In DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE, Deborah Nelson, editor at the Los Angeles Times investigative unit, based in Washington D.C., worked with Times reporters Chuck Neubauer and Ken Silverstein on a series of stories about senators and congressmen who use their influence to benefit the businesses of their families. Nelson now heads the investigative department at the University of Maryland School of Journalism.
What story (or stories) have you worked on since filming wrapped on DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE?
I co-authored a series of stories with Nick Turse, a freelancer, in August on declassified Army war crimes files from the Vietnam War. You can see them at: www.latimes.com/vietnam.
What do you think of the present and future of independent journalism?
I tend to be an optimist. After decades of consolidation and cost-squeezing, maybe more mega-media corporations will collapse under the weight of Wall Street’s demands, and we’ll start all over again with many small, independently owned outlets. The Internet also provides an important, emerging outlet for independent journalism. The challenge will be to find ways to distinguish and support responsible, truly independent journalism websites from those that deal in gossip and partisan rhetoric.
How has technology influenced your job?
The Internet and World Wide Web, which didn’t exist in their current form when I started my career, have had a profound influence. On the reporting end, I can find more information faster about government and business. On the publishing end, my stories are carried to a global audience. E-mail has allowed me to sneak past guards and secretaries and enter the inner offices of otherwise elusive news subjects. Databases and spreadsheets have helped make sense out of mountains of information that I wouldn’t have been able to scale otherwise.
How do you find your stories?
Many come from tips. The Pulitzer project came from a an anonymous tip—directing me to a needy reservation where a 5,300-square-foot house was being built for the tribal housing director through a low-income housing program with HUD’s knowledge. That led to an investigation that uncovered a national problem in the way the agency and tribes ran the program. In other cases, something I’ve seen or read raised questions in my mind, and I found a story in pursuit of the answer. A piece of land in Chicago, an old buried dump, spontaneously combusted one day. The daily story said it wasn’t on the Superfund list. I wondered why a site that dangerous couldn’t make the cut. That launched a project on old toxic waste dumps in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. While looking at property ownership records for that series, I noticed one of the worst dumps had been donated to a church, which led to the Slum Brokers series.
Of all the stories you have covered, which has been most important, or the one you feel most proud of?
That’s like asking me what child I like best. It’s really hard to choose. I’ve done a couple dozen investigative series over my career, and I really put my journalistic heart and soul into each one of them.
Some of my favorites, in chronological order:
Chemicals in the Workplace: A series on toxic conditions at factories in a suburban industrial park that killed one worker and sickened more than 100 others. With Rena Cohen at The Daily Herald, Arlington Heights, IL, in 1983. (The corporate executives of one company, Film Recovery, were charged with murder and convicted, although their convictions were overturned on appeal five years later.)
The Slum Brokers: a series on real estate investors who used churches, nonprofits and phony names to evade liability for deteriorating buildings and toxic dumps, destroying entire city blocks over two decades. With Tom Brune (my husband) at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1990.
From Deregulation to Disgrace: a series on waste, fraud and abuse in HUD's Indian housing program. With Eric Nalder and Alex Tizon at the Seattle Times in 1996. (Won the 1997 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting.)
Gene Therapy: a running series of articles on a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania that killed teenager Jesse Gelsinger. With Rick Weiss at The Washington Post in 1999.
Vietnam—The War Crimes Files: a series based on declassified Army war crimes records from a once-secret, assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s, that shows confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known. With Nick Turse at the Los Angeles Times in 2006.
But no sooner had I finished that list than I thought of a half-dozen others that were my favorites too—on Harvard’s genetic research in rural China, federal forests in the West, toxic waste dumps in Chicago, the juvenile court system in Cook County, police brutality, domestic violence court…
You've left the Los Angeles Times to head a new investigative department at the University of Maryland School of Journalism. Are there particular challenges that today's investigative journalism students will face as professionals?
Whether they are writing for newspapers, television or Web sites, they will face the same challenges my generation and the ones before us faced—cutting through secrecy and spin on the outside and resisting bottom line pressures on the inside to make sure the public gets the real story of what’s happening in their world.
Read more by and about Deborah Nelson and her work:
The Pulitzer Prize: The Seattle Times: From Deregulation to Disgrace
University of Maryland: Pulitzer-Winning Investigations Editor Joins College, Will Lead Innovative Carnegie Program
Read about the other journalists featured in the film >>