A Polk for Pittman

Long Island University announced the winners of the 2009 Polk Awards this morning, and we at The Audit want to take special note of Bloomberg News’s National Reporting win for work that, in the words of the Polk committee, “demanded accountability from the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board.”

Clearly, it’s a feather in Bloomberg’s cap and just recognition for its lead role in the bailout transparency fight, principally through Bloomberg LP vs. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, the landmark lawsuit to force disclosure on the federal government’s unprecedented emergency bank bailout measures. The suit and its implications are ably described in this Times story over the weekend.

And, to be sure, it’s a team award. The Polk committee honors Bloomberg staffers Bob Ivry, Alison Fitzgerald and Craig Torres as contributing to the effort to make transparent literally trillions of dollars in federal commitments to banks.

But, as the committee’s wording indicates, this is a special and important recognition for the work of Mark Pittman, the great investigative reporter who died over Thanksgiving at the age 52. That’s how I’ll think of it, anyway.

Pittman was a friend of ours here at The Audit, it is true. But this was also a special reporter who combined extraordinary technical legerdemain—he was master of the Bloomberg machine—with the bulldog attitude of a cop reporter, which, earlier in his career, he happened to be. He was too old-school to admit it, but Pittman saw journalism as a moral force, and, over time, became one himself.

He was just coming into his own, too, dang it.

This interview our Ryan Chittum did with him a year ago this month becomes more valuable with time. This is still my favorite quote:

Hopefully, we will be able to inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed (laughs).

Here’s the Polk Committee’s language:

A team of Bloomberg News reporters who produced a series of stories that demanded accountability from the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board will be honored with the George Polk Award for National Reporting. The late Mark Pittman collaborated with colleagues Bob Ivry, Alison Fitzgerald and Craig Torres to help make transparent the transaction of trillions of dollars toward bank bailouts. Their stories, which kept a running tally of the government’s and the Fed’s commitments to banks, were invoked by legislators on Capitol Hill and were cited on international radio and television. When the Bloomberg staffers’ Freedom of Information Act requests were denied, their employer filed a lawsuit against the Fed. The media outlet won the case, requiring the central bank to make available to the public more detailed information about its loans. The decision has been appealed in court.

Here are the headlines on the winning pieces; note the drumbeat quality of the work and the blunt force of the facts:

U.S. Taxpayers Risk $9.7 Trillion on Bailout Programs, February 9.

Fed Refuses to Release Bank Data, Insists on Secrecy, March 5.

Financial Rescue Nears GDP as Pledges Top $12.8 Trillion, March 31

Court Orders Fed to Disclose Emergency Bank Loans, August 25.

Pittman’s byline is on all the stories, but it’s not about credit or bylines. It’s no secret he was a big presence over there.

There is no use speculating on what the next Pittman story might’ve been. For now, it’s enough to remember the work, understand the kind of financial journalism it represents, and celebrate the reporter behind it.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.