My time with four-time Pulitzer-Prize nominee Paul Rodriguez

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I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye.

When I heard my former boss, friend and mentor was battling brain cancer, I had hoped to see him one last time. I was too late.

Paul Rodriguez died Oct. 26, 2013. He was 61.

I had the pleasure of working for the four-time Pulitzer-Prize nominee for nearly seven years at Insight on the News Magazine – The Washington Times’ investigative rag.

Paul was an aggressive reporter/editor with a tremendous heart for those who meant the most to him — his wife Katherine Long,  his children, his brothers and their families and his staff. He talked of journalism as the most important profession in life. On his deathbed in a video, he spoke of the power of our craft. Journalism has the ability to destroy people and nations, but it also has the power to rebuild, he said.

Paul Rodriguez always told me – make one more call; get one more source. (Screenshot)

So perhaps his most important achievement in all his years of investigation was to find his long lost brothers from Kabul, Afghanistan – so he could rebuild his family.

Paul grew up in Haiti, Venezuela and Texas before moving  to Washington  in 1965. He was separated from  his brothers and made his  mission to find his  roots. He found them nearly 10 years ago by exhaustively researching DNA analysis and countless records.

Forget about the Pulitzer nominations – this was his proudest journalism accomplishment. When he told me, he found them, he was so excited.  Finding his family was his  “Pulitzer.”  He was working on a book about it over the past few years.  It was never finished.

Lessons from a newsman

Paul’s journalism accomplishments left me in awe. He covered Ford, Carter, and the Reagan administration.

If you never heard of  the newsman Paul Rodriguez, you probably remember the question he asked  in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan was shot.

“Who’s in charge?”

That, of course, led to Gen. Alexander Al Haig’s downfall.

Paul was the master of asking the right question. I remember being invited with him to debrief the highest ranking GRU agent (Russian military officer) at a Virginia hotel. Paul questioned him with British Insight reporter Jamie Dettmer for several hours -and the agent was spinning in circles. The agent claimed a top news broadcaster worked as a Russian spy and that dirty bombs were planted in various places in the United States.  But he had no hard evidence to support any of it.

Secretary of State Al Haig holds a press conference regarding the assassination attempt of President Reagan. When asked by Paul who is in charge, Haig replies “I’m in control here.”

In the end, Paul concluded we didn’t have a story – but just a lot of leads for maybe stories. It was lesson that not every thing you go after is going to turn into something. An editor who doesn’t hassle you for investigating a story for weeks and coming back without a story is rare in today’s world of journalism. Paul gave me that freedom.

After Insight folded in 2004, Paul and I kept in touch for years. He kept in touch with much of his ex-staff; I don’t know how many ex-bosses do that. My dealings with him were mostly through long phone call conversations on my drive home. He was my talk radio, providing advice, encouragement and always ending the conversation by telling me to help others find work.  For those that treated him poorly, his advice was to help them too.

Paul always peppered me with three questions before our business conversation began. How are you? How’s your family? And how are the boys? While many people ask these questions, face it, few really care about the answers. Not Paul. He insisted you answer those questions and if need be, he would follow up with more family questions. After he was satisfied with the answers, only then would we talk business – news business.

That was Paul’s way. I know he searched a decade to find his lost brothers, but to many of us who worked for him, he didn’t have to search in a lot places to find his brothers and sisters of a different bloodline. We were his family – dysfunctional at times,  but family.

When I worked for him, he encouraged people to expand their careers, interview for jobs. He even went out of his way to give people written references while they worked for him. That’s unheard of today. In fact, when I worked at Insight, I got a job offer for more money – mostly because of Paul’s reference – and I came to Paul about it. I turned it down because you can’t put a salary on working for someone who actually cares about you as a person.

I mean who is going to let you in his office and say, you can come in and use it anytime, or tell you to  feel free to crash on his leather couch. And then invite you back at 3:30 p.m. to watch Batman cartoons. Yes, Batman. That was a needed break from the stress of producing 3,200- to 10,000-word cover stories weekly. And no, we didn’t have to punch out to watch the cape crusader.

