues said.

"He's probably been in more courthouse basements and city hall nooks and crannies and county clerks offices than any reporter in the history of Chicago," said Dick Ciccone, a former managing editor at the Tribune.

"He was every bit as dogged as Woodward and Bernstein were on Watergate."

It is a painstaking type of reporting that gives many reporters headaches.

"He has the patience of Job," said Jim Squires, a former editor of the Tribune, now a horse breeder in Kentucky.

"This guy can look through documents and records until everyone else has gone blind, and Bill Gaines is still looking."

Some investigative reporters work like homicide detectives, Squires said. "Gaines is more like a scientist. He looks meticulously for tiny clues."

Balding, bespectacled, unassuming, Gaines could have passed for an accountant, Ciccone said.

"You wouldn't call him a bulldog reporter, a `gotcha' kind of guy. It was: `What about this?" What about that?' A very gentlemanly kind of reporter. Polite but not retiring."

As much as his career covered the spectrum of investigative reporting, Gaines was also an innovator, said Robert Blau, associate managing editor for projects at the Tribune, noting that Gaines formed an unusual collaboration with the paper's jazz critic for the stories on Morton.

"He is unswayed by rhetoric, unimpressed by access, unmoved by polemics and inspired only by the accretion of fact," Blau said.

Ethics debate

The Deep Throat project has stirred a debate in journalism circles about the ethics of an effort to reveal another journalist's source.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal, have not revealed the identity of the nation's most famous anonymous source. They have, however, sold their Watergate notes and other papers to the University of Texas for $5 million. The identities of confidential sources, including that of Deep Throat, will be kept secret until after the sources die, the university has said.

Gaines could not be reached for comment yesterday. However, he has posted his response to the debate on the project's Web site,

"I do not believe we have done anything unethical. We have a right to investigate another reporter's source in the same way that he or she would investigate a private business transaction of interest to the public. A reporter's source is confidential and should never be revealed, but Woodward and Bernstein have broken that rule by making their source a movie character, giving him a name and telling when they met, the information given, and clues to his personality."

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