By Elizabeth Jensen
Local television news has just come through two years of wrenching recession-driven changes and cutbacks that have left smaller staffs doing more work. Despite that, the jury of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards found that strong reporting in local communities continues to be done.
Of 14 awards being handed out this year — one more than last year — six will go to local television news programs. That is the most in more than two decades, and double last year’s three.
For the second year, “the local entries in particular were unusually strong,” said Abi Wright, the awards program’s director, adding that “the jury left with renewed confidence in the state of local television.”
Among networks, CBS News will take home two awards, for political and economic reporting. PBS programs won two honors, as well, and an HBO documentary was also singled out. NPR and American RadioWorks won radio awards. And, although the program has traditionally honored excellence in broadcast journalism, for the first time a duPont Award is being given for a Web-based production, and it will go to the multimedia production studio MediaStorm for its look at the legacy of children born out of rape in Rwanda.
The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued to be a topic for award-winning news coverage, as in past years. American RadioWorks’ winning documentary examined one legacy of U.S. detainee abuse in Iraq, while HBO’s “The Recruiter” looked at how the U.S. Army gets enlistees, and PBS’ “Frontline/WORLD” explored the lives of children growing up in Pakistan under the influence of the Taliban.
The 2008 U.S. presidential election was the subject of two winning entries, including “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric’s already much-acclaimed interviews of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and NPR’s series of in-depth voter discussions on the role that race played in the election.
The remaining programs to receive awards varied widely in their subject matter, from the effect of the recession on children to a judge grappling with decades-old human rights abuses in Chile, post-Hurricane Katrina government corruption and illegal immigrants doing work on dairy farms in Vermont, among others.
Programs that aired in the United States between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, were eligible for consideration. The winners will be honored in an evening ceremony, hosted by PBS’ Gwen Ifill, on Jan. 21 at Columbia University. NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel will present the Silver Batons.
The York Project: Race and the 2008 Vote
NPR, Michele Norris & Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep, Michele Norris, reporters; Brendan Banazsak, Heidi Glenn, Neva Grant, Erin Killian, producers; Susan Feeney, Maria Godoy, Coburn Dukehart, editors; Lindsay Totty, production assistant; Ivan Burketh, Josh Rogosin, broadcast/recording technicians; Nelson Hsu, senior interactive designer; Madhulika Sikka, Christopher Turpin, executive producers
Steve Inskeep of “Morning Edition” and Michele Norris of “All Things Considered” convened a diverse group of Pennsylvania voters for a series of candid, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the role of race in the 2008 election. Although the topic had been discussed in ongoing coverage, Norris said, she had the feeling that people were “dancing around it,” and “I sensed that if we gave people more time and gave people a comfort zone we could get to a really interesting place.” In addition to a cozy setting, she said she insisted that “food had to be involved” to get participants to loosen up. “We thought we were going to have to pull teeth,” she said, but the conversations took off within five minutes of the first meeting. The conversations were so revealing, she said, that NPR hopes to be able to re-create the project around other issues, including, possibly, immigration.
WSVN-TV, Miami, Carmel Cafiero & Anthony Pineda
Carmel Cafiero, reporter; Anthony Pineda, producer, photography
Hours and hours of undercover work by reporter Carmel Cafiero and photographer Anthony Pineda led to this five-part series of reports that, Cafiero said, “put a picture and faces” to the pain clinics where doctors dispensed addictive narcotics to all comers in a form of “legalized drug dealing” that wreaked havoc on communities far from South Florida as well as locally. Advocates had attempted for years to shut the clinics down, and the reports finally helped push through a prescription drug monitoring bill that will eventually track who is writing the prescriptions and who is getting them. “It was nice for a chance to do something that affected change, that will help people in the long run,” said first-time duPont winner Cafiero, who has been at the station, with just an 18-month stint elsewhere, since 1973 (when it was known as WCKT). She and Pineda have worked together on investigative reports since 1991.
