CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Staff writers Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick and their colleagues at the Detroit Free Press are winners of the 2008 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for their comprehensive series “A Mayor in Crisis.” During their yearlong investigation, the reporters chronicled in detail the lies, false testimony and insider dealings that led to the downfall of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his top aide Christine Beatty, who together attempted to bury a lawsuit settlement that threatened to expose their romantic affair.
The Bingham Prize will be presented at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., on March 5, 2009. The Nieman Foundation is the new administrator of the prize and will present the $20,000 award for the first time this year. Previously, the prize was presented during the National Press Foundation’s annual awards dinner in Washington.
For the 2008 prize year, honorable mention goes to The Seattle Times’ Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry for their four-part series “Victory and Ruins,” which showed how a community’s blind loyalty to the celebrated University of Washington football team, which won the 2001 Rose Bowl, compromised judges, prosecutors, police agencies, the university itself and the media. The Rose Bowl team included at least two dozen players who were arrested during their time at UW, some for violent felonies. Armstrong was a 2001 Nieman Fellow.
In choosing “A Mayor in Crisis” for the Bingham Prize, judge and investigative reporter David Heath commented: “With tenacity and grit, the reporters at the Detroit Free Press pursued a story that exposed a popular mayor. What they found was not just a sex scandal, but corruption and a cover-up. It’s one of the finest examples I’ve seen of pure investigative reporting.” Judge Julia Reynolds added, “I was impressed with the way they took the high road in covering this story, digging deep to find abuses of power. It would have been too easy to only report on the mayor’s affair.”
Another judge, Anne Hull — who won the Bingham Prize last year — said, “The outstanding work by the Detroit Free Press used feisty reporting on a fast-breaking news story to expose a mayor’s lies and then explain his complex deceptions to the most important stakeholders: the citizens of Detroit.”
Judge James Asher, investigative editor for The McClatchy Company’s Washington bureau, noted, “The Free Press’s coverage of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, was courageous and impressively relentless. I especially appreciated the refreshingly stark descriptions of what some might have called obfuscations and entanglements. Kilpatrick’s and Beatty’s fates were sealed from the very first day when the Free Press chose to use the simple, but unequivocal, word ‘lied.’”
In singling out “Victory and Ruins” for honorable mention recognition, James Asher commented, “The story of the University of Washington’s Rose Bowl champions is a tragic tale long overdue in the telling. The Seattle Times’ elegantly written narrative is impressive for uncovering hidden secrets and offering a morality tale about youth, the excesses of big sports and the many adults who seemed not to care.” Anne Hull remarked, “‘Victory and Ruins’ took on an intangible and difficult target — the cultural glorification of college sports — and with dogged accountability reporting, showed how wide the complicity spread among officials who broke laws and rules for the sake of the game.” Julia Reynolds added, “It took guts to revisit an issue the paper had already reported on and to criticize their own shortcomings in coverage.”
Judges for this year’s prize were Anne Hull, a 1995 Nieman Fellow and investigative reporter for The Washington Post who won last year’s Bingham Prize with Dana Priest for “Walter Reed and Beyond”; David Heath, a 2006 Nieman Fellow and award-winning investigative reporter for The Seattle Times; James Asher, investigative editor for The McClatchy Company in Washington, D.C.; and Julia Reynolds, a 2009 Nieman Fellow who is a criminal justice reporter with The Monterey County Herald. Two additional 2009 Nieman Fellows, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Jackson from the Chicago Tribune, and Rosita Boland, a reporter with The Irish Times in Dublin, helped in the selection process. David Heath did not participate in the judging of The Seattle Times entry, under the prize guidelines.
Nieman Foundation Curator Bob Giles stated, “We are honored that the Nieman Foundation is the new home of the Worth Bingham Prize, with its long tradition of honoring excellence in investigative journalism. Judges this year had a difficult task, having to choose among 84 worthy entries. Newspapers both large and small continue to value in-depth research and dogged reporting and in the process, they provide a crucial service to readers.”
The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Prize judges are guided by such factors as obstacles overcome in getting information, accuracy, clarity of analysis and writing style, magnitude of the situation, and impact on the public, including any reforms that may have resulted.
Worth Bingham, who died at the age of 34, achieved prominence as an investigative journalist and was vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. His family and friends created the prize in his memory in 1967. He was a 1954 Harvard graduate.
Established in 1938, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard administers the oldest midcareer fellowship program for journalists in the world. The fellowships are awarded to journalists of accomplishment who come to Harvard University for a year of study, seminars and special events. More than 1,300 journalists from 88 countries have received Nieman Fellowships. The Nieman Foundation also publishes the quarterly Nieman Reports, the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to a critical examination of the practice of journalism, and is home to the Nieman Journalism Lab, which identifies emerging business models and best practices in journalism in the digital media age. Additionally, the foundation runs both the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, which seeks to advance the craft of narrative reporting and writing in all media, and the Nieman Watchdog Project, which encourages reporters and editors to monitor and hold accountable those who exert power in all aspects of public life.
A complete list of previous Worth Bingham Prize winners is available online.