Speech Transcript | Winning Student Essay

Speech Transcript

It’s a great honor to be here and to receive this award in recognition of I.F. Stone. His example is more relevant than ever. When you think back, for instance, to Stone’s journalism unmasking the lies behind the Tonkin Gulf resolution during the run-up to the Vietnam War, you realize how rare true independence is among working journalists. That’s why it was so appropriate that John Walcott was the first recipient of this award.

I actually saw Izzy Stone speak in the early ‘70s in Philadelphia. It was at a synagogue a few blocks from The Inquirer. He faced quite a hostile audience, well-informed, but irate at his writings about Israel. Izzy was courtly, persuasive—and he didn’t back down an inch. I have a memory of him being dwarfed by the synagogue podium.

When I saw Stone four decades ago, I was just starting out as a journalist, and certainly never dreamed that my work might be mentioned in the same sentence as his. I still have my collection of old I.F. Stone Weekly’s that my dad and I pored over. Still today, I recall vividly my amazement at the powerful information he would pull out of Congressional reports and other documents.

You can imagine my surprise when Bob Giles, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, called to say I had won this medal. And under the contest ground rules, I had not even known I was nominated. My thanks for this medal. And a special word of thanks to Mr. Giles, to Christine Kaye for her work arranging this event and to the Stone family.

As you know, my name is Craig McCoy. But in some circles, as you’ll hear, I was respectfully addressed as “McCoy the jerk.” This, as emails now in my possession attest, was the name given me by aides to a state senator in Pennsylvania named Vincent J. Fumo, who was once the most powerful Democratic legislator in the state.

He’s now in federal prison, but before his fall, Fumo was a man whom the Philadelphia establishment simply did not want to mess with. This, I think, is the most vital observation I want to make today. Even as the newspaper industry’s economic fortunes weaken, I’m proud that I work for an institution that continues to speak up while others remain silent. Whether it be Fumo’s corruption or abuses by the Philadelphia Police Department or the revolving door at the Philadelphia Courthouse, the Inquirer has been the one to dig into the issues, even when many in the city’s power elite were aware of the underlying problems, but chose to look the other way.

No offense meant, but Fumo was of a type well known here in Boston. A State House power for decades, he was incredibly smart (a Mensa member, as he was the first to tell you), crafty, arrogant and greedy. From a journalistic perspective, he was a sort of King Midas of wrongdoing: He corrupted everything he touched.

Using his taxpayer-paid staff as campaign workers? Check. Extorting free luxury yacht trips from a maritime museum dependent on state aid? Check. Secretly shaking down one of Pennsylvania’s biggest utilities for millions for his  charity? Check. Ripping off that charity for himself? Check. Getting paid $1 million a year as a “rainmaker” to steer state legal work to his law firm? Check. Buying 17 Oreck vacuum cleaners with the charity’s money so he could have one on each floor of his three homes? Check.

That’s just some of it. No wonder an Inquirer reporter once likened Fumo to an octopus playing a pipe organ.

Several year ago, The Inquirer learned that an unknown benefactor had given Fumo’s charity millions in anonymous donations. The paper discovered this when a persistent colleague of mine, Miriam Hill, obtained the charity’s public financial records from an IRS center in Utah; Fumo’s charity had refused to turn over the returns directly, as the law requires.

The IRS records didn’t identify the donors, and Fumo refused to say who had given the money. His spokesman would only say that the donors had been “a mix of independently wealthy individuals and corporate entities,” none of whom had given the money to influence Fumo.

As it turned out, this was a lie. There were no individual givers. By discovering that federal energy regulation requires utilities to disclose their charitable gifts, I was able to force Fumo and a big utility, Peco Energy, to reveal they had struck a secret deal several years before. Peco gave his charity $17 million in return for Fumo’s dropping his legislative opposition to its business plans. The newspaper also forced his allies to admit that a multi-state agency dominated by Fumo had secretly given the charity another $10 million.

While I was digging, so was the FBI. Later, when Fumo was indicted, the government built its investigation of Fumoworld, as the senator himself called his domain, on emails obtained by subpoena.

The result was a by-turns hilarious and sobering and very unvarnished look at how the modern American politician views the press.

When I pressed Fumo for answers about the charity, his spokesman circulated my questions with this header: “just got this email from McCoy—the jerk.”

Fumo’s reply was a beaut:

“Enough is ENOUGH. We are through giving these m-f-ers any more information.

Another aide, chimed in: “Thank you.”

A third aide added, “F—them.”

Fumo’s own emails showed that he had been worried for years about reporters penetrating his secrets. In one, he asked his staff for advice on how to fill out public IRS forms so as to not let on where the charity was getting its millions. “With the newspapers all over our asses, I do not think we should give them the slightest information if we don’t strictly have to,” he wrote. “The Inquirer will go absolutely BALLISTIC if they ever really find out about the money. We really don’t need a never-ending series of bullshit from them on their next Pulitzer quest!!”

