Published: April 18, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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On Monday, Columbia University announced the 2014 recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious honor.

Chris Hamby of The Center for Public Integrity – a Washington, DC-based non-profit – was awarded a Pulitzer for his report, Breathless and Burdened, on “how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts,” the Pulitzer committee cited.

On Wednesday, ABC News “…accused The Center for Public Integrity of claiming full recognition for a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report that ABC News says it greatly contributed,” The Washington Times reported (Apr. 16).

“ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent a letter on Tuesday to CPI Executive Director Bill Buzenberg, accusing him of taking full credit for a yearlong investigation, led by CPI’s Chris Hamby, even though ABC News says it spent countless hours in collaboration on the report.

” ‘We believe that our reporters… should share in this high honor as they shared in the long months of reporting and producing the stories,” Mr. Sherwood wrote.

“Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News’ senior vice president, added: ‘[CPI] showed a stunning lack of integrity and misled the Pulitzer board with its submission which diminished our work to the point of non-existence.’ ”

Sherwood went on to say, “Given C.P.I.’s professed commitment to integrity, our team is quite surprised that you now seem inclined to diminish the significant contributions of our reporters.”

How does The Center’s executive director respond?

On its web site (Apr. 16), Buzenberg shared the following letter to Sherwood. In part, it reads:

Dear Ben,

“Thank you for your letter of last night regarding the black lung investigation, which was also sent to our full Board of Directors and the news media. I have to assume this is all part of an unfortunate PR campaign by ABC News.

“It is curious that you repeatedly reference dictionary definitions of ‘integrity’ in an apparent attempt to play off the Center’s name and imply hypocrisy. In fact, it is the behavior of ABC that should give rise to questions about honesty and moral uprightness.

“Though you have framed the issue as the Center seeking to diminish ABC’s contributions, the reality is quite the opposite: ABC is seeking to take credit for a large body of work that it did not produce. These are the facts, as confirmed under the very strict Pulitzer Prize rules by the Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler again just yesterday:

” ‘Bill: I’ve reviewed the entry again. It is overwhelmingly Hamby’s work and was entered by the center in conformance with our rules on limited partnerships. The rules expressly state that the eligible entity must do the preponderance of the work; specific elements produced by the ineligible entity (such as ABC video) cannot be entered; and if there is a prize it will go ONLY to the eligible organization that submitted the work. 

” ‘So, based on the entry, the prize to Hamby alone is warranted.
Best, SG’

“The truth is that ABC did not join the investigation until part-way through,” Buzenberg continues in his letter to Sherwood, “it focused on only one part of a multi-part series, and its reporting was sporadic and almost entirely geared toward the needs of television, not original content for the print series.

“We value these sorts of partnerships and were happy to work with ABC. But let’s be honest about the contributions of each party. Chris Hamby lived and breathed this investigation almost exclusively for a year. ABC dropped in periodically over the course of a few months between work on many other stories.”

In an April 16 story, The New York Times reported that “A spokesman for ABC News, Jeffrey W. Schneider, said that whether or not the Pulitzer committee agreed, the network wanted acknowledgment that it was a joint partner in the investigation. ‘It is a shame that in the effort to secure this Pulitzer for Chris Hamby, who we all agree is very deserving, that somehow ABC News’ contribution had to be disappeared,’ he said. The statements made by the C.P.I. pointing to ABC’s work were ‘too little, too late,’ he said.”

Before commenting I should say that I have been a supporter of The Center for Public Integrity’s work financially as well as highlighting stories of its work that have appeared on this web site.

While I am not aware of the full backstory behind any agreement between ABC News and CPI, I’m disappointed by the clear friction between the two investigative units. Further, while I can understand the importance in acknowledging good journalism, it seems equally clear to establish ground rules for how any collaboration should be conducted between the two agencies and how credit is to be shared. Moving forward, investigative groups should do more to establish those ground rules.

It also seems clear, however, that Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler’s final word on the matter should resolve any confusion regarding credit: “based on the entry, the prize to the [Center’s] Hamby alone is warranted.”

When it comes to rooting out waste, fraud and corruption, ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity need to remember that they are all on the same team.

At the end of the day, each group’s integrity is also demonstrated by the respect and fairness shown to all who may have been involved, and if there were mistakes, responsibility should be acknowledged for any actions or inactions.


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