Always laid back and always laughter. I miss that laugh. (Screenshot)

Building relationships is what separated Paul from other managers.  When Insight closed and laid off more than a dozen employees, it wasn’t just employees who were laid off to Paul. He looked at it as his extended family being laid off.

It makes sense. When a company announces 84 people getting laid off, they should just say that 84 families got laid off, because that’s what it does. The family can’t afford the soccer club for their son, or ballet for their daughter. Paul got that.

Paul was a laid-back manager. He didn’t care how many hours you worked, but expected you to be there at production time – sometimes at 1 a.m. If you weren’t  you couldn’t complain about how your story was edited or laid out.

In terms of work flow, Paul was never interested in rewarding the slow and penalizing the fast. If you could do your story in 20 hours – you got paid the full 40. He didn’t care if you worked from home or at the office – although he insisted  no stories were in the office – and just cared about making deadlines and getting the story right and first. That’s why when he called you late on a Saturday evening or in the middle of the night you did what he asked – often telling us to make one more call, get one more source.

Paul always described himself as a newsman. He hated to get beat and screamed a few choice words at me and others if we didn’t have a story first. He once went into a profanity-laced tirade when I had brought a friend to meet him. He was upset about Congress for not doing anything about the budget and us not covering it. After he dropped a few F-bombs in front of my friend, I introduced  him to my friend – The Rev. Kevin McGhee of Bethany Community Church in Laurel. I apologized for Paul’s language but the language was nothing new to The Rev. McGhee. He served in the Navy. So no worries.

Stephen Glass became infamous for fabricating several stories for the New Republic. (Amazon DVD Photo)

Excuses were just not accepted and no one ever bothered to give any. When Stephen Glass wrote a story for the New Republic about a Republicans engaging in a wild party, Paul wondered angrily – why didn’t we have it? Were we avoiding the story because it involved Republicans?  Of course, it was revealed later that Glass fabricated the story, and we were off the  hook. The Glass story turned into a feature film – “Shattered Glass.”

In between managing his team, Paul always had an investigative story he was working.  His stories prompted federal and congressional investigations. He hated it when a story reached a congressional probe because he knew it would never go anywhere with Congress. He even fought hard for me not to testify as an expert in a parental abduction hearing – and just said reporters don’t testify about their stories. Period.

Nor was it uncommon for him to get his phone checked for bugs.  One of his law enforcement sources checked his phone after Paul claimed to have heard a ticking. It was bugged, Paul told me.

Sometimes his decisions would bring the wrath of his peers. He was the editor who brought Paula Jones to a Clinton White House Press Correspondence dinner in 1998 and got trashed in the press about the invitation. At the event people like Sam Donaldson and other national reporters  crowded around our table to see if they could grab a minute with Paula. Hypocritical, I thought. Paul  told me Jones’ invitation is about creating buzz. Who can create the most buzz at these dog and pony events? Paul did.

Publication infighting

Paul often found himself in the middle of petty fights between the magazine and newspaper. Some of them over budgets, advertising, travel expenses and jealousy over salaries between the two publications.  We had a good budget that didn’t always sit well with the newspaper folks.  Some of the Times’ staffers also thought we pushed the envelope too far in our coverage, and we thought that they lacked attribution in many of their front-page stories where they made it appear as though they interviewed someone when it was simply ripped from broadcast or other publications.

I once uncovered evidence of plagiarism involving one of The Washington Times’s top reporters, but Paul said the publication was aware of it already.  And we left it to the newspaper to handle.

Another incident I recall is when the Times’ managers discussed whether the magazine should remove The Washington Times’ tagline from the cover of Insight. Paul kept the tagline, but then the newspaper suddenly stopped promoting the magazine’s upcoming articles. The only time the newspaper ran an Insight article was when it was picked up the Associated Press. Even then, the newspaper would run the wire story instead of the original magazine story. That really bothered me so much that I sent an email to one of their top reporters questioning his ethics because he credited AP as breaking a story involving China when it was my story in Insight that AP picked up.

The reporter got so mad he ran up three flights of stairs to our offices and invited me to fight in the parking lot. I declined. It took that reporter nearly a year later to apologize but I’m not sure he ever understood the dynamics of the infighting between the publications.