He was half-right.

While we did go ballistic, we never won the Pulitzer.

In another email, Fumo railed against a reporter at the other paper in town, the Philadelphia Daily News. He instructed his communication director to call her editor “and ask why this bitch is on our ass.” As it happened, his PR chief refused to do this, wisely counseling Fumo it would only redouble the paper’s zeal.

Needless to say, Fumo pondered a legal attack—after all, Philadelphia’s legal climate is notoriously hostile to the local press. Fumo’s chief counsel wrote that The Inquirer needed to be “put on notice that false statements, misrepresented quotes and facts, distortions and vindictiveness will not be tolerated. These are actionable and malice, when it comes to the Inquirer, can be easily established.”

He added “no one talks, writes or otherwise communicates with Craig McCoy.”  He recommended Fumo “doing media AROUND the Inky.”

One of the most disturbing pieces of new information to emerge from the trial was how craven Philadelphia’s civic leaders were in the face of Fumo’s power.

Emboldened by his shakedown of Peco, Fumo tried to put a similar squeeze on another major corporation, Verizon Communications. This time, though, he demanded more than $50 million, including millions in charitable donations and millions in work for his law firm and even millions in deposits into his family-owned bank. Upset, Verizon’s president sought advice from two of their most prominent lawyers in Philadelphia. One was the former chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell.

Their recommendation: “Work it out with the senator.”

In a farcical moment, the Verizon executive tried in vain to show them Fumo’s extortion sheet with his $50 million in demands. The two lawyers pushed it back to him across the conference table.

They never recommended that Verizon go to the FBI, and the president of this powerful and influential company kept silent.  The whole shakedown didn’t emerge for years.

This policy of appeasement for Fumo—observed by corporations, politicians and officers of the court – speaks to the vitally important role of investigative reporting at the local level.

Time and again in Philadelphia, The Inquirer has stepped in where others had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Our reporting didn’t provoke the Fumo investigation, but it spurred it along. After a marathon trial last year, a jury found Vincent Fumo guilty on all 137 counts. He is now in a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. Two of his aides went to prison too.

Ten years ago, I was a member of another Inquirer team that reported that, for decades, the Philadelphia Police Department had been secretly burying complaints of rape and other sex crimes—thousands of cases. If a case seemed too tough to solve, involved the homeless or prostitutes, or if a detective simply was suspicious of the victim, the squad would write the report up as “non-crime” and do little or no investigation.

This escalated to the point that a serial rapist went unchecked as he moved through affluent sections of downtown Philadelphia, sexually assaulting five college students and killing a sixth, a brilliant Wharton student. The rape squad wrote off his first two attacks as an episode of “rough sex” and the account of a liar. This blinded neighborhood women and beat police to the escalating crime spree.

Whatever the risk to the community, it worked well for police brass. By burying crimes, the rape squad’s commanders could tout their high clearance rate and the police commissioner could boast of the city’s low crime rate.

This all went on under the nose of Women Organized Against Rape, which had long ago abandoned its feminist advocacy role to serve mainly as a counselor for victims.

It took an independent newspaper to bring this to light. Our reporting spurred widespread reforms: the reopening of hundreds of closed rape cases, the conviction of dozens of men on sex crimes charges, the construction of a new headquarters for the Special Victims Unit and the creation of a civilian review panel to randomly audit investigations.

Most recently, I worked for months with another team to develop a detailed portrait of what happens to “ordinary” criminal cases in the Philadelphia courts. We learned that Philadelphia’s politically popular DA had quietly amassed one of the nation’s worst records for convictions. We reported that almost two thirds of all defendants charged with violent crimes in Philadelphia were walking free on all charges.

As with the buried sex crimes and Fumo’s corruption, the legal community in Philadelphia had largely remained silent. The DA obviously had no interest in the city knowing about her abysmal record; she even said proudly that she kept no figures on her office’s performance. To keep track would be to do “justice by the numbers,” she said. The defense bar, too, was very happy with how things were working out down at the Courthouse. The city’s judges responded by questioning the Inquirer’s methodology and lashing out at the paper at public forums.

But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stepped up, ordering a host of reforms throughout 2010 with more to come.

I continue to work for a newspaper that highly values investigative reporting. Some of you may know Bill Marimow, the paper’s editor. He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, both for work digging into abuses by the Philadelphia police.  Bill is a staunch supporter of investigative reporting and has actually expanded the size of the unit. We’re now up to six members, perhaps the largest our unit has ever been at The Inquirer.

That said, The Inquirer has hardly been immune from the pressures on the newspaper business. We’re just emerging from bankruptcy and over the past decade or so, our circulation has tumbled and so has our overall editorial staff—down now to about 275 from 500.

The paper has had to cut back on many core beats. Its bureaus in Harrisburg and Trenton have just two reporters apiece now, half the figure when, say, I was Trenton bureau chief. Since so many of the best investigative stories are turned up by sharp beat reporting, there is no doubt that there has been a massive “opportunity cost” in important stories that have gone unwritten as reporting staffs have melted away.

And while many editors consider investigative reporting the most important “value-added” feature that a paper offers, it is expensive, time-consuming and fraught with legal risks and the possibility of reader and advertising backlash.

And you can’t invest in investigative reporting unless you’re able to walk away from money spent on dry holes. In short, if you want a model for journalism built for weak economic times, you would not choose investigative journalism. Nor is it a guaranteed lure for readers. Perhaps it is out of step with a media culture that increasingly values opinion over facts, sizzle over steak, speed over substance.

While John Carroll, one of the most brilliant newspaper editors America produced in the post-war era, was editor of the Los Angeles Times, it won 13 Pulitzers in just five years. Among the stories was an absolutely blistering local report on the terrible medical care provided at Los Angeles’ politically-protected public hospital—a classic example of fearless local reporting. And yet during those same years, the paper’s daily circulation fell by 100,000 readers.

It is local investigative reporting that seems most at risk these days. As documented recently by American Journalism Review, the Big 3 in American newspapering—the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal—increasingly dominate the roster of Pulitzer investigative reporting finalists, a sign that regional papers have faded as competitors. Economies of scale may always justify reporting, say, on NSA spying. But local abuses are the ones that may go increasingly unchecked.

Amid the darkness there are bright lights and new models. Pro Publica, the Center for Investigative Reporting in California, the newer New England Center for Investigative Reporting, right here at Boston University, are all doing terrific work.

In the blogosphere, Marcy Wheeler at Firedoglake broke the news last year that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in one month of interrogation. She did this in classic I.F. Stone fashion, by closely reading a government report and picking up news in a footnote overlooked by mainstream reporters.

Unlike I.F. Stone, I have worked most of my career covering local news and digging into local issues. But I’d like to think he’d get a kick out of the work my colleagues and I do in Philadelphia. After all, Izzy was born in Philadelphia, grew up in the nearby New Jersey suburb of Haddonfield and, earlier in his career, worked for the Camden Courier Post and the old Philadelphia Record. And until he dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania, he worked night rewrite for The Inquirer.

There’s no doubt that Izzy would be greatly concerned by the travails facing newspapermen and women today—and the dangers posed to our democracy by the economic squeeze we are under.

I don’t pretend to have a solution for the crushing economic forces that have laid siege to the newspaper industry. But this much is clear: because investigative reporters were around to dig into things, rape cases in Philadelphia are no longer being dumped en masse, more crime victims are getting their day in court and Vince Fumo is no longer the biggest bully on the block.

I.F. Stone’s voice has been still for 20 years now, but his inspiration persists. Izzy Stone showed how to practice journalism without fear. We have to find a way to carry on in his path, both nationally and locally.

Thanks once more.

Winning Student Essay

What does “journalistic independence” mean to you?

By James Robinson

At 19 I was fortunate enough to be getting a practical education in journalism at the same time as an academic education in communications.

I was reading intricate and scholarly works on the muddying poison of media hegemony through news choices and structures of authority, and the damning influence of the increasing concentration of global media ownership in the hands of a few companies. I was pursuing stories at a student magazine. I was just one person: a young, untrained journalist at that, seeking out and trying to represent the facts. This sat awkwardly at times with my academic studies, even if it was just the other side of the coin. I realized that where cultural historian Todd Gitlin would write: “the dominant class controls ideological space and limits what is thinkable in society,” I would find myself more inclined to agree with modern essayist and reformed journalist Chuck Klosterman:

“There are thousands of things that affect the accuracy of news stories, but the feelings of the actual reporter is almost never one of them. The single most important impact of anyone story is far less sinister: Mostly, it all comes down to (a) who the journalist has called, and (b) which of these people happens to call back first.”

Klosterman’s intentions are humorous, but to me they point at a larger truth. For all the Rupert Murdoch horror stories and long academic works on centuries of hegemony within journalism, it is an industry, made up of people, facing everyday problems within the work they do.

Journalism must be devoted to the pursuit of truth no matter how much debate there is over the shades of meaning of what actually constitutes truth. The pursuit of truth, a pursuit, as Walter Lippmann would describe it, “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act” must be the noble pursuit of the journalist. It requires a culture, and system of government, that is permissive of such goals. On a wider societal level, nominally journalistic independence can be seen as representing the means to be able to go about this pursuit of the facts, without pervasive influence, explicit restriction or overt danger.

