High Stakes in Las Vegas: Alexandra Berzon '01

By Matthew Brelis ’80


The Vassar Quarterly asked Matthew Brelis ’80, a former journalist whose work for the Pittsburgh Press was honored with the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service, to talk with Berzon. They had a conversation in July, shortly after Berzon announced she was leaving the Sun to work for the Wall Street Journal, covering the hotel and gaming industries in Las Vegas.

Below is a portion of that wide-ranging conversation, which touched on Berzon’s work, the state of journalism, the value of a liberal arts education, the joy of winning a Pulitzer, and, of course, Vassar.

Matthew Brelis: What an impressive piece of work! The public service Pulitzer goes to the paper, usually for bringing the totality of its editorial resources into play to bring about reforms. But the 2009 Pulitzer citation reads: “[The public service prize is] awarded to the Las Vegas Sun, and notably the courageous reporting by Alexandra Berzon, for the exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy and
improved safety conditions.” I bet you never get tired of hearing that.

Alexandra Berzon: (Laughs.)

MB: Seriously, I am sure you did not start out thinking, “This will win a Pulitzer,” but what was your driving motivation, saving lives? The unwillingness to accept “No comment” as an answer?
AB: The main thing was the lack of interest. It was amazing how uninterested people involved in the projects seemed to be in finding out why construction workers were dying. There was really no kind of support for the workers or their families to help them understand what was happening.

Each incident was explained away— someone was not wearing a safety harness, for example. But no one was looking at the root causes. Why didn’t the worker have a safety harness on? Were they being told not to wear one by a supervisor? Were they being rushed? Were they tired because they were working too much overtime? Were they not being trained properly? There was always something else. Why was there a hole in the floor that the worker fell through? There was so little willingness to look into that and that was frustrating, so the main drive became to understand why this was happening. And no one was looking at it in that way.

MB: Was it a matter of blaming the dead worker? I did a series on non-combat deaths in the military and in the aviation crashes it was always “Blame the dead pilot.”
AB: I think so. The family members really did feel helpless, especially when OSHA
[Occupational Safety and Health Administration] was removing violations after initially finding them. There was no additional investigation to justify reversing the findings, but OSHA would say, “It was completely your husband’s fault.” From the perspective of the family, that was very confusing and hurtful. I think that does happen.

Alexandra Berzon '01
Alexandra Berzon '01
MB: “Courageous reporting’’ can mean lots of things. I would imagine in a town like Las Vegas there would be very powerful forces lined up to try to stop you because the stories threatened a way of doing business there. And newsrooms are filled with fragile egos and sharp elbows, so you might have had to deal with in-house threats as well. What were the big obstacles you had to overcome?
AB: In Nevada, there are two industries, gaming and construction, and unions are a third powerful entity. What we did hit at the heart of what runs the state. It was not courageous, it is just what reporters do.

MB: Were you or the paper ever threatened, or was the paper threatened?
AB: I don’t believe there were direct threats. Definitely my editors, the owner of the paper, and other reporters there were always helpful. I never got pushback and was always encouraged to write these stories. As far as threats go, some of the unions were upset because we were revealing that they were not really standing up for workers on safety. There were not really direct threats, but some insinuations. Some of the workers themselves were threatened or felt threatened. Sometimes people came to us and told us things and then they would come back and say “I don’t feel safe about that. Please don’t use anything.”

MB: What did you do? Some reporters would think, “Look you came here and talked to me, knowing I am a reporter, and it was on the record. Sorry.”
AB: My feeling was I wanted to protect individual workers. If you are a PR person for a company and you know the rules, you will not get a lot of sympathy. But if you are a worker and have never talked to a reporter before, well, I think it is reasonable to treat people humanely. I would feel terrible if I printed something and someone’s life was so negatively impacted. I tend to be on the safe side of that, and will protect workers.

MB: What was your major at Vassar?
AB: Urban studies, with a minor in art history. I could not decide on one thing to study and urban studies let me explore different disciplines: economics, political science, history, art. It is very similar to journalism in that way. Not wanting to choose just one thing is also a reason why I became a journalist.

MB: How did you go from Vassar and Poughkeepsie to Las Vegas?

AB: They are pretty different places. I get very nostalgic for Poughkeepsie. I loved the city and the whole Hudson Valley area. I grew up in California, and in contrast Poughkeepsie has this feeling of history. It is kind of gritty but also beautiful. It is about as opposite as you can get from Las Vegas, which is all about growth.

MB: Did you ever go to Caffè Aurora?
AB: I believe my housemates and I went there to celebrate the day we moved out my senior year. It was my final thing in Poughkeepsie.

Alexandra Berzon '01
Alexandra Berzon '01
MB: Were you a TA person or a TH person?
AB: Town Houses.

MB: Why Vassar?
AB: I remember visiting the campus. I had this instinct that I wanted to go there. I was not into the apply-to-college thing. I just thought, “I’ll do this.” It was probably the easiest time I ever had with a decision. I equivocate over everything, and I wish I could go back to that kind of certainty. But I actually made it a little more complicated.