The Judge and the General, on PBS
POV, Elizabeth Farnsworth & Patricio Lanfranco
Elizabeth Farnsworth, Patricio Lanfranco, producers, directors; Blair Gershkow, editor; Andrés Cediel, co-producer; Rob Weiss, coordinating producer; María José Calderón, assistant producer; Barbara Cohen, composer; Amanda Beck, Lily Koppenberger, production assistants; Richard Pearce, executive producer
This profile followed conservative Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán’s transformation beginning in 1998 as he investigated human rights abuses in Chile during the era of Gen. Augusto Pinochet — whom he once supported — and his eventual decision to prosecute him. Elizabeth Farnsworth, a former PBS “NewsHour” senior correspondent, has covered Chile off and on since working as an assistant on a film there in 1970. She and Patricio Lanfranco, a Chilean filmmaker and news producer who did occasional work for “The NewsHour,” spent years tracking the judge and what he called his descent into “the abyss” of the country’s past, continuing on despite considerable challenges raising the funds that went for, among other things, acquiring the expensive archival footage that the duPont judges found compelling. Amnesty International has used the film to encourage dialogue about state-sponsored terror. Farnsworth speculated that audiences embraced the film because the filmmakers didn’t tell the story “just from the left point of view.”
Foreigners on the Farm
WCAX-TV, Vermont, and Kristin Carlson
Kristin Carlson, reporter; Kristin Kelly, producer; Joe Carroll, editor, photographer; Marselis Parsons, Anson Tebbetts, news directors
For her three-part investigation into how Vermont dairy farmers were secretly hiring illegal migrant workers in order to stay in business, senior political reporter Kristin Carlson, a native Vermonter working at a locally owned station where serious journalism is a priority, spent nearly a year talking to one of the farmers before they went before the camera. It was a story she said she had long wanted to tell — other local news outlets had looked at the issue with a great deal of anonymity — but it took time to get farmers and illegal workers to make the decision to open up publicly, possibly exposing themselves to prosecution. (Indeed, she said, her main subject was subpoenaed after her report, but not charged.) Getting the story, she said, is “testament to the fact that this farmer wanted to tell the truth. It just took finding the right farmer to unlock the story.”
Under Fire: Discrimination and Corruption in the Texas N
KHOU-TV, Houston & Mark Greenblatt
Matt Greenblatt, reporter; Chris Henao, producer; Keith Tomshe, editor, photographer; David Raziq, executive producer; Keith Connors, news director
This series of more than a dozen reports over two years started with a “phone call from an upset mom” who had heard about blatant hostility and discrimination against women in the male-dominated Texas National Guard. Then, like a thread unraveling, the team made an open records request to follow up on initial reports and the story turned into an investigation into cover-up and financial misdoing at the very highest ranks, said reporter Mark Greenblatt. “It grew and grew, and the more we reported, the more people became comfortable talking to us,” he said. The episodic reports were later compiled into an hourlong special that had even more impact, said David Raziq, executive producer. The investigation, which led to new legislation and the removal from power of three commanding generals and a separate base commander, earns the fourth duPont award for the investigative unit.
The Sarah Palin Interviews
CBS News & Katie Couric
Katie Couric, reporter; Matt Lombardi, Jennifer Yuille, producers; Lori Beecher, coordinating producer; Brian Goldsmith, associate producer; Rick Kaplan, executive producer
Many news organizations and anchors had interviews with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, but Katie Couric’s, with its “nimble questioning and even tone” had the greatest impact on the presidential campaign, the duPont judges found. “Every once in awhile an interview seems to be so important that it’s a real game-changer,” said Sean McManus, president of both CBS News and Sports. Couric, he said, “really did manage to ask the right questions and elicit some very interesting responses that I think really did give people a lot of insight into the vice presidential candidate.” Palin in her recent book called the questions unfair, but McManus said he’s looked back at every one and didn’t find a single one that was out of line. “It’s one of the reasons we hired Katie, because she’s such an outstanding interviewer,” he said. “She has an uncanny ability to ask that question at the right time.”
