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Pioneer Press photographer Garvin has hand in New York Times' Pulitzer-winning investigation

A Minnesota corporation was a target, a Minnesota dancer was a victim, and a Minnesota photographer shot the arresting front-page photo that graced the New York Times’ “The Burger That Shattered Her Life,” which today won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.

Though Stephanie Smith’s story had been chronicled by the local media, Times reporter Michael Moss used the e. coli-poisoned and paralyzed dancer’s tale as a jumping-off point for a months-long investigation into the U.S. food-safety system ... or lack thereof.  As I wrote in October:

“... Moss tracked an E. coli-laden patty back to the feces-filled slaughterhouses from whence it came. Moss’ investigation revealed a shocking system where the feds don’t require E. coli testing, and slaughterhouse often sell to grinders who agree not to test shipments.”

The company at the heart of Moss’ expose is Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant Cargill. And the photographer whose arresting front-page shot (above) undoubtedly sucked more readers into the story is the Pioneer Press’ Ben Garvin.

Garvin - whose bosses allowed to take selected freelance assignments for the Times and Washington Post - won’t get a share of the Pulitzer medal, says, “I hesitate to celebrate because it’s not my Pulitzer, but I’m proud to be associated with Michael Moss and proud to be a tiny part of that story.”

Last October, Moss wrote to Garvin, “...wanted you to know there's been a huge reaction to the story and I have to believe much of it has nothing to do with the words, but rather your work, especially the front page shot of her which was just fabulous.”

There’s substantial false modesty there - the reporting was fantastic enough on its own -- but Garvin says there is an important lesson for journalism organizations.

“When a good story has a great photo, it pushes it further. Sometimes, photographers get word about stories late, so a good story doesn’t get a great image. The basic idea is, an OK story with a great photo gets on the front page, and a great story with no photo runs on the inside page. It’s a totally self-serving notion, but given time to be there, we will make great pictures.”

Garvin says his bosses didn’t have a problem with him running up to Smith’s Cold Spring home to get the image because her case had already been covered locally. “I never accept a story that’s competitive in nature, like breaking news or politics - you don’t want to burn bridges on either side. But this was much more of a long-term piece, so there wasn’t a competitive consideration.”

Garvin who began freelancing for the Times before he came to the PiPress six years ago, says he sent 13 or 14 images to New york, and they picked the one of Smith looking soberly up at his camera, with her home heath attendant working on her legs. “She was mad at Cargill, mad that she was paralyzed every day from a hamburger, but she was really a wonderful woman, funny, and really nice to work with.”

Efforts to reach Smith Monday were unsuccessful, and as you can imagine, Moss was also a bit busy. I’ll try to give you an update on Smith’s condition, and whether the Pulitzer Prize-winning deep drive ended up changing anything, as soon as I can.

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Comments (10)

I'd like to know how he got the shot. It looks like he stood on her dresser.

The whole series by Michael Moss was very powerful. He was able to track the source of all the componenents of the burger that injured Stephanie Smith. I was amazed to learn what goes into a standard-issue burger.

The Michael Moss series is at http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/m/michael_...

And I think the key dates are Oct. 4 (the opening article), Nov. 13, and Dec. 31.

The photo of Ms. Smith is very powerful.

And there is video with an interview of her as well (done by Times reporters, I think).

I keep waiting for that follow up series linking the rise of e coli, with agri-giants like Cargill, antibiotics in feed and corn fed beef. But I imagine everyone likes the story better if it is just about one bad burger supplier.

I didn't read this story as one about a single bad supplier. I read it as a story about terrible industry practices and a lack of any oversight.

The young woman, Cargill, the specific suppliers involved -- they all just illustrated a much broader problem.

There is one area that I don't think was covered well though (if I am remembering correctly): why corn and feed fed animals are more likely to harbor the virulent strain of the bacteria that causes serious injury (not just an upset stomach). Grassfed animals don't have this pathogen. (Michael Pollan explains why this is clearly in The Omnivore's Dillemma.)

We're so lucky to have Ben Garvin in the Twin Cities. A world-class photojournalist.

As I understand it, Karen, the commonplace use of antibiotics in superfeedlots -- to ease the stomach problems of cows forced to eat corn, something they are not designed to eat -- selects out over time for superbugs. That and the places have are home to veritable lagoons of manure.

Yes, Paul, the selection of microbes immune to antibiotics is a problem.

But I was talking about a different issue. The cow digestive tract is designed to handle grasses. It becomes more acidic when the animals are fed corn and other grains. The virulent O157 strain that caused Stephanie Smith's injuries grows in that acidic environment. To complicate things, our own digestive tracts are also acidic, and don't kill the acid-tolerant 0157 strains.

The diet of feedlot cows is at the root of some of the problems.

Pollan talks about both the antibiotics issue and the acidity in a Fresh Air interview:
http://www.math.uic.edu/~takata/some_articles/FreshAir_Michael_Pollon_on...

I agree with Dick Parker's comment about the greatness of Ben Garvin.

I happen to also agree with Dick's comment about how unbelievably awesome Ben is. Thanks uncle Dick!

That, and they are standing in, around, near too much poop all day, yes?