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Mike Pride: Jo Becker's roots as an investigative reporter go back to her 'Monitor' days

The bikini affair isn’t the only thing I remember about Jo Becker, but it is the first thing.

Becker and Mike Elrick covered the State House for the Monitor in 1996, when, for the first time in history, New Hampshire elected a woman to be governor.

Becker and Elrick set out to profile Jeanne Shaheen before her inauguration. While reporting the story, Becker asked Billy Shaheen, the soon-to-be first first husband, to share family photos of his wife. He offered her a bunch of snapshots. One of them pictured Jeanne Shaheen in a bikini.

The next day the photo was on my desk, and Becker, Elrick and the local editors gathered round to help decide whether we should publish it.

Such enterprise has been a hallmark of Becker’s illustrious career. Her ambition has carried her to three of the country’s great metropolitan papers, including the New York Times, where she is an investigative reporter. It also helped her win the Pulitzer Prize.

Becker will return to Concord tomorrow to speak and answer questions about her new book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality. The book tells the story of the court fight against Proposition 8, the California anti-gay marriage referendum.

Becker spent nearly three years at the Monitor and regularly won statewide and regional reporting prizes.

At the St. Petersburg Times, her reporting on lethal prison conditions and other issues brought her more awards. At the Washington Post, she shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for a probing profile of Vice President Dick Cheney. She led the New York Times investigative team’s coverage of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.

While reporting on the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case for the Post in 2000, Becker first encountered Theodore Olson, Bush’s chief counsel, and David Boies, Gore’s. The two teamed up in 2009 to argue that Proposition 8, which 52 percent of California voters had approved, was unconstitutional. This made them central figures in Becker’s book.

Reporting and writing Forcing the Spring took her nearly five years.

“It’s a different way of telling a story,” she said. “You want to show what people look like, and you can. The story itself becomes a great, giant puzzle, and you just have to put the pieces together.”

Her fascination with the gay marriage fight led her to write the book.

“For me, I felt I had to be passionate about the subject, and I was,” Becker said.

She may write other books, but for now she is glad to be out selling this one and working on investigative stories for the Times.

“This is my first book, and I’m happy to finish it,” she said.

Becker’s journalism skills are obvious in the book. It is a fast-paced narrative, its language crisp and accessible, its sentences clear. She brings readers with her behind closed doors and makes them witnesses to crucial decisions.

The book has received excellent reviews.

“The real story it tells is how seemingly small moments, occurring by happenstance, when combined with boldness and imagination, can help to change the course of history,” Richard Socarides, a gay rights advocate and lawyer, wrote in his New Yorker blog.

Connie Schultz of the Washington Post called the book “a riveting legal drama, a snapshot in time, when the gay rights movement altered course and public opinion shifted with the speed of a bullet train.”

Schultz also wrote that Becker should be prepared for criticism, especially from “longtime activists who will feel marginalized” by her approach.

Indeed, the controversy has come.

Frank Rich of New York Magazine called the book “a travesty of gay history.”

Andrew Sullivan, a conservative blogger and longtime gay activist, attacked it as “a distorted and ahistorical and polemical attack on the architects of the marriage equality movement.”

Becker has defended her book against the critics and will no doubt speak to this issue during her appearance.

It is not surprising that she has made a career as an investigative reporter, a job she has done for the last 13 years. Even in her first newspaper beat as a Monitor towns reporter, she was drawn to the story beneath the surface.

She became fascinated with the message painted on a boulder beside Route 103 in Newbury: “Chicken farmer I love you.” She knocked on doors trying to solve its mysteries.

The column she wrote laid out several accounts of the graffiti’s origin, but she never found the real one.

“I failed as an investigative reporter,” she said with a laugh.

Nevertheless, her column helped thwart a ham-handed decision to clean off the boulder. The message soon reappeared with a word added: “Chicken farmer I still love you.”

Later, on the State House beat, Becker exposed deficiencies in New Hampshire’s child welfare system and the state’s failure to inspect dams.

Still, it’s the bikini picture that sticks in my mind – the chutzpah behind getting it and the dilemma it caused for the editor, who happened to be me. Remember, this was a more innocent time. The internet was dial-up, and the public wasn’t yet used to women in high political places.

So the question was: Should we run the picture?

The answer proved to be pretty simple. If we were profiling any of the recent male governors – Steve Merrill, Judd Gregg, John H. Sununu – and one of their wives lent us a picture of her man in his swim trunks, would we run it? Yes, yes and yes.

As Becker remembers it, if our use of the picture bothered Shaheen, she directed her pique at her husband, not Becker or the Monitor.

Jo Becker was a terrific reporter here, and she is an even better one now. Her book is excellent. I hope you’ll come meet her tomorrow and ask her some hard questions.

Jo Becker speaks Monday, June 23, at Red River Theatres in Concord. Call 369-3210 to reserve tickets.

(Mike Pride of Concord is the Monitor’s editor emeritus.)

I guess thats about all you can say about investigative reporting in NH

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