I also applied to state schools with rolling admissions. I got in to them and I had convinced myself I was not going to get in to Vassar. So I was thinking I would end up at Michigan, and I liked that idea. By the time I got in to Vassar, I was not that happy because it meant I had to go. I told myself I would transfer after the first semester. So, I went with that attitude, which was good because then I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it right away. I met my best friend my first day there and I stopped thinking about transferring.

MB: Did you have any professors or experiences there that made you want to go into journalism or go to journalism school?

AB: I had never really thought about journalism. But the first day or two of orientation, someone on my hall at Noyes was going to a meeting at the Miscellany News, and asked if I wanted to go. I went and felt like I found my place.

What I loved about Vassar and the Misc is that it is small enough so that you may not have done something before, but you can still get involved quickly. I was assistant news editor more or less right away. In my sophomore year, I was the news editor. I decided to do a series on faculty diversity at Vassar and I looked at why Vassar had a low percentage of faculty of color. It was a four-part series, and I have no idea if I would consider it good now, but I loved working on that and it got a pretty big response from the campus. There were protests and it was so gratifying that you could find out information, write something, and have an impact. It was an immediate gratification.

There were no professionals around, no one to tell us how to do anything, I never took a journalism class. I got out and did not know how to become a journalist. So I worked in nonprofits in L.A. for a while. But I kept going back to that feeling at the Misc of collaborating on something and having an impact on a community. That was what drove to me to go to graduate school to become a journalist.

MB: A few years ago, Vassar asked me and a few other journalists to meet with the Misc and critique a few of the issues. I was very impressed by the paper’s ability to localize national stories and, just as importantly, report on campus issues by comparing them to what was happening at other colleges and universities.
AB: When I was there, there were a lot of very bright people trying very hard at the Misc. What we did have was total freedom, and that is a great feeling. One thing I think Vassar could do would be to have a little bit more professional guidance — someone who could come in, like you did, and say this is how you go be a journalist. No one ever told me, for example, to get a daily newspaper internship in the summer.

Alexandra Berzon '01
Alexandra Berzon '01

MB: Yes. The second half of my senior year was the most anxious time of my life, because I did not know what I wanted to do. I called my father who worked for Time magazine overseas and asked him for some help. I got an entry-level job at the Washington Star, which was owned by Time, Inc. It folded eleven months after I got there.
AB: At Vassar, you get a great education but what you don’t always get is “This is how you do it.” A lot of the Misc editors became assistants at magazines in New York City; that was the norm.

MB: Newspaper journalists are having a hard time these days. I worked at three major metropolitan papers. Two are out of business and the third — the Boston Globe — faced a shutdown by its parent, the New York Times Company. What would you tell someone graduating now?

AB: My advice is not “Don’t do it,” but “Know what you are getting into.” It is such a fun profession, but of course it’s a very bad time for the industry. I went to graduation at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism this year, and it was a pretty depressing affair. But there was also recognition that there are opportunities for people who have fresh ideas.

MB: Do you think stories like yours can only be undertaken by a metro newspaper that still has the resources? Do you worry that investigative reporting is so expensive that very few can do it?

AB: I think good local news is threatened. What I get most concerned about is not the big national investigative piece or an ongoing series like what we did, but the everyday local reporting. Reporters have to do more in less time and it’s harder now to do their beat in a thorough way. They don’t have a week or even a full day to go through a regulatory filing and they may have to just pretty much go with the press release without a lot of additional digging. I sometimes get concerned about that. It is not just producing one daily story, but several, or getting information up on the web immediately. It is the daily investigative beat reporting that seems really threatened to me.

MB: Has winning the Pulitzer changed your life?
AB: I think it has helped me in a really difficult time to have more opportunities. It helped me to be noticed at a time when it is really, really hard to find a job as a journalist, I mean any job, just to get paid. There are lots of other people who deserve to be noticed for jobs. Having something like this now is a big help. But in a basic sense, it has not changed anything. For a while it was overwhelming. I was getting contacted by a good portion of everyone I ever knew. Quite a few people from college were in that category. It was nice, but it was something I was not used to and I am not set up for that.

MB: What advice would you give about finding out things about people that they don’t want you to know?
AB: Ask people questions and be really persistent; that’s the main thing. And then, just be clever about where to go if you’re having a hard time getting people to talk to you. If you want to talk to workers and the union is not helpful, then go to a bar where the iron workers hang out. There will always be people who want the information to get out.

MB: A former city editor said to me, when I won, that I won it too early in my career. I think that any time you win one is absolutely incredible. Have people tried to give you weird advice or pearls of wisdom?

AB: People really overreact and say it is either the most important thing and it will change everything or that it is meaningless and you need to pay your dues. Ultimately, it is just one story. I have not completely proven myself as far as having done tons of stuff. I hope to do a lot more reporting that will make some positive impact. If there’s a benefit to the award, I hope that it will be to make it possible for me to do that in the long run.

To read Berzon’s award-winning series, visit lasvegassun.com/news/topics/construction-deaths.

Matthew Brelis ’80

Photo Credits: Leila Navidi
Have comments about this article? Email vq@vassar.edu