Unflinching journalists, risking it all
The financial drain of defending himself against a libel suit forced journalist John L. Smith to file bankruptcy at the same time his 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. But he says his work was worth the personal cost.
Reporter Diana Washington Valdez of the El Paso Times says she narrowly dodged arrest and kidnapping on multiple occasions as she reported on the deadly narcotics trade and the evident killing of women for sport at the Mexican border. But she says she won’t be intimidated.
Omoyele Sowore, who operates a website called Sahara Reporters in New York that investigates government corruption and malfeasance in Nigeria, runs the risk of immediate arrest if he is caught sneaking into his home country to dig up more stories. But he says that won’t stop him from going back.
They were among the journalists who bore witness at a remarkable panel this weekend to the personal courage it sometimes takes to deliver hard-core, hard-nosed investigative reporting. In so doing, they underscored the enduring importance of journalism.
The journalists told their stories at the Fourth Annual David and Reva Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, which was organized by friend and colleague Lowell Bergman, a courageous investigator in his own right.
The three journalists were joined on the panel by Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post who was shunned by the intelligence community after revealing secret prisons operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, and Ari Berman, who is the target of a subpoena resulting from his work as a student at Northwestern University investigating the case of a man who may have been wrongfully convicted of murder.
The moderator of the panel was Brian Ross, the top investigative reporter at ABC, who described how a two-minute segment on entertainer Wayne Newton led to nearly a decade of litigation. Although Newton initially won the case against Ross and NBC, where he worked at the time, the judgment was overturned on appeal.
Fortunately for Priest, Berman and Wilson, they were associated with large, well-endowed institutions that were able to support and defend them when their work was challenged. But journalists working for smaller and less wealthy organizations – or on their own – put everything on the line.
Many a hardened journalist choked up in the auditorium on Saturday afternoon as Smith, a long-time columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, told how the subject of one of his books sued him at the same moment his daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Smith said his daughter survived but now uses a wheelchair.
The suit that forced Smith into bankruptcy, which was filed by one of the movers and shakers he has covered in two decades of poking into the secrets of The Strip, was the second he faced for books he wrote about some of the most powerful people in Las Vegas. While both suits eventually were dismissed, Smith was largely on his own to defend himself, because the cases did not result from his work at the newspaper.
The nightmare of the second suit finally ended when a prominent lawyer took up the case for free – but not before Smith was forced to file for bankruptcy protection from his creditors. When Smith prevailed, he said, the plaintiff was ordered to pay his attorney – who racked up some $300,000 worth of hours – a mere $12,000 in duplicating fees.
Washington Valdez and Sowore each said they run the risk of capture and harm if they turn up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Smith, all three agreed that the importance of their reporting outweighed any personal risks to them. So, they aim to keep asking tough customers tough questions.
What courage. What commitment. What inspiration.