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Just the Facts, Joe

Above the fold, and never below the belt: Rigert never missed a beat when it came to news that mattered
Michael Dvorak

Joe Rigert's cubicle sits in the far corner of the Star Tribune's cluttered newsroom. It's a space that leaves you with the impression that the wiry, wispy-haired, 68-year-old investigative reporter, getting set to retire on March 1, is the type who straightens magazines in the waiting room at the dentist's office. Documents, stapled flush, are piled neatly next to his computer keyboard. Cartons of stuffed manila folders assembled for a work in progress sit on the floor. Each tab is labeled by subject. There's a clean, crisp index for each of those boxes. And there's an index for those indexes, written in a code that only a librarian could love. Not many personal effects are around, save for a few snapshots of Jan Rigert, Joe's wife of four decades, their eight children, and their eleven grandchildren.

There is one item, though, that doesn't quite fit the established order, unless, of course, you've spent some time with its owner: a bumper sticker hanging above it all, just a smidgen off center, its yellow corners curling with age. "Jesus Loves You," it reads. "Everyone else thinks you're an asshole."

The Book of Rigert, chapter one, first verse. There is none righteous, no, not one. And if you don't believe it, just browse through this reporter's clip file. Fraud. Conflicts of interest. Political corruption. Corporate greed. Judicial incompetence. It's all there, in hundreds of exposés, culled from millions of documents, authored by Rigert, published by the Star Tribune over the past 25 years.

In the mid-Eighties, for example, Rigert and his frequent "partner in crime," Strib medical reporter Maura Lerner, uncovered wrongdoing at Endotronics, a medical-research company that, among other things, was involved in a dubious financial relationship with a researcher at the University of Minnesota. In December 1990 the two penned a four-part series that John Ullmann, head of the World Press Institute, still calls "one of the very best medical stories published in U.S. journalism."

Using original research, they were able to prove that certain restraints in nursing homes were strangling residents to death. In response to the award-winning story, the federal Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation that resulted in tougher safety regulations. Two years later Rigert and Lerner returned to the university to produce the now-legendary series "Money vs. Mission," which uncovered improprieties at the Medical School. Those meticulously researched articles--as damning as last year's Pioneer Press story about the Gopher basketball scandal--led then-school-president Nils Hasselmo to pressure world-renowned transplant surgeon Dr. John Najarian to resign as chairman of the surgery department.

"Joe's one of the most methodical reporters I've ever seen," exclaims Greg Stricharchuk, assistant managing editor of projects at the Strib. "He's a great documents reporter. He just bores into stuff. If there's anything to be had in terms of paperwork or whatever, he just digs it up, comes to understand it, and then analyzes it."

Ullmann, who had Stricharchuk's job from 1984 to 1990, claims Rigert is the most tenacious reporter he's ever met. "If Joe can't find out what happened, it hasn't happened yet," he says. "He's methodical from beginning to end. He creates a filing system and cross references. He types in his notes right away. He doesn't get behind. He doesn't get lazy."

"Why did I choose to do this work?" Rigert wonders, as he slurps down a bowl of soup at Chessen's Deli & Bar, an old-school hangout for cops, city council members, and county prosecutors just a few blocks from the Strib's downtown Minneapolis offices. Answer: "When I was young I spent four years as an enlisted man in the navy, railing about the officer corps and feeling very upset about how they dominated us enlisted people. So I got out and went into journalism. That carried over into a feeling that powerful people don't necessarily have the truth all the time. And then when you start covering politics, you start to realize that these powerful people don't have any more brains than you do, either. You quickly realize that you're just as good as they are. You can find the truth about them and you should. They are not closer to God."

The oldest of 13 kids, raised on a farm in Oregon, Rigert inherited a Depression-era work ethic from his parents, conservative republicans of German heritage. As a college student at the University of Oregon and then as a graduate student at Georgetown University, he learned to recognize racial prejudice and economic inequity. Working his first full-time journalism job at the Oregon Journal in Portland, the cub reporter developed an affinity for the underdog, a muckraker's drive to afflict the comfortable. By the time he came to the Minneapolis Tribune as a general assignment reporter in 1965 he was "a big-hearted idealist," observes Lerner. "He became very socially active in the Sixties, and that was an outgrowth of his religious liberalism. He's a guy who believes you have to try and do some good in the world. He's an old-school liberal."  