CBS Reports: Children of the Recession
Katie Couric, reporter; Dr. Jennifer Ashton, Kelly Cobiella, Seth Doane, Sandra Hughes, Anthony Mason, Byron Pitts, Maggie Rodriguez, correspondents; Betty Chin, Wendy Krantz , Matt Lombardi, Nichole Marks, John Mondello, Kristin Muller, Mary Raffalli, Karen Raffensberger, Robin Skeete, Lisa Weiss, producers; Jerry Cipriano, writer; Anthony Batson, Gavin Boyle, Katie Boyle, Chris Hulme, Estelle Popkin, senior producers; Rick Kaplan, Rand Morrison, Zev Shalev, Patricia Shevlin, executive producers
CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus was meeting with a Detroit doctor who wanted CBS to cover his mobile hospital serving low-income children when he had the insight that maybe the topic was bigger. So McManus sat down with some of his staff members and one story was soon a divisionwide effort — from the “CBS Evening News” to radio and the Internet — to look at the impact of the economic crisis on children. Everyone was covering the bankers and the job losses, McManus said, but few were following the children who might “be affected their entire lives.” The series, a partnership with USA Today, revived the prestigious “CBS Reports” documentary brand. In the past, McManus said, the industry could do long-form documentaries in prime time, something that isn’t economically feasible today. But, he said, the recession reports “were a big enough initiative” to deserve the title, and the new model will continue to be replicated from time to time for other topics.
HBO & Edet Belzberg
Edet Belzberg, director, producer; Alan Oxman, producer; Adam Bolt, co-producer; Chad Beck, Adam Bolt, editors; Edet Belzberg, Liz Dory, Rossana Rizzo, cinematography; Derrick Hodge, composer. Nancy Abraham, senior producer; Sheila Nevins, executive producer
The regularly appearing box in The New York Times listing the names, ages and hometowns of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq prompted director Edet Belzberg — a MacArthur “Genius” award recipient whose first film followed Romanian street children — to want to know more about those giving their lives for the country, she said, noting, “I felt a complete disconnect between what was going on and what I was experiencing.” As she dug deeper, a story in the Army Times about a soldier who won an award for his recruitment efforts led her, in 2004, to her subject, whom she eventually filmed in his day-to-day efforts to enlist new soldiers. The story, told without political point of view, also followed four teenage recruits through basic training. The film, which aired on HBO, is now being shown in schools where students continue to be recruited, she said, calling that the work’s “most important impact.”
Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, on PBS
WGBH, Boston, FRONTLINE/World, Dan Edge & Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Dan Edge, producer, director, cameraman, composer; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, reporter, producer; Julia Barron, executive producer for October Films; Alex Archer, editor; Ken Dornstein, senior producer; Fazeelat Aslam, Asad Faruqi, associate producers; Justine Faram, production manager; David Fanning, executive producer
Reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her colleagues chose to tell the story of Pakistan through the eyes of children, because their experiences now will shape the country for at least a generation in the future, she said. They also thought children would be more relatable for viewers. “It’s very important to tell the story through a medium that people can relate to, so people are no longer ‘the other,’ ” she said. Her work has often focused on children, and earning their trust, she said, “is a long process. Children trust very rarely, especially with strangers.” She said it helped that she spoke the language and is a Muslim. She and director and cameraman Dan Edge spent days getting children in remote parts of the country to open up about their desires to go to school or to become suicide bombers, compiling what the duPont jurors deemed “a stunningly bleak portrait.”
33 Minutes to 34 Right
KMGH-TV, Denver & Tony Kovaleski
Tony Kovaleski, reporter; Tom Burke, Arthur Kane, producers; Jason Foster, photojournalist; Byron Grandy, general manager; Jeff Harris, news director; Tom Burke, Arthur Kane, Tony Kovaleski, executive producers
KMGH’s report into the exceedingly slow ambulance response times at Denver International Airport, the country’s fourth busiest, began when a businessman died waiting for care. When six months later there was a plane crash at the airport, a public records request turned up information that it took 33 minutes for the first ambulance to show up. Reporter Tony Kovaleski and his colleagues had to face down the local hospital, which complained to station management that the report was inaccurate, but the team had the official reports to back it up, Kovaleski said. The series and a subsequent half-hour special helped prompt major changes, including a new hospital policy that sends ambulances to the airport automatically when there is an alert. And the airport now has a dedicated ambulance on site; Kovaleski said a paramedic recently told the team that that had likely saved six lives.
