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David vs. Goliath? Center for Public Interest Responds to ABC News: Hey, Quit Trying to Horn In on Our Pulitzer Prize TVWeek; Poynter Institute; The Center for Public Integrity

According to the website of the Pulitzer Prizes, this year's Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting was "awarded to Chris Hamby of The Center for Public Integrity, Washington, D.C., for his reports on how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts."

Part of that investigative report was aired by ABC News during a segment on "Nightline." A day after the Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday, April 14, 2014, current "ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent a four-page letter to WIlliam Buzenberg, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, asking CPI to share credit for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting awarded to CPI’s Chris Hamby this week," reports Al Tompkins at Poynter.org.

The story adds, " 'You seem to be determined that ABC was simply a megaphone for Chris Hamby’s work,' Sherwood wrote. Sherwood said ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross and producer Matt Mosk should 'share' in the Pulitzer and Sherwood says he intends to take the matter up with the Pulitzer board."

Furthermore, according to the article, "Sherwood says the partnership [between CPI and ABC News on the investigation] began October 31, 2012 and ABC said it had promises from CPI that it would be a 'true partnership.'  Sherwood wrote to Buzenberg: 'In your submission to the Pulitzer committee, you omitted the names of ABC News reporters and sought to parse and diminish their contributions, even though their bylines appropriately appear on four of the eight articles submitted by the Center to the committee. (Surprisingly, Chris Hamby’s byline appears in bold face type in the Pulitzer submissions, although that was not the case when the articles actually appeared online.)'"

Yesterday, April 16, 2014, CPI posted on its website Buzenberg's response to Sherwood's letter. Buzenberg has given TVWeek permission to reprint his response, in full. The lines in BOLD were done that way in the original.

Dear Ben,

Thank you for your letter of last night regarding the black lung investigation, which was also sent to our full Board of Directors and the news media. I have to assume this is all part of an unfortunate PR campaign by ABC News.

It is curious that you repeatedly reference dictionary definitions of “integrity” in an apparent attempt to play off the Center’s name and imply hypocrisy. In fact, it is the behavior of ABC that should give rise to questions about honesty and moral uprightness.

Though you have framed the issue as the Center seeking to diminish ABC’s contributions, the reality is quite the opposite: ABC is seeking to take credit for a large body of work that it did not produce. These are the facts, as confirmed under the very strict Pulitzer Prize rules by the Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler again just yesterday:


Bill: I've reviewed the entry again. It is overwhelmingly Hamby's work and was entered by the center in conformance with our rules on limited partnerships. The rules expressly state that the eligible entity must do the preponderance of the work; specific elements produced by the ineligible entity (such as ABC video) cannot be entered; and if there is a prize it will go ONLY to the eligible organization that submitted the work. 

So, based on the entry, the prize to the Hamby alone is warranted. 
Best, SG

 

The truth is that ABC did not join the investigation until part-way through, it focused on only one part of a multi-part series, and its reporting was sporadic and almost entirely geared toward the needs of television, not original content for the print series.

We value these sorts of partnerships and were happy to work with ABC. But let’s be honest about the contributions of each party. Chris Hamby lived and breathed this investigation almost exclusively for a year. ABC dropped in periodically over the course of a few months between work on many other stories.

Emails and drafts leading up to the airdate of ABC’s “Nightline” segment show that ABC depended to a remarkable degree on Chris’ access to sources, documents and data and his expertise on complex issues — all of which repeatedly saved ABC from making embarrassing factual errors in broadcast segments and online stories.

The Center is prepared to show in great detail how little ABC’s Brian Ross and Matt Mosk understood about even the most fundamental concepts and key facts and how they repeatedly turned to Chris to advise them or, in some instances, to do their work for them.

Draft scripts leading up to the airdate of the “Nightline” segment show serious factual inaccuracies by ABC and a continued lack of understanding of basic, key concepts. If not for Chris’ intervention, upon finally being shown the scripts, ABC would have found itself facing withering, legitimate criticism.

ABC has never acknowledged its extraordinary reliance on Chris for even the most basic information about this highly technical and complex story. Chris, of course, has never complained to ABC about this, despite repeated statements by ABC on air, online and in press releases that erroneously made it appear as if ABC was the driving force behind this project.

