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April 25, 2007
Though he is only in his early 40s, Mark Fainaru-Wada has reported and written enough on one of the top stories of his time — the proliferation of steroids in professional sports — over the past three-plus years to fill an entire career.
Yet on Tuesday afternoon, during a wide-ranging discussion with students in a sports writing class in the Reynolds School of Journalism, it was obvious that Fainaru-Wada has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
"It has been a bit surreal, that's for certain," said the friendly, well-spoken Northwestern University graduate who spent the day in the Reynolds School as prelude to his appearance Tuesday evening as keynote speaker for a fundraiser for the University's student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"My life is dramatically different today because of the story I've reported on. I never in a million years would have imagined all of this would have happened because of our story."
Fainaru-Wada, along with San Francisco Chronicle enterprise reporting teammate Lance Williams, has been at the center of one of the sports world's most riveting stories.
Fainaru-Wada and Williams' series of investigative stories looking into the dealings of a Bay Area food supplement company, BALCO, turned into a national story when it was learned that BALCO — which was tied to the creation and dissemination of so-called "designer" performance-enhancing drugs — had a client list that included baseball stars such as Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi as well as Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones and 100-meter world record holder Tim Montgomery.
The story and subsequent publishing of a well-received book, "Game of Shadows" took an unexpected turn when U.S. prosecutors — who ironically, were pursuing cases against many of the principals involved with BALCO — demanded that the two reporters name whoever provided them with the grand jury testimony of Bonds and other athletes. Both reporters told the court they would not violate their pledge of secrecy to sources, and were promptly sentenced to 18 months in prison for contempt of court.
Fainaru-Wada and Williams avoided jail time in February 2007 when an attorney connected with the case pleaded guilty to leaking the information.
During his talk on Tuesday, Fainaru-Wada was at turns an eloquent defender of the first amendment ("The notion that we have a government that is increasingly more willing to throw reporters into jail completely undermines the concept of the first amendment," he said), as well as humorous ("I know ... my name is a spelling nightmare," he joked at one point) and instructive for students eager to learn the craft from one of its best practitioners ("The more educated we became on the subject of BALCO, the more willing people were to talk to us," he said).
His talk was for 75 minutes, and kept going for several minutes after class ended. Students in the Paul Mitchell-taught class (Mitchell is a former colleague of Fainaru-Wada's at the late, great sports daily, "The National" from the early 1990s) were eager to keep the questions coming.
And Fainaru-Wada, in the best tradition of reporters who not only talk but who know how to listen, was more than willing to linger and keep the answers coming.
Fainaru-Wada said that although he was proud of his career prior to his BALCO reporting, the story has become an important touchstone in his career.
"I could cite for you my best story, my best reporting, but it would probably not even be worth citing," he said. "This is a totally different animal."
He was probably selling himself short. Fainaru-Wada has always had a strong reputation in sports journalism as a dogged, yet fair reporter who knows how to get factual and verifiable information from sources.
It is undeniable, though, that Fainaru-Wada and Williams' work continues to reverberate through sports. Bonds, the sour San Francisco Giants slugger, is on an inexorable march this season toward becoming Major League Baseball's all-time home run king.
When asked if he thought Bonds has used steroids, Fainaru-Wada replied that the evidence that he and Williams compiled in "Game of Shadows" is hard to refute. He added that there are considerable loopholes in the game's new drug testing policy, where athletes can still use illegal performance-enhancing drugs in the off-season, cycle off of them during the season, pass drug tests and still reap residual benefits from the drug use.
"I'm saying that the notion that baseball is clean is a false premise," he said.
Fainaru-Wada explained that the BALCO story has been a cross between following evidence in the form of "hard" documents, including thousands of pages of grand jury testimony, as well as other, more subtle forms of reporting.
"There's no real genius behind what we did," he said. "The first thing I did was pull out my list of numbers and called agents, lawyers, some athletes and league officials, and then authorities from the FDA and DDA. I was just cold-calling people and asking, "Look, do you know what's going on with this federal investigation?'"
The big break in the story came in the form of an anonymous e-mail after Fainaru-Wada and Williams' stories began appearing in the Chronicle.
"We couldn't use the information that was in the e-mail for our stories directly, but we could use that information to get more information from other sources," he said.
Fainaru-Wada, who has been with the Chronicle since 2000, is married and has two children. He talked about the personal toll the story has taken. The story has required him to often work around the clock, chasing leads or phoning sources, constantly aware that other media outlets throughout the country were looking into the story.
"I live about 45 minutes from the office, and the first thing I'd do in the morning was get on my cell and start calling people," he said. "Then at the office, it would be non-stop on the phone. ... The story was amazingly competitive. The thing that drove us every night was fear. I did not want to get beaten by anyone. The last thing I would do every night before I would go to bed was check the web to see if somebody else had something we had missed."
Fainaru-Wada added: "(The story) was so damn all-consuming. I've always liked to try to somewhat unsuccessfully have some balance in my life, between my work, my family, my friends. But BALCO threw it all out the window. I was completely consumed by it."
Fainaru-Wada said the experience has opened his eyes regarding the lack of a federal shield law to protect journalists who wish to keep their sources unnamed. He said the climate in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.., is not particularly favorable toward journalists and the watchdog role they often play.
"You have a government that is increasingly more willing to throw journalists in jail if they don't divulge their sources," he said. "It undermines the entire concept of the first amendment. This could have a real chilling effect on how journalists go about doing their job, which I think is an important part of our society."
He said there was never any doubt he would protect his sources.
"Working as reporters, we gained their trust," he said of his sources. "We promised confidentiality. And we meant it. I always said to people when they'd get nervous about this, ‘Look, I'd never be able to do my job again if I break my promise to you.'"
Fainaru-Wada impressed the class with his ability not only to re-tell an exceptionally well-told and well-written story, but to do so with gentle hints at his own personality.
"Beyond being an exceptionally talented journalist, Mark is one of the really good people in the business," Mitchell said. "He's a good man, and he's always been known as a person who always does the right thing."
With a smile, his words a reflection of a man whose entire career has been punctuated by tireless reporting and incisive writing, Fainaru-Wada noted that perhaps the best journalism isn't the type that the public often associates with sports today, where sports talk show panelists endlessly scream at one another about the issue of the day.
"There are some people who believe in the confrontational journalism," said the journalist who along with his equally talented colleague carefully and accurately held a mirror to the state of sports in America in today, "and I'm not one of them."