Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting
Report on the Fund for Investigative Journalism
By Ann Hier and Erin Niebur
Editor's note: According to the Web site, fij.org, "The Fund for Investigative Journalism was founded in 1969 by the late Philip M. Stern, a public-spirited philanthropist who devoted his life 'to balancing the scales of justice,' in the words of a friend. Stern was convinced small amounts of money invested in the work of determined journalists would yield enormous results in the fight against racism, poverty, corporate greed and governmental corruption. ... Over three decades, the Fund has awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to freelance reporters, authors and small publications, enabling the publication of more than 700 stories and broadcasts and some 50 books."
In its 35-year history, the Fund for Investigative Journalism has invested in the diligence of reporters. They have, in return, produced shocking stories with national impact and local stories that proved to be as important.
“It's our consistency in doing this kind of thing that I am proud of,” said Patrick Sloyan, a board member. “We do it all the time — big or small — it doesn't matter.”
The Fund grants seed money to reporters — in the United States and a dozen other countries — who want to dig deeper. That was how, in 1969, Seymour Hersh was able to expose the Mai Lai massacre of old men, women and children by Americans in Viet Nam and how, in 1985, Carol Ann Bassett was able to tell the story of abusive tactics by the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Services.
“They are the stories the editor is not ready to deal with ... the stories that the rich and powerful deplore,” Sloyan said. Funding is given to journalists for newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, filmmaking and books and to photographers who are pursuing topics with an edge.
In fact, the Fund may be an answer for those news organizations that “lost their edge,” according to George Lardner, current fund chairman, and are no longer doing as much hard-hitting, investigative journalism.
Also, in 2004, board member Gene Roberts fashioned the idea of an annual $25,000 award for the best of the investigative book proposals. Roberts, the legendary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times, said the fund could help fill the void created by American publishers who drastically cut back advances for deep-dug books on controversial topics.
The 2004 book award went to an author who showed how the insurance industry was manipulating major news organizations into reporting bogus and distorted accounts of lawsuit awards.
With a grant of $250, the My Lai Massacre report was the groundbreaking result of the Fund's first contributions. Stern was reportedly both very pleased and encouraged when Hersh's work proved that all it took was a small amount of money to uncover a big story.
As for the story itself, “It became a focal point,” Sloyan said. “There's not a weak fact in his (Hersh's) accounts ... all done on a freelance basis ... no news organization supported him, just us,” he said.
Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been cataloguing the files of the Fund as a project of the Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting. They found the applications and the grants, and the results were exciting reading.
They learned the harrowing tale of reporter Lesley McCullouch, a recent Fund book award winner, who was jailed in Indonesia after speaking out against human rights abuses and government corruption in the region.
They learned how the Fund came to the aid of journalist Lawrence Johnson who was jailed in Columbia while working on a story. Howard Bray, then executive director, wrote a letter to the president of Columbia, assuring him that Johnson was not a spy but a legitimate journalist. Bray's intervention set off an outpouring of letters in support of Johnson and he was freed. A grateful Johnson later wrote Bray, “Thank you is totally inadequate. You and similar good people made all the difference.”
Inside the files, students read of grantees Tami Hultman and Reed Kramer, a husband-and-wife journalism team that specialized in stories on South Africa, who now run their own journalism Web site.
Another Fund-assisted journalist, Lowell Bergman, later became a “60 Minutes” producer and served as the inspiration for a principal character in the recent movie, “The Insider.” Bergman joined with Raul Ramirez to produce a report about dishonesty by police in a San Francisco murder trial.
The students found that Linda Solomon's research on the practice of midwives and their relationship with the medical establishment illustrates the wide variety of topics for Fund stories. The vehicle for investigative works supported by the Fund include major daily newspapers, The Progressive, Mother Jones, the Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review, NPR and PBS.
The Fund has awarded more than $1.5 million to freelance reporters, authors and small publications. More than seven hundred stories have resulted. Early projects included how the oil lobby got tax loopholes, corruption in the United Mine Worker's union and exploitation of Indian tribes. Grants have spawned stories about mistreatment of the elderly in nursing homes, mail order fraud and criticism of banking practices.
Applying for, and being awarded a grant, is a challenging process, but for many it is worth the struggle.
Carol Ann Bassett remembers and still appreciates the opportunity the Fund gave her. In 1985, she and partner Sandy Tolan applied for a grant from the Fund to publish the story about the “Sanctuary Movement”, which was protecting and harboring refugees. The story had a variety of elements that she said Bray found gripping, including undercover informants. The research that Bassett and Tolan were able to conduct with the help of the Fund bore so much important information that it became several stories. Among other places, their work appeared in documentary forms on National Public Radio and in an article in the Arizona Republic. It won several journalism awards, including the DuPont and First Amendment awards.
Bassett recalls the experience as an exhilarating time that helped build her confidence as a young journalist. “Howard Bray was like the mentor that we really needed ... even though we had never met him, because he gave our idea credibility, he gave us the ability to make it happen and he was very encouraging,” she remembers. Later, she and Tolan created Desert West News Service, using computers to send their reports to papers and clients all over the Southwest. For Bassett, her experience with the Fund was one she never forgot and she says she is still grateful to the Fund for taking a chance on her story.
