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MPR, Strib investigations honored, but Pulitzer elusive

The nation’s top investigative journalists have honored two Minnesota news organizations for holding the Pawlenty administration accountable. Read more… By David Brauer 

The nation’s top investigative journalists have honored two Minnesota news organizations for holding the Pawlenty administration accountable.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. awarded Minnesota Public Radio reporter Lorna Benson and editor Mike Edgerly its second-highest honor for “Toxic Traces Revisited,” the follow-up to a hugely prescient 2005 investigation into local water contaminated by 3M-manufactured chemicals. In the over-500,000-circulation newspaper category, the Strib’s MnDOT probe was named a finalist, a worthy runner-up to the Washington Post’s Walter Reed series and The New York Times’ tracing of toxic pharmaceuticals back to Chinese manufacturers. In honoring the Strib, IRE cited the work of reporters Paul McEnroe, Tony Kennedy, Laurie Blake, Pat Doyle, Dan Browning and Mike Kaszuba.

The Strib’s anointment does not presage a Pulitzer, however. According to internal and external sources, the paper is out of the running in the Pulitzer’s investigative and breaking news categories, though managers remain hopeful for a photo award. (More on this in a sec.)

Pulitzer talk gets the blood pumping, and the MnDOT series has been the talk of the town for months, but Benson’s and Edgerly’s work should not be ignored.

‘Driveway moments’

I still remember Sasha Aslanian’s original February 2005 report as one of public radio’s “driveway moments” — which is saying something for what I remember as an hour long segment. I tuned in just as a Minnesota Department of Health scientist was describing how she had found the chemicals in local groundwater, but the agency wouldn’t let her trace their spread.  What glued me to my driver’s seat was the aching of the human voice and the seriousness of what she was describing.

And she was right. According to the scientist, the Health Department ignored the scientist’s repeated requests well into 2006. The department didn’t tell the public about the eventual drinking-water contamination until January 2007. This set the stage for Benson’s reports.

You only need to look at the series’ headlines to understand the story’s gravity and arc:

•    The Health Department delayed disclosure
•    Cleanup plans in dispute
•    Public pressure pushes PFC investigations
•    How communities are responding

There are times when MPR is criticized for not digging up enough Minnesota government dirt, given its relatively large newsroom. News director Bill Wareham says his shop is trying to up its investigative metabolism; among other stories, the station has stapled Attorney General Lori Swanson (anti-union bullying) and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (out-of-town travel) in recent months. The water pursuit is prime example of what its pros can achieve.

Bridge coverage
Back to the Strib. Each year, Editor & Publisher puts out a generally reliable Pulitzer shortlist. (In a hypocritical bit of secrecy, each category’s three Pulitzer finalists aren’t announced until the winner is. This year’s announcement is on April 7.) While the Times’ toxic series is the odds-on investigative favorite, and the Post seems likely to win the Public Service award, E&P editor Greg Mitchell lists these breaking news finalists:

•    The Washington Post for the Virginia Tech shootings
•    The New York Times for coverage of a Bronx fire
•    The Idaho Statesman on the Larry Craig aftermath.

While I’ve criticized one aspect of the Strib’s bridge coverage (an early underemphasis on gusset plates), I think the Pulitzer jury jobbed them if E&P is right. The Strib’s response to the bridge collapse was massive and magnificent, combining on-the-ground storytelling with near-instantaneous document digging, backed by vivid photography. (One can only hope that last element secures a Pulitzer finalist slot.)

I haven’t really dug into the Times’ fire coverage, but the Statesman’s coverage was breaking news only in the sense that the paper sat for months on the most compelling component: a lengthy investigation of Craig that needed the senator’s bathroom behavior to unleash. (There’s more than one local connection to the Statesman’s story: publisher Mi-Ai Parrish is a former Strib deputy managing editor, and editor Vicki Gowler is ex of the PiPress.)

The Strib’s biggest problem may have been that its breaking news coverage blended into investigation, but frankly so did the Statesman’s. The Strib was bolder in its pursuit, and that should count for a lot.

(Conflict-of-interest note: I occasionally analyze media doings for MPR; I used to get paid to do it when I was a freelancer, but now I don’t.)