Walt Bogdanich · 2014
The father came to Gary, Ind., from Serbia when he was 18 and set the foundation. The son, born in Chicago in October 1950 but raised in Gary, built a great journalism career on it.
The father had seen the ugliness of Nazism while growing up, had read books about the United States and had fallen in love with its founding fathers. The son was taught to study them so he could understand what the United States was about and why.
The father made a blue-collar living, toiling in the grimy environment of U.S. Steel. The son would earn a living working for the most prestigious media companies in the country.
The father told the son that if he acquired information, “governments can’t lie to you,” and that providing information to people is what freedom and fairness are about in a democracy. The son heeded that advice.
The father was Walter Bogdanich, who was into the arts, literature, politics and sports.
The son is Walt Bogdanich, whose sense of blatant unfairness has launched him into arguably one of the greatest careers in investigative journalism over the last half century.
It is a career most worthy of propelling Bogdanich into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
Bogdanich has won journalism’s most prestigious honors multiple times.
Working for The Wall Street Journal, which he joined in 1984, he captured the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for stories about faulty tests in American medical laboratories.
In 1991, Bogdanich followed that series by writing a book called “The Great White Lie” that examined improper hospital practices.
In 2005, working for The New York Times, which he joined in 2001, Bogdanich won a second Pulitzer for reporting about corporate cover-ups of fatal accidents at railway crossings.
Bogdanich earned his third Pulitzer in 2008 with Jake Hooker and others at the Times for investigative reporting that delved into toxic substances discovered in products imported from China. Bogdanich’s team also won the 2008 Gerald Loeb Award, given for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for those stories.
In 1979, 1994, 2002 and 2004, Bogdanich won the George Polk Award, given for special achievement in journalism in honor of murdered CBS correspondent George Polk. The 2004 honor was for the exposé of fatal accidents at railway crossings. Bogdanich won the Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
“I have a low threshold of indignation,” Bogdanich said in an interview with the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. “When I see things that are wrong, it bothers me. There’s a fire that burns in me.”
The fire has fueled his drive to “help defenseless people being harmed. It’s the nature of my personality,” Bogdanich said.
Bogdanich’s personality was galvanized one summer in college when he worked in a Gary plant where, he has said often, he became aware of the dangers in a facility that employed 27,000 people. During his stint, he heard about people dying in his department. “(When someone died) everybody was talking about it,” he recalled in the IJHF interview.
After graduating from Lew Wallace High School in Gary, Bogdanich enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, bent on being a pitcher for the Badgers’ baseball team. His right arm wasn’t good enough.
But his pitching of a story was – and it would ignite what he describes as “an unusual path” to journalism.
In 1970, his sophomore year, he wanted to attend an anti-war rally in Cleveland. But he didn’t have money for the trip. His brother, George, who was two years older, was working on the University of Wisconsin’s newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.
In an article written for a University of Wisconsin alumni publication in 2009 – when Bogdanich won the Distinguished Alumni Association Award – he told Brian Klatt: “My brother … said, ‘Why don’t you propose to do a story for them, and they’ll pay your way?’”
Never mind that Bogdanich had never written for a newspaper. He followed his brother’s advice, attended the rally and wrote a story.
Journalism was now in Walt Bogdanich’s blood.
“My life was changed in a very wonderful way,” Bogdanich told Klatt. “The moment I wrote that first story, it was fun. It was great to be around people making a lot of noise in the newsroom on deadline, writing important articles during turbulent times.”
Bogdanich had entered Wisconsin thinking he would have a career in government or public service, he said in the IJHF interview. But after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1975, he wanted to be a reporter. Unable to find a newspaper job, he worked in the steel mills for nine months before starting a weekly paper in Gary that quickly folded.
In 1976, he received a master’s degree in journalism at Ohio State. After brief stints at the short-lived Hammond Compass and the entrenched Dayton Daily News, he worked three and a half years each at the Cleveland Press and its rival, the Plain Dealer.
In 1984, Bogdanich moved on to The Wall Street Journal before leaving in 1992 for ABC News’ Day One.
In 1994, he and correspondent John Martin produced a story dealing with the tobacco industry’s use of nicotine in cigarettes. Philip Morris filed a $10 billion lawsuit. ABC eventually made an on-air apology and paid millions for legal fees. The case was dismissed. The story would result in Bogdanich’s second Polk for network television reporting.
“The story was accurate,” Bogdanich said in the IJHF interview. “It changed the discussion of tobacco. There were congressional hearings in which top tobacco executives testified under oath. ABC’s action had nothing to do with the truth of the story. ABC (executives) didn’t want $10 billion on the books as they were selling the company.”
Bogdanich moved on to CBS’ 60 Minutes in 1996.
Five years later, he returned to newspapering as the investigations editor for the business and finance desk at The New York Times. He’s now the assistant editor for investigative reporting.
“I have been challenging conventional wisdom all of my life,” Bogdanich told C-SPAN in an interview in October 2010.
“I love what I do,” Bogdanich told the IJHF. “I feel really, really blessed.”
— by Ray Moscowitz, past president, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame