2016 Goldsmith Awards in Political Journalism Transcript

Share
March 3, 2016, 6:00 pm

Mr. Patterson:  On behalf of The Shorenstein Center, I’d like to welcome you to the Goldsmith Awards, the highlight of our year. I’m Tom Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press and the Shorenstein Center’s interim director.

I’d like to reiterate, please, join us tonight in tweeting the event.  Our handle is @ShorensteinCtr, and, as was mentioned, our hashtag tonight is #GoldsmithAwards.

The Goldsmith Awards were made possible by Robert Greenfield, a Philadelphia lawyer, and graduate of Harvard Law.  Bob had a client named Berta Marks Goldsmith, who decided to bequeath him her entire estate.  Bob said, “Please don’t.”  She did it anyway, so Bob set out to find a way to honor her memory.

As it happens, Mrs. Goldsmith was passionate about news and honest government, and it just so happened that Bob struck up a conversation with a complete stranger.  It was Gary Orren, a member of our faculty.

That random encounter led Bob to Marvin Kalb, the Shorenstein Center’s founding Director, and out of their meeting came the idea for the Goldsmith Awards.

We’ve been blessed over the years – this is the Goldsmith program’s 24th year – by the Greenfield family’s ongoing support.  Would the members of the Greenfield family, and those from the Greenfield Foundation who are here tonight, please, stand so that we can express our appreciation.

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  I’d like to take a moment to single out one member of the family.  Mike, could you raise your hand?

For more than a decade, Mike Greenfield has served as a Goldsmith Prize judge.  It’s a lot of work, and Mike has done it year after year and done it well.  Thank you, Mike.  You’ve been a good friend.

We also owe an enduring thanks to the Shorenstein family without whom there would be no Shorenstein Center.  The center was funded by Walter Shorenstein and in 2010 Walter’s son, Doug, took the family lead co-chairing our advisory board.  This past November, we lost Doug to pancreatic cancer.

I met with Doug in San Francisco last August and came away with a long list of ideas.  Doug, like Walter, was more than a generous donor, he was a wise consult, and we miss his guidance.

Now, the Goldsmith Awards don’t have the search lights or red carpet of the Oscars, and we’ve resisted pressure from the news industry to give our awards a fancier name, something more Oscar-like.  They keep pushing us to rename them “The Goldies.”

(Laughter)

Mr. Patterson:  But this year we beat the Oscars to the punch and we did it by a mile.  The Spotlight Team’s exposé of sexual abuse by Catholic priests won the 2003 Goldsmith Prize.

All of us who love journalism are indebted to the Globe‘s Spotlight Team for showing in this era of shrinking news budgets why investigative reporting can’t be allowed to waste away.

A member of the Spotlight Team is with us tonight, Mike Rezendes.  Mike was a Goldsmith judge this year.  Mike, would you stand so that the rest of us can acknowledge what the Spotlight Team has done on behalf of investigative journalism?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  So now, let’s go to the prizes starting with the books.

Two Goldsmith Book Prizes are awarded each year.  One for the best trade book in the field of present politics, and one for the best academic book.  The prize winners were chosen by a panel of judges consisting of Matt Baum, Marion Just and myself.  Each prize carries with it a $5,000 cash award.

Now, conventional wisdom holds that Teddy Roosevelt, he of the bully pulpit, was the first truly media savvy president.  Sorry Teddy.  Abe beat you to it as Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press reveals.

As Lincoln travelled from town to town, he would stop at the offices of local editors.  There, as Holzer writes, “Lincoln would put his feet up on their desk, set them at ease with his droll stories, dazzle them with his local political knowledge, impart his ideas, and leave the premises having converted a stranger into a new, fast friend.”

Lincoln’s unlikely, but ultimately successful, bid for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination was brokered by two of those newfound friends.  The Chicago Tribune’s Joseph Medill and the New-York Tribune‘s Horace Greeley, but that feat was nothing compared to what Lincoln managed during the Civil War.

