<advertisement>

CJRColumbia Journalism Review

March/April 1995 | Contents

So What?

Pulitzer Prize-winning exposes and their sometimes dubious consequences

by Bruce Porter
Porter, a CJR contributing editor, is director of journalism at Brooklyn College and an adjunct professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism

Eileen Welsome, a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune, stumbled on the case while leafing through a declassified report about radiation experiments done on animals in conjunction with the Manhattan Project toward the end of World War II. In an obscure footnote at the bottom of one page, she found a reference to the fact that animals weren't the only research subjects. Without their knowledge, eighteen people had also been injected with doses of plutonium so scientists could study the effects of radiation on the human body. "I was just stunned," recalls Welsome, who at the time covered neighborhood news. "All my intuition told me I had just found the best story of my life."

It took her a year and a half to pull it all together, in a three-day series that ran in November 1993. And the response was all a crusading reporter could hope for. A month after the stories appeared the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy called a press conference in Washington and admitted for the first time that the government had used people as nuclear guinea pigs. President Bill Clinton himself followed up by creating a presidential advisory committee with a thirty-five-person staff and $5 million budget to document the cases. Dozens of newspapers and the TV networks jumped on the story, turning up further radiation experiments in Nashville, in Cincinnati, and in Boston, where they found that one school had persuaded children to join a "science club" and have fun spooning down radiated breakfast cereal. Congress weighed in with seven committee hearings, three in the Senate and four in the House. And as hundreds of citizens read about the outrage that had been visited on members of their familiesa blizzard of
 lawsuits rained down on government agencies.

The stories won Welsome, forty-three, a journalism graduate of the University of Texas, not only the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting but also a six-figure advance from Delacorte Press, whereupon she quit the paper and set out to tell it all in a book. "Now," she says, "I've got the wonderful opportunity to travel all over the country and follow up my own story."

Welsome's radiation series stands as dramatic evidence that, however ragged the reputation of the media these days, investigative journalism can still make a powerful difference in people's lives -- can still alter history and bring about change. But how often is there such clear cause and effect? Did the reaction to Welsome's stories stand as the exception to the rule or the rule itself? To find out, cjr took a look at several dozen Pulitzer-winning investigations over the past decade -- specifically focusing on ones that had rooted out corruption, exposed waste and incompetence, laid bare transgressions of justice -- and sought to find out whether, beyond the glory falling to the paper and the reporter, the stories had done any actual good.

The answers varied from Yes to No to Sort Of. Among the more successful were those stories that surprised public officials in the act of outrageously abusing the powers of their office, which was what Lucy Morgan discovered when she followed up on complaints about the Pasco County sheriff's office back in 1983 for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

 Looking into allegations of corruption and incompetence, she found one deputy who had been fired from a law enforcement job in a neighboring county and had secured his position in Pasco by the simple expedient of buying the sheriff a house. He had also, it turned out, bought his own patrol car as well as his uniform and his gun, and once on the force he conducted himself like a
 one-man department, patrolling whenever he chose and harassing people he didn't like.

 

Morgan also discovered that more than two dozen of the 195 deputies on
 the force had arrest records, some for felony-level crimes. "They'd even hired people who'd been arrested by their own department," says Morgan, fifty-four, who had been a Times reporter for twenty-six years. "I found that one had a suspended driver's license, and here he was driving around in a green and white deputy's cruiser."

 

A harassment campaign ensued. The sheriff's cronies passed out bumper stickers that displayed the drawing of a screw followed by the words "Lucy Morgan." Morgan's grandson was threatened by a mysterious visitor to her daughter-in-law's office. Men were also sent over to Morgan's house to spy on her at night. "I had the only 'prowlers' in the neighborhood who were going through the bushes carrying walkie-talkies," she says.

Morgan stayed on the story until the state's attorney finally brought an indictment against the sheriff on grounds of official misconduct and other charges. The sheriff managed to beat the case, but Morgan's stories seemed proof enough to voters that a change was due, and in that fall's primary they threw him out of office.

In its submission for a Pulitzer, the paper could report that the sheriff had cleaned house to the extent of firing a dozen deputies, including the do-it-yourselfer, tightening up on background checks, and instituting modern management practices. The Florida Sheriffs' Association distributed Morgan's stories to all its members as an example of how not to run a department, and it asked Morgan to speak at the sheriffs' convention that year, an invitation she respectfully declined. "I told them it wasn't in my interest," Morgan says. "I get better stories when the sheriffs get into trouble."

