Despite Budget Woes, Investigative Reporting
Sets the Pace at Silurians Awards Dinner
This one’s for the investigators.
Today’s press corps, faced with crippling budget cuts that have stripped its ranks of reporters and editors at all forms of major media, and forced to deal with determined and dangerous opposition from governments here and abroad that increasingly puts lives, as well as livelihoods, on the line, continues to produce some of the best and most courageous coverage in the long annals of journalism. For almost three-quarters of a century, the Silurians Press Club (formerly known as the Society of the Silurians) has been honoring the men and women whose work honors all of us. The Silurians Excellence in Journalism Awards Dinner, a tradition that began in 1945, continued on May 15, when the outstanding stories and images of 2018 were applauded by an audience of close to 100 members and guests at the National Arts Club in New York.
For the first time, the format of the Awards Dinner included two key changes. The presentation of the Peter Kihss Award, usually a major component of the evening, was instead shifted to the April lunch, when it was given to Rich Lamb of WCBS Newsradio. An addition to the Awards Dinner was a keynote speaker: Debby Krenek, publisher of the Newsday Media Group and former editor-in-chief of two of New York’s major daily newspapers, Newsday and the New York Daily News. Krenek’s comments, touching on the problems affecting the media’s bottom line but failing to keep it from doing outstanding work, set the tone for the evening.
The awards presentation were made by Silurian president David A. Andelman and two former presidents: Betsy Ashton and Mort Sheinman.
The New York Times, Newsday and The Record/NorthJersey.com were big winners in this year’s competition, with demonstrations of investigative reporting that took time, money and guts. Newsday, for example, captured the President’s Choice Medallion for its extraordinary investigation that exposed a complex web of corruption between politicians and the business, law enforcement and legal communities of Long Island. For more than four years, a battalion of Newsday reporters and researchers conducted hundreds of interviews, pored over thousands of government documents and developed inside sources, the result of which was “Pathway To Power,” a special 48-page, 30,000-word Sunday supplement published in March 2018.
The central figure in the story was Gary Melius, a onetime street hoodlum who became the owner of Long Island’s unofficial political clubhouse, a grand, Gatsbyesque estate in Huntington called Oheka Castle. Along with hosting celebrity weddings or providing the background for music videos by rock stars, Oheka became the place where high-ranking public officials, political leaders and law enforcement brass huddled over food and drink, played poker, anointed and cross-endorsed candidates and otherwise sliced up the public pie.
Other winning entries also featured outstanding investigative work, several of them putting a hot light on the Trump business empire.
The New York Times investigative team of David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner won the Medallion for Investigative Reporting by telling the complex story of the legally dubious financial history of the Trump family business. It demonstrated that Trump received today’s equivalent of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire and that much of it came from questionable tax schemes during the 1990s, including outright fraud.
On their way to winning the Medallion for Radio News Reporting, WNYC Radio and ProPublica combined their staffs to produce “Trump Inc.,” a year-long series of podcasts that uncovered wrongdoing and conflicts of interest in the Trump business empire.
The Associated Press Trump Business Team dug deeply into the business activities of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who continue to serve as White House advisers without divesting their extensive financial holdings, with hard-hitting investigative reporting that exposed glaring conflicts of interest. For their reporting, the AP team won a Merit Award for Business and Financial Reporting.
The exhaustive research work of James O’Neill, Scott Fallon and photojournalist Chris Padota of The Record/NorthJersey.com resulted in “Toxic Secrets: Pollution, Evasion and Fear in New Jersey,” which won the Medallion for Environmental Reporting. The four-part series uncovered how DuPont downplayed the dire health risks posed by cancer-causing groundwater contamination at its now closed munitions manufacturing plant in Pompton Lakes, N.J.
Newsday reporter Will Van Sant’s “Hands to the Neck” exposé won for Public Service Reporting. It took Van Sant a year to conduct deep research, collecting documents, developing sources and using old fashioned shoe leather to get the story. It revealed scores of non-fatal strangulation attacks in state-run or state-supervised hospital and other medical facilities. Van Sant’s reporting detailed how Patricia Gunning, the former special prosecutor and inspector general at the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, was stymied in her attempt to study and combat the phenomenon, which often involved employees acting against vulnerable individuals under state care. Van Sant’s piece spurred calls for Congressional action.
Kevin Armstrong won for Sports Reporting for taking a close look at an FBI probe into the way businessmen and coaches schemed to funnel six-figure payments from sneaker companies to the families of star high school basketball players. When Armstrong wrote it, he was working in the sports department of the New York Daily News. When the News let half its editorial staff go in 2018, Armstrong was among the casualties. But he bounced back and now covers the Mets for The New York Times.
The Medallion for Sports Photography went to J. Conrad Williams Jr. of Newsday for his emotion-filled series of pictures spotlighting an irate Serena Williams confronting chair umpire Carlos Ramos after some controversial calls in the finals of the U.S. Tennis Open that likely cost her the title.
Strong investigative and research skills were also at work at the Norwood News, a community weekly that covers the Northwest Bronx. The paper’s Housing Matters series, written by editor David Cruz, won a Merit Award for Feature Writing when it found that the city’s plans for creating affordable housing may be beyond the means of many Bronx residents.
In the Reporting on Minority Issues category, Christine Veiga and Samuel Park of Chalkbeat, a non-profit editorial website covering education, won the Medallion for a series of articles on community pushback against the proposed integration of middle schools on New York’s Upper West Side.
Extraordinary reporting and writing were abundant.
In “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail,” Dan Barry and Jeffrey Singer of The New York Times won the Medallion for Feature Reporting by telling the tragic life-and-death story of a young Chinese woman caught up in the illicit massage/prostitution trade that was a big business along one street in the Chinatown area of Flushing, Queens.
Jim Dwyer of The New York Times won the Medallion for Commentary by bringing the lives of everyday, working New Yorkers to life in his columns, digging deep to uncover wrongdoing that sent innocent men and women to prison.
The New York Times garnered five Medallion and three Merit Awards; Newsday won three Medallions and five Merit Awards and The Record/NorthJersey.com won four Medallions.