In March 1971, Betty Medsger, then a reporter at the Washington Post, received from anonymous sources copies of files stolen from the Media, PA, FBI office the night of March 8, 1971. She wrote the first stories about these files that revealed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had, for nearly a half century, distorted the mission of the most powerful law enforcement agency and one of the most venerated institutions in the nation: the FBI.
From her stories, Americans learned for the first time about Hoover’s massive political spying and dirty tricks operations that suppressed dissent and damaged individuals and organizations.
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to publish Medsger’s stories on the Media files marked the first time Graham rejected a Nixon administration demand that she suppress a story. It also was the first time a journalist received secret government files from outside sources who had stolen them. Just three months later, Graham approved publication of stories about the Pentagon Papers, the history of the Vietnam war leaked by former State Department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
Now, in 2014, Medsger has written The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, published by Alfred A. Knopf 43 years after this historic act of resistance.
In The Burglary, the Media burglars, found by Medsger many years after the burglary, are introduced to the public for the first time. They also are the subjects of a documentary, 1971, being released at the same time by filmmaker Johanna Hamilton.
The Burglary is a moving account of how seemingly ordinary people found extraordinary courage and carried out one of the most powerful acts of non-violent resistance in American history. It also is the story of the enormous impact of the burglary, including how public outrage about the revelations in the stolen files ignited the first national discussion about the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society, just as that debate has been reignited now by the revelations in files released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The 1971 revelations lead to the exposure of COINTELPRO — first mentioned in the Media files — to the first congressional investigation of all intelligence agencies and to the establishment of congressional oversight of all intelligence agencies.
Medsger also is the author of Framed: The New Right Attack on Chief Justice Rose Bird and the Courts, an investigation of attacks on the California Supreme Court from inside and outside the court in the late 1970s, and Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism Education, the first national study of journalism education.
As head of the journalism education program at San Francisco State University, she founded the university’s Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism. A former member of the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting, she is a founding member of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).
Medsger’s photographs, including ones from her book, Women at Work, have been exhibited throughout the world. Her photographs of Mark O’Brien were used extensively in the Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, on whose life The Sessions, the 2012 feature film, was based.
Medsger’s journalism career began in 1964 at The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, PA. Prior to working at The Washington Post in 1970, she was a reporter at The Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. As a newspaper reporter, she wrote about racial issues, criminal justice and religion.
She lives in New York with her husband, John T. Racanelli, retired Presiding Justice of the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Northern California.