The investigations that have the most lasting effects, of course, are those that end up actually saving lives. When The Alabama Journal in Montgomery began looking into the state's abysmal infant mortality record in l987, Alabama recorded l3 deaths per l,000, the most of any state in the union. In response to the paper's twenty-story series, which put a human face on a problem that had been hazed over by statistics, the state Medicaid agency not only quadrupled the money allotted for prenatal programs, but also brought more poor women under the health care umbrella -- with dramatic results. By 1994 Alabama had risen four places on the state list and its death rate had fallen by 20 percent, to 10.3. This meant that 90 babies were now surviving each year who would most likely not have made it in 1987.

 But readers have been known to lynch the messenger rather than accept disturbing news, even where their own well-being is concerned. In 1989 the Washington Daily News, in tiny Washington, North Carolina, a lumber and fertilizer-manufacturing town about a hundred miles east of Raleigh, found out that the town water supply, a stream called Tranter's Creek, contained thirteen times the amount of a chemical carcinogen than was considered safe by state and federal agencies. What's more, it discovered, local officials had known about the condition for eight years, and done nothing to warn the populace.

One of those doing the digging was Betty Gray, who had been on the paper only three months. Then thirty-six, Gray had wanted to be a journalist ever since graduating from high school but got sidetracked for twelve years running her father's insurance office. "I figured when I joined the paper it was now or never," she says.

 When she broke the story, town officials vehemently denied that the water was really that unsafe and accused the paper of blowing the problem out of proportion. At first, readers seemed to agree. "People did not speak to me or to my parents," says Gray.

The local television station, WITN, gave town officials plenty of air time to pooh-pooh the stories. On one newscast reporter Linda Shore (who later became the station's anchor) told viewers she had also heard these "rumors" about the water supply, then went on to introduce the city manager who she said would assure everyone that nothing was really wrong. "We do not have a problem here," he said, and proceeded to gulp down a large tumbler of the substance in question.

 The very next day toxicologists from the state's Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources issued a stern warning to residents of Washington: Don't drink the water. Don't wash dishes in it. "They even said if you must shower in it or take a bath, don't breathe the fumes," recalls Gray. The following day the U.S. Marines arrived in town with a trailer-truck load of fresh water, and locals found themselves lining up with buckets and cans, like refugees in a disaster area.

From then on the winds of public sentiment shifted dramatically. Less than a month after the stories began running, the mayor and members of his city council were voted out of office in a landslide defeat. The state board of health changed the law that had exempted small towns like Washington from having to live up to water-quality standards. A year and a half later the town approved a $12.2 million bond issue for construction of a water treatment plant. And for the way its newly elected public officials had faced up to the problem, Washington won an All-American City Award for 1993.

 Reporter Gray? After her paper got the Pulitzer, she found herself traveling around the country addressing press panels, even being invited to Washington to advise Eastern European journalists how to report on environmental degradation. She also went up a rung in her journalistic career, quitting the Daily News to join The Virginian-Pilot, for whom she now covers the state legislature.

Where stories deal with social rather than health problems, the effect is often dramatically less dramatic. In the last decade both the Akron Beacon Journal and The Boston Globe won Pulitzers for delving into the severe racial polarity in their respective communities; but no one was surprised when blacks and whites who read the series didn't immediately start greeting each other with high-fives as they passed on the street. Even when the social problems produce lethal consequences, it still seems hard for journalists to initiate anything that looks like real change. In 1988 the Anchorage Daily News published a mammoth series about alcoholism among Eskimos, Aleuts, and other Indian groups. Titled "A People in Peril," the series ran for ten straight days, combined the efforts of sixty-four writers and editors, and revealed that native Alaskans, most of whom live in the bush, were nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than people in the rest of the country. Among males twenty to twenty-four years old, the paper reported, 257 per l00,000 committed suicide as opposed to 25.6 in the general population. And this was not counting the far greater number of "accidental" deaths related to alcohol, such as freezing in the snow within sight of your cabin or tumbling off a fishing boat in the Bering Sea.

