Civil Rights and the environment plus money in politics

Center staff hold the EPA to account, delve in to money in politics and frontline reporting

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View looking east from the summit of Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. This image is composited from several frames.

John Brecher/NBC News

An environmental front in Civil Rights

Jim Morris and his team on the environment beat have delivered an epic package on the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency to fulfill its mission to defend civil rights and combat “environmental racism”. It’s a powerful indictment on the state of enforcement at the agency and the plight of people — generally poor and frequently of color — who find themselves facing disasters on their doorsteps.

The package has several installments to come next week. I’d particularly call out two excellent first person pieces in this first week, one by Kristen Lombardi on a site near Selma which typifies the failure of the civil rights protection and another today by Talia Buford on the plight of residents near a proposed hazardous waste site in New Mexico. The data visualization which illustrates the legacy of neglect with hard data is a master of its type by Talia and our news app developer Yue Qiu.

It’s for this kind of work that Jim and the team were awarded a Society of Environmental Journalists prize this week. It was specifically for the Big Oil, Bad Air, package on the environmental and health impact of fracking. David Heath won an honorable mention for another series on the EPA. The same Big Oil, Bad Air package also won the Heywood Broun award of distinction from the Newspaper Guild. Apart from the prestige and pride Jim and the Center can take in these awards, we know donors value the recognition.

We also know the importance of distribution and impact for these stories off our sites and on carefully chosen partners. One of the sometimes unsung heroes of our operation is communications manager Bill Gray, who negotiates with our partners. In the Environmental Justice, Denied package the partner is primarily NBC and its BLK channel with pieces here, here and here. The video is powerful.

Playing in politics, holding health to account and frontline journalism

How we play in the tidal wave of the news around politics is a tough call for an investigative operation and I believe the News & Politics team repeatedly calls it right: jumping on trends and big events to get our brand and voice out there in ways that fit with our approach. A great example this week was Carrie LevineBen Wieder and Dave Levinthal jumping on Joe Biden’s contributors, following a flurry of news that Biden was considering jumping into the presidential sweepstakes. The team tracked the overnight GOP debate on Twitter @publici.

Our executive editor Gordon Witkin also calls out Fred Schulte for producing a "readable, blood-boiling story on the Obamacare research center that will spend $3.5 billion on some questionable research". Among the awards: $674,452 to study how docs might create a “zone of openness” with patients. Another $500,000 in federal tax dollars went to the health insurance lobby. The story was reprinted in full by the NPR Shots blog, where it drew almost 100 comments and 182 tweets. The story was also cited by Kaiser Health News and was a featured item in POLITICO’s Morning PULSE, which has an influential audience of opinion and policy leaders.

Gordon also notes long-time Center contributor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, winner of a big National Press Club Prize last week, for the same story on a crisis in nursing homes is having an ongoing impact with U.S Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania calling for a Government Accountability Office inquiry.

Julia Harte on Jeff Smith’s National Security team has had an incredible run of investigative and observational journalism. One, which required her to jump on a news event, was this piece based on an interview in Turkey with a Syrian fighter being trained by the U.S but who was recently abducted by ISIS. Julia had interviewed him as part of more investigative work like this and this.

Also in National Security, Alexander Cohen broke down documents to expose more defense industry money flowing in to Washington.

Sticking with the story

At the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists I want to mention the tireless work of Sasha Chavkin on two long-term stories. One was a recent update on a story he led for the ICIJ nearly four years ago about mysterious deaths among cane workers right across the tropics. He highlighted Costa Rica acting on it. Sasha has also led important recent work on exposing the failure of the World Bank to live up to its do no harm policy. Respected British medical journal The Lancet called out the ICIJ’s work on a recent profile of the World Bank President Jim Kim.

What we’re reading

Hamish Boland Rudder noted some love for the ICIJ and its work on tax avoidance by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.
Also from The Guardian this defense of investigative journalism from two German journalists who had been accused of treason was quite powerful. 
On the media industry, this piece from the sensible Ken Doctor about the revived Washington Post under Jeff Bezos encroaching on the New York Times was a good read.
At home, I’m reading American historian HW Brands on FDR, “A Traitor to His Class”.

Regards

Peter

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