Editor’s Note: This is the 17th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
Betty Brink was a journalist before many of today’s alt-weeklies even existed. Her writing career began in the late 1960s when she and a small group of students put out an alternative campus paper at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
She has worked for the Fort Worth Weekly for nine and a half years, and has been a freelancer for several papers including The Progressive, Southern Exposure, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Texas Observer and the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Her expose of the influence-peddling behind Fort Worth school administrators’ decision to spend millions of dollars on a controversial computer math program, reported with the help of then high-school intern Brooke Gray, won her a "Katie" this year, the Dallas Press Club’s award for journalism in a region that includes Texas and five neighboring states. It was also one of the three news pieces that won her a 2005 AltWeekly Award in the News Story–Short Form category. The other pieces were "Another Carswell Conviction," about a former prison guard found guilty of sexually abusing a prisoner, and "Prosecuting Patsy," about an unlicensed bail bond operator.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in journalism during the decades you’ve worked in the field?
The biggest change has been the way that the mainstream media has caved into the entertainment side of the business. The most important thing that’s happened for journalism has been the alternative press. I started in the alternative press in the ’60s, in what they then called the "underground" press.
When I lived in Beaumont, Texas, I had a child in college, at Lamar University, but I went back to school to take journalism classes at Lamar, too. I got involved in the student protest movement because my kids were involved, and my husband and I were already active in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements. The students put out an underground paper, which was mostly done at my kitchen table.
Most of the alternative papers today have grown out of those early papers. That was an interesting connection for me to what I’m doing today. The Fort Worth Weekly was definitely influenced by those papers. I think that’s been probably the best thing to happen to journalism: this growth of alternative papers throughout the country. The control of the news-gathering process is now concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations. The corporate philosophy has just destroyed journalism in this country.
Did you see yourself working in the alternative press, or did you just think that journalism was journalism?
I wrote without being conscious of the term. I wrote for papers and magazines, doing what I saw as advocacy journalism. Publications like The Texas Observer, Southern Exposure and The Progressive definitely had an agenda and a political stand that they took and that I agreed with. I wrote for papers like that, but I also wrote for mainstream papers like the Star Telegram. I didn’t really see myself as winding up doing the kind of journalism we’re doing today, but I’m very excited that I’m here.
What inspired you to start in this field?
When I was young, I was an avid reader, as was my mother. She used to read The New Yorker, and in the ’40s and ’50s our house was filled with good reading material. She had wanted to be a journalist, but the Depression had come along and interrupted her ambitions. I was certainly influenced by her desire to be a journalist. Also, in high school in a small town that was very "backwoods" in a lot of ways, I had an excellent English teacher, and she really got me into writing. I had the good fortune of having a teacher who taught me to read critically. I also grew up in a home where there was a lot of suspicion of government. [Laughs.] I’ve always covered government with a very critical eye.
What is it like for you to make the transition between editors? Do you have enough of a reputation that it doesn’t matter?
My current editor, Gayle Reaves, was part of a Dallas Morning News team that won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1994. Her whole career has been in dailies. The same was true of my previous editor, John Forsyth. The hardest part about the transition was that after five years, John had gotten out of the bad habits of the dailies, whereas it took Gayle about a year to start thinking alternative. Initially she was turned off by the edginess. She and I clashed quite a bit over that. [Laughs.] But nine times out of 10, when I was adamant about making my story read a certain way, she did back off.
Now, under her hand, my stories are much better; the edginess is there, but the writing is tighter. And that’s a good thing. Plus, we share a common passion that made the transition easy, one she expressed when she was first hired, that our job as journalists is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted."
What method do you use in doing investigative reporting?
The most important thing as a reporter is to avoid looking for just the facts that fit what you think the outcome should be. That’s a slippery slope. Sometimes you get stories that look like they’re going in one direction, but after finding documents or someone who knows the real story, they change 180 degrees. The importance of investigative journalism is to get the truth, and that’s what you should print even if it doesn’t fit what you thought you were looking for.
Is it your job to expose injustices that need to change?
My whole purpose when I work on one of these stories is to tell the public what’s going on so if there is someone who can do something, they have the tools to go forward. I don’t write anything that I can’t document.
After the Carswell stories I wrote on a prison rape scandal were published, the rape case got a lot of national attention, especially from some organizations trying to expose the serious problem of rape in prison. We were told by Stop Prison Rape, a major prison reform advocacy group, that that story in particular helped them convince some congressional committees to look into prison rape cases. A year after that, Congress passed the first comprehensive anti-prison rape bill that has ever been passed. The law is unfortunately not very tough, but it raised the level of awareness of the problem.
What kind of stories speak to you?
The stories that speak to me more than any others are the ones that have impacted an individual or a family, that have a human element that is compelling, that pay attention to someone who would otherwise be lost in the greater scheme of things. I write a larger story, but I always try to focus it on one or two people and their stories because I think that’s how people relate to it. I’m not writing about statistics. I’m talking about an actual person who’s actually damaged by whatever the subject is. A friend of mine sent me a quote, from Stalin oddly enough. It said "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." I think that’s really true in people’s minds, I don’t think we can wrap our minds around tragedies so huge.
How do you get people who don’t want to talk to tell you things?
It’s a case-by-case type of thing. Often I find people that want to tell me stuff, but they’re scared that I’ll misquote them or that their name will be in print. When I’m dealing with someone who’s not in the public eye and doesn’t know the journalistic process, I tell them that we’ll just talk off the record. Once I build up some trust, I encourage them to go on the record with me because often this is the person who knows exactly what happened.
If their job is in danger, if there’s a possibility that they can be fired for going public, I’ll keep their name out of the article, and then I won’t print what they tell me unless I can verify it with two or three other people. I’m an older woman, I’ve got gray hair, and I’m kind of plump so I look like everybody’s grandma. That’s sort of a secret weapon for me, as far as getting people to sit down and relax and talk to me. Once I explain how important the information is, nine times out of 10 they’ll let me use their name with it.
Do you, as an older woman, think that the alternative press represents the opinions of most elderly people?
In general we don’t seek out the stories that are there about the elderly. But I think Fort Worth Weekly tries hard to cover the news stories that we think are important to all the citizens here, no matter their ages. But we need to do better. Of course, I’m answering this from the perspective of 73 years on this planet.
Older folks’ opinions are as varied as anyone else’s, and it’s not our job to consider opinions when we follow a story. Our paper has taken on the smarmy nursing homes and the rip-off funeral home artists, but we haven’t done some important stories, like the issues of the elderly homeless or the impact of the cuts in social services on older people. Or how many are having to decide between paying for their medication or buying food.
Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.