The series caused quite a stir, when it came to letters to the editor and orders for reprints. And there were a few tangible "reforms." The telephone company, for instance, closed down a money order office in one bush community, which had served primarily for ordering in crates of liquor from Anchorage. The state legislature made bootlegging a felony. It also gave native villages more control over saloons and liquor stores, as well as more latitude when it came to voting themselves dry, or, for that matter, "damp," a designation meaning it's legal to get as drunk as you want yourself but you can't sell booze to anyone else. There was also a predictable increase in state funds for things like anti-alcohol and suicide prevention programs.

But the impact on the statistics was disappointing, admits Howard Weaver, editor of the paper. Now, seven years after the series ran, "the suicide and alcoholism rate is not significantly better than it was when we did the stories," he says. Nevertheless, Weaver argues that the pieces were written to influence people's attitudes, which had been to sweep the problem under the rug. "The Alaskan natives are involved in denial," he says. "The big service we provided was to make it legitimate to talk about it."

Of all the possible press targets, probably the most resistant to change by journalism is any law that serves the interests of powerful professional and business associations, such as the medical and legal fraternities and the insurance and banking industries. This is particularly true at the state level, where members of legislatures, for all their speechifying at election time, usually attend much more closely to the needs of special-interest groups than to the wishes of the general public.

In 1991 The Indianapolis Star won a Pulitzer for a series on medical malpractice, which found not only that many doctors adjudged guilty of egregiously unprofessional conduct faced no consequences for their failings, but also, because of a legislative cap on malpractice awards, that the patients involved often received pitifully inadequate compensation for their injuries, and then waited years to collect. In addition, patients suing physicians had to run their cases by a panel of doctors before bringing them into court. "The intent of the law was to reduce frivolous lawsuits," says reporter Susan Headden, who worked on the series with a colleague, Joseph Hallinan. "What we found was it didn't reduce frivolous suits but it ended up closing the door of the courts to those people who really deserved a hearing."

This was not the story Hallinan was looking for when he began randomly going through state files for the names of prison doctors. He wanted to write about the poor state of corrections medicine and was checking the complaint files at the Indiana Department of Insurance on the theory that such a low-status medical job would attract only doctors with a bad malpractice record. "He was going over there every day," says Headden, now a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. "Finally, one of the clerks came up to him and said, 'Joe, if you really want to do a good story, it's not about the prison doctors, it's about the ones on the outside, practicing on your mother and mine."

 Since neither the state nor the hospitals nor the Indiana medical licensing board tracks doctors with high malpractice losses, the newspaper had to compile its own database, entering every successful malpractice suit involving damages of more than $l00,000. What it found was a hard core of doctors with three or more malpractice losses, nearly all of them still practicing medicine, none having suffered the loss of any hospital privileges and none receiving any sanction by the state licensing board, or even much of an increase in their malpractice insurance.

"One patient we found had a cast left on too long, so gangrene developed and two of his toes had to be removed," says Headden, who spent nine months with Hallinan going through more than 600 malpractice cases. "A woman who had breast enhancement surgery ended up with a double mastectomy because gangrene developed through a faulty procedure. A kid was born severely deformed in every way and mentally retarded because of mistakes made by the obstetrician. Yet in every instance the doctors came away from these experiences professionally unscathed."

Beyond a flurry of discussion on local talk shows, and some eight hundred calls that Indiana residents placed to state agencies inquiring about their own doctors, the impact of the three-day series proved negligible. Last fall, when the paper began a five-year-after follow-up, it found that three of the five worst doctors were still doing business as usual, the two others believed to have simply grown old and retired. On the patient side, winners of lawsuits were still waiting an average of thirty-two months to collect their first dime. Neither did anything happen at the state level to ensure that incompetent doctors were disciplined or to increase the $750,000 cap on malpractice awards, even in horrendous cases. And the national mood had changed; there was less sympathy for consumer complaints. In fact, the Indiana principle of putting a money cap on successful lawsuits has not only won the predictable approval of the American Medical Association but has also been touted by Indiana Representative David McInsh, formerly a fellow of the conservative Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, who, as one of Speaker Gingrich's army of Republican freshmen, is sure to have a large influence over future health-care legislation.

Another reason the Star series failed to have an effect was the absence of a crucial second wave of pressure from some public interest group to lobby the legislature on behalf of patients. Indeed, where powerful business interests are concerned a journalist usually has to point out some flagrant violation of the law in order to achieve any significant change. In his 1989 Pulitzer Prize series on redlining for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, reporter Bill Dedman was able, through extensive database reporting and help from university researchers, to show that banks were routinely discriminating against middle-class black applicants for housing loans. This was in violation of the federal Community Reinvestment Acts of 1977 and 1978, which said that lending institutions must meet the needs of all members of the community.