We forget now, just how divided the North was over the war.  Democratic newspapers concocted lies to weaken Lincoln and undermine public support for the war.  For their part, Republican newspapers alternated between attacking him for being too timid, or too reckless.

Even his skill as a wordsmith sometimes failed to sway the press.  A Chicago reporter described Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as nothing but silly, flat and dishwatery utterances. Yet, through it all, Lincoln twisted enough arms and doled out enough patronage to get the headlines he needed to keep the public in line.

Harold Holzer’s book, as The New York Times said, “Is the classic account of Civil War era journalism, and the president who both swayed it, and came under its sway.”  Harold, please, step up to accept the Goldsmith Book Award for Lincoln and the Power of the Press.

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  Our Goldsmith academic book prize this year goes to Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective written by a quartet of European scholars Erik Albæk, Arjen van Dalen, Nael Jebril and Claes H. de Vreese.

This book does what no previous book has done well.  It systematically explores the interplay between news gathering, news content and audience effects.  That’s an imposing task, which is why scholars have shied from it.

We have some superb studies of news gathering, some superb studies of news content and some superb studies of news impact.  Now, we also have a superb book that covers all three.

The author’s four country study, encompassing Denmark, Germany, Spain and the U.K. shows that a country’s style of reporting has a major impact on how their citizens think about politics.

Journalism can blunt political learning, but in some forms, it can enhance learning.  Journalism can promote cynicism, but in some forms, it promotes efficacy.  Journalism can undermine trust in politics and the press, but in some forms, it can build trust in both.

Journalists, as well as scholars, should read this book.  Much of what we assumed to be intrinsic in news is the result of conscious choices that journalists make and that they could make differently.

We’re delighted that one of the book’s authors has travelled from Europe to be with us tonight.  Arjen van Dalen, please, step forward to accept the Goldsmith Award for Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective.

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  Now, before introducing the six finalists for the Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize, I’d like to thank this year’s judges.  The judges had the laborious and difficult task of poring over and evaluating scores of entries.

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Greenfield and Mike Rezendes served as judges.  Karen de Sá, an investigative reporter from the San Jose Mercury News, and a 2011 Goldsmith Award finalist, was also a judge, as was Carol Marbin Miller, senior investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, and part of the team that won the 2015 Goldsmith Award.  Bill Mitchell, a former reporter, editor and bureau chief, who is now a Poynter Institute associate, was our fifth judge.  Bill is a former Shorenstein Center Fellow.  The sixth and final judge was Debra Adams Simmons, former editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and now VP of The Plain Dealer’s Advance Local.  Debra is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard this year.  Debra did her undergraduate work at Syracuse at a time I was on the faculty there.  Debra says that she thinks she had me in class.

(Laughter)

Mr. Patterson:  When former students tell you that they think they might have been in your class, you’ve got an image problem.

(Laughter)

Mr. Patterson:  So, it’s now time to introduce each of the six finalists for the Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize.  I’ll introduce them in alphabetical order by news organization.

The first Goldsmith finalist is The Associated Press’ “Seafood from Slaves.” Forced labor was somewhat an open secret in Thailand’s fishing industry, but no one paid much attention to it until the AP team brought it to light.

After several months of following dead end leads, the reporting team heard about Benjina, a village on a remote Indonesian island.  Upon arriving there, they discovered hundreds of enslaved Burmese, Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian fishermen.  Some locked in cages, others, no longer living, buried under fake names in the company cemetery.

The AP team interviewed the captives, and stayed the night in the forest with escaped slaves.  Ordered the next day to leave, they were chased and nearly rammed by a company speedboat.

The reporters then used satellite tracking to follow a shipment of seafood from Benjina to Thailand, and then tracked the routes of the delivery trucks.  Piecing together a list of companies wholesaling the cargo, they further tracked the seafood to unwitting U.S. firms; including Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, and Red Lobster.

