By Jada Butler
What does it take to be awarded journalism’s highest award? Thomas Peele, a 1987 C.W. Post alumnus and investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group in California, did just that in April 2017, when he was a part of a team at the East Bay Times that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for a series of breaking news stories about the deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse party fire that killed 36 in Oakland, CA last December.
The award to the staff of the East Bay Times was “for relentless coverage of the ‘Ghost Ship’ fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse party, and for reporting after the tragedy that exposed the city’s failure to take actions that might have prevented it,” according to the judges. The Breaking News Reporting prize honors a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news that, as quickly as possible, captures events accurately as they occur, and, as time passes, illuminates, provides context and expands upon the initial coverage. The prize carries with it an award of $15,000.
When it comes to breaking news stories, it is all hands on deck. Peele, who focuses on government accountability, public records and data, and transparency laws in his work, immediately dug into the who, what, when, where and why of the tragic incident in December. “I wanted to see documents that describe why and how something happened,” Peele said in a phone interview from California, where he has been working since 2000.
On the ride to the scene, Peele recounted the radio describing the warehouse as an “illegal night club,” raising several questions: what was the building and what was allowed to happen in the warehouse? Why were parties being held there? “It turned out to be an art collective with people living in it and renting it out as an event space with no permits,” Peele said. With this activity in warehouse going on for years, Peele researched why the city didn’t take regulatory actions or do more to shut it down. “Essentially, it was a fire trap, and that’s enough right there to keep the story going for a long time,” he added.
Peele’s coverage of the story has continued, from the breaking news coverage in December to most recently, August 7, when Peele covered the calls for a memorial to be made of the warehouse space. Peele and his team have been dedicated to this narrative for nine months. “It’s pretty much all we’ve done since. We haven’t gotten to the bottom of it” he said.
Peele discovered many faults on part of the police. “Police and remen had been there many times,” he said. Whether they were visiting a party or responding to a small dispute, there were no reports or records of it being an “illegal dwelling,” according to his research.
Peele was commended for his “relentless” coverage. It is difficult work for the most part, dealing with adversary relationships to government of officials and positions of power every day. “It was the same at Post,” he said about his time as both Sports Editor and Managing Editor for The Pioneer and his relationship with the administration then. “No one would talk,” he recalled.
This Pulitzer prize winning reporter and LIU alumnus gave advice to current Pioneer staff: “Be as independent as possible and continue with aggressive reporting on the administration.”