The University of Montana project is impressive in its innovative use of emerging technologies, combined legal and journalistic perspectives on the trial, and model of live, group reporting followed by analysis. But one has to wonder: What will become of this valuable training? Will these students ever be paid to put those skills into practice protecting others communities from the ravages of toxic exposure?
What’s scary about this story is that the withering away of investigative, regional journalism leaves us vulnerable to similar disasters. Unchecked by watchdog reporters, large institutions are more likely to act with impunity. Unnoticed public health threats will remain unnoticed.
It’s no exaggeration to call Schneider a hero, even if the criminal case against the W.R. Grace Company and its executives ended in acquittal. Schneider, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, documented a regional story of national importance. His coverage set in motion a federal response and helped free up $130 million for cleanup and medical support, with the potential for additional funding. It is humbling to consider that one reporter could be on this story for a decade, shouting for justice when nobody seemed to care, and following up until somebody did—even as his financial backing, and his pulpit, disintegrated.
In an EPA press release in June, highlighting the emergency and the promise of more government funds, the agency’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, called the contamination in Libby “a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long.”
And yet we have to wonder whether Libby would have received any attention, let alone money and action, without Schneider and the P-I, the Missoulian, or the students at the University of Montana. It took “repeated queries” and numerous, costly lab tests paid for by the P-I before an EPA coordinator in Montana agreed that the agency itself needed to investigate Libby’s contamination. So what happens the next time there’s a similarly looming disaster?
I asked Schneider this question, and he answered from the perspective of an investigative reporter working to report and publish stories to an independent blog.
“I really lament the fact that I don’t have a paper backing me,” said Schneider, who is pursuing reports that the contaminated vermiculite sold for various uses (such as insulation in attics) by Grace may continue to pose a significant exposure hazard to consumers across the country.
“I need to chase that story,” said Schneider. “And in order for that story to have any meaning, I need to show a public health impact. And I think I can do that.”
“In the old days, I’d hop on a plane and talk to the people I’ve found who have gotten mesothelioma from exposure in attics,” he said, but who is going to pay for that today?
His question goes unanswered to the detriment of all of us.
Schneider also mentioned the cost of laboratory testing, an important part of such investigations. Before leaving the P-I, he and his editors had agreed to look into the potential public health consequences of the rapidly growing use of nano-particles in consumer products—exposure to which, fears Schneider and some scientists, may carry some of the same risks as asbestos. Such an investigation would require training for Schneider, and lab analysis of the products in question. But the P-I of old is gone (replaced by a specter of its old self as an online-only, stripped down publication), and Schneider is on his own.
“I did testing all the time,” said Schneider, talking about his years at the paper. “The P-I was gracious. We’d spend tens of thousands [of dollars] testing.”
But one man with a blog, no matter how determined, simply cannot afford to shoulder such costs on his own. When Schneider found out that certain tests he wanted to conduct on products with nano-particle coatings would cost $10,000 a pop, he was stuck. In the past, the tests would have been a matter of course. Now, they may never happen.
“For years, the mantra for many investigative reporters was: ‘So many stories, so little time,’” he said. “Now that we’re on our own it’s: ‘So many stories, so little time—and money.’”
And now that some investigative reports, like Schneider’s, are starting to appear on independent blogs without the backing and traffic of a mainstream newspaper, we may as well add: so little readership.
“It doesn’t do any good to write in a vacuum,” said Schneider, before he paused to ask a question: “Are you performing journalism if it is not being disseminated?”