Our Exposé episode called As Likely As Not is one of our strongest, not least because of how it evolved as we were working on it. It began as a story about sick U.S. nuclear workers being denied benefits they deserved. In the course of shooting it became a tragic story about one of those workers passing away before he and his family were fully compensated for his illness. Then, just as we were finishing the edit, without our ever having planned or imagined it, the story also became about a woman losing her job.
That woman is Laura Frank, an investigative reporter until recently employed by Denver's Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky went under on February 27, 2009, after having published newspapers in Colorado since 1859. Laura Frank's investigation for the Rocky, DEADLY DENIAL, became the basis for our show. Now we have commissioned her to do an Exposé original report, and it is a timely one indeed: an investigation into what some are concerned is the imminent demise of investigative journalism itself. It's a three-parter, and we're proud to present it exclusively on our site. She calls it The Withering Watchdog.
Exposé: America's Investigative Reports
The Withering Watchdog, Part Two
by Laura Frank
Up to 35 million American homes contain a toxic substance that could harm the families who live there − even kill them.
The U.S. government recently had a prime opportunity to warn Americans about the danger. But it didn't.
Andrew Schneider − a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter − has the story. But Schneider's newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, shut down in March, leaving Schneider out of a job. The website that still bears the Post-Intelligencer name does no in-depth, investigative reporting.
Now Schneider is not sure how he will get the story out to the public.
"All I want is for the public to know there's a danger," Schneider said.
An Exposé original investigation found that across America, important stories are going untold. The sheer number and urgency of the untold stories alone constitutes a crisis in American journalism. But the crisis goes deeper than that.
As Exposé reported in Part 1 of The Withering Watchdog, the journalism industry's own behavior has left many news outlets so weak they might not be able to recover.
The crisis is leaving Americans in the dark about issues that could affect how they protect their health, care for their families, govern themselves and maintain their livelihoods.
One of every five journalists working in America at the start of the decade has since been laid off or taken a buyout. The work investigative reporters do is often the first to be cut. That's because it's expensive, controversial and time-consuming.
But it also is keenly important.
Look at what investigative reporting has done for America, says Pulitzer Prize-winner Manny Garcia, Executive Editor of the Miami Herald's Spanish-language daily, El Nuevo Herald. He oversees investigative reporting at both publications.
And more than just shining a light, the investigative reporting has brought changes − including some that have likely saved lives. Garcia noted that in the examples he gave, investigative reporting − and the public's reaction to it − forced the company that made faulty 737 jetliner rudders to fix them, pressured companies to remove chemicals from baby bottles, helped change voters' rights laws and forced out politicians doing real-estate favors for friends and family.
In Garcia's own case, his work helped uncover a massive housing scandal in Miami in which government officials and business leaders were taking money meant for the poor.
"I was born in Cuba," Garcia said. "There's no free speech or free press there. Here, you can change things."
But, Garcia points out, the survival of investigative reporting is not guaranteed − even in America:
"It's like breathing. You take it for granted until you don't have it − until there is shortness of breath."
Sometimes the shortness of breath is literal. It was one of the first symptoms to strike residents in the tiny Montana mining town of Libby. For more than 80 years, the nearby mines on Zonolite Mountain spewed out deadly dust laced with tiny asbestos fibers.
More than 200 residents have died of asbestos-related disease and a thousand more are sick in the valley of 12,000 residents below the mountain.
And that brings us back to Andrew Schneider. If you've heard the story of Libby, Montana, then you're familiar with Schneider's reporting. Schneider was the first journalist to bring national attention to the ghastly situation there, starting a decade ago as a reporter for the Post-Intelligencer.
Schneider wrote a series of stories that caused
|Reporter Andrew Schneider collects samples to be tested for asbestos from the rim of the old vermiculite mine on Zonolite Mountain, six miles upwind from Libby, Mont. Up to 35 million American homes now contain the contaminated insulation made from vermiculite that came from the mines. Photo provided by Andrew Schneider|
But it took seven more years − and scores more stories by Schneider − before that happened.
On June 17, 2009, the EPA made an unprecedented announcement. It was the first time in the agency's history that pollution at a Superfund site had been declared a public health emergency.
As a result, the federal government is speeding up cleanup and sending $6 million to pay for medical treatment of residents. More money is likely on the way.
Keven McDermott was an EPA regional investigator and later manager in Seattle. She said Schneider's reporting was the key to getting help for the residents of the valley.
"I don't think you would have seen the kind of response you did at Libby had it not been for Andy's reporting," said McDermott, who retired in July from the EPA.
But Schneider says what most Americans don't know about Libby is that they themselves may have a similar danger in their own homes. And the government had planned to warn its citizens, but didn't.
EPA investigators have found that up to 35 million homes contain insulation made with the mineral vermiculite from the W.R. Grace Company mines near Libby.
"Vermiculite from Libby is far more toxic than any other," Schneider says, referring to expert testimony in a recent lawsuit against the company that owned the mines near Libby. "It takes less to sicken, and kills more quickly."
According to documents Schneider obtained, the federal government's declaration of a public health emergency in Libby was only one part of what officials said needed to be done.
The other part was a massive plan to warn the American people about the dangers in their own homes.
The EPA put a warning on its website. But EPA officials wanted to do much more. They wanted to have experts give interviews on the networks' evening news programs to warn people that their attics might be full of dangerous asbestos-laced insulation.
They wanted those experts to make appearances on Good Morning America, the Today Show and other morning talk shows to tell families how they could protect themselves if they did find the contaminated insulation in their homes.
They wanted to put fliers and brochures in Home Depot and ACE Hardware locations around the country, and air months' worth of public service announcements warning homeowners, cable television installers and remodeling contractors to beware.
