ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent a four-page letter to WIlliam Buzenberg, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, asking CPI to share credit for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting awarded to CPI’s Chris Hamby this week. The letter was sent to the CPI board and was obtained by Poynter.org.
“You seem to be determined that ABC was simply a megaphone for Chris Hamby’s work,” Sherwood wrote. Sherwood said ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross and producer Matt Mosk should “share” in the Pulitzer and Sherwood says he intends to take the matter up with the Pulitzer board.
The work at the center of this spat exposed how doctors and lawyers worked with the coal industry to deny sick miners black-lung medical benefits. In response Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program and Congress and the Labor Department reacted.
Sherwood says in his letter that ABC and CPI spent a year working as equal partners in the investigation of “how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts.” In fact, the two news organizations have shared other big journalism prizes for this investigation including the Goldsmith Award. But when CPI sent the entry to the Pulitzer Committee, the nominating letter said:
“Months into the reporting, the Center shared its findings with the ABC News investigative unit, whose broadcasts help reach a wider audience. ABC produced a 10-minute ‘Nightline’ segment focusing on the unit at Johns Hopkins, building from the Center’s work and airing the evening of the Center’s publication of part two.”
Sherwood said that the nominating letter is wrong. Sherwood says the partnership began October 31, 2012 and ABC said it had promises from CPI that it would be a “true partnership.” Sherwood wrote to Buzenberg:
“In your submission to the Pulitzer committee, you omitted the names of ABC News reporters and sought to parse and diminish their contributions, even though their bylines appropriately appear on four of the eight articles submitted by the Center to the committee. (Surprisingly, Chris Hamby’s byline appears in bold face type in the Pulitzer submissions, although that was not the case when the articles actually appeared online.”)
Buzenberg told me late Tuesday evening in a phone interview, “ABC has a very very inflated idea of their role in this investigation.” He continued, “The facts are the facts. The CPI’s Chris Hamby wrote the stories that were submitted to the (Pulitzer) committee.” He said Hamby pored through 1,500 medical cases and reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents. (Read Chris Hamby’s own account of how the story came to be.)
Sherwood said ABC News has “nothing but the highest admiration for the work of Chris Hamby” but said “CPI alone did not win this honor.” He asked, “Do you really believe that Hamby and CPI would have been recognized with this honor without the contributions of ABC News?”
Buzenberg said, “Brian Ross is a great reporter, these are great people, they did great television reports.” But Buzenberg said ABC is “ex-post facto trying to grab” a piece of the Pulitzer by using “a big PR effort.” After our phone conversation, Buzenberg wrote me an email saying:
Three times ABC SVP for communications Jeffrey W. Schneider threatened me and the Center saying they would make this very “messy” for us unless they got what they wanted, which is a share of the investigation prize that they did not earn under the Pulitzer rules. ABC does great TV. They did not write the entries or spend a year doing this investigation with all these documents and data, as we did, as confirmed again today by the Pulitzer Administrator. Those are the facts.”
ABC may find the Pulitzer’s rules make it impossible for it to be a part of one of journalism’s most celebrated awards. Buzenberg sent me an email that he said he got from Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler saying the award belongs to Hamby, not ABC:
Bill: I’ve reviewed the entry again. It is overwhelmingly Hamby’s work and was entered by the center in conformance with our rules on limited partnerships (SEE BELOW). The rules expressly state that the eligible entity must do the preponderance of the work; specific elements produced by the ineligible entity (such as ABC video) cannot be entered; and if there is a prize it will go ONLY to the eligible organization that submitted the work.
So, based on the entry, the prize to the Hamby alone is warranted.
The email has this attachment:
Q: Can an eligible news organization enter work that is published in partnership with an ineligible organization, such as a magazine or television station? A: Yes, but only under certain circumstances. Such a partnership is permitted if the eligible organization (1) does the preponderance of the work and (2) publishes the work first, or at least simultaneously. It is up to the entrant to demonstrate convincingly in its entry letter and in the composition of its entry that it primarily conceived and produced the work and that the entry rests on the basic foundation provided by the eligible entity. Specific elements produced by the ineligible entity, such as video, are disqualified and should not be submitted. Eligibility decisions, as necessary, will be made on a case-by-case basis. If the entry wins a prize, it will go only to the eligible news organization that submitted the work.
The Pulitzer rules further state who may enter. The rules say that broadcasters may not enter except as a lesser partner, which CPI argues ABC was:
“Entries must be based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. Magazines and broadcast media, and their respective Web sites, are not eligible. Entries that involve collaboration between an eligible organization and ineligible media will be considered if the eligible organization does the preponderance of the work and publishes it first.”
It is a sad postscript to a remarkable work of journalism produced by two of America’s most important investigative newsrooms. The disagreement over a prize should not tarnish Chris Hamby’s work and ABC News’ work. Indeed, we need more of that kind of journalism. It would be a pity if this moment of friction also stops other media organizations from working together to tell stories that need to be told. The cost of doing this work is often too much for one news organization to handle. Together they can reach bigger audiences and right wrongs. CPI said that was precisely why it joined forces with ABC, to increase the reach of the story.
The biggest honor that comes from this work won’t arrive as a trophy or even a cash prize. It will arrive when sick and dying coal miners get the health care they deserve. This investigation gave them hope. You can’t put that reward on a shelf.