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July 02, 2007

Be the next Carl Prine

The PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW wrote up a guide for other journalists planning projects similar to Carl Prine's investigation into the security of chemical plants and railroads. A condensed list of their advice:

1. Get the plans. First, go out and get the Risk Management Plans for every chemical facility in your county. Lawmakers are busy trying to close these documents off from the public, especially journalists. If you don't get them now, they'll be gone, and in the event of a chemical release in your community, you won't be able to tell your readers vital details about the calamity. Records once available to reporters in 2002 are already gone in 2007. Why put yourself at the mercy of corporate flacks and overburdened public agencies for information during a disaster? With the RMPs, you have what the company told the federal government could happen in a "worst case scenario."

2. Try to get into some plants. See if you can find ways to creep into chemical plants, but make sure you check with legal advisors first to see if your state has trespassing laws for walking onto sites. In a chemical facility, you can tell if you are near hazardous materials when tanks, pipes, or machines are marked with HAZMAT signs or an orange windsock.

3. Take photos of everything that isn’t strictly proprietary. Make sure you take pictures documenting your entire trip to the facility, from how you entered the facility to pictures of the tanks themselves. Also, be sure to take notes and write down the names of the officials in charge of safety as they are often listed on the chemical tanks.

4. Cultivate inside sources. Develop relationships with concerned employees within the state and federal government or chemical industry insiders. These sources might be able to supply you with reports or documents that could help your investigation.

5. Know the repercussions of your reporting. Be tough in your reporting, but realize that your investigation might result in employees being fired. When you call security officials and clue them in to your reporting on safety hazards at their facilities, in all likelihood, they will not want to talk to you. You should always call their bosses and let them know what you are reporting on well in advance before the story goes to print.

6. Prepare for the backlash. Be ready to deal with criticism, as many government officials and interest groups might take serious offense to your investigation. But remember to “think like a terrorist” during your reporting. Is a terrorist more likely to talk to public relations people and ask for tours of chemical facilities, or would a terrorist simply walk around to the back of the unfenced site?

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This guide is adapted from the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW's official entry form to the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE) annual awards competition. IRE’s contest recognizes the best in investigative reporting –- by print, broadcast and online media. A friend of this program, IRE has often provided the EXPOSE team with guidance as we produce the program and Web site. It’s a great resource for journalists and would-be journalists. Check out IRE at www.ire.org.

June 27, 2007

Producer's Commentary: Joe Rubin

The second part of "Think Like a Terrorist" premieres online today. Follow Carl Prine as he investigates the security of America's railways, and hear how he responds to critics who say he is "helping the terrorists" by exposing our vulnerabilities.

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The Blog spoke with Joe Rubin, producer of "Think Like a Terrorist", Parts 1 and 2:

What was it like shooting the scenes in Pittsburgh?

So the first day I go there -- I've never been to Pittsburgh in my life -- I show up and the executive editor Frank Craig has me in his office. He's this tough-looking editor ... you know, like the J. Jonah Jameson of the Pittsburgh Trib Review [that's a comic reference -- he's the editor from Spiderman]. He's a smart, smart guy, he's done great foreign reporting in Bosnia ... And he basically said, "If we're going to have TV cameras in here, let's just tell the truth. We have nothing to hide. We can show anything and talk about anything." Anytime I needed anything there, it was incredible ... there was an attitude of transparency at that newspaper. We went in to shoot the printing press at 2 in the morning -- we just wanted to get our couple of shots and go home. And there was this greeting committee. We could have made a whole documentary about printing presses that night. There's a certain kind of innocence about Pittsburgh. People are just genuine there.

What was it like working with Carl Prine?

Carl is complex. I think he had a lot of reservations about the war in Iraq and how it was being prosecuted but he still went. I respect that. I just don't understand it. He's very ethical. He literally won't let you give him an ice cube from your coke. He pays for everything. He won't ever let his journalistic integrity be in question.

He is also incredibly polite. I would say he's an officer and a gentleman, but he was kind of a grunt and a gentleman ... [laughs]. If I have a question, or I'm trying to understand a bill, or a piece of chemical legislation, then the next day in my inbox there will be a flood of emails. One day I swear I got 45 emails from him. He has no sense of time and he might just be a robot because he doesn't need to eat. I'd be like, "Oh man, I need to eat!" and he'd just [keep going]. Even his editors say he has enormous abilities and works harder than everyone else.

Carl takes so seriously the fact that he wants to blend in as if he is a terrorist. He wants to take it to that level. Sitting on the industrial edge of Las Vegas, not wanting to be caught by the cops ... It was weird to be underground with him.

Did he talk about his experience in Iraq during his "stakeouts"?

He talks about it a lot. He would say: "This is like being on an ambush in Iraq or being on patrol in Iraq." So it definitely comes up as a reference point all the time. I think it's fair to say that Carl feels that in some way, somehow, the Iraq war is going to come home to the United States.

But a lot of his feelings about the Iraq war are very personal. I was with him for two weeks and it wasn't until the last day that I actually interviewed him about the Iraq war in a hotel room. My editor felt it was better to talk about the war when he wasn't in the newsroom and when he wasn't at home. Somewhere where he could be free to talk about it. Which I think worked well.

What was the most challenging part of producing the two episodes?

Getting Senator Biden's interview was really a challenge. He's running for president and it was just hard to get his time. I called his campaign manager -- this is no exaggeration -- about twice a day for two months. At least 120 times. Just being polite and persistent. Finally we got the interview and it was pretty incredible -- he referenced Carl Prine's reporting as being important and the way to get this issue in the public light. What I was most struck by was after the camera was off, he kept talking to me for like half an hour. And the after-talk was even more intense than the interview itself.

As a journalist yourself, what's it like producing a story about the process of reporting?

I'm really glad I connected with the Exposé show. I did a pilot for HBO, which didn't make it to the air, but got really close. It was called the Pitch Room. It was all about the behind-the-scenes of journalism. So when I got this call to work on this PBS show I was like: "Yeah. That sounds great."

You know, there's that saying: "The press is the fourth estate." How true is that really when you have Michael Jackson and other stupid superficial stories that people are spending a lot of airtime on? Is it really the fourth estate? But when you look at investigative journalism -- like take the Walter Reed scandal, or the Abramoff scandal -- they are really questioning how democratic we are and uncovering things that lead to fundamental attitude changes on the part of the public and legislative change. So to get to understand how that world works is great.

For the vast majority of the audience -- they don't know this story. This ran in a medium-sized newspaper. So you're telling the story again, but 90 percent of the people haven't heard it yet. And you're serving it up with a dose of personality that makes it even more accessible to people.

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JOE RUBIN has reported from five continents for programs such as ABC's Nightline and PBS´s Frontline World. In 2000, on assignment for Nightline, Rubin immersed himself amongst the then unknown Otpor (Resistance) student movement that went on to oust Serbia's ruthless dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Rubin's other documentaries have ranged from a look at present day Cuba through the prism of vintage car mechanics (Nightline), to a recent investigation for Frontline World looking into the maddening hunt for the notorious Serbian war criminals, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. In 2004 Joe was a Knight Fellow teaching video journalism in El Salvador, Panama and Ecuador. Rubin was also a Pew Fellow in International Journalism in 2001. A versatile reporter, Joe has also written for the New York Times, Mother Jones, CMJ Music Magazine and reported for National Public Radio. Rubin also produced the episode "Nice Work If You Can Get It" for the first season of EXPOSÉ (formerly AIR).

June 26, 2007

Preview: "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 2)"

Tomorrow, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW reporter Carl Prine turns his investigative eye towards America's railroads in "Think Like a Terrorist, Pt. 2." The full episode will be streamed online on the EXPOSÉ website. Watch the preview now.

After returning from his tour of duty in Iraq, Prine saw few reforms in the security of hazardous chemical supplies in the U.S. While the September 11 terrorist attacks led to public outcries over airline security, Prine saw how easily terrorists could deploy explosives on American trains -– trains that travel through the heart of many major U.S. cities. He reasoned that, as they did on 9/11, terrorists might very well use our transportation infrastructure against us.


On the EXPOSÉ Blog we occasionally post viewer comments. Here's a recent selection:

Thanks once again to the irresponsible media for showing the less enlightened how to break into a chemical plant, a water treatment plant, or any location that stores hazardous materials. The fact is that our life in America today depends upon the use of these chemicals and perhaps the media should be reporting on how the government could better keep those who would use this knowledge outside of our borders rather than inside them.
-- Charles Hinley
Many thanks to Mr. Carl Prine for his efforts on keeping America safe for all.
-- Cleber DaSilva
... [Prine] wasn't satisfied with fermenting fear in the U.S. middle states, so then he goes off to participate in a ridiculous war and he thinks he's helping to bring down al qaeda when he's probably just fanning the anger and hatred toward the U.S. from poor people with little recourse. It's as if this man has been brainwashed by every ultra-conservative perspective that clear thinking people have finally begun to question. Now he's apparently returned to the U.S. with self-righteousness over having participated in an ill-conceived war that had nothing to do with 9/11 to find a new vehicle of fear -- the trains! Carl Prine reflects the sort of ignorance that I would expect PBS to not support.
-- Ricardo

And this one from a viewer who contacted Carl Prine directly at the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW:

Hello Mr. Prine,
I just saw an episode of PBS's Exposé that featured your work. I'm sure that you don't do the kind of work you do for the kudos the world might bring, but after finding much of the news business to be lacking in integrity, I am moved to express my gratitude for your work. You are a true hero.
-- Menon Dwarka

>> Check back tomorrow to watch the full episode of "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 2)" and see how Carl Prine responds to his critics.

>> Tomorrow on the EXPOSÉ Blog: A Q&A with producer Joe Rubin.

June 25, 2007

Helping the enemy?