“I barely knew how to cover a trial before this came down, but this was jumping in with both feet.” She added, “The Fund is a very important vehicle for those of us who don't have a big organization behind us. And I am delighted to know that it is still operating at the level that it is and helping so many journalists do the important work that should be done out there, especially in this day and age.”
Most journalists agree that investigative journalism is a different ballgame than other reporting. “All good journalism is investigative,” said Sloyan, who worked as an investigative journalist in Washington and abroad. He says he always strove for the investigative pieces. “You know, you're looking to give someone a bloody nose,” he joked.
The Fund has bloodied its share of noses during its more than 30-year history, including big business, insurance companies, organized crime and corrupt government. So, when the Fund moves in to prop up investigative reporters, it often makes enemies, even at the highest levels of government. A memo from the Nixon White House shows that, in the heat of Watergate, a Nixon aide suggested the IRS be used as a weapon against contributors to the Fund.
There is no lack of potential stories to cover and no deficit of interest on the part of the public, but the main problem the Fund encounters is it has too many good applications and not enough money. As Lardner said, “We're struggling along. We're looking for more funding. Costs are going up.”
The application process, once done via “snail mail” with lengthy copies of paper resumes and clips, is now almost all done neatly online. “We essentially weed out likely proposals from unlikely proposals,” Sloyan said. Applicants can go online to see the list of things they need to do to be considered for a grant from the Fund, including sending a brief overview of their previous work, a resume and also, proof of commitment from a paper, magazine or broadcast station that will carry the work.
Sloyan says the most rewarding, satisfying aspect of working with the Fund is seeing the end result, whether it is on the local or national level. One of his favorite stories was one done for a tiny publication in a town in the Adirondack mountains about the logging industry.
In addition to trying to keep big business and government honest, investigative journalism can also be used to hold up a mirror to the profession of news writing itself. The Kihn Memorial grant was created as a means of funding stories that took a critical look at journalism. The grant is now called the Knight grant after Knight-Ridder Newspapers, which funds the grant. Originally it was named after Albert C. Kihn, a cameraman and reporter at a local television station, KRON-TV in San Francisco. Kihn, who also worked on National Geographic shoots, alerted the Federal Communications Commission about his fears that KRON's corporate owner, Chronicle Broadcasting Corporation, exerted “undue media influence.” Kihn was killed later in a plane crash. The grant is given in honor of his actions, which served as a reminder to keep a close eye not only on government and industry, but also to monitor the media itself.
The Fund offers another grant in honor of an exemplary journalist, the Robert I. Friedman Award. The grant is awarded annually only for international investigative story proposals. Lardner described Friedman, who died in 2002, as a uncompromising investigative journalist who braved death threats and other dangers to expose important stories about the Russian Mafia, Indian slavery and child prostitution.
The first Friedman award was presented last year to Eliza Griswold. Griswold reported from no-man's land in between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Lardner. There, she brought out the atrocities done to the people of Kurdistan by Iraqi forces and also exposed the dangers these people face because of the American military presence.
The Fund's board must judge the distinction between simply reporting a story and investigating one, and therefore, it makes it explicit in its terms for applicants. In many of the applicant files, the correspondence reads something like, “After careful review, we decided not to fund your story. The Board decided the idea was interesting and the story was important, but that it was more of a straight reporting piece rather than an investigative one.” The board seeks out projects “that city editors don't like — they get the city editor in trouble, they get the publisher in trouble, they get the reporter in trouble, because they have a lot of bite and they shake up people,” Sloyan said.
During the course of her reporting on the INS story, Carol Ann Bassett said that her relationship with the Fund went beyond mere financial help. She said she and partner Sandy Tolan looked to then-Executive Director Howard Bray as a mentor and a guide. “He believed in us as these young journalists,” she said. Bassett would call Bray whenever she felt the two had hit a wall in their investigations, and she said he provided the encouragement to keep at it.
In addition, in the past the Fund has offered not only grants to struggling, talented journalists, but also advice, recommendations, referrals and perhaps even more critical, help. The Fund once donated money to the Juan Pablo Cardenas Family Fund, to help support a Chilean journalist whose house had been burned down as a threat.
The people who come to the Fund for Investigative Journalism are from all backgrounds and experience levels. Some are seasoned, hard-core journalists, while others are starry-eyed neophyte idealists, and still others have stumbled upon investigative journalism from some other profession. Large numbers of the applicants are freelancers with great ideas but very few resources.
Investigative journalism at its very best and most powerful can often create a public response or a response on part of the entity under investigation and can lead to shifts in power, policy changes and increased responsibility. The reporting on Watergate and its aftermath was a perfect example of how one good story with strong investigative impact can change the world. Sloyan admits he would like to see that type of reaction more often, but the public is often jaded. “We like to think it causes policy change, but the fact is, very few do,” he said. But, he says the public still appreciates good solid investigative journalism. “They instantly recognize something that is new, and factual, and balanced and accurate, and at the same time, revealing ... people want that,” he said. “Newspaper circulation is declining; that's a way to increase it: give them news, give then informed stuff,” Sloyan argued.
More than thirty years after its inception, Sloyan says there still is no other organization that has done, and is doing, as much for modern investigative journalism.
“I think we're unique,” he said. “No one else gives you money to do the kind of hard-hitting stuff — no one else.”
Hier and Niebur are former students in the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.