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Meg Laughlin: Reporter with a thirst for truth and justice

Photo: Laughlin (right) with Kristen Simpson, whose home was saved.

Meg Laughlin, an award-winning journalist whose reporting for Vero Beach 32963 brought the financial challenges and operational problems of Indian River Medical Center to the community’s attention, died of cancer last week.  She was 70.

 In a 35-year career that spanned lengthy stints with the Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times and Vero Beach 32963, Laughlin was always focused on reporting that “made a difference.”

In Vero Beach, in addition to her hospital articles, Laughlin’s reporting ranged from stories that exposed mismanagement and corruption in non-profits to a series that inspired readers of Vero Beach 32963 to contribute to a fund-raising campaign that saved the home of the widow of slain island resident Brian Simpson from foreclosure.

“Meg’s reporting exemplified the very best of the type of journalism we strive for with Vero Beach 32963,” said publisher Milton R. Benjamin. 

“The citizens of Indian River County owe a debt of gratitude to Meg for her tireless efforts to create and focus awareness on some of the most important issues facing our community,” added Paul Nezi, a retired insurance executive who served on the IRMC Board of Directors.

“She was uncompromising and thorough. She always checked her facts. And she was devoted to finding the truth even if it ended up not being what she thought it would be.”

During a more than year-long battle with cancer, Laughlin – who moved back to Miami for treatment – continued to keep in touch with her Vero Beach sources, nursing a hope she would be able to return to the journalism wars.  “How I wish I was back snooping around for ‘63,” she emailed only weeks before her death.

“Meg was very proud of the work she did at the community paper,’’ said her friend Sydney P. Freedberg, who worked with Laughlin at both the Herald and the Times. “She said the idea wasn’t to make a lot of money but to make a difference.’’

To use a journalism cliché that would have made her eyes roll: Meg Laughlin comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable better than almost anyone in the business. Her stories saved lives, homes, careers and reputations, even as they infuriated the rich, powerful and influential.

They were counter-intuitive, often upending the accepted narrative of the event they highlighted.

The classic Meg Laughlin story was hard to report, harder to write, a treat to read, and practically guaranteed to cause the editor trying to get it into the paper agita.

During her years at the Miami Herald, her fans eagerly pawed through the Sunday paper to see what dark tale of fraud, corruption, sexism, racism, hypocrisy, betrayal, greed, cruelty or exploitation she’d dragged into the light.

She gave voice to some of society’s most vulnerable – and least sympathetic – people. Among the former: Haitian house servants, a grieving mother tormented by a stalker, families in foreclosure.

Among the latter: death-row inmates, “incorrigible’’ violent teens, accused terrorists and their alleged sympathizers.

“Her life was all about fairness,’’ said her daughter, Helen “Trey’’ Casey Guzman.

Laughlin’s work won awards at both the Herald and Times, including the Florida Society of News Editors’ Paul Hansell Award for Distinguished Achievement in Florida Journalism, and multiple Green Eyeshade Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

She shared in two Herald staff Pulitzers and was awarded a prestigious Knight Fellowship in Journalism at Stanford University in 1996.

Tom Shroder, now a non-fiction author, was the Miami Herald editor who hired Laughlin full time in 1990.

“Nobody could see through the bullshit like she could,’’ he said. “A truly rare talent connected to a thirst for truth made her one of a kind.’’

The St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) hired Laughlin in 2005 to cover the trial of University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian, accused of terrorist ties. She also covered the Haitian earthquake, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the criminal-justice system.

Notable Times stories included “Doubt,” about a Lakeland man convicted of killing his wife despite evidence implicating another man, and “Right by Miles,” which investigated why a sheriff’s office failed to investigate its own deputy’s role in a wreck that killed a teenager.

From the Herald’s late, legendary investigative reporter/editor Gene Miller, Laughlin learned ‘“Keep it simple, stupid, and ask 100 questions … ,’’’ said Freedberg. “She wouldn’t be satisfied until she got all the answers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a hunger for truth in anyone.’’

Benjamin hired Laughlin in 2012 for Vero Beach 32963. The former Washington Post editor specifically sought “tough-minded veteran journalists committed to long-form journalism, who wanted the time to report stories and the space to tell them.’’

In a time of shrinking newsrooms and straight-to-the-web click bait, Vero Beach 32963 was journalism heaven for Laughlin.

Mark Seibel, a former Herald editor who sent Laughlin to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she’d share sweltering, sand-infested tents with frontline troops half her age, described her as “fearless in terms of seeing what was there and what needed to be told.’’

One of Seibel’s favorite Laughlin stores involved Elian Gonzalez.  Laughlin figured out that the little boy’s Miami cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who helped care for him, had been hospitalized 11 times for emotional problems.

“Looking into the actual background of a person who was lionized as Elian’s surrogate mother was a very delicate task,’’ Seibel recalled.

Among Laughlin’s many memorable Herald stories: “We Love You Dr. Kesselman.’’

Michael Kesselman was principal of North Beach Elementary, which in 1990 was up for a prestigious U.S. Department of Education award. Laughlin wanted find out what made the school stand out.

Instead, she found that the revered educator browbeat his staff and cooked the test-score books. Kesselman lost his job.

Laughlin adored animals. Her peach-faced lovebird, Parker, flew freely around her house. She fed whatever showed up at the bowls on the porch: feral cats, raccoons, possums, even a toad.

“When I visited her in Vero, I couldn’t believe that she not only shopped for fish at the fish market to feed this little bird [Homer the great blue heron] that hung out at the same time every day by the water, but she’d cut the fish up carefully, then place the bird’s dinner on a rock,’’ said Marjorie Klein of Asheville, N.C., a former Miami Herald freelancer. “We’d watch as the bird ate. She did this every day.’’

During Laughlin’s last days, her cat, Plumeria (aka Plumey), snuggled on her chest. At 6:30 a.m. on July 12, Plumey jumped off and yowled at Trey Guzman, who went to her mother’s room. Moments later, Meg Laughlin took her last breath.

Laughlin requested cremation and no funeral. Her daughter plans a gathering for family and friends in the fall.