It is incredibly insulting for ABC to not only fail to acknowledge Chris’ indispensable work solely for ABC’s benefit, but to go even further and suggest that the opposite is true — that the Center is downplaying ABC’s work. A mountain of evidence shows this is not true.

I urge you to go to your reporters and engage in serious self-examination. I think your honest appraisal can reach no conclusion aside from this: At every step of the way, ABC turned to Chris for his longstanding connections to key sources in the coal mining community, his expertise in complex legal and medical issues and his vast trove of evidence, painstakingly gathered over a long period of time.

Now that the series has won high praise, however, ABC seems to have changed its tune. Suddenly, both parties contributed equally, in ABC’s telling.

In other words, I agree with your proposal: Let’s show some integrity.

The partnership did not begin on October 31, 2012.

Regardless of when former Center executive editor Ellen Weiss contacted ABC about the possibility of a partnership, ABC did not commit to doing a story — nor did it begin reporting in earnest — until much later. As I mentioned in my previous note, it was not until after an email from Chris to Matt detailing his experience visiting a coal-company doctor that Matt responded in a March 8, 2013, email, “Brian wants to do this.” Even after this, there were long stretches of time in which ABC did not participate in the investigation because it was pursuing other stories.

The idea to investigate the role of doctors was not first proposed by ABC.

ABC’s involvement in the months following the October 2012 contact involved Matt attending occasional background lunches set up by Chris with sources Chris already had spoken with repeatedly. Indeed, the January 13, 2013, email you quote is after just such a meeting. Matt’s email cites the former administrative law judge’s suspicion of doctors who regularly appeared on behalf of coal companies. This may have been novel to Matt at the time, but it certainly was not to Chris. He already had spoken with this former judge and numerous other sources about the role doctors played in the system and the difficulty in addressing their opinions, and he already was investigating specific doctors.

This was not, as you put it, a “new way forward” proposed by ABC, and Chris’ investigation was not limited merely to the involvement of lawyers. By this point, he already had looked into a large number of cases, which had led him to look more closely at specific doctors.

The purported impetus for this — “a number of leads were not panning out” — should really be stated this way: A number of leads were not panning out for television. The key problem for ABC was that the family members of Gary Fox did not want to appear on camera, making the legal story a challenge from a visual perspective. Chris, however, already had interviewed the members of the Fox family and periodically communicated with them.

ABC acts as if they discovered Dr. Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins and obtained a key interview that the Center had tried unsuccessfully to arrange — both contentions that are completely false.

Chris identified Dr. Wheeler of Johns Hopkins as a key figure by examining thousands of legal decisions and speaking with countless sources. He first noted the potential newsworthiness of the involvement of Johns Hopkins. And he alone built the database that proved crucial evidence regarding Dr. Wheeler’s readings.

After Chris and Matt discussed Dr. Wheeler, Matt suggested that ABC approach Johns Hopkins. Chris agreed because of the greater level of planning needed for a television interview, rather than act as a middle man as technical arrangements were made.

Chris had not previously approached Johns Hopkins. But for his accommodation of ABC’s particular needs, he would have. ABC seems to assume that this interview never would have happened without its involvement. That is simply not true.

Chris spent at least five hours preparing Brian for the TV interview, providing him with documents, data and medical literature and coaching him on medical technicalities.

Most of the reporting that ABC did was repetitive or was undertaken solely for television purposes — and was not used in the print stories.

You write that Brian and Matt “began to do significant reporting on the medical issue.” Aside from the interview with Dr. Wheeler (discussed above), everything you mention either was simply re-interviewing on camera people who Chris already had interviewed, or gathering pieces that ABC felt it needed for television but that was not used in any of the print stories.

You mention ABC “sending a producer into West Virginia medical exams undercover.” This occurred two months after Chris had attended exams by the same doctor at the same hospital (which is in Virginia, by the way) and told ABC what they could expect if they decided to try to visit. Chris wrote a sidebar based solely on his own experience attending the exams, and nothing from ABC’s visit appeared in any of the print stories.

