Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2014

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Brian Greenspun: Where I Stand:

Nation can’t afford failure of free press

Investigative reporting contributes to an informed citizenry

What would we do without us?

I ask myself that question almost every day, in 100 different ways. The “us” are the journalists who work at news organizations across the country who report the news and inform citizens of what government does — or fails to do — for them.

What might happen if we weren’t doing that job? The answer goes to the future of this great democratic experiment of ours: How well are journalists serving the public interest, and what would happen if we weren’t doing it?

That question is relevant because of the steady decline of daily newspaper readership over the past few decades and the financial collapse of news organizations, allowing a blog-clogged Internet lacking credible information. Without the continued watchdogging of government activity by smart, seasoned journalists, citizens will lack the accurate information they need and on which they can base informed decisions at the ballot box.

Throughout these difficult times for news organizations — when newsroom cutbacks and closures are more commonplace than ever and communities are left without people they can trust to watch how government behaves — I have faith that smart, investigative journalism for the public good will be preserved. Protecting our democracy is just too important to allow the alternative.

The “what would we do without us” question loomed large last week as I attended a ceremony at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Incredible journalists filled a room to honor the winners of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, a national award to recognize the finest investigative work of 2010. If a free and unfettered press, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment is the goal, then investigative reporting is the method by which the citizens will learn the most about the conduct of their government.

The challenge in today’s world is that the most expensive part of good journalism and a free press is the investigative reporting effort, the same effort that helps keep a free people free. So, naturally, that is the first to go as news organizations across the country do their best to survive an existential threat.

The Las Vegas Sun and its reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards were among six finalists for the Goldsmith Award, for the series, “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas.” In five parts, it examined how patients become victims of infections, surgical mishaps and other injuries and harm through no fault of their own while in Las Vegas hospitals. The findings were the result of their analysis of 2.9 million billing records — records that Nevada officials had in their possession but had not dissected.

As we listened to Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, describe the work of the finalists, I was struck by how significant each of those projects was that had been singled out for such a high honor. Each one told us something about our governments that we needed to know, knowledge that contributes to the growth and well-being of our democracy.

With each project’s description, I thought, “What would we do without us?”

For instance, Lauren Sullivan’s three-part report for NPR on the consequences of the high price of bail bonds seemed especially appropriate during these difficult economic times for governments and citizens. Her exhaustive research found that, for the most part, the only people who languish in jails in our country — without having been convicted of any crime — are the people who are too poor to make bail. That’s the result of a bail bonds lobby that dramatically reduced the ability of judges to allow people charged with even less-severe crimes and who are not flight risks to get out of jail on their own recognizance. This was not a series about the plight of the poor, but about the high cost to taxpayers of keeping these people in jail — a cost they didn’t know about and would probably be outraged over had they known. The price tag for keeping poor, nonconvicted, nonviolent people in jail just because they couldn’t make a modest bail: $9 billion!

I heard that story and asked myself, “What would we do with us?”

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin of The Washington Post did an incredible investigative job understanding and exposing a new version of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago. This time, however, they discovered more than 850,000 people in this country have top-secret clearances to work on homeland security and counterterrorism for nearly 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies in more than 10,000 locations.

At a cost of more than $75 billion a year!

The information they made transparent was not known or understood by the public. Or, for that matter, by the government either.

“What would we do without us?”

Each finalist’s project was equally compelling, including the Los Angeles Times reporting on corruption in Bell, Calif., where the salary of the city manager was $800,000 a year and part-time councilmen approached six figures. Many of the public officials are now in jail or on their way.

“What would we do without us?”

That is what I thought as Mr. Jones prepared to announce the Goldsmith Prize winner. I was convinced that, as incredibly good as our series was, each of the others would be a compelling winner.

So, who won? Who did the best investigative reporting job in the country last year? The Las Vegas Sun.

It was an award we won on behalf of our entire news organization and one that we proudly share with all of our readers. “Do No Harm” will save lives and help make hospital care in our community the envy of the country rather than the butt of so many jokes.

What would we do without us? Our democracy can’t afford to find out.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. I completely agree with the sentiments expressed, however, the greatest threat to our democracy lies in the disintegration of objective investigative journalism and the polarisation of television news. I see two serious issues, worsening every few years: Firstly, I have read that over the past few decades, TV news divisions have retrenched over 80 % of their investigative staff - this leads to a reliance on "other sources" for news; and secondly, with operating profits for the news divisions playing a greater role, we can see extreme political editorial content masquerading as news on many network news programs. Sadly, the general public fail to determine the distinction between news stations advancing a specific political agenda, and quality investigative journalism. The result is a frighteningly misinformed and misled public. Given the weakening quality of objective television reporting and the eroding advertiser base for print journalism, I am greatly concerned that we are accelerating in the wrong direction. I sure hope we find an alternative business model to preserve one of the cornerstones of our democracy and financial system. One can't help but wonder if the massive fraud underlying the sub prime mortgage crisis would have been exposed sooner and those primarily responsible (Angelo Mozilo et al) would face serious criminal prosecution, if the news rooms had been able to maintain their full complement of investigative journalists. Optimistically inclined.