The series hit the banking industry like the proverbial bombshell. This was in Atlanta, after all, where the mayor as well as a lot of city administrators were black, and decisions about who got the city's considerable banking business were not likely to be divorced from the banks' treatment of African-Americans.

The banks set up a $72 million fund to enable Atlantans with modest incomes to gain access to mortgages. (As the paper pointed out, this was only a fraction of the millions that banks had not lent to blacks over all the years of redlining.) Beyond that, the banks increased in various ways their receptivity to black loan applicants to the extent that over the next five years the turn-down ratio was cut nearly in half. "What we have in bank lending is a marked improvement over what we had in 1989," says Craig Taylor, executive director of the Cooperative Resource Center in Atlanta, which helps develop nonprofit housing. "I don't think ever again are they going to be caught in a public relations disaster as they were then."

 The series also resulted in a change at the national level. Lending institutions used to be allowed to report data on loans that were approved or turned down in a way that made it difficult to see whether they were merely being financially prudent or discriminating on grounds of the applicant's race or the color of a neighborhood. After the Constitution stories, the requirements were modified so federal bank examiners and journalists alike could see more clearly if the banks were skirting the law. Data must now be disclosed on the racial makeup of those turned down for loans as well as those accepted. "I think the real importance of the stories was to allow us to get a lot more information than we could before," says Dedman, currently working at the AP in New York City. "Now it's easier for journalists all around the country to do what we did."

While the Atlanta exposŽ achieved its intended goal, in other instances investigations have swerved in unpredictable directions. Witness the Willie Horton stories that won a Pulitzer in 1988 for the Eagle-Tribune, a family-owned paper in Lawrence, Massachusetts. What started as an inquiry into policy decisions of the state Department of Corrections ended up as a series of pieces that fostered the worst sort of racial stereotyping and led readers in a journalistic version of a lynching. The stories also furnished George Bush his most powerful club against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

In what is by now a familiar story, Willie Horton, a black man, had been convicted with two other men in the 1974 stabbing death of a white Lawrence man and had served nearly twelve years in prison before being placed into a weekend furlough program, from which he walked away in mid-1986. When he was captured ten months later, in the spring of 1987, after having raped a Maryland woman and brutalized her fiancŽ, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune fell on the case like a hound on a rabbit track, producing some 175 stories over the next year. Many of them, according to an extensive analysis of the series published in 1989 in the Washington Journalism Review, were woefully lopsided and filled with slipshod reporting and outrageous errors. In campaigning successfully to have the furlough law rescinded by the state legislature, for instance, the Tribune ran eighteen boosterish stories about an ad-hoc anti-furlough group called Citizens Against an Unsafe Society, giving times and places for meetings, and whom to contact. Meanwhile, it wrote practically nothing about the history or record of the furlough program itself. While editorializing in shrill tones against Dukakis -- "throughout this whole mess Mr. Dukakis has paid no attention whatsoever to the human pain and suffering the case caused. No attention! None! None whatsoever!" -- the paper never mentioned that furlough programs had been created in 1972 under a Republican governor, Francis Sargent, or that first-degree murderers were ruled eligible for it by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1973, or that the program had widespread support, from the American Correctional Association and the American Civil Liberties Union alike. The paper also ignored a 1987 report by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections that said inmates who had taken part experienced "lower rates of recidivism" than those t furloughed before to release.

Lopsided as was its coverage, worse still was the paper's general disregard for accuracy and the manner in which it perpetuated errors that heightened the racially tinged hysteria surrounding the case. The most flagrant of these had to do with the original Lawrence murder case in l974. Repeatedly in its news stories, for instance, the paper kept insisting that Horton had committed the stabbing, when during the trial it was never established which of the three men convicted for the crime had actually done the deed. Moreover, it repeated on five different occasions in front page stories that, according to a local legislator named Joseph Hermann, since dead, who at the time was co-sponsor of an anti-furlough bill, "Horton cut off the youth's genitals, put them in his mouth and then spit them out." Hermann was quoted as saying this information "came out in the trial." In fact, no such thing came out in the trial, because no mutilation had ever occurred. The Tribune had just never bothered to check actual court records.