The AP’s reporting led authorities to the island where they ultimately freed more than 2,000 fishermen.  Some had been held in forced labor for 20 years or more.  Since then, perpetrators have been jailed, ships seized, businesses shut down, congressional hearings held, legislation introduced.  For its part, the State Department used the reporting to give Thailand the lowest rating for human trafficking.

Would the AP reporter with us tonight please stand for the series “Seafood for Slaves”?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  Ferguson, Michael Brown, unarmed teenager, black, shot dead.  The Ferguson story made headlines everywhere, but for The Guardian US it raised a question.  Why was there no reliable data on police killings?

The Guardian team began to build a database to fill in the blanks, a task complicated by departments’ resistance to providing the information.  Eventually, their effort would record the details of all deaths, not just shootings at the hands of police in 2015.

The Guardian data shed new light on police killings.  At least eight of them had been ruled suicides by medical examiners, who had bent to pressure from police to hide the true cause of death.  Forty eight people had died after being shocked by tasers, often by officers untrained in their proper use.

Responding to The Guardian’s reporting, and a similar effort by The Washington Post, the FBI committed to changing its data collection.  Said FBI Director James Comey, “It is unacceptable that The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians.”

In the Senate, Barbara Boxer and Cory Booker introduced legislation requiring police departments to record the killings, and all of this was accomplished by two reporters and a researcher, each armed with a laptop and a telephone, but savvy enough to enlist social networks in the data collection.

May I ask the representatives of The Guardian US to stand for their series “The Counted”?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  Acting on a suggestion from Daniel Ellsberg, InsideClimate News decided to look into the role of energy companies in the global warming debate, an inquiry that gradually led them to focus on Exxon.

A challenge faced by the reporting team was that many of those involved in Exxon’s early activities were dead, or in poor health.  Others depended on Exxon for their pensions and health benefits, and refused to talk.

Eventually, the investigative team obtained their sources and also acquired internal Exxon documents.  What they uncovered surprised even them.

As they reported, the company’s own research, starting as early as the 1970s, pointed in the direction of global warming, but that’s not the message Exxon would later broadcast in its ad campaigns.  The ads were aimed at manufacturing doubt about climate change, as were the messages coming from several dozen organizations that Exxon was funneling money to.

The reporter’s revelations prompted New York’s Attorney General to subpoena four decades of Exxon records to see if the company had committed fraud by misleading investors about the financial risk that global warming posed to fossil fuel companies.  Six weeks ago California’s Attorney General followed suit.

Members of Congress, including Senator Whitehouse and Representative Lieu, have urged the Justice Department and the SEC to investigate Exxon.  Secretary of State John Kerry said that Exxon stands potentially to lose billions of dollars in what I would imagine would be one of the largest class action lawsuits in history.

Would representatives of InsideClimate News, please, stand?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  The devil is in the details as The New York Times revealed in “Beware the Fine Print,” an investigation into the clauses buried deep in consumer and employee contracts.

The clauses deprive Americans of their ability to sue in court, and act to protect companies whose business practices are deceitful or illegal.

The Times’ investigation was set in motion when Wall Street lobbyists worked feverishly to kill legislation that would have exempted service members from arbitration on claims like auto repossessions.  That lobbying effort raised a question.  Why was arbitration such a big deal?

Well, as the Times’ investigation revealed, it’s the name of the game.  The arbitration process is loaded in favor of financial firms.  To show how loaded it is, the Times’ team talked with dozens of plaintiffs, arbitrators, and judges as well as hundreds of attorneys.  They also examined more than 1,700 federal court records, and 25,000 arbitration lawsuits alleging wrongful death, elder abuse, personal injury and predatory lending.

What they found was that tens of millions of Americans routinely enter into small print contracts that require them to agree to arbitration in the case of a dispute, and that bar them from entering into class action lawsuits.

