Monday, April 19, 2010

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.


Blogger Joseph Angier said...

John L. Smith is one of the greats, and I was privileged to interview him last year for a PBS story I was doing on the Vegas downturn.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Along with non-profits like Pro Publica that are becoming substitutes for the declining investigative work of the finer newspapers, we really have to remember the work being done independently by some great journalists like these and their vulnerability to lawsuits like these. My old newspaper, the St. Pete Times, used to step in and defend a few of these from small papers whose employers couldn't or wouldn't handle the defense. But we probably need a non-profit for defense of cases like Smith's.

Outside this country, it's far worse. In Eritrea, independent journalists who organized small newspapers were abruptly arrested and their papers shut down a week after 9/11 and remain in prison to this day, without charges, without legal representation, without contact with the outside world. Matthewos Habteab, Dawit Isaac, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Youself Mohamed Ali and others I taught when it appeared this new country might be a real democracy have now spent 8-1/2 years in prison because the president, Isaias Afewerki, decided they were too much trouble, trumped up "traitor" charges and silenced them.

Thanks to Lowell Bergman and the Berkeley J-school for organizing this reminder, and to you, Alan.

8:03 PM  
Blogger byuboy50 said...

There is a nonprofit that helps journalists in need of legal assistance. It's the Society of Professional Journalists' Legal Defense Fund. Here's its mission statement: "The Society's Legal Defense Fund is a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Application to the fund is approved by either a small committee or the national board, depending on the level of assistance sought." Society members and its LDF Committee work throughout the year raising money for the fund.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Noorlander said...

There's another newly established fund that is able to help journalists who face legal risks, called the Media Legal Defence Initiative: At the moment, we (I work for them) support a number of cases mainly in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union but are open to requests from anywhere in the world.

Thanks to Sowore for pointing me to this blog.

3:19 AM  

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