  2. "Right on the head!" Mingus33 "Right on the head." 7 FT

  3. Chunky says:

    The Sun is all we have here in Las Vegas that is worth reading and the awards were well deserved.

    The problem isn't so much that readers are less interested in reading the news, we simply have more options that the traditional hometown newspapers and network television stations. More often than not too many of those have such an obvious liberal bias that they lose touch with the other 50% of the world.

    The Sun has done a great job with their website and the mobile version of their site. Printing and delivering papers has gone the way of the dinosaur. Chunky would gladly consider a subscription based version for his new iPad 2 when it gets here next week.

    As for his liberal brother 7 FT, great to see you reading and commenting here on the Sun and hope you're enjoying your new iPhone 4. While our politics don't align, Chunky always enjoys working with you and our other brothers and sisters! Back to one and reset!

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  4. News is not what it used to be --- no, as a matter of fact in a good many circles it's become a joke -- largely based on partisan position. Look at the likes of Breidbart, who think that editing a tape to use as a political weapon is fair game. Or your counterparts down on Bonanza.

    Sure, every paper has their editorial slant but when that slant becomes the "all costs" M.O. then that outlet ceases to be a credible news outlet and becomes something of a slimy rag. The problem here is that many fail to see this conversion take place and they believe they're still being delivered "news".

    The problem will get worse over time, and greatly accelerated by the ever lowering of intelligence of the masses through attacks on education. I mean what good is it to produce a fine piece of journalism if few are bright enough to "get it"?

    There have been many instances in the past few year where a healthy media could of headed off major issues with a few well placed questions. Iraq and the banking disaster to name a few. But those questions were satisfied by backdoor leaks of disinformation, only to happy to be printed without additional thought or reasoning.

    It's a shame really as I recall the time when those hard questions were asked and reported on. Now, well it's all become political theater --- which is something that serves no one's interest.

  5. We need new taxes on the Drudge Report Website and websites associate with talk radio, so that the playing field of journalism is leveled.

  6. As to specifically bail-bond pricing and availability, it would be interesting to:
    A. Publish the names of the localities in which the NPR research was conducted.
    B. Publish "comparable statistics" concerning Clark County. Such as, for (say) first-offense shoplifting, average bail amount, cost of getting such bail posted, and number of days spent in custody prior to release or trial.

  7. I agree as long as the opinion writers are clearly labeled and the news reporters report the whole truth.

    Sometimes the trouble is what is not written as much as the bias that masquerades as news.

  8. We're supposed to learn from our mistakes but our failure as citizens to react to changes that offer opportunity for unfair benefit for few and possibility of adversely affecting our daily lives has left us vulnerable. Significant events, bad or good, even bad government, bad economy and biased media, are unsustainable without great participation by we the many and we must recognize that failure to personally react to opportunities that offer possibility of unfair benefit for few is the worst type of participation.
    The help that we need as citizens and as a nation to return to an environment holding stability, harmony and trust must come from each of us, and it will involve common sense decisions and actions that produce more and longer lasting benefit than trillions of dollars in untargeted spending.

  9. Too often readers forget the magnitude of investigative reporting's contribution a community and too often some news forget that as well. The Sun's investigative reporting reminds me of some of the greats who perhaps aren't remembered these days for the perserverance and fine reporting: Jerry Landauer was given free rein and took at least a year, maybe more, to send Spiro Agnew running; Stan Penn and Bud Karmin a couple of years to discover and report mob banking in the Caribbean, John Berry at the Post, to say nothing of the NYT and so many more. The Sun's right there in that tradition.

  10. Dale: Your statement, "I agree as long as the opinion writers are clearly labeled and the news reporters report the whole truth" was on point. The first part, relating to opinion or editorial writers surely goes without saying, as do "analysis" articles, which are labeled such in the New York Times. However, I also think you put some reporters, at least, at an almost impossible standard: While most reporters try to report the "whole truth," stories are often such that they are unable to for whatever reason, so they've got to "go with what they've got.(Properly sourced and verified, of course.) At those times, good reporters find the news on a particular matter dripping out, just a little at a time and often those are negative stories. That sort of "Chinese Water Torture" or "Death by a thousand cuts," almost always bodes ill for the subject. I always advise, quite forcefully in fact, that our clients get all the story out in one day, especially in a crisis or negative situation. The last thing I was is a "second day" story in those cases.

  11. Private ownership of major media has caused a basic distrust in the spin on what is being reported. It's pretty well known that anyone with a search button can access the news (in English) from any country and every city in the US. The NY Times (Rupert Murdoch) is soon going to charge for on line reading. In our present economy, this will cause Americans to read news from another source in the country, but it will also likely have the effect of driving readers to other countries major news sources, where the spin is not so friendly, or as pleasant. The handling of the "Wikileaks" is an example of a major failure in the news community. How could so many reporters and politicians hide these reports? The handling of the "spin" on the aftermath, remains interesting.