Pro Publica reporters have already won two Pulitzer Prizes, for Investigative Reporting in 201o and for National Reporting in 2011. But rather than honoring specific stories, the PEN Center USA Award of Honor recognizes the role that ProPublica as a news organization plays in the larger ecosystem of journalism.
“There was a very serious time when people talked about the death of journalism, of investigative journalism, of long form, that it was no longer going to be possible,” said Marvin Putnam, the PEN Center USA board chair. “They showed not only that’s definitely not true, but they can do it with absolutely the highest standards.”
While drawing a clear distinction between market pressures and government censorship, ProPublica president Richard Tofel said he thought it was important to acknowledge the role that “the business crisis of the press over the last 15 years” plays in “the ability of the press to do the job it needs to do for the system to function best. “It was already clear in 2007, 2008 when we started, that this business crisis was squeezing down and in many cases out the chance for people to do investigative journalism,” Tofel told me. ” And we really believe very strongly that investigative journalism plays a very important role in a system of democratic governance in holding people accountable.”
New business models bring new pressures, of course, and ProPublica is a non-profit. Tofel has spoken in other contexts about the need to create larger bases of donors who are willing to support the work of organizations like ProPublica so they won’t have to rely heavily on a few donors. He emphasized that the rules that govern the relationships between news organizations and advertisers are applicable in a non-profit context, too. Everyone, in other words, should be clear on what a news organization is selling when they accept someone else’s money, and the donor or the advertiser should be clear about what they’re buying.
But the flexibility of a different model can also bring about new opportunities. ProPublica and Yelp recently struck a deal that serves medical data ProPublica has collected to Yelp users.
“We get a little visibility out of it, but what we really get out of it, is the ability, which they gave us, is to go through the database of their comments,” Tofel explained. “And it’s already produced one really interesting story focusing in significant measure on how people feel about chain dentistry, which is not great.”
PEN Center USA is honoring the example ProPublica sets with its investigative journalism, but Tofel pointed to other areas where new organizations could emulate ProPublica
“I think we basically exist because there’s something approaching a market failure in investigative reporting. And investigative reporting is still alive and well at The Washington Post, thank goodness, and the New York Times, and a few other places. But I think by and large there’s been a very substantial market failure and investigative reporting has become a public good,” he suggested.
Similar failures present similar opportunities. “Statehouse reporting, especially in those states where the capital city is not the largest city, for reasons relating to 18th-century politics, literally, are most of the large states in the union,” Tofel said. “Another one I think that hasn’t really emerged yet, is in international news for Americans. It is true, for instance, that through the internet, you can go to the BBC and if you have the local language, you can read any newspaper in the world, but none of those things are written for Americans with an awareness of what they do and do not know.”
If ProPublica is a way for PEN Center USA to call attention to market failures in journalism and the innovative responses to the industry’s contraction, giving John Kiriakou the organization’s First Amendment award illustrates all the different venues the government has to put pressure on journalists and their sources. Kiriakou resigned from the CIA in 2004, and he came to public attention in 2007 thanks to an interview he gave to ABC News in which he acknowledged the CIA’s use of waterboarding. Other journalists came calling, and Kiriakou became a frequent source. In 2012, the federal government charged him with disclosing classified information–he had given the name of a CIA operative to a freelance reporter–and he ultimately served almost two years of a thirty-month sentence under a plea deal.
“In accepting his plea deal, one of the things he was doing in accepting that was ensuring that the journalists were not forced to testify,” Putnam said, explaining the reason PEN Center USA wanted to honor Kiriakou. “That was just one of the things he was doing to make sure that First Amendment protections were not challenged to the point of breaking.”
While the prosecution brought against Kiriakou is the most obvious example of the power the government can wield to silence sources and pressure journalists, “The story didn’t end the day I was sentenced,” Kiriakou told me. He’s written that the federal Bureau of Prisons asked him to seek approval for interviews he conducted after his release. And when we spoke on the phone, he talked about the rules place even greater restrictions on contact between prisoners and journalists while they are still incarcerated.
“John took advantage of his platform,” Putnam noted of this part of Kiriakou’s experience. “There are a lot of sexy things that people can jump on, his letter to Snowden…But he goes deeper and broader.”