Hours after a visibly humbled Ray Nagin took his post-conviction perp walk from the federal courthouse, I had the privilege of sitting down with the guy who actually uncovered the steaming pile of dung that became the case of United States of America v. C. Ray Nagin.
His name is Jason Berry. No, not that Jason Berry (the novelist and op-ed contributor). This is Jason Berry the blogger.
That’s right, a blogger broke open this scandal, on a blog called American Zombie (www.theamericanzombie.com). TV and newspaper reporters have crowed about their “scoops” on this story, but the truth is no one had it before Berry. His work continues on other investigative fronts, but he took time out to chat with me about the Nagin verdict.
Did you feel an element of schadenfreude when the verdict came down? If not, what was your initial reaction?
No. I honestly didn’t feel vindicated in any way. In fact, I felt a little aggravated because I couldn’t wrap my head around the efforts of the defense. I suppose it’s my Catholic upbringing that seeks redemption for even a narcissist like Ray Nagin. There were so many things that could have been addressed in this trial but weren’t. I felt like it was a McDefense instead of the Brigtsen’s five-course meal that it should have been. Having said that, I don’t think there is any way to argue with credit card statements, checks, and bank statements, which leads me to wonder why Nagin had [defense attorney Robert] Jenkins take the case to trial in the first place. I do think Nagin’s prosecution and conviction are important for our city, though, and overall I’m relieved it actually happened.
You were onto this scandal long before anyone else in the media, yet you got very little credit for that. How did that make you feel as you watched the trial?
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. I sat through about 70 percent of the trial and I watched other journalists being praised by the prosecution for at least a few stories I know I broke, namely the granite deal between Stone Age and Cornerstone, the HSOA subsidiary, and the existence of the credit card Meffert was using under Netmethods’ name. Perhaps I’m taking it too personally, but I think there was an effort to diminish my role by both the prosecution and other journalistic entities. From the prosecution side I understand that the last word they wanted coming up in this trial was “blogger” in the wake of the commenting scandal, but on the journalistic side it’s tough to read commentary that dismisses and diminishes the work on the blog. Yes, much of my work was sourced anonymously, but this is not uncommon in journalistic endeavors, and ultimately the accuracy of the work should speak for itself. I’m a big defender of anonymity, but I suppose that’s another argument altogether.
When you first started posting about IT corruption at City Hall — Meffert, St. Pierre, Ciber, et al. — did you think it would ever come to this?
Never. I started the blog because I had just finished working on the documentary about New Orleans Public School system, Left Behind, with Dr. Vince Morelli. Having learned of the entrenched corruption in that public body, I turned my attention to City Hall and Meffert, St. Pierre, Ciber, Bennett, Fradella and ultimately Nagin. I honestly didn’t even think the blog would be read at all but it started gaining traction almost immediately. Now, it’s become an enormous responsibility for me well past the Nagin years. Since then I’ve tried my best to focus on bigger stories that affect our community, like the Wisner Trust and the BP claims process. These are stories that are very complex and most journalists don’t have the luxury of spending enough time with a story to truly get to the gist of it. I don’t have a lot of resources like many mainstream journalists have but the one luxury I do have is time. I feel that tackling these more complex stories is the best way I can contribute to this city I love. I now have sources that are coming to me instead of the “mainstream” journalists, and that makes me proud. I must be doing something right.
In your opinion, what did the feds get right, and what slipped through their fingers?
I think they did exactly what they wanted to do. They got near perfect scores with Nagin across the board. What I don’t understand is how so many people skated out of the entire Nagin debacle without being charged. I think someone needs to go face to face with Mark St. Pierre, the guy serving a 17-and-a-half-year prison sentence for bribing Nagin, and explain why these guys weren’t prosecuted like he was. That is the real turd in the punchbowl for me.
Do you think this particular case is over, or do you expect more to come?
I expect an appeal, and I think the commenting scandal may rear its ugly head again in respect to the efforts of Stacey Jackson to obtain the names of Nola.com commenters “jammer1954” and “air check.” I think there was an effort to sweep the commenting scandal under the rug and I don’t think that’s healthy for our community. Mark Moseley from The Lens and I, among others, have done a lot of digging into what happened during the Heebe investigation and the role Nola.com may have played, unwittingly and wittingly, in the commenting scandal. What we’re finding is very disconcerting. I personally don’t think it should affect the outcome of Nagin’s conviction but I think we, the public, need to know what happened and who may have betrayed our trust. Also, I think there is a huge issue that needs to be addressed with the Chinese wall that purportedly exists between Nola.com’s newsroom and the public forum they provide for their commenters. If journalists or employees of Nola.com are data mining comments or if the identities of commenters are being revealed to private individuals, and I have reason to believe these things have occurred, it opens up Pandora’s box.
What do you think is the future of blogging (and bloggers) as relates to investigative journalism, particularly on the local level?
I have no sibylline insight on this. I can’t even tell you if I will still be doing this by this time next year as it takes an enormous toll on my personal life, my family and even my income streams. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I should monetize it but I honestly can’t see a way to do that. I’m floating around the idea of doing a monthly live webcast with another blogger and I’m hopeful we could monetize that endeavor through advertising dollars. I think Katrina was a special period for the blogging community in New Orleans led by our patron saint, Ashley Morris. There was so much frustration following the storm and the blogs helped vent that frustration and comforted many New Orleans folks who were suffering. Rising Tide is still the cornerstone of the New Orleans blogging community and as long as it continues I think we will keep kicking.
In respect to blogging and investigative journalism, I don’t think it has a bright future simply because it’s not exactly a wise career decision. Karen Gadbois went on to help found a non-profit model with The Lens and I think that’s been an invaluable asset to this city. To me she is the model of success. But even in the “professional” world of journalism it takes a peculiar type of person to strike that path and you have to be willing to sacrifice everything, even your job, to truly pursue the goal. The luxury I’ve had is that no one can fire me or stop me from writing about sensitive issues that affect our city, but there is still tremendous risk involved and that weighs heavily on me daily. It’s a pretty thankless job unless you reach a level of national stature…or you’re Lee Zurik.