Rigert is also a perfectionist with a short fuse; a rabble-rouser who rarely thinks he's wrong. In short, and by his own admission, a pain in the ass. Almost everyone who knows him thinks so. But few hold it against the man they affectionately call "Papa" (the occasional soul in the newsroom has grumbled off-the-record). Colleagues say his signature outbursts are almost always professional, rarely personal--principled, even when they're flawed. "You can't do this work and be sweet and charming and pleasant all the time. It doesn't go together," explains Ron Meador, an editorial writer at the Strib who worked as Rigert's editor from 1990 to 1995. "You have to be tough-minded and thick-skinned and hypervigilant. Joe is legendarily difficult to work with. But what makes Joe unique and important is his absolute single-minded determination to get the story and get it right, no matter what."

Still, the screaming matches with fellow reporters over a word choice or the placement of a comma (more frequent in the past few years), the good-cop/bad-cop interviews with key sources, and the showdowns with management are the stuff of lore. "Joe's an inspired maniac," Lerner offers with a laugh. "There's a kind of civility that's expected in the modern newsroom these days. Newsrooms used to be places for real characters--guys standing on desks, screaming. I don't know, could another Joe emerge in these civilized times? I hope so."

It's no wonder Rigert's colleagues elected him chairman of the Star Tribune's unit of the Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities five years ago. "I've always been hard-core union," Rigert brags. "It's the best way to protect yourself if you challenge the people in charge."

And challenge them he has, in the most public of ways. On August 21, 1995, when the New York Times published an article calling the Star Tribune "perhaps the most ridiculed newspaper in the country," Rigert was one of only a handful of reporters who went on record for the story when he harshly criticized his superiors for their reliance on public-opinion polls and market research in determining the paper's content, which to his mind had become less adventurous. "I tend to be rebellious against authority," he says now, by way of explanation.

These days, a month away from retirement, Rigert is brushing up on his diplomacy skills. He wants to leave, he says, on a "good note." While being careful not to single out his own newspaper, he does worry about the future of his craft. He worries that editors who have never worked as reporters are taking over the newsroom. He worries that in an ever more competitive media environment newspapers risk losing their edge. And he worries about the muscle going slack: "I think editors around the country are getting more cautious about really tough investigative work. And I think it's partly because newspaper publishers and editors are really running scared. They're losing ground in circulation and status. So I think there's a reluctance to antagonize readers and particular interests more than there used to be. It's a common problem."

Meador agrees: "Enterprise reporting is out of fashion at this newspaper and it's too bad. I don't expect to see many people like Joe Rigert in the rest of my lifetime, because I don't know that the modern newspaper would welcome them. And I'm not just talking about the Star Tribune."

Stricharchuk insists that while the Strib will miss Rigert's dogged, "shoe leather" approach to fact-finding, there are a number of journalists in line to pick up the slack and tackle the long-term enterprise projects--including Dan Browning, who has an expertise in computer-assisted sleuthing, and Joy Powell, who last year penned a blowout series on street kids.

When not pounding away on deadline, Rigert is as humble as he is self-confident. And he doesn't disagree with his boss's analysis of current staff. "Look, there's no question this paper is going to continue to do good stuff. Believe me, I'm not going to be missed in that regard. Chris [Ison] and Paul [McEnroe] are already more aggressive investigative reporters than I am. That' s not going to change."

Still, Papa can't help but dispense a few sage words of advice to the youngsters: "Your loyalty always has to be to the story. You have to fight to do what's necessary to get the story and get it right. And you have to fight anyone who gets in the way. Sometimes that can be an editor. Sometimes it can be a source. All I can say is never give up. Keep fighting to do what's right."


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