Paul often suggested that all the Times publications should work in tandem and create synergy, and promote each other, but that never took place and eventually most of the publications closed. The only publication that actually promoted someone else was Insight, which promoted the paper. Paul’s decision.

Pitching stories

His story meetings at Insight were legendary. They could last a good portion of the day.  If you wanted to get a cover story, you had to be prepared. I was a little intimidated and a little scared that I would come up empty in pitch meetings. It didn’t help matters that I didn’t always share the same political philosophy as my conservative co-workers.  I even brought this up to Paul and he said he didn’t care – that he even found himself admiring Jimmy Carter as a person. Where you stood politically didn’t matter. His top executive assistant Donna Harkins was certainly evidence of that. She worked on the RFK campaign in 1960s.

Just go where the story is, he told me. “Democrat, Republican, get them.” he said. And I think that’s why perhaps he hired me to give a different voice. I was even assigned  to write a story asking, “Why the GOP is considered the racist party?”

Paul seemed to appear on more shows than there were hours in a day. (Screenshot)

I learned sometimes the further you go left and further you go right, you eventually find common ground to achieve some common good, something this Congress has yet to learn. For example, human rights stories about China became a common ground for both parties and graced the cover of the magazine quite a few times.

Prior to Insight I had a few years of breaking investigative stories, some that wound up in books and film and managed to help get people out of jail, but nothing to excite the Pulitzer Committee. Paul, did however. He had four Pulitzer nominations – but never bothered to talk about it. (I actually learned about the Pulitzer nominations at his funeral.)

But it was those stories I did prior to my time at Insight that helped me land an interview with Paul in the mid-1990s.  He looked at my clips and then talked briefly about investigative stories. In his office was a photograph of Paul with Reagan, and I couldn’t help thinking the fact that Paul personally knew several presidents.  And, of course, his office was bigger than most of the apartments I lived in. I saw a photograph of his son, Christian and dropped some small talk about raising boys and then he spent the next hour talking about soup. That’s right – soup.

When I came home, my wife, Susan asked me how the interview went. I said, “I don’t know if I got the job but I got some good soup recipes.”

A few weeks later, I got the job offer. Later, I really was dumbfounded by the entire interview process, so I asked Paul’s deputy editor, Scott Stanley, why I was hired?

Stanley turned me and said, “Nearly everyone who walks in here has the basic tools to do the job. They can write, put a story together and can do some investigative work. But a lot of people are missing one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Character. Paul hires people with character. Always hire people with character; you can’t go wrong.”

In story meetings, I was nervous pitching ideas to a Paul who covered three presidents, broke the House banking and post office corruption stories, prompting political reform. He also exposed with fellow reporter George Archibald a male prostitution ring run out of former Rep. Barney Frank’s home.  He was in essence the Washington Times’ Bob Woodward without the sea of researchers the Post had at its disposal.

If you were in the news business you couldn’t escape seeing Paul. You would turn on Sunday news shows and there was Paul. You turn on the talk radio and Paul was being interviewed. He could be intimidating and so could many of the other journalists who showed up in the pitch room – hoping to get the cover for the week.

I was in awe of many of my fellow colleagues,  such as Michael Rust, who could name every single congressman for the past decade along with a recap of every single Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire series. Others were lawyers,  authored books, some taught college, some had their own think tanks,  and everyone had far better educational credentials than my degree from Milwaukee. I thought of quitting before I started. Hell, I thought of quitting every single day before a cover story was due because I feared failure. At the same time, that fear kept me working. I would turn in a cover story and then think I would get a breather.

No breather. Paul then booked me on CNN, and then FOX and a host of talk radio shows including Paul’s own news show – Headlines and Deadlines. And I would get picked up in a limo for the TV appearances.

All I could think of was – “Shit. I never did TV.”  And, second, do I tip the limo driver?

Paul found a way to see through my fears. He never got hung up on education. He didn’t have a college degree. He attended community college, but never graduated. On his Facebook page he lists his school as Woodrow Wilson High School in DC. (Baltimore residents would be proud of that answer.)  He said he worked as a cop and odd jobs until he landed a job at the Bureau of National Affairs Inc, States News Service and eventually a White House reporting gig at The Times and then his dream job – running an investigative magazine.

