Walt Bogdanich (’75) came to UW–Madison to play baseball, not to become a three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter.
But while pitching prowess may have been what first lured Bogdanich from Illinois to Wisconsin, the man who’s worked for news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes” and the New York Times over the course of a four-decade career discovered his passion for investigating and writing once he arrived in Madison.
“It’s something I’m good at. Something that I can see a reaction to, I can see a benefit to,” says Bogdanich of reporting.
“If you’re going to work, you want something good to come of it.”
Bogdanich, 72, was brought up reading newspapers but never imagined himself writing for one. That all changed in 1973, when he found himself trying to find a way to attend an anti–Vietnam War conference in Cleveland. His older brother was working at the Daily Cardinal and suggested Walt try a different type of pitch: writing an article in exchange for the paper paying his way. The editors flashed a green light.
“I don’t think they got much for their money,” chuckles Bogdanich. “I hope no one ever finds that story because it was quite embarrassing. But it was a step in the right direction.”
The thrill of a byline and the easy access to administrators and influential individuals that came with it were instantly addicting.
“From that point on, I pretty much lived in the newsroom,” he says. “The excitement of it. The camaraderie. For the first time in my life outside of sports, it gave me something to hold on to and inspired me and changed who I am. If I hadn’t gone to Wisconsin, that never would have happened.”
It took some time and a few sidetracks for Bogdanich’s post-college reporting career to take off — a pile of failed newspaper applications, a job at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, and a brief stab at starting a weekly paper each added momentum — before he landed a gig as a reporter at a newspaper in Hammond, Indiana.
“That’s where I learned the business,” says Bogdanich. “I was able to sit next to professional people who’ve done this their whole life, who were very, very talented. And I saw how they went about their business and how seriously they took it.”
Bogdanich’s beat was Calumet City, a southern suburb of Chicago rife with corruption and stories to uncover. At the time, Calumet City was struggling with a failing sewer system that was causing flooding in the poorer parts of town. The mayor at the time was touting a plan to reorganize and rebuild it, but when Bogdanich found a way to access and view the plans, he discovered that the new sewers were to be installed in areas where pricey new homes were being built instead of near the people having problems with flooding. The mayor, who accused Bogdanich of engaging in “verbicrosity,” was less than thrilled to see the story hit the front page.
In addition to a sizable pile of other major reporting awards, Bogdanich has won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on three separate occasions: in 1998 for specialized reporting, in 2005 for national reporting and in 2008 for investigative reporting. The most recent story began with an Associated Press report about people dying in Panama from ingesting poisoned medicine. Intrigued, Bogdanich convinced his editors to send him to Panama, where he discovered that it wasn’t a manufacturing error causing the deaths, but the deliberate use of cheap, counterfeit ingredients, many of which were being sourced from China. Bogdanich’s series, co-reported with a journalist in the Times’ Beijing bureau, exposed rampant and deadly problems in the pharmaceutical supply chain.
“If I have one talent that I could point to, I guess it would be an ability to spot stories that have resonance, which have larger meaning beyond just one or two bad people doing bad things,” Bogdanich muses. “I like to look at the system and see how that perpetuates these problems.”
In addition to his Pulitzers, Bogdanich holds another notable journalistic distinction: He was once sued for $10 billion — yes, $10 billion — as part of the largest libel lawsuit ever leveled against a journalist.
While working for ABC News in 1995, Bogdanich had produced a story that accused Philip Morris Company officials of lying about manipulating levels of the addictive chemical nicotine in their cigarette products. Phillip Morris eventually had to pay more than $200 million to settle a raft of lawsuits related to their deceit (Bogdanich never paid a penny). Exposing the company’s lies proved a critical inflection point in the growing national anti-smoking movement.
“I can’t imagine how many lives we saved by doing that story,” he notes. “That story got no awards. And yet, that’s the story I’m proudest of.”
The tobacco company piece cemented Bogdanich’s status as an A-list investigative reporter. “60 Minutes” lured him to their staff, where he worked alongside legendary anchor Mike Wallace before joining the New York Times in 2001, where he has remained since. Bogdanich’s wife, Stephanie Saul, is also an investigative reporter with the Times. The couple’s oldest son, who also graduated from UW–Madison, is a fiction writer.
“I like to tell the story that my kids really couldn’t catch a break growing up, because they had two parents who were investigative reporters and knew everything they had done that was bad,” he jokes.
Bogdanich’s latest project is his second book, When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm, a work he co-authored with Times colleague Michael Forsythe. It shares their investigation into consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which they report urged companies to cut staff and skirt safety protocols to boost profits.
The Times is a vastly different place now than when Bogdanich first joined it 22 years ago — social media is as impactful as the printed word, there are fewer reporters, and the paper continues to be a flashpoint in the political and culture wars. But health care remains Bogdanich’s sweet spot, the topic that continues to fuel his always-burning investigative fire.
“The whole industry is so opaque, and accountability is so lacking,” he says. “People are angry, and for good reason.”