Pultizer Prize at ProPublica

Pulitzer Prize

It’s been a huge last few days for ProPublica. My colleagues Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein unveiled the result of 7+ months of reporting, a much anticipated collaboration with “This American Life” on how the hedge fund Magnetar Capital helped prolong the housing bubble by betting against risky investments that it advocated for. Also, our story on private jet owners hiding in public airspace, uncovered by Michael Grabell (after our lawyers’ successful litigation), was one of our most viewed, thanks to it getting top play by USA Today and Yahoo.

Those both alone would’ve made it one of ProPublica’s most prominent weeks, but then Sheri Fink won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for her massive investigation, published in the NYT magazine, on how a hospital’s doctors, post-Katrina, reportedly put patients to death under the guise of mercy and grace under chaos. Sheri’s win is extremely gratifying, because her subject had a lot of things going against it: Katrina was a four-year-old painful, chaotic memory that most Americans wanted to forget. And for N.O. residents, it seemed that the overwhelming sentiment was for the doctors and other authorities who did what they could. Anna Pou, the doctor at the center of Sheri’s story, had been exonerated (and the prosecutor who went after her was removed). And after Sheri’s story, no new charges have been made against her.

The story itself is a long-read. In addition to the factors above going against it, it also doesn’t deliver an immediate payoff for the ADD-afflicted reader. It’s only until the end that you can appreciate the light that Sheri shed on a universally important, yet opaque topic: who deserves life in a time of crisis? I think Sheri’s story, and subsequent follow-ups related to swine flu preparations, raised the alarm that not even our medical professionals are on the same page, and moved the ball in such a way that her findings would shock even the most cynical skeptics of the medical profession.

Also, congrats to my colleagues Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber for being finalists in the Public Service category for their exposure of California’s broken nursing board. For them to even be considered for that prize, considering they won it recently before in the same area (lax oversight of medical care) is a testament to how thorough their work was again, and how much impact their stories had (Gov. Schwarzenegger immediately sacked or forced out a majority of the board afterwards).

I think our office felt confident our work was as good as any Pulitzer contender and it wouldn’t be a shock to win, even though we would be the first online-only organization (and possibly the youngest, at two years old) to do it. The drama was less about whether if we would win but which one of our reporters would win. For example, T. Christian Miller and his work on defense contractors was, in my mind, as deserving as any. Like Sheri, he shed light, in an exhaustive, dogged fashion, on a subject that most people would rather not care about: the treatment of civilians who are injured in warzones while working as contractors. With the bad rep of Blackwater, it’s proof of T’s herculean reporting and writing efforts that he got lawmakers to make some real moves into an easily overlooked (for political reasons) but essential area of our national security (in terms of prizes though, T already brought home the Selden Ring).

And of course, all those stories above would’ve had a harder hill to climb without the collaboration of all our great editors and research staff. And in my own department, Krista Kjellman and Jeff Larson put in just as much dedication and deliberation to further illuminate the stories in their online presentation (and in the process, often provided research and work important to the stories themselves).

Congrats to the other Pulitzer winners. I haven’t had time to look through all their work. I did put WaPo’s Gene Weingarten’s winning feature on the hellish punishment of parents who left their children to die in overheated cars on my iPad’s Instapaper. I got about a fourth-way through before I had to put it away so I wouldn’t be crying in the subway car.

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at blog.danwin.com.