Sunday, March 13, 2011 | 3 a.m.
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.