Pulitzers A Triumph For Investigations

Nothing like this on a blog

Army officials say they “started an aggressive campaign to deal with the mice infestation” last October and that the problem is now at a “manageable level.”

The big winner in yesterday’s Pulitzers? The investigation.

Sure, The Washington Post won six. But newspapering’s highest—and most important—form won at least that many.

Not only did our brothers and sisters upstairs on the Pulitzer Board award two investigative prizes, to Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker of The New York Times and to the Chicago Tribune staff for work on tainted medicine and consumer goods, an investigative thread ran through most of the major awards—including the Public Service award, given to The Washington Post staff for the work of Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and photographer Michel du Cille.

The series “Walter Reed and Beyond,” from which the above snippet was taken, was straight out of the American muckraking tradition.

How can you tell if a piece is investigative? Usually by the amount of time it takes:

Two Washington Post reporters spent hundreds of hours in Mologne House documenting the intimate struggles of the wounded who live there.

(Mologne House is a hotel near the hospital intended for short stays for military personnel and their families that has become a troubled, long-term home for severely wounded soldiers.)

It just takes forever to interview 200 people, as Barton Gellman and Jo Becker did for the Post’s Cheney Series, a sophisticated, well-written piece that was officially a profile, but was really an investigation.

This article begins a four-part series that explores his methods and impact, drawing on interviews with more than 200 men and women who worked for, with or in opposition to Cheney’s office.

Investigations take so much time because usually the reporting is done outside of authorized channels:

The reporting was done without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed officials, but all those directly quoted in this article agreed to be interviewed.

And without the cooperation of key subjects:

The vice president declined to be interviewed.

It takes a lot of time to make formal requests for public documents and to hire outside experts to help pore over them once they finally arrive, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did in its expose of Milwaukee County’s candy store, oops, I mean, public employees’ pension system.

The Journal Sentinel spent six months analyzing the costs and hired two financial experts to assist in the calculations. The analysis focused on 357 participants, all of whom benefited from buyback breaks approved before 2007.

The Journal Sentinel’s David Umhoefer won for local reporting, but we at CJR are not fooled: that was an investigation.

Often, the reader will notice, investigative themes aren’t terribly sophisticated.

Here’s part of the Tribune series:

Photographs taken of Liam Johns’ crib by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office clearly show where it came apart.

The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which the 9-month-old boy slipped feet-first. Instead of falling to the floor, Liam got his head stuck between the rail and the mattress. Trapped in a hanging position, the boy asphyxiated.

Steve Fainaru’s stories in the Post on private security contractors in Iraq won for international reporting, but that work, too, included investigative elements that transcended beat reporting, as in this reconstruction of a shooting in Baghdad:

BAGHDAD — Last Feb. 7, a sniper employed by Blackwater USA, the private security company, opened fire from the roof of the Iraqi Justice Ministry. The bullet tore through the head of a 23-year-old guard for the state-funded Iraqi Media Network, who was standing on a balcony across an open traffic circle. Another guard rushed to his colleague’s side and was fatally shot in the neck. A third guard was found dead more than an hour later on the same balcony.

Finally, true investigative stories can be identified by the fact they don’t follow government investigations, but cause them:

Liam’s April 2005 death prompted an investigation by a federal watchdog agency and a family lawsuit against the crib’s manufacturer, Simplicity Inc.

But the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t warn parents across the country about the potentially fatal flaw in Simplicity cribs—not after Liam suffocated, not after more complaints about the crib rails and not after two more infants died.

Once the Tribune began questioning the company and the agency this month, a massive recall of Simplicity cribs followed.

On Friday, the CPRC took action on 1 million cribs, including the model that the Johns family used for Liam. It is the largest recall of full-size cribs in the agency’s history.

As well as accountability:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the secretary of the Army yesterday and President Bush vowed to investigate allegations of substandard treatment of wounded soldiers as the administration scrambled to contain fallout from the scandal over squalid housing and bureaucratic delays in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

And reform:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 — The House overwhelmingly passed legislation on Wednesday that is expected to give federal drug regulators significantly more money and power to ensure the safety of the nation’s drug supply.

Senate passage is expected Thursday, and President Bush will probably sign the measure quickly — all part of a race to forestall dismissal notices Friday for some 2,000 employees of the Food and Drug Administration.

The legislation was welcomed by both industry and consumer groups, who all found something to trumpet in the mammoth bill.

I have nothing against blogs and all that. I write one. But there’s nothing like a newspaper investigation, journalism’s greatest contribution to American democracy.

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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.