Paul wanted news reporters, not writers.  He wanted diggers. He was a document hound. For example, in the prostitution ring story, he got the credit card receipts used to pay for services – one of which belonged to The Washington Times assistant managing editor who claimed to be doing research. Editors said they knew of no such research, according to the story. That editor resigned when confronted with the evidence.

And he loved a summer sex scandal story.  “Find one,” he would tell me.

I almost did. I remember working with Insight reporter Sean Paige on a sex scandal story involving a male escort ring supposedly servicing Congress and staffers.  We visited the placed near Embassy Row and the “Queen of the house” gave us a tour of the dungeon full of sex torture tools. Sean would pick up a tool and ask, “How is this used?  The Queen laughed and dropped some big-time names as clients. But  we needed receipts and we were only provided one from a credit card used by a low level staffer and not anyone of significance. The Post Office Inspector was investigating the case, but no concrete evidence other than the staffer. We killed the story.

Paul is the one who pushed me constantly to get documents, get records and file Freedom of Information requests weekly if not daily. I did. Nearly every story I did for the magazine required a boatload of documents. He insisted that the documents must tell a story involving relationships – not just a story on documents.

So I filed away.

I filed for Navy records, Chinese espionage records, WITSEC records, George Wallace records, Watergate records, Hitler’s records, Noah’s Ark, CIA records, Amelia Earhart records, missing children data, anthrax records and even CIA records on Santa Claus, and so much more. I even FOIA’d the magazine’s FBI record as well as my own. Turns out the FBI had given me a code name called Watergate, claiming I could be a good source to cultivate.

I once FOIA’d every single state prison record to work on a year-long story on unexplained prison deaths in a series called “On Dope Row.” Those documents helped show that Maryland’s prison had the highest rate of unexplained deaths in the entire United States and some say impacted the governor’s race in Maryland.

I became the FOIA guy and some colleagues called me,  “Cover Boy” – because most of stories ended up as covers.  I had interns who actually helped me go through stacks of documents that came in daily and still came in years after I left the magazine. I once got someone at the Justice Department so upset with my requests he left me a phone message, saying he was going to burn my FOIA request. Paul laughed at that with his infectious deep chuckle.

Paul lived in a sea of documents as well. He had tremendous access.

Sources just dropped files and records off with him. When Paul took me on a tour in D.C., he showed me underground tunnels and how to get to places on the Hill faster underground  and he always ran into sources with something to give him. Everywhere we went on the Hill – senior Congressmen had a story, a tip, something to give him. He was always getting records – sometimes very strange records.

One time he asked me to come back to his office and he showed me three huge bags. They were shredded emails from the White House. He asked me if he hired several interns, could they put these shredded documents back together?

At the time, I didn’t know if it was a test. I told them it would take interns 25 years, if he was lucky. I realized later, he never planned on hiring anyone. It was a teaching moment. He just wanted to show me that records usually exist on everything. And it often came when I was struggling to find the one record that would make my story.

November 20, 2000 COVER STORY The Mystery on Mt. Ararat The CIA classified as secret the U-2 and satellite photos of the “Mt. Ararat Anomaly.” Is it Noah’s Ark? Insight has commissioned its own satellite photos.

This came at the time I was researching the Noah’s Ark story. The story required me to get records and images taken by the Air Force, CIA and other agencies about the anomaly on Mount Ararat.  Was that anomaly man-made or a rock formation? I ended up getting records about the government investigating the strange formation, but kept it secret for so many years. That fact that they were investigating it was a story in itself. I was able to get the coordinates of the anomaly, which allowed us to hire then- Space Imaging to shoot high-resolution shots of the formation and then hand those photos to a series of  professionals to analyze. Sorry: No conclusive consensus among the seven intelligence and geologist analysts, but it was one of the most expensive stories the magazine ever did.

