By Joshua Conner
From his twitter handle to his astute investigative prowess, Brandon Smith embodies the image of a muckraker. Smith is an independent journalist and advocate for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Smith has reported for The Chicago Reader, In These Times magazine and the Better Government Association, to name a few. Smith is most notable for reporting extensively on the Laquan McDonald murder case and his lawsuit forced the city to release the video of the shooting.
Smith led a learning workshop on FOIA during Chi Hack Night on March 29, in the offices of the software company Braintree in the Merchandise Mart.
Smith spoke with the Social Justice News Nexus about Chi Hack Night, the Laquan McDonald case and his investigative reporting influences.
Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Joshua Conner: I see Upton Sinclair quotes a lot on your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages. So how did The Jungle author influence you?
Brandon Smith: I mean, he was the original muckraker, a lot of his work defined what was the early investigative reporting. Going and figuring out for yourself what’s going on, not relying on sources if you can help it, and basically like coming up with stories that are pertinent to society in the public interest.
Conner: What motivated you to teach a workshop on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) for Chi Hack Night?
Smith: Well, they brought me in to give a talk after the Laquan McDonald video came out. So I gave that talk, and I had been coming here on and off for a couple of years before that, so I knew Derek, the guy who helped start it. Derek just said, “So you should teach a regular FOIA class”, so I said, “Sure.” I mean it’s not really a class, it’s like an informal discussion group. People bring their questions about whatever they are interested in, their subject matter of interest and I try to answer them. Inevitably, we get to talking about the finer points of FOIA law and how you can end up getting good information from the government. Using the law and various case law that comes out of it.
Conner: Speaking of Laquan McDonald, I really like how you and (activist) Will Calloway were like a team in opening the case. Tell me more about the preparation you and Mr. Calloway took to open up the case to the public.
Smith: You know, I think it was this really simple idea that the government shouldn’t be able to deny the public this thing. Because the video was not out, my collaborator Will just assumed lots of people were asking and he was correct…But the real dream, big part of the thought process was, they should not be able to deny everyone. They shouldn’t be able to say, “Oh, it’s an active investigation,” particularly I think at that point it was five to six months after the shooting. So for them to claim that they were actively investigating, it was kind of dubious considering there was a video of the whole thing. If this were an average citizen and there was a murder, the investigation would be done in two weeks. But it’s a cop, and its five and a half months out and they were not done. So, we filed a FOIA at five and half months, and four months later we filed a suit.
Conner: As you know, yesterday Rahm Emanuel announced Eddie Johnson would be interim police superintendent. What is your perspective on the new administration?
Smith: Mr. Johnson is by all accounts the perennial insider, like he is the insider choice. Chief of patrol, right, so to the uniformed officers on the street, he’s the boss. He’s now basically acting interim superintendent. So instead of bringing an outsider like the Police Board suggested, Rahm chose this insider. I think Rahm is trying to spin it like he’s a reformer, and you know I’m not saying he can’t do reform. I’m just saying, he’s definitely a part of the agency that people don’t trust. The optics of it are strange for him to claim that, “You can trust this guy, I promise.” He might do reform, but it’s going to be a hard sell for the public.
Conner: What are some of your recommendations on how relations between the police and African Americans can be improved?
Smith: Well, it’s going to take a while, but one thing that could improve relations between African American communities and police is to start punishing officers when they are found to have done misconduct. So one thing you have to do is actually do real investigations into whether they have done misconduct, then you have to punish them. Almost no officers get punishment. So you’ve probably seen the data from IPRA (Independent Police Review Authority), like 400 police shootings in about six months, and only two were recommended for discipline. Now, 98 percent of those shootings were people of color. So that has not helped relations, first that rate of shootings and second, that rate of punishment has not helped relations. So both of those things need to change, and they need to start talking about the solid data… That, and frankly some neighborhoods are over-policed, so you’ve got to kind of do an about-face with the patrol. I don’t know how Johnson is going to do that.
Conner: When did you get your journalism calling?
Smith: I just needed a job, at one time, when I first dropped out of college. I went to work for the newspaper in my hometown, so I was just an editorial assistant. I did obituaries and laid out pages. Then they threw some stories at me, and they were like, “Hey, go report this thing.” So I started doing this reporting, you know, events coverage, style reporting, it’s not real journalism. I started internalizing the mission of journalism, even though I wasn’t doing it at that time. That was in 2006, so 10 years later now, I’ve grown a lot. In 2007 to 2008, I really solidified my belief that investigative reporting and antagonizing reporting needs to be point one. Then I didn’t really start doing it until three years ago, when I moved to Chicago.
Conner: Tell me about your experience being McCormick Fellow and focusing on the Affordable Care Act.
Smith: The New England Center for Investigative Reporting brought me to Boston for a week of education about the Affordable Care Act. So that was what the fellowship entailed. The McCormick Foundation had funded the week. They also provide substantial funding for education. They have funded my education, they haven’t funded my journalism projects though. I am still frankly searching for funding, because I have a day job, I manage an office. So my journalism, I have to do in my “free time.”
Conner: What life skills have you learned from doing odd jobs?
Smith: Well, shoot, working in a restaurant kitchen, I learned efficiency — essentially. I worked in kitchens for a long time. In fine dining kitchens, high-profile kitchens, your movement and actions have to be intentional, because you don’t have time to spare. You get a sense of urgency from that environment.
Conner: Why did you chose this quote for your Facebook profile”
“The most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news’. He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know,” by – C.S. Lewis, from Experiment in Criticism.
Smith: I do love that quote, because he’s telling the difference between news that matters and what we think is news. If you’re not pissing people off, you’re probably not doing your job right as a journalist.
You can follow Brandon Smith @muckrakery and check out his website at
http://brandonsmith.com. Smith’s Freedom of Information Workshop at Chi Hack Night meets every other Tuesday.
By Joshua Conner, SJNN Cycle 1 Fellow.