When the paper submitted its packet of stories for a Pulitzer, it was careful to leave out the ones mentioning the genitals, as well as its more histrionic opinion pieces; and the jury of journalists ended up being impressed more by the fact the paper's campaign changed the state furlough law than by how. "You look for results," said Allan M. Siegal, assistant managing editor of The New York Times, who headed the general news jury at the time.

Susan Forrest, the reporter responsible for the paper's most emotion-laden coverage, says today that she is "ashamed" of what she did. Now a police reporter for New York Newsday, Forrest had worked only at a Massachusetts weekly before going to the Tribune. "My experience was zip, there was not a lot of editing, and no one ever said to me in hindsight, 'Maybe we should check the court records.' It was my first experience with politicians and these guys manipulated me. . . . I'm ashamed of that -- if you want to put that I'm ashamed, that's fine -- and I'd never do it again. . . . And I gotta tell you, when the Pulitzer was announced I was floored. There was a party and I didn't even go. Deep down I never felt I deserved it."

Journalists, it would seem, get more mileage out of feeding the public's fear of crime than uncovering a miscarriage of justice. In 1987 the prize, one of three the paper won that year, went to John Woestendiek, the prison beat reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, for his effort in trying to gain a new trial for a convicted murderer named Terry McCracken. Four years earlier, McCracken, then nineteen, had been found guilty of killing a seventy-one-year-old man during a hold-up at a delicatessen in suburban Collingdale in Delaware County. After spending six months checking McCracken's claim of innocence, Woestendiek reported that he had come up with several witnesses who bolstered McCracken's alibi that he was home at the time; he also located the California scientist who had invented the gun residue tests the prosecutor used at the trial to show that McCracken had recently fired a pistol. The newspaper paid the scientist to review the results, and he concluded that they had been interpreted erroneously.

Now, nine years and hundreds of column-inches after the original Inquirer stories, McCracken's case is still unresolved. Twice, his lawyer, John McDougall, was granted motions for a new trial. Twice these motions were appealed by the prosecutor, and twice they were reversed by higher courts. The last turn-down is currently on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose decision is expected soon. If it's favorable, then McCracken will still have to go through another trial. If not, he faces having to serve a life sentence in prison.

 Nevertheless, since 1987, when the judge who granted his first new trial also released him on bail, McCracken has at least been out of prison, a state of affairs from which Woestendiek draws some degree of satisfaction. "I guess you feel frustrated when you write a story that you think should lead to something, and it doesn't," says Woestendiek, forty-one, who joined the Inquirer in 1981. "But I don't feel as bad as I would if Terry was still in jail."

But McCracken's attorney denies that Woestendiek played any part in setting McCracken free. "There was nothing new unearthed by his investigation," says McDougall, who has now had the case for twelve long years. "It appeared as though he had found all those witnesses and developed a story, but he was simply writing what we had already presented." He points out that in the most recent grant of a new trial in 1992, the judge based his decision not on any testimony by the people Woestendiek found to support McCracken's alibi or on what the newspaper's gun expert had to say but on a recantation by the chief witness against McCracken, which the newspaper had nothing to do with.

Although the Inquirer was careful not to make any undue claims for helping to secure McCracken's release
 in its submission for a Pulitzer, other papers are clearly willing to stretch
 a point when describing the effects
 of their journalism. This tendency seems to emanate as much from the award criteria as from a newspaper's understandable desire to feel that it is making a difference. The impression stands out pretty clearly that the judges tend to look more favorably on stories that lead to specific results. This attitude, however, seems to overlook the fact that journalism can have as powerful an influence through some ripple effect down the line as from any immediate response. Mike McGraw, for instance, a reporter for The Kansas City Star, won a Pulitzer with Jeff Taylor in 1992 for their devastating exposŽ of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among changes urged in the series that actually came to pass: the shutting down of more than 1,200 redundant agricultural extension offices and new labeling regulations that advise consumers on possible contaminants in food products.

But perhaps more important was the way in which the series educated and energized consumers working for reform, an effect that would be difficult to measure in concrete terms. "We only have knowledge of the problem because of the work done by Mike and Jeff," says Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of a Seattle activist group called Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP. After the highly publicized deaths in 1993 of four children from eating government surplus beef tainted with E-coli bacteria, STOP, which is forming some fifteen or twenty chapters around the country, worked successfully to get the USDA at least to categorize the bacteria as an adulterant. "We make that series required reading for all our people," she says. "You read those stories and come away clearly focused on all the things you have to do."