An Investigative TV Chase, New York Style

UNHOLY ALLIANCES: WORKING THE TAWANA BRAWLEY STORY by Mike Taibbi and Anna Sims-Phillips, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

375 pp., $18.95

A car chase through mean streets. Donning a hidden mike to ``chat up'' a source. Always pushing to ``break'' news, advance the story, beat the competition....

New York television reporters Mike Taibbi and Anna Sims-Phillips seem almost larger than life as they tell how they covered one of the most sensational stories of 1988, the Tawana Brawley case.

Ms. Brawley, a 15-year-old black high school student, alleged that she had been beaten and raped by a gang of white men. Three vocal advocates quickly rushed to her side, demanding justice: the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyers Alton H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason. As the case wore on and a grand jury investigation began, the press and public became more and more skeptical of the girl's story, while her ``champions,'' counseling her not to speak, took every opportunity to manipulate coverage to their own ends.

According to Taibbi, a veteran investigative reporter and white, and Sims-Phillips, an up-and-coming black TV news producer, the bizarre case became a supreme test of their reporting instincts.

Their story reads much like a movie script, with heroes, villains, and enough oddball characters for many an intriguing scene. The simple, clean narrative pulls the reader through a slew of necessary names and details. Unfortunately, the technique has a drawback. Taibbi and Sims-Phillips have chosen to create a fictional narrator, who describes them and their actions in the third person. This stylistic conceit is likely to annoy anyone trying to get a handle on Taibbi and Sims-Phillips as individuals, since it leaves an uncomfortable blur as to which of them is writing (except when it's obvious that only one of them was present).

It also puts the writers in the self-conscious position of describing themselves and their thoughts: ``Taibbi studied G, who was talking a mile a minute. Young kid, doesn't really know how much ----'s going to come down on him. He thought of all the other whistle-blowers he'd known and persuaded to go public, how he'd tried to protect them but knew in all cases (and always told them) there was no guarantee. How some of them had crumbled under the pressure that followed their public revelations. The downside could be far down indeed, the reporter knew. He'd seen it.'' Perhaps Taibbi and Sims-Phillips should have traded off as author, chapter by chapter.

With so much detail, including a pack of characters to track as we live with the reporters during the day-to-day ordeal of following the case, an index is greatly missed. A time line would have helped, too.

The book leaves off with the grand jury's conclusion last fall that the Brawley abduction was a pure fabrication, even though Brawley and her advisers have stood by her story. In a touch of realism, the case seems to drift out of the lives of Taibbi and Sims-Phillips as other stories replace it.

This book is not the definitive account of what happened in the Tawana Brawley case. More has been reported since the book went to press, and even more will probably come to light. The events are consistently seen through the reporters' eyes, with aspects of the story not covered by Taibbi and Sims-Phillips occurring somewhere off stage as thunder over the horizon. (Although pointing out its own ``scoops,'' the Taibbi-Phillips team does readily acknowledge the work of others, mostly those in the print media, who ``broke'' aspects of the case.) Important questions of journalistic ethics, of how the Brawley advisers ``played'' the media, of the racial context surrounding the case, are touched on, but not deeply.

In the end, the book works best as simply a well-told tale and as a firsthand account of how big-time investigative TV journalism is done: the reporting techniques, the electronic hardware, the demands to ``advance the story,'' the seemingly endless wait until air time - and the hope that you've got it right.

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