General Sessions Court
WTVF-TV, Nashville & Phil Williams
Phil Williams, reporter; Bryan Staples, producer, photojournalist; Kevin Wisniews
ki, producer; Sandy Boonstra, news director
This series of reports on nepotism, ticket-fixing and other corruption in the local court system from veteran investigative reporter Phil Williams and the WTVF investigative team grew from “having been in the community. People would mention tidbits about things they were hearing about the judges,” said Williams, and eventually the collection of tidbits convinced the team it was worth digging deeper. The challenge, Williams said, was finding the initial time “to do the surveillance,” which had to wait until a slow month. The followups, he said, were database driven, which was also time-consuming. But the impact of the yearlong investigation was considerable, with two judges receiving private reprimands, and a third facing an ethics trial in April. The powers of special judges have been limited and new procedures have been put in place. For the duPont judges, the reports “performed a valuable public service.”
What Killed Sergeant Gray?
American RadioWorks, Michael Montgomery & Joshua E. S. Phillips
Michael Montgomery, Joshua E. S. Phillips, producers; Catherine Winter, editor
Joshua Phillips was working on a book (“None of Us Were Like this Before,” out in April) on U.S. torture and detainee abuse when a combat medic he was interviewing mentioned a colleague, Sgt. Adam Gray, who had died from an overdose. Over three years, Phillips said he and his eventual collaborator, Michael Montgomery, tracked down and gained the trust of a dozen members of the sergeant’s unit and got them to open up for a one-hour radio documentary about how they abused prisoners in Iraq, practices they said were sanctioned by superiors, and the effect that had had on them. Despite being skittish about eventual prosecution (which hasn’t happened) they wanted to talk, Phillips speculated, to help Gray’s mother “make sense of this experience” and because some of them “were really bitter about their experiences.” They were proud to be soldiers, he said, but also upset that “then this happened and it irreparably damaged us.”
MediaStorm & Jonathan Torgovnik
Jonathan Torgovnik, photography and interviews; Chad A. Stevens, producer; Jules Shell, on-location video; Bob Sacha, Chad A. Stevens, studio video; Pamela Chen, Sherman Jia, composers; Tim Klimowicz, graphics; Brian Storm, executive producer
In early 2006, Jonathan Torgovnik was on assignment for Newsweek in East Africa covering HIV and AIDS when during a stop in Rwanda he sat in on “the most horrific interview” of his career, as a woman revealed how her family had been killed before her during the 1994 genocide and she had been repeatedly raped. She mentioned in passing the baby that resulted from the rape, and when Torgovnik got home “it was haunting me,” he said. He returned on his own to track down other isolated and stigmatized women and their children — they are estimated to number 20,000 — eventually linking up with Web site MediaStorm to “provide a space for their voices to be heard.” For the first time in his career, he said, he also went beyond reporting, and launched “FoundationRwanda.org” that has raised more than $700,000 to support secondary education for the children.
NOAH Housing Program Investigation
WWL-TV, New Orleans
Lee Zurik, reporter; Karen Gadbois, contributor, researcher; Tom Moore, Bob Parkinson, photography; Dominic Massa, Chris Slaughter, executive producers
A tip from a community activist led to WWL-TV’s 50-part investigation into post-Hurricane Katrina corruption in a government program that was meant to help poor and elderly residents with housing renovation but may have instead funneled money to contractors who never did the work, anchor and reporter Lee Zurik told TVWeek last spring, when the series won a Peabody award. Ignoring pressure from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to stop reporting, the team also turned up evidence that contractors working for the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program, or NOAH, had ties to the agency’s head and a relative of the mayor’s. The reports triggered investigations by the FBI, the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development, the New Orleans Inspector General and a federal grand jury, which are ongoing, said Dominic Massa, WWL’s executive producer for special projects. Zurik has since left WWL for rival WVUE-TV, where he won’t be on the air until spring.