Meantime, Paul was doing his own investigations. He was the one who broke the M. Larry Lawrence story – a Clinton donor who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Lawrence had lied about his military record, claiming to serve as a Merchant Marine in WWII. He had donated more than $200,000 to the Clinton campaign.  I remember watching Asst. Secretary of Defense Togo West at a press conference ripping Paul for the story because the story itself suggested this was an ongoing practice: Donate money and you can get buried in hallowed ground.

But in the end, they had to dig up Lawrence and bury him elsewhere. Paul can be credited for that.

Paul also was a favorite among military veterans. He wrote stories on the Gulf War syndrome – attempting to link it to a vaccine, which also prompted me to write the series about the anthrax vaccine. I was assigned to write the first anthrax story prior to the October anthrax attacks. I scoffed at the idea, figuring it was one of those right-wing scare tactic stories. Assistant editor James Lucier assigned me to interview Steven Hatfill and get a photo of him. Hatfill, who had given a speech in Baltimore,  explained to me in a phone interview in January 1998 how he could shut down Washington and Baltimore with a single dose of anthrax. He provided a staged photo to the magazine of him making anthrax in his kitchen wearing an Army supply gas mask and protective body gear made of white trash bags.

For the next few years, I followed up the Hatfill story with the Dose of Reality series about the anthrax vaccine getting more and more troops sick. I had developed strong contacts on the Hill, but I was stuck on GAO reports about the vaccine that just seemed politicized.  The GAO had conducted multiple interviews but none of things that I was being told seemed to appear in the reports. Paul, then told me get the GAO drafts and call the guy who wrote the report.

“You mean there is a different report?”

“Yeah, see if you can get the report before it was censored and edited.”


Ask a Congressman who was most outspoken about it – Walter Jones Jr. of North Carolina.

As I was preparing to get that draft, the series I had written seemed to be making progress – the tide had shifted and the shot might not become mandatory.

That is until the anthrax attacks in Sept. 2001.

Jones and all those others who wanted to stop the vaccine –  became silent. Now, people wanted to get the vaccine. I wrote the series as it unfolded with many of the sick troops calling themselves the Walking Dead. I connected the vaccine to the attacks with money being the biggest motivator to mandate troops get the vaccine.

Then the FBI Anthrax Task Force came knocking on my door. They sat down and talked to me in The Washington Times lunch room about the motive behind the attacks. I said the motive appeared linked to the vaccine program. They took my clips and studied the photograph of Hatfill. They asked me about Hatfill. I told them he likely was not involved while most of the press had him guilty without ever being charged.  (Years later, the motive I provided to them turned out to be accurate and Hatfill was cleared.)

It’s one of those stories that helped me get on the map. Paul pushed me through it. He had the vision to see it.

When the magazine ceased publication, some were upset that Paul didn’t seem to stand up for his team or do something more to save it. I’m not one of those. I’ve been there. It’s a state of shock when that happens. They kept Paul on to keep an online version going, but it was only a matter of time before that would end.

Paul searched for a job for years – doing some investigative work for a few friends, but nothing really stable until he changed directions and worked in advertising for Burson-Marsteller.  Prior to his career change, I set up an interview for him at the Washington Examiner to run the national opinion section. I was one of the founding editors of that paper. I knew Paul could help put The Examiner on the map with his investigative skills, if given the opportunity. He sat in the waiting room, waiting for our Canadian Executive editor to come for him. She blew him off.

I was never more embarrassed about how he was treated.

I took him to lunch and Paul never complained. In fact, when I asked him why The Washington Times didn’t come back with an offer for him to cover the White House, he said he didn’t know, but, “You’d think.”

And that’s as far as he would get. He was slow to anger.

Eventually I moved to Baltimore to run the sister Examiner paper. Paul did not get that job. The Canadian editor hired the ex-Washington Times assistant managing editor whose corporate credit card receipts were among the records in the call-boy prostitution story that later became known as the Franklin case. The ex-Times editor claimed he was doing research, but his tenure with that paper ended. Paul’s work was featured in a documentary about that case, but that documentary never aired. It’s on YouTube.)

The  Washington Examiner’s Managing Editor Nicholas Horrock, who is in Maryland journalist’s Hall of Fame, was on vacation at the time of the hiring. He was stunned. Instead of hiring Paul who broke that story, she hired the journalist who was one of the subjects in the story.