They wanted to make sure parents didn't let their children play amidst the potentially deadly material.
|Keven McDermott, an investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, inspects the attic of a house near Seattle, looking for asbestos-contaminated insulation. Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr|
Asbestos causes irreparable damage to the lungs. Needle-like fibers pierce the lungs, causing scar tissue to build over the years − even after the exposures stop. Eventually, those who are exposed can develop cancer or become unable to breathe.
"The idea was to let people know about the hazard so they could make their own decisions on whether to seal off their attics, or go to the expense of cleaning them up, but at least so they could keep their kids out of it," Schneider said.
But seven years after it was developed, the plan to warn the public has never been launched.
"I don't know yet," Schneider says. But he's working to find out. He is driven by the haunting notion that children across America are being put at risk of something from which their parents − and their government − could help protect them.
But if and when he finds out, how will the laid off Pulitzer Prize-winner inform the public?
The notion of children at risk is tormenting Roberta Baskin, too.
The longtime investigative reporter for both local and network TV was laid off in 2009 from WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. She got her pink slip the day after she won what is perhaps broadcast journalism's highest honor, a prestigious duPont-Columbia Award, for her investigation of a pediatric dentistry chain that boosted profits by performing painful and unnecessary treatment on children.
But Baskin has another story about children in danger − and now, nowhere to tell it.
"Children are losing their lives or having surgery because they're swallowing a household item − and nobody has connected the dots," Baskin said. Thousands of children across the nation have swallowed button batteries, Baskin said. The dime-sized batteries are found in games and toys, often within childproof compartments. But they're also found in storybooks and greeting cards, with virtually no protection.
The batteries can lodge in the esophagus and cause severe burns − even death. But the problem is often misdiagnosed, leading to worse injury, Baskin said.
Baskin has found families willing to share their stories as a warning to others. But since being laid off, she has not yet found a way to get their story to the public.
"I haven't given up," she said. "I have my sleeves rolled up."
Another reporter, David Gulliver, worries about the vulnerable at the other end of the age spectrum. Before he was laid off in February from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, he had nearly completed a story on how poorly the elderly were being treated in Florida's assisted living facilities.
"A third of our population in Florida is over 65; assisted living is going to factor into a lot of lives at some point," Gulliver said. "People think assisted living is better, cleaner and safer than nursing homes. We found that wasn't the case − even at some places with sterling reputations."
But after Gulliver was laid off, his story was never finished − quashing any impetus for reform his story might have caused. For the elderly in Florida's central Gulf coast − and their families − that means they've missed the chance to get information that could help protect their health and well-being.
"I don't know if the story will ever see the light of day," Gulliver said.
These examples of untold stories are only those stories that some journalist somewhere knows about. What's harder to quantify is the untold stories no journalist knows about.
But there is plenty of evidence those stories exist.
The Columbia Journalism Review, which bills itself as the nation's foremost media monitor, wrote in September 2006 about the media's coverage of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that article, it singled out for praise the investigative reporting of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She quoted a senior advisor talking about problems at the agency that protects Americans' health: "The American people need to be concerned."
The Columbia Journalism Review article commented: "If the American people need to be concerned, the AJC is the only media outlet warning them."
But not any more.
But now only one journalist in the entire country − an Associated Press reporter − is covering the CDC regularly. And not a single one is doing full-time investigative reporting about this key agency.
"Given the reductions in staff in newsrooms across the country, the reality is that stories will go uncovered," Young said. "And as beats are combined or eliminated, it becomes more difficult to know what stories we're missing."
Young, who is currently president of the national Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, arrived at the Atlanta newsroom three years ago. Then the staff numbered 500. Today it is half that.
"I think newsroom leaders everywhere are really grappling with tough choices and trying to focus on covering areas they believe have the greatest local impact," Young said. "There's no way to cover everything we used to cover."
NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders worries about a slippery slope. If news media companies aren't willing to − or can't − spend the money it takes to cover important public issues, the public may be left to rely on information from places that don't adhere to journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness.
"The number of news resources you can fully trust is fading," Sanders said.
Therein lies the irony. In an information age where more news could be delivered to more people in more ways than ever before, there is a crisis of coverage. Who will report the news?
Schneider, in Seattle, has tried to use the internet to get his stories out to the public. He set up his own webpage and blog, and tried to keep right on reporting.
On May 28, Schneider published a story following up on an earlier investigation he had done at the Post-Intelligencer about diacetyl, the lung-damaging chemical that once gave butter flavoring to microwave popcorn and other foods. The food industry had abandoned diacetyl after Schneider's investigation.
But in May, Schneider reported on his blog, ColdTruth.com, that the food industry wouldn't reveal what it uses instead of diacetyl. However, Schneider found that research by government scientists suggested the replacement might be as dangerous as the original.
Three months after he published the story on his website, only one person had commented on it.
Schneider said his viewership is doubling every month. But he compares the numbers − "maybe 6,000 hits on a good day" − with the hundreds of thousands who saw his earlier diacetyl stories in the Post-Intelligencer. The Associated Press had carried that story to scores of other publications, and public outcry led Congress to hold hearings on the dangers. The popcorn companies had reacted almost immediately by pulling diacetyl out of their recipes.
But when Schneider wrote in May that the replacement chemicals appear to be just as dangerous?
"It fell with resounding silence," Schneider said. "Had I done this at the Post-Intelligencer, there's no doubt it would have gotten enormous attention.
"The worst part of all of this is how do you ensure the story gets out?"
For Schneider and many other investigative reporters, the answer for now is: You can't.