Volume 13, No. 3/2005

Covering grassroots issues, reporter works to have an impact

Shortly before midnight, just days before Christmas 2004, Peter Bailey, AS ’02, was gazing at holiday lights along Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue from the 23rd floor of the Time Life Building, when the phone rang. The caller was brief and quickly asked to meet Bailey at a coffee shop the next day.

Thus began Bailey’s biggest story for Time magazine.

The following morning, the mystery caller met Bailey and gave him the name and phone number of a source who became the equivalent of Deep Throat in the Time scoop on the story behind Kweisi Mfume’s abrupt departure from the top job at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The story, “Recharging The Mission,” by Bailey and Anita Hamilton, which ran in the Jan. 17, 2005, edition, stated that Mfume’s resignation was spurred by a decision by the organization’s executive committee not to renew his contract because of nepotism. The article also suggested that the NAACP not only needed a new leader but a new sense of purpose as well.

“I almost walked away from the profession after that story,” says Bailey, who left his family in St. Thomas, V.I. to study at the University of Delaware and who is now an education reporter for the Miami Herald. “I was not hoping to come across this information, so I’m sitting there thinking ‘This is Kweisi Mfume. This is Kweisi Mfume.’ Then it hit me that he should not have been doing what he was doing.”

Later, while discussing the story as a guest on “Inside Detroit,” a weekday radio show, Bailey was castigated by several callers, including one who called him “Uncle Tom,” for revealing the NAACP’s dirty linen.

“That was really hard for me,” Bailey says of the criticism, which included a two-page letter from NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who later held a meeting with Time editors. “That story opened up a forum for Time to start covering some NAACP issues.”

Bailey says his overall experience with the story, especially the rigorous reporting, thorough fact-checking, corroboration of information from sources and a long meeting with Time lawyers, was the most fulfilling moment of his career, but he missed the adrenaline rush of daily news reporting.

“I was looking for a place where I can really concentrate on grassroots issues,” Bailey said of his move to the Miami Herald last May. “The magazine has such a broad perspective that they can’t always cover some issue at the local level. The newspaper is more a power-to-the-people kind of environment.”

Bailey, the last of three children whose parents, Joseph and Anita Bailey, still live in St. Thomas, says he always wanted to make a difference in the lives of ordinary individuals. His brother, Marcus, runs a social service program in St. Thomas and his sister, Grace, is a victims’ advocate in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“I grew up in St. Thomas where there are a lot of economic problems and a stratified society in which some people never had their voices heard. Of the three main groups—politicians, civilians and journalists—we are supposed to speak up for the citizens because the bureaucrats will manipulate the system,” Bailey says. “My father is an evangelist who grew up breaking his back to help people, and my mother is a nurse. They wanted me to be a doctor, but I decided to be a rebel with a corporate expense account. It’s really cool.”

Bailey now covers Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth-largest school district in the country, which is headed by Rudolph F. “Rudy” Crew, former chancellor of the New York City school system, the nation’s largest.

“I’ve always wanted to cover education,” Bailey says. “I remember my days in Ivanna Eudora Kean High School in St. Thomas and what I saw. The teachers gave their all but they got no support from the people in power. I used to get ticked off sitting in the classroom thinking we didn’t have the tools to do well.”

Bailey says his move to the Miami Herald gave him an opportunity to make a real difference. “I’m supposed to go into schools and see what policies Crew has created and whether they are working or not. I’m in a position where I’ve been sitting in on a lot of school board meetings. If something goes wrong, I’m going to write about it. It’s very similar to St. Thomas because there are a lot of Haitians and Cubans.”

Bailey, who graduated from UD with a degree in English and a concentration in journalism, says the articles he wrote for The Review, the student newspaper, allowed him to hone the skills that helped him succeed professionally. After graduation, Bailey worked briefly at Newsday in New York before he joined Newsweek as an intern in May 2003. He started working for Time in February 2004.

“Peter was a real standout in our incredibly competitive internship program—and not just because he’s a 6-foot-8-inch black man!” says Marcus Mabry, chief of correspondents at Newsweek. “He brought a frankness and a fearlessness to his reporting and to our discussions about the news business that few interns matched. He is very conscious politically and he’s unable to hold his tongue when he perceives injustice in the world, which I think will make him a great journalist. At Newsweek, he was prolific and creative, producing pieces that would not have made it into the magazine if he had not been there to conceive and write them.”

At UD, Bailey impressed professors and blossomed as a reporter. His distinct height, curious mind and keen interest in journalism made him stand out among his classmates.

“I knew Peter was something special the moment he walked into my intro to journalism classroom,” McKay Jenkins, Tilghman Professor of English, says of Bailey. “He sat in the back row, a skeptical scowl on his face, his long legs stretched into the aisle, and presented himself as utterly uninterested in the usual decorum of classroom etiquette. I, of course, spotted this instinct as perfectly characteristic of a reporter.”

Bailey “proved himself to be not only bright and extremely street-smart, but astonishingly aggressive with his reporting,” Jenkins recalls. “Peter not only towered over everyone he interviewed, his questions were intelligent and relentless. This is a kid who will go as far in journalism as he pleases.”

Bailey says journalism has multiple challenges, beginning with winning the trust of interview subjects to overcoming cynicism about the profession.

“One of the most challenging things as a writer is that you are trying to get into the souls of people, and people are usually very closed. The hardest thing is putting them in a comfort zone,” Bailey says. “When people think of us, they think of us as a bunch of cynics running around the country deceiving people.”

At Newsweek, Bailey wrote about the Haitian crisis, the Ron Artest basketball brawl and homophobia in reggae. His work on urban issues such as the AIDS epidemic, crime and race relations has been published in major newspapers and national  publications, including the Village Voice, Houston Chronicle, Army Times and The Source magazine. His reporting landed him interviews with major figures including Bill Clinton, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and recording executive Russell Simmons.

Bailey says that of all the big stories and celebrities he has come across, none has had a greater impact on him than his encounter with a story he did about a black man growing up with AIDS in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. “I interviewed a guy called Jason and did a profile about him. Because of the story, he volunteered to do the Rap-It-Up commercial on BET cable channel, and he now lectures and counsels people with HIV-AIDS.”

Such an impact, Bailey says, is a rewarding outcome that also demonstrates how the power of the press can be used in a positive way.

Bailey says he is working to establish a scholarship for Virgin Island students who want to get into journalism. “I think blacks in general need to get more into this profession. There are very few of us involved,” he says.

“I hope his passion and his idealism can withstand the reality of an industry that is still largely homogeneous and sometimes myopic in what we cover and how we cover it,” Mabry says of Bailey. “If he can walk that tightrope—come to terms with the inevitable compromises we all have to make in the real world, and, at the same time, keep his passion and his idealism—then there is no telling how much he could impact journalism and the world.”

—Martin Mbugua