Story by Tom NugentPublished in Nebraska Magazine, Spring 2010
During her 32-year career as a hard-hitting and remarkably tenacious investigative journalist, Sacramento Bee reporter Marjie Lundstrom has won more than a dozen national and regional awards. On several occasions, her stories have documented how
children were abused (and sometimes even killed) in secret, beyond the scrutiny of the public officials responsible for protecting them. So what’s the winning strategy behind Lundstrom’s brilliant reporting? It’s actually quite simple, she said: “I never, never, never, never, never give up!”
Then, with a burst of self-mocking laughter: “Ah ... did I mention the word ‘never’?”
The telephone rang. Marjie Lundstrom (B.S. ’78) grabbed it. A moment later, she was listening to the excited voice of a close friend and fellow newspaper reporter, Rochelle Sharpe, who was calling long distance from a Virginia suburb of the nation’s capital.
“Marjie? It’s Rochelle. Listen … the Associated Press is about to announce the winners. I’m looking at their news ticker right now. Wait … here we go … their story is starting to run!
“Are you sitting down?”
Marjie nodded. “I am.” Her pulse had kicked up a notch by now, and her eyes had opened wide. It was to be a moment of supreme, nail-biting suspense.
Perched behind her desk in the newsroom of the Sacramento Bee, 3,000 miles from Rochelle’s office near Washington, the former UNL journalism major was about to experience an event that would affect her career dramatically.
On this mild spring morning in April of 1991, Lundstrom was awaiting the final verdict on what was easily the biggest – and toughest – investigative news story she had ever worked on.
Along with her reporting colleague and best buddy Rochelle Sharpe, Marjie had spent much of the previous year struggling through an astonishingly ambitious assignment … a Herculean attempt to investigate the unexplained deaths of hundreds of young children scattered all across the United States. As top-of-the-line reporters for Gannett News Service, the two dedicated journalists had sought to determine how many of those kids had actually died of unreported child abuse … of parental neglect and/or maltreatment that had never been detected, due to errors made by coroners and medical examiners out in the 50 states.
It had been a daunting challenge, to say the least. In order to “crunch the data” from thousands of children’s death certificates, the two reporters had been required to create their own enormous database, and then to compare autopsy reports and statements from witnesses with the findings from the various medical examiners.
Assisted by a skilled, state-of-the-art data processing team at the famed Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Lundstrom and Sharpe had worked long hours before at last agreeing on a deeply disturbing fact. Based on their exhaustive research and interviewing, there could be no doubt that many of the kids whose deaths had been attributed to “natural causes” or deemed “undetermined” were more likely the victims of deadly abuse that had never been reported by the authorities.
The bottom line: as their detailed reporting had made clear, several hundred American children were being killed by abuse and neglect each year – and nobody even knew it.
That grim finding, terrible in itself, also raised an urgent question that no one had thought about before the series of stories by Lundstrom and Sharpe was published in the chain of newspapers (including USA Today) that ran the daily news content supplied by Gannett News Service.
The question: If hundreds of children were being killed by abusive parents and caretakers each year … what about their siblings? What about the brothers and sisters of the dead kids, all of whom were spending each and every day with these same caregivers?
As the two enterprising reporters had demonstrated again and again in their four-part series for Gannett, the stakes could not have been higher.
And now, on this April morning in 1991, Lundstrom and Sharpe were about to learn what the world of American journalism thought of their harrowing stories about so many children who had died so tragically.
“We must have sat on the phone for ten minutes that morning,” Lundstrom recalled. “And then, all at once, I heard someone shouting in the background. And it got louder and louder, until all I could hear were people shouting and screaming.”
As she struggled to understand the cause of the shouting, the former UNL student reporter gradually began to decipher the torrent of excited words that was flowing from her reporting colleague at Gannett headquarters.
“We won, Marjie! I can’t believe it. We won!”
Within an hour or so, Lundstrom was also reading the breaking story from the Associated Press, which was by then flashing the news out to thousands of newspapers, radio stations and TV news departments all around the world.
That story announced that Marjie Lundstrom and Rochelle Sharpe of Gannett News Service had just won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting – in recognition of their having disclosed that “hundreds of child abuse-related deaths go undetected each year as a result of errors by medical examiners.”
Remembering that morning 19 years ago, Lundstrom said, “It was one of those days as a reporter that you know you’ll never forget. I was astonished and excited, of course … but at the same time, I felt a little saddened and a little uneasy, because the subject matter we had worked on was so troubling.
“Really, when I thought about it … well, it just seemed a little inappropriate to be celebrating over a story of that nature. And I know Rochelle felt the same way. Both of us had been deeply touched by our reporting, and by the tragedy of these lost lives among children. We were pleased to win the prize, of course, but we didn’t jump up and down or run out and buy champagne or anything like that.
“As a matter of fact, I remember coming back from lunch that day – after I’d finally calmed down – and as soon as I walked into the newsroom, the city editor growled at me and sent me out to cover a funeral.”
She pauses for a moment, recalling that long-ago afternoon in Sacramento, then smiles with warm nostalgia. “I mean, that’s newspapering, isn’t it? Nobody wants to hear what you did for them last year, or even last week. No way! What a good newspaper editor always wants to know is: ‘What are you gonna do for me today?’”
