BOB GARFIELD: Last year, some 53 journalists died in the line of duty -- 20 of them covering the war in Iraq. We're less accustomed to hearing about journalists in the United States dying on the job, but in June of 1976, Arizona Republic newspaper reporter Don Bolles whose beat was organized crime was killed in the middle of the day in downtown Phoenix. The following story, however, isn't about heroism in the line of duty. It's about a unique collaboration of dozens of investigative reporters from around the country who, drawn together by Bolles' murder, forgot that they were competitors and converged on Phoenix to finish his work. It was called The Arizona Project. From Phoenix, Steve Goldstein recounts the tale.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: When Don Bolles' car was blown up on June 2nd, 1976, the explosion was recorded by an attorney who was dictating in his nearby office.
ATTORNEY: ...stage would be to-- for me to file a-- [EXPLOSION]
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Bolles died in a Phoenix hospital 11 days later, following a series of operations to amputate one arm and both legs. Bolles had investigated organized crime for the Arizona Republic for more than a decade and made some enemies. The Republic staff tried to fill Bolles' void, turning their shock and anger toward work. Bob Early was a city editor at the Republic, and Don Bolles' boss.
BOB EARLY: When we found that it was one of our guys, we mobilized the whole effort of reporting it, so there wasn't a whole lot of time to be shocked or think about it.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Meanwhile in Indianapolis at the inaugural convention of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Organization, an unprecedented decision was made. The IRE would send a team to Arizona to follow up on Bolles' investigations. Newsday's Bob Greene led the team. He says the reporters weren't going to try to solve Bolles' murder. Instead, they wanted to investigate and illuminate the conditions that led to it. They would try to use journalism as a weapon.
BOB GREENE: Here was a society that, that felt -- at least some elements of it -- felt it was permissible to kill a reporter to stop his work. Now the question in our mind was to go out there and examine that society, particularly in light of what he had been working on.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Bob Early was glad the reporters were coming to Phoenix.
BOB EARLY: Any kind of show of strength, it seemed to me, would be beneficial for us so that these kind of things wouldn't happen again. The more heat that we could bring on to the criminal element as a result of this, and also, you know, to government and the politicians, would have been very beneficial to us.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Over the course of six months, 38 journalists worked on the project. Many of them had never met Bolles. Members teamed up to investigate the influence of organized crime in the state from prostitution to illegal immigration to land fraud. Six of the team members were involved from start to finish, but most could only commit to a couple of weeks. So Bob Greene developed a system of cross-indexed files that would let newer reporters get up to speed quickly. The group's efforts drew attention in Arizona and it also sparked high profile interest from the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. [TAPE FROM 60 MINUTES]
MORLEY SAFER: When they blew up an Arizona reporter named Don Bolles, they may have blown up a lot more than they bargained for.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: It also got the attention of rival newspapers. The New York Times and the Washington Post said the project was misguided at best. Bob Greene.
BOB GREENE: The New York Times' Abe Rosenthal, who I had great, great respect for, said that this is, is, if this is to be done, it shouldn't be done collectively. The New York Times will do it. The Times didn't do it, so fortunately we did. Ben Bradlee in the Washington Post opposed it. First statement he made was that investigative reporters cannot sit in the same room for more than 3 days without going at each other's throats; that it'll never work.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: But it did work. On March 13th, 1977, newspapers across the country published the first of a 23-part series produced by the Arizona Project team. It chronicled alleged corruption in Arizona business and politics. But none of those stories appeared in Don Bolles' paper. Nina Pulliam, publisher of the Arizona Republic, made the decision. Former city editor Bob Early says the paper should have published the series.
BOB EARLY: What our publisher at the time was concerned about was the fact that we were going to publish things that were in some tone accusatory, and so they were concerned about legal action. I didn't have any concerns about that.
BOB GREENE: I was outraged. [LAUGHS]
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Again, Bob Greene.
BOB GREENE: Here was a newspaper that had been cooperating with us all the way along the line on the Bob Early level, which was the city editor level. And which all of a sudden now is saying they never had any part of the project.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Greene wasn't alone in his anger. The general manager of local radio station KOY was stunned by the Republic's decision. So he decided the station should read the series on the air every night at 6:30 to keep Phoenix residents informed. [KOY CLIP FROM 1977]
ANNOUNCER: As a public service, KOY News now presents a comprehensive review of today's report by the Investigative Reporters and Editors Incorporated. Since today is ....
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: As a reporter for the Indiapolis Star, Myrta Pulliam was part of the Arizona Project. She was affected professionally and personally by the Republic's decision not to publish the series. The publisher was her grandmother.
MYRTA PULLIAM: You know, if somebody kills a reporter, this is the kind of attention that's going to get turned on you. People from all over the country are going to come out here and--you're going to be put under a microscope. And no criminal -- no person in their right mind wants that to happen to 'em. I think that that worked -- the fact that we were all there -- there was so much attention -- really was an insurance policy and still is to this day.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The Arizona Project won a number of journalism awards and was nominated for a special Pulitzer Prize. Three men were convicted in the killing of Don Bolles. One died in 2002. Another was released from prison in 1998 and is free today. The third is still in jail, serving a life sentence in Arizona. For On the Media, I'm Steve Goldstein. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, one medium that liberals really do seem to control, for the moment. And why the National Rifle Association is now shooting into the air.