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The Passing of A Legend

POSTED: 02:14 PM ET, 04/11/2008 by The Editors

The byline of Woodward and Bernstein is the most famous one in the history of investigative reporting, but inside the fraternity of investigative reporters there is a lesser-known name that is equally hallowed: Robert W. Greene.

Greene died Thursday at age 78 of congestive heart failure in Long Island, N.Y.

In a remarkable career that spanned five decades, Bob Greene played many roles and accrued many accomplishments: staff investigator for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee, investigator for Robert F. Kennedy's U.S. Senate Rackets Committee, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at Newsday, author of "The Sting Man," an account of the Abscam case. But he is best regarded in the investigative reporting community as the leader of the Arizona Project and the mentor of innumerable investigative reporters.

Every major investigative series that you read today that is comprised of several parts produced by several reporters owes a debt to Greene. At Newsday in the early 1970s, Bob pioneered the concept of the "I-Team," a permanent unit of investigative reporters dedicated to working together on large and complex projects. The outstanding example of the "Greene Team's" investigative work was the "Heroin Trail," a 33-part series that took two years to complete and traced the flow of the drug from Turkish poppy fields to the streets of New York City.

"He's considered the father of team investigative reporting," said John Ullmann, former investigative editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., (IRE) the world's leading organization of investigative journalists that Greene helped found.

IRE was an outgrowth of the Arizona Project, the initiative that remains Greene's lasting monument among investigative reporters. The project was precipitated by the killing of investigative reporter Don Bolles, who died in Phoenix in 1974 after a bomb went off in his car. Bolles had been looking into local corruption, and his murder marked the rare occasion when a journalist was killed in the United States because of his reporting. To prove that you could not kill the story by killing the reporter, Greene persuaded investigative reporters from across the country to come to Phoenix to complete Bolles' work. The result was a 23-part series on crime and corruption in Arizona.

Greene's conception of investigative reporting also loomed large at the time in the great philosophical debate on what such work should try to accomplish. In general, Greene's method was to focus on corruption and chase it case by case. In doing so, he came up against a prevailing trend to make investigative projects more expansive and explanatory. "The debate forced everybody to think through where they had been and where they were going," Steve Weinberg wrote in reviewing James Aucoin's "The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism," in the IRE Journal. "Bob Greene at Newsday spoke loudly for the corruption approach, then practiced with great skill what he preached. Donald Barlett and James Steele at The Philadelphia Inquirer became the poster boys for the systemic approach."

Today, both methods of investigative reporting are practiced by investigative teams at newspapers all over the country.

Greene's legacy also includes his leadership of IRE. With his trademark trench coat shielding his ample girth, Greene was a fixture at the annual IRE conferences, where he employed his whiskey-voiced authority in delivering a "fire-in-the-belly" speech that never failed to bring a rousing response. "Bob always got the highest ratings of any speaker," Ullmann recalled.

He inspired at least two generations of journalists to follow in his footsteps. I count myself as one of them. In thinking of his passing, I am moved to quote Stephen Vincent Benet on the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"You can take off your hats now gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation--and seen in perspective, it may be one of the most secure reputations of our time."

Investigative Reporters and Editors has set up the Robert W. Greene Fellowship Fund for Young Journalists. Check IRE.org for more information.

-- Jeff Leen

By The Editors |  April 11, 2008; 2:14 PM ET
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