Paul didn’t complain about that either, praising the hire. He believed in redemption – giving people second chances.

Take, Michael Rust, the Bart Simpson and Buffy lover who left Insight to work for UPI – a move that Paul encouraged. Rust, a diabetic dealing with so many health issues, couldn’t do the demanding wire job. Paul took Michael back in a heartbeat for one reason – to give him health insurance. Michael wasn’t expected to write, but he was a walking encyclopedia – a valuable tool for a young staff – and sadly Michael was  dying. Paul sensed that.

Paul’s simple gesture more than likely extended Michael’s life for a few more months until he died from diabetes complications in 2002.  He was 41. Other companies would have put Michael on disability, cut his benefits and salary and moved on. Not Paul. Michael was family.

That was Paul’s style. He took care of his family. Even when an angry art director at Insight charged into Paul’s office in a threatening manner, he didn’t hold grudges. Deputy Editor Scott Stanley held back the employee – perhaps saving him from taking a swing at Paul, who didn’t want to even fire the employee.

At that time Paul was wearing a neck brace from a car accident as well as recovering from a sucker punch dished out by a crazed diner at the Monocle in DC.  Stanley is the one who insisted that the art director had to be fired, because as Stanley says, “When someone threatens the managing editor, I think it’s ground for dismissal.”

Years later when that employee came to me for a possible job, I called Paul for a reference. Paul said simply, “Hire him. He’s talented.”

My last Facebook message to Paul dealt with a story that bothered me for years – the bugging of the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Seattle in 1997. We had a source who claimed to have participated in bugging the conference with the help of the FBI and NSA. I flew to Seattle and ended up in a high-speed chase with the source who appeared paranoid about someone following him. He took me to a boat in the middle of the sea where he felt comfortable in detailing the bugging operation. When I  returned to my hotel at 2 a.m. ET, I got a call from Paul – lecturing me on the fact I didn’t check in with him.

I told him I didn’t think I should wake him. He told me that was my first mistake. Paul said my safety was the number-one concern. Always check in. (Years later when I sent reporters to Katrina as an editor at The Examiner – I told them they had to call me no matter what time.) I told Paul about the source and couldn’t vouch for his credibility because this was the first I met him. Paul then did a background check on the source and called his sources. And said he was legit. Go with the story, he said. And we will “lawyer it up,” which meant give it to the attorneys before we publish the piece – a standard practice for most of  my stories.

I came back and wrote the story and the FBI and NSA slammed the story. The NSA doesn’t spy on allies, officials told us. I was wondering if I blew it. The NSA and FBI, and the White House were quite upset. Others, however supported our story. The story was mentioned in a book called, “Inside The Oval Office: The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton,” and records about our investigation appeared in an FBI file on Insight magazine. Our story triggered an FBI probe, which never went anywhere. But for years I lived wondering if we were duped by a paranoid source who had an axe to grind and made up an unbelievable tale about NSA spying on allies.

The NSA doesn’t do that. Right?

Then the Snowden case came along and I wrote to Paul, “I seem to recall a young reporter who wrote the NSA and FBI spied on an APEC conference – and no one believed Insight. … LOL Now what are they saying?”

Paul didn’t respond. He was fighting to live. He fought hard for months because I believe he wanted to finish his book on his long lost brother. But time caught up to him. He did leave a video about journalism that will be released soon in connection with a journalism scholarship in his name.  But no more investigations for Paul.

But I’m betting he’s in heaven doing another investigative piece. I’m sure he has piles of records and a few questions to ask St. Peter about whether some of these dead politicians really deserve to be in paradise. Heck, he already got one person dug up on hallowed ground. Who’s to say he might not get a politician a ticket to that other place?

Oh, in case you are reading Paul,  don’t worry, I’m going to  FOIA’ your FBI file. I know you were expecting me to do that.

2 thoughts on “My time with four-time Pulitzer-Prize nominee Paul Rodriguez

  • July 20, 2019 at 6:57 AM

    Beautiful story.

  • November 5, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    This story is better than an entire box of kumquats, to which Paul would frequently refer. We will miss you Paul. Thanks Tim.

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