When Bruce Roter informed Susanne Craig that she’d won the Museum of Political Corruption’s inaugural Nellie Bly Award, he tooled down to The New York Times offices to fork over the prize: a check for $1,250.
It was the exact amount paid by the muckraking Bly when she bought off the state Legislature in 1888, successfully killing a piece of legislation.
“He presented me with a check in a brown envelope and passed it under the table,” recalled Craig with a laugh. “We had a little ceremony here at the Times.” Roter, telling the same story, followed it with this wry prediction: “I’m sure that Donald Trump will make sure that it gets reported on her tax return.”
In case you missed the joke, Craig is the reporter who discovered pages from Trump’s tax returns in her newsroom mailbox back in early October 2016. She wrote about the unexpected find in a “Times Insider” column that confirmed both the richness of the material and the shoe-leather excitement of a reporter chasing a story. (“I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope. … My heart skipped a beat.”)
That Trump tax drop was the best thing she ever got in her mailbox, eventually prompting utter strangers to walk up and give her a hug. “People would recognize me on the street as ‘the tax person.’ ” Still do. “I was walking through Time Square the other day, and someone spotted me.”
Craig was on the phone from New York, taking a short breather from her job covering President Trump’s finances to discuss reporting in the age of raging tweetstorms. “I think there is a sort of traffic-accident slow-down effect. You know, you can’t help but watch, and half the day you’re in disbelief,” she said.
At the same time, “I also think there’s a dangerous precedent going on with the assault that Donald Trump has launched on the press and the First Amendment with his attacks on ‘fake news’ … and I find that troubling every day. And worrisome.”
Craig will appear in Albany this Thursday evening at the Nelly Bly Award reception and roundtable discussion featuring her Times colleagues William K. Rashbaum (who covers corruption from the metro desk) and Kim Barker (an investigative reporter on same) along with Times Union Editor Rex Smith and John M. Caher of the state’s court system. Radio journalist Susan Arbetter will host.
“We’re going to benefit from what she has to say in dealing with the vital and complex relationship that government has with the media,” said Roter, a music professor at the College of Saint Rose and the driving force behind the museum. Craig’s reporting on Trump’s tax returns is “the sort of transparency that we need — if that’s not transparency, I don’t know what is.”
Also dubbed the Center for Ethical Governance, the Museum of Political Corruption adopts a lightly satirical tone on its projected floor plan (“Tammany Lecture Hall,” “Three Men in a Room Room”) but boasts a dead-serious roster of board members (among them, former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout). Craig first heard of it during her stint covering state government — and, well, state corruption — as Albany bureau chief for the Times.
“We always used to chuckle when we heard about it, because I always thought it was a brilliant idea.” Using humor to get people in the door makes sense. “They’re leading on something that Albany’s known for — poking fun at it, and in a way taking full advantage of it.” At the same time, she said, “the idea of educating the public and talking about reform and possible reforms — and I think creating a space to have that discussion — is really important.”
During her spell in Albany, Craig reported on the trials of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the death of the Moreland Commission and sundry other intersections of politics, influence and money. In early 2016, after returning to New York, she bounced to the team covering Trump and his businesses, a gig that grew as Trump won his first few primaries. “And he just kept winning,” she said. “And so I just kept writing on him.” After he won, she started covering his finances permanently.
“It is a crazy time to be in newspapers,” Craig said. While other newspapers around the country are shedding both staff and profits, the Times, like the Washington Post, has enjoyed a surge in new subscriptions.
“It’s been a good time for journalism, in a way. But it’s also a scary moment in our history, I think.” Trump has boosted national reporting “in the same way that war is good for the economy,” she said. The broad attacks on press freedoms aren’t exactly welcome. “But in terms of covering them, it’s been a great experience from where I sit.”
When the Trump returns arrived in her mailbox, her first response was skepticism. “Who knows? It could have been a prank.” The team then scrambled to confirm them, beating out the Daily News – which received its own copies.
Most people “don’t see how many false leads we chase down” in covering Trump’s finances, Craig said. At one point, reporters spent two weeks, “dozens of hours” and not-inconsiderable plane fares sifting through the claims of a man purporting to be a go-between for someone in the Department of Treasury. They were bogus: “It turned out to be a complete hoax.”
On another occasion, a caller gave them license plates for multiple cars parked outside a firm known to handle Trump’s taxes. “We thought it was a raid,” Craig said. Reporters hit the pavement and spoke to the car owners as they emerged from the building — only to learn they were iced-tea sales reps. Her first thought: “Are you kidding me?”
Last spring, Craig got into an exchange with Trump while reporting stories on his aircraft. “He was upset, and he said, ‘Well, you’re gonna write badly about me, and then I’ll tweet badly about you – and that’s the game we play.’ And I thought that was really, like, a point in my thinking where I said, ‘No, it’s not the game we play.’ “
If you go
The Nellie Bly Award Reception and Roundtable Discussion
Featuring: Susanne Craig, William K. Rashbaum and Kim Barker, all of The New York Times; Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union; and John M. Caher, senior advisor for strategic communications with the New York State Unified Court System. “Capital Pressroom” radio host Susan Arbetter will moderate
Where: First Unitarian Universalist Society, 405 Washington Ave., Albany
When: 6-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16
Admission: $40 (cash or check at the door; credit card via online purchase only); free for students with ID
The Times has been around a long time, she said. The independence of the Fourth Estate is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The answer for journalists, these days, is “just doing your jobs, and doing it well. … That has a longevity that will outlive this,” Craig said. “But I think we have to be ever-vigilant.”
firstname.lastname@example.org • 518-454-5439 • @AmyBiancolli