Not everyone was pleased with reporter Carl Prine's investigation into the lack of security at America's chemical facilities -- detailed in Exposé's "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 1)." In fact, after his initial reports were published in the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, he was sharply criticized by several government officials, including the U.S. Attorney General's office, which claimed his reporting "directly aided the enemy" by publicly exposing vulnerable targets. The Pennsylvania Department of Emergency Management went so far as to tell Prine he "might as well send a free subscription to Osama bin Laden, because you're his best friend."
Since 9/11, many journalists have been attacked for revealing information deemed sensitive to national security. When the NEW YORK TIMES reported on a secret operation tracing the financial records of suspected terrorists, the Bush Administration was outraged and the paper was flogged by conservatives.

Some have suggested the resulting clampdown on information and general distrust of dissenting opinions in the media is actually a "war on the press." Others have compared the current hostility towards the press to tensions felt during the Vietnam War.

How do journalists weigh the public's right to know and national security concerns when reporting? The American Journalism Review asked editors at top newspapers this very question. In the AJR article, NEW YORK TIMES Executive Editor Bill Keller says there's a "tacit protocol" for dealing with stories the government deems to be threatening to national security. "If the administration is really serious, somebody fairly senior on their side contacts somebody fairly senior on our side," he says. He also says top editors weigh questions such as: "How fully do the journalists trust their sources? How far do they trust the government officials urging them not to publish? How secret is the secret? Can the story be told in a way that minimizes the risk?"

In Exposé’s “Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 2),” premiering online this Wednesday, reporter Carl Prine responds to his critics.

>> What do you think? When does the need to protect national security outweigh the public's right to know? And vice versa? Did Prine's reporting serve the public by alerting us about security weaknesses? Or did he put us in danger? Send us your comments below.

June 22, 2007

Broadcast Premiere: "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 1)"

Exposé's first episode of the season, "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 1)," premieres tonight on PBS. Check local listings for your area. Hear how investigative reporter Carl Prine "cases" America's most dangerous chemical sites.

>> Watch Carl Prine talk about his experiences as a National Guard in Iraq in a web exclusive interview.

>> Do you think Prine's reporting helps make America safer? Send us your comments below.

June 21, 2007

Working the system

How does one learn the best ways to break into America's hazardous chemical facilities? From the chemical companies themselves, naturally.

In preparation for his investigation of America's most dangerous chemical sites, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW reporter Carl Prine used "worst case scenario" plans prepared by chemical company officials. The plans, filed with the Environmental Protection Agency and county governments, mapped out known security weaknesses at each plant. Using the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Prine began collecting the plans from the EPA. Then he hit a roadblock: he was told an EPA rule limited his access to plans only from his own county, plus 10 other plans per month. This wouldn't do. He was casing out hundreds of facilities -- in his home state of Pennsylvania and others, including Maryland, Illinois, and Texas. After he maxed out his EPA limit, he was able to get some plans directly from county agencies using state open records laws. But to get plans from other states, Prine went back to the EPA -- with a new strategy to get around the 10-plan limit. He hired a secretary in Washington, D.C. to accompany him to EPA headquarters on the first and last days of two months -- April 30 and May 1 -- and together they were able to request the 32 documents that he needed.

>> Read "Forty-Odd Years of Freedom ... Sort of" by Tom Casciato, Exposé's Executive Producer.

June 20, 2007

Thinking like a terrorist

Picture this: A man ducks under a broken fence at a water treatment facility in a small American town. He slips through an unlocked door and stands before a 20-ton tank of chlorine gas. No one bothers to ask him who he is or what he is doing there. If the chlorine tank were tampered with, the lives of more than 100,000 people in surrounding areas would be endangered (PDF).

Unfortunately, this scenario isn't make-believe. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, officials called for tightened security at potential terrorist targets across the country. The nation was on edge. Then in early 2002, President Bush revealed that terrorists in Afghanistan already possessed detailed maps and plans of U.S. nuclear power plants and chemical facilities. Were we prepared for another attack? Carl Prine, a newspaper reporter at the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, wanted to find out.

Prine decided to "think like a terrorist." With a notebook and camera, he strolled, unannounced, into hundreds of water treatment plants, chemical facilities, and dockyards across the country. What he found was frightening: unlocked gates, unguarded toxic chemicals, and numerous opportunities for sabotage that would threaten millions of people.

Today Exposé premieres its second season online with "Think Like a Terrorist (Pt. 1)," a behind-the-scenes look at Prine's investigation as he retraces his steps through the back alleys of industrial parks across the country. The broadcast launch on PBS is this Friday. Check local listings.

>> Read Carl Prine's original reporting in the PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW.

>> Stay tuned to find out:
- Why did government officials attack Prine, in one instance calling him "Osama Bin-Laden's best friend"?
- How did Prine's personal story set the stage for his work as an investigative reporter?
- Did Prine's reporting spark any new security laws for storing hazardous chemicals?


A Companion Blog to Exposé, produced in association with CIR.

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