The other reporting you say Brian and Matt did was “conducting interviews with medical experts around the country.” These experts, however, were either people Chris already had interviewed or people ABC felt it needed for the television segment. Material from ABC’s interviews did not appear in the print stories.

A good example is Dr. John E. Parker, a former government official who now works at the West Virginia University hospital. Chris obtained permission from retired miner Steve Day to receive copies of his X-rays and CT scans; Chris contacted Dr. Parker to see if he would be willing to interpret the films; and the report Dr. Parker provided was addressed only to Chris. ABC interviewed Dr. Parker, but Chris did not use any of the ABC material, instead relying on the report addressed to him and his talks with Dr. Parker.

You again mention that Brian and Matt have bylines on four stories. I will reiterate what I wrote you previously:

The second installment in the series — “Johns Hopkins medical unit rarely finds black lung, helping coal industry defeat miners' claims” — was written entirely by Chris Hamby. He went through editing with Center editors and then shared the story with ABC. Aside from minor wording changes suggested by lawyers for ABC, there were no changes to the story. This is documented in emails and saved drafts of the story. Brian and Matt did significant reporting; however, much of that was to meet the needs of a TV segment and did not end up in the Center’s print story. The amount of reporting from them that made it into the story typically would warrant a credit line at the end. At ABC’s strong request, however, we agreed to place the names of Brian and Matt in the byline field, even though this report was fully reported and written by Chris. To claim for ABC that they wrote this piece now is a pure fabrication.

To put this more simply: The contributions of Brian and Matt do not come close to warranting a byline. We nonetheless inserted their names in the byline fields at ABC’s insistence because we hoped to foster a sense of trust and partnership. It is clear now that ABC’s intent all along was simply to attach their names more prominently to this story for use later in precisely the way you now are: as a weapon to wield in an attempt to claim undue credit.

And again, the remaining three articles with the bylines of Brian and Matt were follow-up stories, not part of the original three-part series.

The factual assertions in the Pulitzer submission are the same as those made in every other award submission; your issue is with the Pulitzer rules.

Contrary to your characterization of the entries, the factual statements about who did what are the same across the many awards entries submitted by the Center. The difference lies in the specific requirements of the contests.

It makes no sense to spend limited space discussing something that has no bearing on the particular contest. Of course, we appreciate the contributions ABC made, but the unique contributions of ABC were almost exclusively for the benefit of the production of television segments. We believe ABC did great work on the television segments, which is why we submitted them in contests that allowed such joint submissions and happily shared numerous other honors with ABC. But, as we’ve said, television simply cannot be entered in the Pulitzers. The rules are very clear and have been confirmed again by the Pulitzer Administrator.

We have been thrilled at the success of this project and happy to share in the accolades with ABC. But we find it very disturbing that ABC is now trying to grab credit for work it did not do.

You question our integrity and pose a question of us: “[D]o you really believe that Hamby and CPI would have been recognized with this honor without the contributions of ABC News?” I would contend that the answer is, “Absolutely, Yes.” And further, I will say with near certainty, that ABC would not have received any of the accolades it has shared with us, without the Center’s deep investigative work. In short, without The Center for Public Integrity, this project would not exist. ABC would not have anything to show.

This project grew out of previous reporting Chris had done on black lung, and he has become a knowledgeable authority on the subject, devoting years of his life to understanding the disease and the benefits system and bringing these powerful stories to light.

I ask you to gather your team; look Matt, Brian and everyone else in the eye and ask them to describe to you exactly what they did that was so crucial beyond producing fine TV segments. Ask them to point you to where in the 25,000 words comprising the original three-part series they made unique contributions.

In the wake of this investigation, Chris has been contacted by at least three government agencies and at least five congressional staffers seeking more information. The reason for this is simple: They all recognize that, although the television segments were well done, the print series is the definitive account that provides the hard and comprehensive evidence, and Chris’ knowledge of these complex but important facts is obvious.

We hope that you will dispassionately examine these facts and, as you have suggested we do, rely on your integrity.

With all good wishes,

Bill

William E. Buzenberg
Executive Director
The Center for Public Integrity