While cultural acceptance of the free press and freedom of information is a lofty ideology and important bedrock of a functional news media; journalistic independence to me is something that is much more individual. Assessing the industry as a whole is meaningless without considering the reality of employment as a journalist. Employment as a journalist is full of a wide range occasionally mundane tasks, such as interviewing. research, fact checking. writing. Story construction, choice of quote. These are tasks that a journalist faces every day, and involve decisions that a journalist largely makes alone. It is for these reasons that rather than a set of omnipresent industry standards that a journalist assumes by osmosis; journalistic independence must embody a more personal code. Journalistic independence is a set of personal and professional standards, a contract the writer has with their own professional morality that they will not break upon any circumstance.

The pursuit of independence in the daily practice of a journalist takes on many small battles. It involves separating yourself from your subject, recognizing personal passions and biases that can affect your accuracy. It involves avoiding inappropriate friendship with those you have been assigned to cover. It involves having the courage to speak the harder truth that others might not agree with, or about someone who might have been a pleasure to talk to and had been generous with their time. It is imperative to be independent from even your own hang-ups and preventing your own bias from closing your mind off.

Probably the most pervasive influence from the above that I have witnessed is friendship with those who you seek to cover. Regularly I have seen fellow journalists even in the infancy of their career, in positions ranging from Parliamentary reporting to arts coverage, lose balance through a fascination with the power of their subjects.

I.F. Stone embodied this struggle, independent in his approach to stories from potential personal biases, as well as maintaining clear independence from those that he covered. Stone dedicated himself to the hard truth; he was Jewish, but critical of Israel, he was against legal restrictions of the New Deal, critical of America’s readiness for World War Two but against the Vietnam War. Unlike many of the moment he denounced McCarthyism, and was strong in opposition to racial discrimination. The more controversial the truth, the more accurate and verifiable Stone knew that his reporting had to be – but in this, Stone’s independence as a journalist was a weapon, rather than a hindrance. As Stone said:

“I tried to give information which could be documented, so the reader could check it for himself. Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him. But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own – particularly if he is his own employer – is immune from these pressures.”

Considering this strict adherence to the facts and his independence from influence, it is little wonder that I.F. Stone ended up so often on the right side of history.

Beyond approach, and an unflinching commitment to the truth as you honestly see it, journalistic independence is about that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you cannot ignore. While my career in journalism is young, one personal experience comes to mind. As editor of a weekly student magazine, I had to make a wide range of editorial and business decisions. One week a large liquor company wanted to run a competition through our magazine: the prize was large, our staff would receive complimentary product, and there would be a payment in recognition of the space provided. There was one catch to this. The content for the page would be written by the company, and it would not be presented as an advertisement. The benefit to the magazine in running a competition for reader involvement and advertising revenue was considerable, and the piece would have run towards the back of the magazine that week. I had to refuse, for letting a corporate entity dictate the content of editorial space without an explicit signpost was a contradiction of my own personal standards that I didn’t want to have to live with.

A fascinating account of a related experience comes in Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation, providing an example of following your instinct in a situation with far greater implications. After a U.S. Navy ship accidentally fired at a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988, much of the diplomatic effort from the USA, and the United Kingdom, revolved around placing insinuation that the Iranian plane was possibly involved in a suicide attack on the ship before it was shot down. Reportedly, this was plainly false, and Fisk wrote the story that he saw; that there were huge deficiencies in the processes in place on board the ship responsible for shooting the plane down. His reporting was altered in the Times the next day to remove all negative implications for the Americans. Fisk resigned from The Times following this, but his personal account of balancing his own ethical standards against having a sense of context and place as a journalist is compelling:

“Journalists should not be prima donnas. We have to fight to prove the worth of our work … But something very unethical had taken place, my work had been, in every sense of the word, tampered with, changed and censored. In the Gulf that steamy summer, I lost faith in The Times … Readers of The Times had been presented with a fraudulent version of the truth.”

Surveying the ten elements of journalism as laid out in the Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism, journalistic independence plays in to every one of them. Journalists can’t serve citizens, create public debate. tell verifiable truths, make the Significant relevant or monitor power (the list could go on), without serving their positions uncorrupted from influence. The privileged position of journalists in society is damaged every time the truth is compromised; the cut may be small but it adds up. For every Jayson Blair, and Jack Kelley, there are many more cases of forgotten context, misrepresented truths and public officials given a free pass.

Rupert Murdoch be damned; how many journalists work each day with a billionaire media magnate instilling status quo bias over their shoulder? Journalistic independence is a movement that comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

There is no bar in journalism to be excluded from, the standards are individual but should be respected no less severely.