POLITICO’s accountability journalism resulted in another high-level resignation last week. In its reporting to keep the Trump Administration accountable, POLITICO investigations have now led to Labor nominee Andrew Puzder withdrawing his nomination and HHS Secretary Tom Price resigning, and have exposed many questionable financial actions from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Poynter’s Indira Lakshmanan checked in with POLITICO editor Carrie Budoff Brown via email about the work going into these stories. The interview has been edited for clarity.
The CDC director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned (last) week after Politico uncovered stock trading in tobacco by the top public health official. What happened — and how did your reporters get the story?
A team of four health care reporters began looking into Fitzgerald's background in the fall when they got several tips that she wasn't testifying before Congress because she was not fully divested of conflicts of interest. They ran into multiple roadblocks. HHS claimed at one point that there was nothing unusual going on and that Fitzgerald had completely offloaded assets. In one big setback, the agency gave documents that our reporters had requested through FOIA to a competitor before us. But the team persisted, submitting multiple FOIAs and using the STOCK Act to request her financial transactions and her ethics paperwork. It all culminated in reporting that she had purchased tobacco, drug and food stocks while in office. She resigned less than 24 hours later.
Fitzgerald is just the latest in a series of top Trump officials who've been forced out after POLITICO exposed unethical practices and conflicts of interest. Briefly remind us about the others.
Andrew Puzder, Trump's first nominee for Labor Secretary, was forced to withdraw from consideration after we tracked down down a 1990 appearance of his ex-wife on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" saying he "vowed revenge" when she made public her claims of spousal abuse.
Tom Price, the HHS secretary, resigned in September after a series of POLITICO articles revealed that his use of private and government planes had cost taxpayers more than $1 million over five months.
In each of these cases, I think it's been your beat reporters who cover the agencies who exposed the violations, not a specialized investigative team. How many reporters do you have doing watchdog reporting — and how do they have time for investigations in a newsroom where speed and daily developments are a priority?
Yes, that is correct. In each case (CDC, HHS and Labor), the beat reporters who covered these agencies were dogged in their pursuit of the facts and broke the stories. Most impressively, they juggled their daily responsibilities with their longer-term investigative targets. We set the expectation early on that editors and reporters needed to be executing on watchdog journalism. When reporting reaches a critical juncture, editors know to make sure their reporters have the time and space to land the story. Some of these policy teams are quite small so it hasn't always been easy to spell reporters for days or weeks at a time. It requires trade-offs, but the effort is well worth it.
At a time when journalism practices are in the spotlight, especially by those who think the press is unfair to President Trump, what cautionary advice do you give reporters scrutinizing the administration?
Stick with the facts, publish only what you know and keep on reporting.
What's your advice to local or national newsrooms that don't have the same resources, but want to do journalism that holds government accountable?
Prioritize! It's always worth setting aside time to deliver distinctive enterprise reporting that none of your competitors are doing.
L.A. TIMES FOR SALE: Paul Farhi of the Washington Post is reporting that Tronc, the Chicago-based owner of the paper, is ready to sell to Patrick Soon-Shiong, a Los Angeles-area physician and a major shareholder of Tronc. The Post describes Soon-Shiong as "the billionaire founder and chief executive of NantHealth, based in Culver City. He will also buy its sister newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune."
WYNN RESIGNS: News broke late Tuesday night that Steve Wynn has resigned as chairman and chief executive of Wynn Resorts. His exit comes after the Wall Street Journal reported that Wynn had harassed female employees for decades and forced them into sex.
THE GENESIS OF FAKE NEWS: Author and letter-collector Shaun Usher was trying to crack a joke about the existence of a Donald Trump tweet for every occasion. Tens of thousands of retweets later, he found himself in the midst of a fake news whirlwind.
Usher posted the screenshot of a fake Trump tweet just before 5 p.m. Eastern time on Monday and tweeted his reactions in a thread.
Fifteen minutes in: “Sweet mother of god. Not for one second did I think people would believe that to be genuine.” Ten minutes later: “omg it's everywhere. What have I done.”
Just over an hour after the joke tweet, Usher wrote that he had been contacted by both Snopes and the Washington Post. He even got a Snopes fact-check.
So how did Usher make that uber-believable screenshot?
WAIT, WHAT?!?: Phillip Bump of the Washington Post watched an exchange between Devin Nunes and Sean Hannity on Monday and followed the conversation down a rabbit hole in which Nunes claimed Hillary Clinton, not the Trump campaign, was actually colluding with the Russians. Here’s the kicker:
HANNITY: I believe you’ve done a great service. I believe it’s the right thing to do. The American people need to know about all of this because fundamentally we had an effort to undermine our election and then undermine an incoming president. Is that a fair statement?
