A chance airplane conversation and a tearful foundry worker triggered the massive New York Times, PBS “Frontline,” and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series that won one of journalism’s top awards.
“Dangerous Business: When Workers Die” earned Harvard’s $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for investigative reporting. The 36,000-word print and hour-long documentary project started when a government source told veteran producer-writer Lowell Bergman that a death at a Texas pipe plant was regarded as only a misdemeanor.
Visiting the plant, Times reporter David Barstow encountered an iron pourer scarred by hot metal and crying with embarrassment at having to urinate in his pants because the company allowed no bathroom breaks. “There’s something here,” Barstow recalled thinking, “something to be gotten at. This mental image carried me through many months of hard slogging alongside many talented journalists.”
The three-part series disclosed that between 1982 and 2002, 2,197 workers were killed because employers willfully violated safety laws, but the Occupational Health and Safety Administration sought prosecution in only 7 percent of the cases it investigated.
During a panel discussion March 17, Barstow and other reporters, whose investigative work made them finalists in the Goldsmith competition, said the USA Patriot Act has encouraged state and federal agencies to withhold public records on bogus claims of national security.
“There’s a deep resistance (to open records) driven by 9/11 and an innate desire for secrecy, especially strong in this Administration. It’s a real shift, and a real challenge for us,” Barstow said.
Los Angeles Times reporter Richard T. Cooper, who with Chuck Neubauer and Judy Pasternak uncovered U.S. Senators’ penchant for putting family members on the payroll, was one of several complaining that national security has given the government a “whole new rationale” for withholding information.
“You can almost never tell who introduced what part of a law,” he said. “It’s amazing how hard it is to find out the simplest thing,” such as how many children a senator has. Cooper said the Times‘ findings have revealed just a “little piece of the (legislative) process. There’s no limit on the number of stories that need to be done.”
Washington Post reporters Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway took on a non-governmental sacred cow, the $3 billion Nature Conservancy. The series revealed that the Conservancy — far from protecting the environment — has contributed to forest logging and endangering bird species.
Like many Goldsmith finalists, they had had little luck getting records from Freedom of Information Act requests. Stephens added that non-profits, despite the vaunted IRS Form 990, have to disclose little vital information. Instead, he and Ottaway tapped “ideologists who they persuaded to ‘look at your own conscience’” and disclose information. Stephens said he got “reams of documents from a whole range of sources, including a Texas lawsuit.”
The 200,000 circulation Dayton Daily News found similar resistance when investigating another hallowed institution: the Peace Corps. They launched a 20-month investigation into increasing death and danger faced by Peace Corps volunteers, and the agency’s attempt to mislead victims’ families about the circumstances. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood found that the agency didn’t answer their Freedom of Information Act suits; they had to file a lawsuit.
So they relied on a network of returned Peace Corps volunteers unearthed through Internet chat groups.
Hopgood commended the Daily News‘s commitment to investigative reporting despite the Peace Corps’ myriad complaints that the series was undertaken “just to get awards. They went online accusing us of using false data, and we published that upfront, including personal attacks and accusations.”
Similarly committed to investigative reporting without vast resources are Gannett’s seven New Jersey newspapers, whose staffs spent seven months investigating state legislators’ putting relatives on the payroll and accepting as many as three government jobs.
Skip Hidlay, executive editor and vice president of news at Asbury Park Press, sees the series as a response to a long-standing state “culture of corruption.” He said that while many larger papers had “nibbled around the edges” of the story, the Gannett papers assembled a 12-reporter, six-editor team that he says shows that in an era of corporate ownership, combining forces can produce investigative results equal to massive staffs.
With politicians of both parties “treating us as the enemy,” in Asbury Park Press reporter Paul D’Ambrosio’s words, the papers had to build their own databases, thousands of pages of which they put on the Web for public consumption. The series didn’t boost the papers’ circulation but did spark an “immense increase in website traffic.”
Hidlay said Gannett hopes that the effort will be a model for clusters of smaller papers in other states to do similar joint probes.
Nashville’s WTVF-TV aired “Friends in High Places: Perks of Power” after months of stonewalling by the official targets of the investigation.
“You want to maintain strict objectivity,” said Phil Williams, the station’s chief investigative reporter, “but their stonewalling produced a quite antagonistic” atmosphere.
He and photojournalist colleague Bryan Staples held off for two weeks to give the Governor’s office a chance to respond; they kept coming up with excuses. Finally, hours before the first part of the series aired, they confronted the governor after a lunch and received a “no comment” on camera.
The 60-story, three documentary series about no bid contracts, legislative perks and University of Tennessee president’s perks was attacked as “tabloid journalism,” which Williams said gave the print press a perfect reason to ignore the story. He said it also led to the state highway department’s pulling $160,000 of advertising from the station.
WTVF was also recently picked as best Station of the Year for large markets by the NPPA Best of Television Photography judges.
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article used the wrong name for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Return to story) An earlier version of this article misstated Skip Hadley’s role at Asbury Park Press. (Return to story)