12 April 2008

Bob Greene, pioneering investigative reporter, dies
melanie.lefkowitz@newsday.com; steve.wick@newsday.com

Robert W. Greene, the pioneering investigative reporter and editor who helped Newsday twice win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and who left an indelible imprint on a newspaper whose reporting mission he deeply believed in, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 78.

During a 37-year career at Newsday, first as a reporter and later as an editor, Greene pushed his reporters to dig out public corruption by aggressively covering their assigned beats, no matter how seemingly insignificant. In 1975, Greene helped form an organization for like-minded professionals, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and a year later, after the murder of Don Bolles, one of the group's founding reporters, in Phoenix, Ariz., he headed a team that wrote a series of stories about corruption in that state. The project brought Greene national attention and an enduring legacy.

To many with whom he worked, Greene was an inspiring, larger-than-life character who saw journalism as a blunt instrument of the public good. To others, he was a demanding taskmaster who wore them out with his demands to know more.

As former Newsday editor Anthony Marro wrote in 2002, Greene held many jobs at Newsday, "but it was the investigative team that he created that remains his most important legacy, because he used it to help develop a culture in which public service journalism and investigative reporting became part of the newspaper's core mission."

He taught the pros

Greene died of complications including congestive heart failure at St. Catherine of Siena hospital in Smithtown.

"His doggedness in pursuit of hidden information inspires reporters here at Newsday, and across the country, to this day," said Newsday's editor, John Mancini.

"Bob was a reporter, a teacher and a skilled tactician whose investigative zeal changed laws, exposed wrongs and improved the lives of millions of Long Islanders."

Marro agreed. "Bob Greene taught a lot of us how to be reporters," he said in an interview. "He taught us how to do the sort of reporting that you needed to do complicated stories. There's probably only a half dozen or so, starting with [Newsday's founder] Alicia Patterson, who helped shape the character of the place, and he was one of them ... I owe an awful lot to Bob Greene. He taught me how to be a reporter."

Greene started at Newsday in 1955 as a reporter. Before his arrival, he had been a staff investigator for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee. In 1957, he took a year off from the paper at the request of Robert Kennedy to work as an investigator for the U.S. Senate Rackets Committee. In both roles, Greene developed what would turn into a keen fascination with all things to do with organized crime.

A friend and teammate

Throughout his career, Greene exposed corruption at all levels, and many politicians fell as a result. He worked locally, winning his first Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal in 1970 for exposing land scandals in a Long Island town; nationally on such efforts as the Arizona Project, which exposed criminal activity and political wrongdoing in that state; and internationally, winning in 1974, along with a team of reporters, a second Gold Medal for a series that tracked heroin from Turkish poppy fields to Long Island neighborhoods.

Along the way, Greene made deep impressions on people he covered and helped send to prison. The newspaper's stories on former Suffolk County Republican Chairman Edwin "Buzz" Schwenk helped send him to jail in 1981 for financial irregularities. But in the end the two men were friends and fishing partners, all the more so because Greene wrote a letter to the sentencing judge asking for leniency.

"At no time was Bob dishonest with me; he was upfront, and he turned out to be a real friend," Schwenk said.

Smithtown Town Board member and former Suffolk police Commissioner Robert Creighton said, "He's been my friend for, I think, 49 years ... Years ago Reader's Digest used to have an article every month, the most unforgettable person I ever met. He's the most unforgettable person I ever met. ..."

An imposing presence

In a newsroom of imposing figures, Greene was a "big man" in every way. He was physically large and, with reporters and editors alike, not shy about throwing his weight around.

Two of Newsday's former editors, Anthony Insolia and Howard Schneider, recalled a man who could outdo his colleagues in all areas of work and play.

"For much of his career, he could outthink, out-hustle, out-report, outeat, outdrink and outwork any other journalist in the country," Schneider said in an e-mail. "But if his excesses were occasionally unbridled, they were driven by his passion to get a good story and root out the bad guys. ... He could get excited about an investigation of public corruption or a bizarre animal story. We once spent weeks following a story about a dog on 'death row' that Bob believed was 'innocent.'"

Insolia said, "He was a superb reporter. There were none better that I know of, and I don't think Newsday could have done some of the things it did without him. ... He was a big presence in anything he did - he could have been 5-foot-2 and he still would have been a big man, but I think it was his girth that led us to call him that."

Greene's most expansive reporting project came in the summer of 1976, after Bolles was murdered in Arizona. Greene took a group he helped form called Investigative Reporters and Editors, which thrives to this day as an important teaching organization, to a hotel suite in Phoenix to uncover corruption in the state during a six-month project.

"I don't know of many people who could lead that kind of an investigation," said Insolia, Greene's boss at the time. "When he stopped at the end of the day, he could put away his steak and martinis and wine with the best of them."

As his life brought tremendous success, so did it bring crushing sadness. In July 1989, Greene's daughter Lea, 35, was murdered during a break-in at her home. Greene worked closely with District Attorney James M. Catterson to prosecute and convict her two killers. Still, Greene's passion for journalism pushed him forward. He taught journalism at Hofstra University and, most recently, Stony Brook University, where he was beloved by his students. At Hofstra, Greene was voted "Teacher of the Year" in 2000 by the graduating class.

"After his daughter was killed, he never stopped loving life and participating in life," said former Newsday editorial page editor James Klurfeld, who teaches journalism at Stony Brook.

"I think other people would have been slowed down by such a terrible, terrible incident, but Bob just charged forward."

Greene is survived by his wife, Kathleen, of Kings Park, and his son, Robert Jr.

The wake will be Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Branch Funeral Home, Route 25, Smithtown. A funeral Mass will be held Monday at 9:30 a.m. at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church in Kings Park. Burial will follow at St. Patrick's Cemetery, in Smithtown.

Prizewinner and pioneer

Robert W. Greene's 37-year career at Newsday garnered scores of journalism awards, included a brief experiment in what was then "new media," and was interrupted briefly by a stint with the U.S. Senate that made use of his investigative talents.


Investigative projects on political corruption and organized crime; the civil rights struggle in the South; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns and conventions; a 10-part series on Richard M. Nixon; the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne; the Arizona Project; the FBI sting ABSCAM.


His first honor came in 1956, one year into his Newsday career, with the prestigious George Polk Award. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service, for exposing political corruption on Long Island, in 1970, and for a series of stories tracing the smuggling of heroin from Turkey to Long Island neighborhoods, in 1974.

He was given the Society of Professional Journalists national award for public service three times; the National Deadline Club award twice; the New York State Publishers Award for public service five times; the James Peter Zenger Freedom of Information Award in 1978, and the University of Missouri medal for distinguished service to American journalism.


In 1983, Greene co-anchored an hourlong cable news program inside the newsroom. The program was killed a year later.


After Greene retired from Newsday in 1992, he helped start the journalism program at Hofstra University. Most recently, Greene taught journalism at Stony Brook University.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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