NUNES: Yeah, I mean, look. I think there’s clear evidence of collusion that the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign colluded with the Russians. You don’t get to hire lawyers and pretend that that didn’t happen. What they accuse you of is what they actually were doing.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THIS: Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo argues that “conventional news and commentary is incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.” He laments analysts arguing both sides of the memo, and sums it up with this: “All the evidence we have suggests a professional and if anything quite cautious investigation, one run from first to last by Republicans and on critical fronts by Donald Trump’s own nominees and appointees. The entirety of the ‘Deep State’ anti-Trump bias storyline is no more than fakery and lies designed to cover up Trump’s misdeeds.”
TRACKING CONGRESSIONAL MISBEHAVIOR: A just-released database lists 372 cases of misconduct or alleged conduct by Congress members since 1789. It includes 15 ethics cases for sex harassment since 1983 — 6 of them since November. The Govtrack.us database can be filtered by type of misconduct (such as bribery and corruption, sexual harassment and abuse) or consequence (such as censure and expulsion).
FIXING GENDER IMBALANCE: Two years ago, Atlantic reporter Ed Yong found that only 24 percent of his sources in his stories were women. Now it's 50 percent. He explains how he got over unconscious gender bias, including a simple spreadsheet he called "a vaccine against self-delusion."
NEW EDITOR AT DEADSPIN: It’s Megan Greenwell, who becomes the site’s first female editor. “Greenwell most recently served as executive features editor for Esquire.com, and has worked as a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. She also helped New York magazine's The Cut launch a digital features program,” according to The Hollywood Reporter, which broke the story. As Mina Kimes noted, Greenwell’s hiring means that three major sports publications — SBNation, ESPN Magazine and Deadspin — are now helmed by women.
THE TRUMP EFFECT: The Washington Post took a look at the damage being done by President Trump’s use of the term “fake news” around the globe. It isn’t pretty, and it’s even been used to jail journalists. “Historically, many of these countries have significantly less press freedom than the United States. And in some places, ‘fake news’ is now a considered a criminal offense. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 262 journalists were imprisoned in 2017 — the most since the organization started tracking in 2000. Of those, at least 21 journalists were imprisoned for ‘false news.’ “
THE CULPRITS: A big analysis from the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute of who shares fake news the most has turned up this answer: ultra right-wing conservatives. And it wasn’t even close: “The superconservative group shared more fake news stories than every other group — the study consisted of 13 groups — of internet users combined,” said a summation in the Financial Times.
AT LEAST SHE PRONOUNCED IT CORRECTLY: CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin mixed up Texas congressman Joaquin Castro and Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix on Tuesday afternoon after the former criticized chief of staff John F. Kelly. “…some pretty explosive comments that are getting all kinds of reaction including a democratic congressman, Joaquin Phoenix, calling it callous,” Baldwin said, shortly before correcting herself. “Joaquin Castro, yeah. Sorry about that.” Fun fact: Phoenix and Castro were born just 42 days apart.
DISTURBING DETAILS: New York Magazine examines how WNYC is trying to emerge from its sexual harassment scandal. The subhead summed it up: “WNYC tolerated sexual harassment and bullying for years. Now, its CEO must satisfy angry staffers without sliding into an overzealous panic.” Some of the details of the harassment at the NPR member station include an opening anecdote about a man who was watching graphic porn on his work computer and engaging in phone sex on his Bluetooth. The station produces “The New Yorker Radio Hour,” “The Takeaway” and “Radiolab,” among other shows.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE: The AP’s Michael Casey followed Poynter’s series on library-journalism collaboration with a feature on the early efforts by a few libraries to fill the vacuum of local events and, yes, news when outlets close or shrink in their areas. "This has an awful lot of similarities to the early, early community newspapers," Casey quotes one librarian-turned-weekly newspaper editor as saying. “It is a bit of a throwback and it's meant to serve the people who don't get their information through Facebook" or other online sources.
JUST FOR FUN: Ride along with the dummy sitting in Elon Musk's space Tesla. The launch of the vehicle aboard the world's most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, was the second most-watched livestream ever on YouTube.
New on poynter.org
Contributing writer David Beard has been exploring ways to balance the doom and gloom of his social media feeds. The result is this delightful story about how two journalists are fighting the tide of depressing posts with their own efforts at "good news" journalism.
- Have you noticed how many more digital packages have a richer, more satisfying photo experience? Poynter's Rick Edmonds talked with designers and photo editors about this new era of digital photography presentation.
What Poynter people are up to
- Indira Lakshmanan, our ethics chair, is guest hosting NPR's national current affairs call-in show “On Point” from WBUR in Boston all week. Tune in live online from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. or whenever it airs on your local NPR station. Today's shows: Live by the Dow, die by the Dow? We'll look at the stock market plunge, whether it's a liability for a president who's taken credit for its rise, and what it means for you. In the second hour, we'll look at government ethics, the end of the case against Sen. Bob Menendez and how the Supreme Court has made it harder to prosecute official corruption.