Watchdog Q&A

Published — July 19, 2019

Q&A: Jim DeRogatis on the R. Kelly investigation

R. Kelly appears during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 in Chicago. A judge in R. Kelly's Illinois sexual assault case has refused to give $100,000 in bail money back to a Kelly friend who paid it in February to secure the singer's release from county jail. (Antonio Perez/ via AP Pool)

Introduction

We’re publishing a series of Q&As with reporters who have published powerful investigative stories. This week, we talked to Jim DeRogatis, who first reported on a Chicago Police investigation into R&B singer R. Kelly while at the Chicago Sun-Times working as a music critic. Kelly is facing two separate federal grand jury indictments in Illinois and New York for sexual contact with teenage girls and for spending hundreds of thousands for buying back sex tapes with underage girls. 

How he got the story: 

About two weeks after he wrote a review about the R&B singer’s album TP-2.com, he received an anonymous fax that said, “You compared R Kelly to Marvin Gaye. Marvin had his problems but Robert’s problems are different. Robert’s problem is young girls.” 

De Rogatis says: “I left the fax in the slush pile and I went home and I had a holiday weekend. There were several things in the letter that bothered me. It said, ‘Robert needs help. If you are not the right person to write a story about him so that he asked to get out but stop please direct it to someone else.’ 

He called the CPD: I’m calling about the investigation into R. Kelly. The special investigations person said, “I was wondering how long it would take for somebody to call. I can’t talk to you.”  And she hung up. 

After the story published in 2000: “Chicago yawned. You know this is old news. It sounds hyperbolic but if you talk to four black women on the south or west sides, three of them will have stories about cruising Kenwood Academy or Whitney Young High Schools, cruising for middle school age girls at the Rock n’ Roll McDonald’s or the Evergreen Plaza shopping mall.” 

19 years later: “So I never stopped reporting. I mean to be clear there were long stretches where there was nothing to report. And then the e-mail would come like the facts did or the phone call would come and I would stay on the story. You know initially for the Chicago Sun-Times, and then for BuzzFeed in 2017 and then for The New Yorker.

Justice should have been done in 2002 in a much shorter time after the indictment. It should have been done in 2008 when it finally went to trial. It’s only being done now – it’s too little too late for them to recover those lost years of their lives. So I take no satisfaction as a journalist.

And those women. I don’t know what justice looks like for them. They can’t get their lives back. After they had the courage to speak out on the record. Just like those incredibly brave women who put their pictures on the cover of New York magazine and helped finally bring Bill Cosby to his moment of reckoning. They were vilified social media and in the community. They are ‘bitches’, ‘hoes’ and ‘gold diggers’. They are lying in order to make money or to get fame. And, you know, I mean the courage to speak out about your sexual assault to a reporter and put your name to those charges is unimaginable to me. I have huge admiration for them. I think they are incredibly courageous. 

And then the thought that so many people still – I mean they are attacked in the most vile, sexist, misogynistic, despicable, subhuman way, you know. And I’m not talking an email, a tweet, I’m talking dozens of these. And that’s just horrifying. But you know, we did not believe Dr. Anita Hill in 1991. We did not believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford last year. And they get the same thing. This is rape culture in our society.”

Check out Jim’s book on his experience reporting on R. Kelly and follow him on Twitter.

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