How Kentucky newspaper investigation ended up on ’60 Minutes’

Samantha Swindler and Adam Sulfridge’s path to “60 Minutes” on Sunday started with their work exposing a corrupt local sheriff for the newspaper both used to work for, The Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky. Swindler received the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues’ 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, which led to her doing an interview on NPR’s “On the Media,” and eventually “60 Minutes.”

In an email, Byron Pitts, who reported the story for “60 Minutes,” said his researcher Judy Greenspan, now a freelance producer, found the story, which “fit our target area of ‘stories about human struggle.’ ”

Swindler now edits and publishes the Tillamook (Ore.) Headlight-Herald and oversees the editorial operations of several other newspapers in Oregon. She expressed amazement at the resources “60 Minutes” was able to muster while pursuing the story: CBS flew her to Kentucky in February, she said, and “they sent a camera crew to Tillamook to shoot two seconds of me walking into the building.” The producers tracked down one interviewee in the Carolinas and flew to Kentucky a couple times during the 13 months they worked on the story. “I thought it’s a luxury to have a couple weeks to write a story,” Swindler said.

Of the tale of her and Sulfridge’s journalistic derring-do, Swindler said, “I never thought it would be of interest to anyone outside east Kentucky.” Pitts said, “It helped that the reporters are both good talkers.”

Sulfridge was the fourth consecutive reporter Swindler had put on the story of Lawrence Hodge, a local sheriff she’d heard was dirty but hadn’t had the time or resources to report on herself. She was editing The Times-Tribune at the time. She said she told Sulfridge, “If all you do is get me the sheriff, then that’ll be worth it.” She cut back on some local coverage — meetings, town events, parades — to keep on the story.

In an email, Sulfridge, who left Corbin under federal protection after receiving threats, wrote he “came back to Whitley County out of necessity, out of selfish defiance. While the federal government paid for my lodging out of town, I was having to drive a lot. Besides, I also bought a shotgun — the kind my buddies used in Iraq. I’ve got a pretty decent arsenal now. I don’t want to look like that country person clinging to his ‘guns and Bible,’ but word spread pretty quickly that I wouldn’t hesitate to expedite the justice process if drug dealers visited my house again.”

Swindler left Corbin in July 2010, and Sulfridge left the paper around the same time. He is, as Pitts noted at the end of the story last night, unemployed. Reached by telephone, Sulfridge confirmed he’s still looking into corruption in that part of Kentucky, but mostly, as he put it, spending his days “out by the pool with a drink, photosynthesizing and writing on my book.” Most of that string he’s gathering on corruption is going into affidavits he submits to law enforcement.

Sulfridge said he quit his $11-an-hour job at the Times-Tribune before Swindler left because things had gotten so uncomfortable for him. “When there’s only so many toes in the town, inevitably you step on a lot of them,” he said. He said he thinks it would be nearly impossible for him to get a journalism job locally and that he’d consider moving elsewhere, preferably to a job where he could pull documents and go through public records.

Since the “60 Minutes” piece aired, Sulfridge said, he’s heard from a lot of people: “Most people say ’60 Minutes’ should hire me,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be something?” He said like the four words that supposedly terrified people about Mike Wallace, whenever he walks into a public building at home, “somebody says, ‘Oh God, Adam’s here.’”

Both Swindler and Sulfridge used the same word to describe their relationship: “weird.” “Adam has a really strong personality,” she said. “We’d fight and fuss. He’d quit and I’d never let him quit.”

“Half the time there wasn’t even a full day in my quitting,” Sulfridge confirmed. “I quit a thousand times.” He said they talked every evening while investigating Hodge and that they’re still close. “We still talk often,” he said. “She’s running papers and I’m writing on paper by my pool.”

In a piece last spring for Nieman Reports, Swindler wrote about the “great need for good investigative journalism in rural America.” Aspiring muckrakers, she said, “tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper, and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before.”

In Oregon, Swindler’s continued to turn over stones, even if Tillamook County is “not quite as dramatic” as Whitley County. Still, the Headlight-Herald’s top story today is a sordid tale of destroyed evidence in a child-sex-abuse case involving a police officer.

“We’ve written a few things about how terrible Oregon’s open record laws are,” she wrote in an email after we spoke. “The Headlight Herald has already written several stories and an editorial about a local trooper who got a DUI in a neighboring county. The DA refused to give us the initial police report until AFTER he was sentenced. He got diversion, kept his driver’s license, and remains on paid leave but something’s not quite right about that guy.”

Examining allegations of corruption, she wrote, is a small-town paper’s job: “I think we owe that to our readership. Lots of times you don’t find anything, or you find out the story isn’t exactly as it was presented to you. But even when you don’t find anything, you’re fulfilling your role as watchdog, and that’s just as important.”

Sulfridge said there’s still plenty of work to do at home, whether the “intel” he’s been gathering goes in a newspaper or not. “I think there are federal agents who find it very useful,” he said, “and that’s why I’m hesitant to say anything else.”

Correction: This post originally said both Swindler and Sulfridge received the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award.

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  • Anonymous

    Three things bother me about this article:

    “Samantha Swindler and Adam Sulfridge’s path to “60 Minutes” on Sunday started with their work exposing a corrupt local sheriff for the newspaper both used to work for…”

    1. Why “started”? What else was there for 60 Minutes to be interested in? What else was on  the path? Their work and its results are actually the ONLY thing that interested 60 Minutes.

    2. It wasn’t really Ms. Swindler’s and Mr. Sulfridge’s path. It was the path of the story. There was nothing else of interest to 60 minutes except the work they did and its results. I am particularly sensitive to this because it perpetuates the celebritization of journalists and diminishes the value of good journalism.

    3. Minor point: The headline is not accurate. We are told very little about “HOW” the investigation ended up on 60 Minutes. Just one short sentence with a quote from Byron Pitts, the CBS reporter. Most of it deals with the details of newsroom relationships and where the journalists are now.

  • Anonymous

    Why didn’t anyone ask the $11 an hour reporter if he was paid OT? I used to have the heart for working off clock. I met an editor in Fla. who through hostility cured me of it.

    and… “I thought it’s a luxury to have a couple weeks to write a story,” Swindler said. I consider a day a luxury and it never happens.