After 32 years as a fiercely dedicated investigative reporter, columnist and editor, Lundstrom said she agrees fully with the legendary magazine feature writer John McPhee, who once described the curious “deadline psychology” of most journalists by pointing out that “regardless of all the prizes and awards you might have won in the past, you’re only as good as your next story.”ACTING LIKE A “HELLION” AT UNL?
Born and raised in a small farming town in northeastern Nebraska (Wayne, population 5,583), Marjie Lundstrom grew up in a Presbyterian family as the daughter of two academicians who spent most of their professional careers at nearby Wayne State College.
“My dad was an administrator who ended up as vice president,” said the 53-year-old Lundstrom, “and my mother was a math and physics professor. She was a really brilliant woman, but she didn’t want anybody to know it. She was a member of Mensa [an international organization for people with high IQs], but she successfully managed to hide that fact for 30 years. I think that deep down, she actually wanted to be a writer, but she never really got the chance.
“Given that background, the emphasis at our dinner table was always on books and ideas … and by the time I got to high school, I already knew I wanted to get out of our small town and take a plunge into the wider world of UNL. After my sheltered upbringing, Lincoln was the Emerald City – a brave new world where I expected to enjoy all this amazing new freedom.”
After settling into Piper Hall in the fall of 1974, Lundstrom spent several months throwing off the psychological shackles of a lifetime spent in Wayne.
“My roommate Kimmie and I were absolute hellions for a while,” she recalled happily. “We caused all sorts of trouble, but of course, it was completely innocent stuff – you know, sticking peanut butter on people’s doorknobs and shooting moons out the window. We grew out of that silly behavior eventually, but we certainly had a lot of fun for a while as the resident hellcats of Piper Hall!”
Along with having a blast at her freshman hijinks, Lundstrom bounced wildly back and forth between majors for a while.
“I thought I was going to be an art major for a few months,” she said, “and then I decided to major in theater. Next came dance … and then came sociology. I tried all these different hats on, and nothing fit. So my mother finally told me at the beginning of my junior year: ‘Go back to Lincoln and pick a major, or else!’”
Thoroughly chastised, Marjie hurried back to campus and scheduled an emergency meeting with her academic adviser. “I told him I needed to pick a major or else,” she recalled, “and he nodded and said: ‘Okay, what are you, Marjie?’
“So I looked at him and said: ‘I guess I’m a generalist.’
“Well … he thought I’d said journalist! And the next thing I knew, he was shipping me off to Josie Weber, who was a teacher in the School of Journalism. So I wound up taking all these courses in reporting and writing and editing … and it actually turned out to be a perfect fit!”
As soon as Marjie picked up a reporter’s notebook and started pounding the pavements around campus, she knew she was hooked.
“I absolutely loved it,” she remembers, “and I knew I’d found my niche. But some of the courses turned out to be quite difficult. “I remember taking this one class, Advanced Reporting, and the professor scared everybody to death. He would assign three stories a week … and for every mistake you made in the facts or the spelling or the punctuation, you’d have to write three obituaries from scratch.
“Well, it didn’t take you long to do the math. If you made a couple of mistakes in each of your stories, you’d end up owing the professor nine obits by Friday. And that was only the beginning. I remember how there were people in that class – by the end of the semester – who owed him 160 obituaries, and they were totally panicked.
“I survived, somehow … and I do think it taught me a great deal about the importance of accuracy in everything you write.”FIGHTING FOR KIDS … AND STILL ANGRY THAT ‘LIFE ISN’T FAIR!’
After collecting her UNL journalism degree in the spring of 1978, Lundstrom signed on as a beginning reporter at the small-town Coloradoan in Ft. Collins, Colo. There she struggled to learn her craft as a journalism professional for a while … before eventually nailing down an exciting job as a national reporter at the Denver Post, where she spent nearly ten years as a columnist, editor and news reporter. By 1990 she had been recruited as a National Correspondent for the Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. … and it was here that her career truly took off, when she earned (along with fellow Gannett reporter Rochelle Sharpe) her 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the series of stories about abuse-related child deaths that had been overlooked by local coroners and medical examiners.
By September of 1991, Lundstrom had gone to work for the highly regarded Sacramento Bee, where she has spent the past 19 years as a reporter, city/metro editor, assistant managing editor, columnist and senior writer. Since March of 2006, she has held the unique title of “Senior Writer/Investigations & Projects and In-House Training Leader” … a role in which she reports on and writes major investigative stories, while also helping younger staff reporters at the Bee to improve their skills.
Interestingly enough, Lundstrom likes to point out that she has always refused to sit back on her laurels as a Pulitzer Prize winner. During the past two decades at the Bee, she has continued to earn a national reputation for her keen, strenuous reporting – often on the subject of child abuse and the failure of child protective services bureaucracies to protect kids from being injured and abused.
