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This is GREAT, Peter ...btw, we had the to founders of ProPublica up to lunch last year at The Silurians:


A peek behind the curtain

By David A. Andelman

The astonishing revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas began with a threat from Paul Steiger’s wife.

The longtime managing editor of The Wall Street Journal was on the cusp of retirement, having reached the ridiculous compulsory retirement age of 65. “My wife said the first time I find you at home in sweatpants, it’s not divorce, it’s murder,” Steiger recalled to a packed luncheon meeting of Silurians at the National Arts Club in September. “And lo and behold, I got a phone call from a billionaire couple named Herb and Marion Sandler.”

They were giving away boatloads of cash and felt a “growing need for investigative reporting.” How about, say, $10 million a year, just to get you started? Steiger said yes to the offer. And so, 15 years ago, ProPublica—which this year unfurled those headline-making Thomas reports—was born.

Enter Stephen Engelberg, editor of the Portland newspaper The Oregonian, whose Pulitzer entries had caught Steiger’s eye, following a stellar career as a New York Times correspondent in early post-communist Poland, followed by a star turn as The Times’ investigative editor. He became the founding managing editor of Steiger’s fledgling enterprise and is now its editor-in-chief.

Some 1,100 resumes promptly flooded in as soon as it became known what kind of game was afoot. Real estate mogul Sam Zell, owner of the Los Angeles Times, only helped the process by suggesting to his staff, “If I say you put f’in puppies on the f’in front page that’s what it’ll be.” Not surprisingly, of the first 18 hires, a half dozen were from the Los Angeles Times.

Then there was the “secret sauce.” As Engelberg put it, you hire “curious, energetic people, send them in promising directions, and let them follow their instincts. The story should come from the bottom up, not the top down.”

One of the first was Sheri Fink’s scoop in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—the inside story of a leading New Orleans hospital where doctors played god, injecting with lethal doses of morphine patients they thought might not be capable of fleeing flood waters rising inexorably from floor to floor in the facility.

Steiger said eighteen got the yellow diamonds pinned on them. “A number died.” He said a relative of one patient sent a boat to the third floor window, rescued the patient. Engelberg recalled, “The New York Times decided to put it on the cover of their magazine.”

David A. Andelman, Silurian president emeritus and moderator of the luncheon event (and author of this article), recalled he had voted to award the same piece a National Magazine Award.

An editor at ProPublica must “be more patient than you could imagine,” Engelberg said. “Because great reporters will ultimately—through the chaotic, misdirection, errors, and then redirection—they will find their way. And if you trust great reporters with great ideas, you’re going to end up with stories like this.”

“If there’s any secret source—it boils down to trust your reporters,” Engleberg said. “With almost every success ProPublica ever had, there was a moment where a sane person would have quit before the good stuff arrived.”

The Clarence Thomas investigation began with ProPublica’s top editors musing that 2024 would be “an epochal year for American democracy, Engelberg said, “and we should have a group of people who are thinking about various aspects of the democratic system under threat, or change, or stress.” One of these was the courts. What better court to begin with than the United States Supreme Court?

“We were lucky to be able to search the internet in all kinds of creative ways,” Engelberg recalled. “I will say this, there is an ability now through software to search for people’s photos, people put stuff on Facebook, and it’s out there and we found photos of Harlan Crow…That was a sort of a great starting point. So, we did the first story, and then one of the reporters who was on a television appearance after that got a call from somebody who said, you know, Crow bought Thomas’s mother’s house in his hometown. And we thought, oh, that’s nuts.

“But the reporters got on a plane Monday morning at eight o’clock, got to the courthouse by lunch and had the records by dinner. And there it was. You know, we had to do a lot more work to kind of figure it all out.” But they had it, and indeed it went from there.

Clearly, ProPublica has come a long way from its earliest origins. From 25 editorial employees, it has grown to 180 reporters and editors—while Engelberg’s Oregonian saw its staff shrink to 70 from 420 full time editorial slots. From ProPublica’s first-year budget of $10 million, “coming into the 2016 election, we were planning a 2017 budget of roughly $17 million,” Engelberg said. “So, we had expanded 70% from the Sandler days. After Trump was elected, things changed. And today’s budget is roughly $41 million. It all [still] comes from donations. Basically, the model is somebody other than me on the business side raises lots of money, and I spend it.”

Indeed, there is an entire page on the ProPublica website whose headline is “Steal Our Stories.” That’s precisely what the editors and board of ProPublica want, even as they continue to partner with relevant media around the world—from the Washington Post to The New York Times who often vie to partner on any number of stories, to several Liberian outlets that featured a ProPublica probe of “an American run charity in Liberia, with the people who ran it abusing the children in their care,” said Engelberg. That sent demonstrators into the streets of Monrovia “chanting and waving signs about ProPublica.”

Somewhat surprisingly in these litigious times, ProPublica has been sued, but “we’ve never settled, we have prevailed each and every time, but the expense is not trivial,” Engelberg said. Clarence Thomas and his wife have not been among those who’ve threatened or sued. “We don’t hear much from them, interestingly enough. My sense is that if they have anything to say, we’ll read it in the Wall Street Journal editorial page.”

So, what’s next going into yet another extraordinary election year? Well, ProPublica has been thinking about that. “I think we have to continue to play the role in the democracy that the founders and people expect us to play, which is to be very clearly nonpartisan,” Engelberg said.

What are the unique ProPublica lanes for 2024? “The whole idea of ProPublica was, we don’t want to do a better story by 10% than what other people are going to do anyway,” Engelberg said. “We want to find a lane that hopefully is different and add something to what our very fine colleagues are doing. Money is a big thing for an organization like ours to cover. It’s harder and harder to track it. But you know, my email address is on the internet. If anybody has any brilliant ideas [about] covering 2024, feel free to send them to me.”

Sort of like how they found out about Justice Thomas’s adopted child whose tuition was paid by Harlan Crow. “That came from a teacher in the school,” Engelberg smiled, “So I mean people do call, and we follow up on it, and it is often quite productive.”

David A. Andelman, a Silurians president-emeritus publishes the SubStack site, Andelman Unleashed. ( https://daandelman.substack.com )

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