These clauses favor the companies, in part because they often get to pick the arbitrators, and most claimants drop their cases upon discovering their class action is off the table.  They don’t personally have the money to take on a rich corporation in court.

The publication of “Beware of the Fine Print” prompted legislation to be introduced that would, for instance, prevent nursing homes from requiring arbitration in elderly residents’ contracts, and Senators Leahy, Franken, and Warren have asked President Obama to bar the awarding of government contracts to firms that require arbitration clauses of employees and customers.

Would representatives of The New York Times please stand?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  It has been six decades since the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, struck down separate and unequal public schools.  That ruling somehow escaped the attention of officials in Florida’s Pinellas County.

The Tampa Bay Times became curious when official state rankings showed that five of the 15 worst performing Florida schools were clustered in that county’s black neighborhoods.  The Times team poured itself into an investigation that analyzed millions of data points, and interviewed hundreds of black children and their family members as well as many former teachers and administrators.

What they discovered was appalling.

School and district leaders had stood by, for example, while dozens of veteran teachers had fled the black schools.  When the Times team published the first stories, they received veiled threats, but they continued on reporting, for instance, that officials had stripped funding from schools in black neighborhoods in order to maintain popular programs in the county’s other schools.

The Times reporting drew the attention of U.S. Education Secretary Duncan, who travelled to Pinellas County and blasted its school board for education malpractice.  The Florida Department of Education opened a still ongoing investigation into the district’s use of federal funds.

Change is coming to Pinellas County.

Pressured by business and government, the school district has begun putting money into the five schools, including turning three of them into magnet schools.  The county has also established a bonus program to retain teachers and to hire teacher’s aides, and the district has hired a new administrator, who will focus exclusively on fixing the five schools.

Would the representatives of the Tampa Bay Times please stand?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  The Guardian US was not the only news organization spurred to action by the Ferguson killing.  The Washington Post launched a monumental effort of telling every fatal shooting by on-duty police officers in 2015.  The project faced one challenge after the next.

The individuals killed had often gone unidentified in reports, and the circumstances were often withheld.  Some police departments did not even identify the officers involved.

The Post‘s researchers compiled a trove of data, including the race of all victims, whether they were armed, and whether they had threatened officers before they died.  By year’s end, the death toll compiled by the Post numbered nearly 1,000; more than twice as many as had ever been recorded in a single year by the FBI.

A dozen Post stories emerged from the data; some of which ran counter to conventional wisdom.  For example, very few of those killed were unarmed black men.  Though, unarmed black men were shot and killed at seven times the rate of unarmed whites.

The dead were overwhelmingly white men with guns, who had attacked or threatened people, and contrary to the public narrative, the Post found that many police officers had acted heroically during these fatal encounters.

The Post stories highlighted the need for fundamental reform.  A quarter of those killed were suicidal or had a history of mental illness.  Roughly 5 percent of the officers, who killed someone in 2015, had killed someone earlier, though police departments often tried to cover up that fact.

Along with The Guardian’s reporting, the Post’s year long accounting of fatal police shootings prompted the FBI to act.  In December, an official informed the Post that the FBI was overhauling its recording system.

Senator Boxer cited the Post when she introduced legislation to force states to report officer involved shootings to the FBI.  Said Boxer, “Too many members of the public and police are being killed, and we don’t have reliable statistics to track these tragic incidents.”

Would the representatives of The Washington Post with us tonight please stand?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  Now, before announcing the winner of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, I want to note the generosity of the Goldsmith Fund of the Greenfield Foundation.  The winning finalist gets a prize of $25,000.  The other finalists each receive $10,000.

Would the finalists please stand once again, so we can express our appreciation and admiration for your investigative work?

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  The winner of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for 2016 is – and yes, we have an envelope –   “Seafood from Slaves” by the AP’s Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan.

(Applause)

Mr. Patterson:  That was Robin McDowell, by the way, from the team of four.