“I do think I work pretty hard day in and day out,” said the Bee’s top investigative bulldog. “From day one, I never felt that the Pulitzer Prize was a security blanket. I’ve never put much emphasis on it, and I don’t sit around glorying in the fact that I once won a big prize. I’m not a big award-meister, not at all. What I do care about a lot is coming into the paper every day and working very hard to make our coverage of the city and the region as good as it can possibly be.”
Another thing Lundstrom continues to care about – deeply – is the well-being of children. In recent years, she’s won a handful of regional and national citations from government and news media groups who have praised her staunch dedication (and her grueling reporting work) in the cause of protecting kids from the horrors of abuse and neglect.
“Marjie would never take credit for it, but she’s had an enormous impact on how the government and the public think about protecting children in California,” said Bee senior writer Sam Stanton, a colleague who’s also been married to Lundstrom for the past 20 years. “She has a very finely honed sense of right and wrong, and she truly believes in the power of journalism to help people get justice.
“I think it was her upbringing in Wayne that taught her this. And I also think that upbringing left her with an unbelievable work ethic. When she’s working on a story – and especially a story about kids – she’ll often start grinding away at the computer at three o’clock in the morning, and she’ll push as hard as she can, all the way through the afternoon.”
As a mother herself (son Nick is a high school sophomore who spent last summer repairing houses at a Navajo settlement and daughter Riley is a “super Girl Scout”), Marjie Lundstrom is understandably interested in doing all she can to promote the welfare of children everywhere.
But her passionate struggle on behalf of kids – conducted for more than two decades now – seems to go beyond mere parental concern. What is it that drives her to make such extraordinary efforts to protect the innocent and the powerless?
Trying to shape her answer, she frowned for a moment, and then brightened. “Well, I can tell you this much, at least: I’m not one of those people who believe that everything ‘happens for a reason.’ It doesn’t! And I just hate hearing that, because I do think that people have choices. And too often, we make the wrong choices.
“And when that happens and children are hurt as a result, the public needs to hear about it, rather than having it swept under the rug by some government bureaucracy. You ask what drives me, and I guess I would say it’s the desire for justice. I mean, I was raised to believe that life is fair, and it isn’t. It really isn’t … and that just makes me very angry at times.
“When I look at what happens to some people,” said the Sacramento bulldog, “and especially when I look at what happens to so many children who are unlucky … well, the only way I can deal with the pain of that is to just buckle down as a reporter and get to work!” Pullet-Surprise
What’s it like to be a nationally renowned investigative journalist who’s just won a coveted Pulitzer Prize?
For Marjie Lundstrom, the former UNL journalism major who went on to earn a Pulitzer for her national news reporting in 1991, “Winning the big one was certainly a thrilling experience.” But Lundstrom is quick to point out that her “momentary fame” also led to some unexpected situations and comical reunions.
“A few months after I won my Pulitzer, the city officials in my hometown of Wayne, Nebraska, invited me to come back home and serve as the Grand Marshall in their yearly ‘Chicken Days’ parade,” recalled the noted scribe. “I was honored, of course, and I also figured the event would be a lot of fun.
“But when I got to the location where the parade was set to begin, they put me inside this old-fashioned hearse pulled by ponies. I rode down the brick-paved Main Street inside this black carriage … and I could see all these people leaning toward me from the sidewalks. They were peering into the windows and trying to get a look at the passenger, and I could hear them asking each other: ‘Is that the Queen of Chicken Days?’”
Already rattled, Lundstrom was even more shaken when she heard one of the curious townsfolk loudly declare: “Naw, that can’t be her – she’s way too old to be the queen!”
It was a truly surreal afternoon, said Lundstrom, who was anxious to get on to the town’s beloved local ritual of the “Cluck-Off” that followed the parade.
But the most touching moment in the long day probably occurred at the very end of the festivities … when the organizers presented Lundstrom with a special gift designed to honor her journalism award.
“It was a hand-painted chicken egg inside a crystal box,” she said, “and there was this fancy title printed on the front: ‘Pullet-Surprise.’” I’ve treasured that award ever since.”Cub Reporter Learns Accuracy … The Hard Way
Sooner or later, every successful reporter must learn the Iron Law of Journalism: You cannot make factual errors in your stories, which have to be 100 percent accurate at all times.
Marjie Lundstrom learned that lesson early, as a brand-new “cub reporter” on the Fort Collins Coloradoan back in the summer of 1978. While reporting a story about changing zip codes in her Rocky Mountain town, Lundstrom committed the unforgivable sin … and got one of the five-digit codes wrong.
The next morning, as soon as she walked into the newspaper city room, she heard a loud, bull-like voice calling her name.
“It was the city editor, a great big burly guy who looked just like Lou Grant,” she remembered. “He was standing in the doorway of his office, and he was roaring: ‘LUND-strom, get in here!’
“So I trundled into his office. He sat me down and he glared at me. He asked me: ‘What was the one story everybody in Fort Collins read today? The Zip Code story – and you got it wrong.’”
Describing that dreadful moment, the veteran newspaperwoman winced with remembered pain. “I’d gotten sloppy,” she said with a sigh of 30-year-old contrition, “and he was absolutely right to rip me alive, with the entire newsroom listening.
“I’ll tell you something. I’ve made mistakes since then … but not many.”