On the same day that ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity won yet another national journalism award for exposing how coal miners were being unjustly denied black-lung benefits, the spat between the two venerable newsrooms heated up. And now you can read the letters that have been flying back and forth between former colleagues who in recent months shared some of journalism’s highest honors for their work.
Wednesday, ABC and CPI won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for online investigative reporting (affiliated category).
On March 5, ABC and CPI accepted the coveted Harvard Goldsmith Prize. The Goldsmith judges gushed about how they believed the joint investigation was a model for other newsrooms to follow.
— InstituteOfPolitics (@HarvardIOP) March 6, 2014
The White House Correspondents’ Association also honored the joint project with its Edgar A. Poe Award.
But the partnership blew up Tuesday when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. A CPI reporter, Chris Hamby, won and ABC was not included in the award and says it should share in the honor.
CPI fired back and said ABC didn’t do as much work on the project as it claimed. How did a partnership that produced what, by all accounts, is one of the most important works of journalism in the last year fall apart so spectacularly?
The difference in how the two sides viewed each other’s involvement shows up in two contest entry forms. The first is one submitted by ABC for the SPJ/SDX awards. ABC mentions its “partner” CPI’s considerable contributions to the effort multiple times in the entry.
Now look at the entry submitted to the Pulitzers by CPI. It barely mentions ABC’s work except to say ABC joined the effort months into the investigation.
On Wednesday, the executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, Bill Buzenberg, offered to release what he says is evidence of how little ABC News knew about the investigation into coal miner black-lung benefits.
Buzenberg was still steaming about the four-page letter that ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent to Buzenberg and his center’s board asking them to “share” credit for the Pulitzer awarded to Hamby, who Capital New York reported is moving to BuzzFeed.
(You can read Sherwood’s letter to Buzenberg, Buzenberg’s reply, and CPI’s letter to Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler below.)
On Wednesday, Buzenberg wrote on the CPI website:
Emails and drafts leading up to the airdate of ABC’s “Nightline” segment show that ABC depended to a remarkable degree on Chris’ access to sources, documents and data and his expertise on complex issues — all of which repeatedly saved ABC from making embarrassing factual errors in broadcast segments and online stories.
The Center is prepared to show in great detail how little ABC’s Brian Ross and Matt Mosk understood about even the most fundamental concepts and key facts and how they repeatedly turned to Chris to advise them or, in some instances, to do their work for them.
Draft scripts leading up to the airdate of the “Nightline” segment show serious factual inaccuracies by ABC and a continued lack of understanding of basic, key concepts. If not for Chris’ intervention, upon finally being shown the scripts, ABC would have found itself facing withering, legitimate criticism.
ABC has never acknowledged its extraordinary reliance on Chris for even the most basic information about this highly technical and complex story. Chris, of course, has never complained to ABC about this, despite repeated statements by ABC on air, online and in press releases that erroneously made it appear as if ABC was the driving force behind this project.
It is incredibly insulting for ABC to not only fail to acknowledge Chris’ indispensable work solely for ABC’s benefit, but to go even further and suggest that the opposite is true — that the Center is downplaying ABC’s work. A mountain of evidence shows this is not true.
In his letter, Sherwood insisted that CPI could not have won the Pulitzer without ABC’s help. Buzenberg provides a point-by-point rebuttal saying Hamby was the engine behind the story for months before ABC entered the investigation and in long stretches when ABC was working on other things.
Of course, we appreciate the contributions ABC made, but the unique contributions of ABC were almost exclusively for the benefit of the production of television segments. We believe ABC did great work on the television segments, which is why we submitted them in contests that allowed such joint submissions and happily shared numerous other honors with ABC. But, as we’ve said, television simply cannot be entered in the Pulitzers. The rules are very clear and have been confirmed again by the Pulitzer Administrator.
We have been thrilled at the success of this project and happy to share in the accolades with ABC. But we find it very disturbing that ABC is now trying to grab credit for work it did not do.