Coverage of Egregious Injustice, Abuse of Power and Brutal Murder Among 16 Winners
WASHINGTON, DC (Feb. 19, 2019) – In a ceremony held in the First Amendment Lounge at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Long Island University (LIU) announced the winners of the 70th annual George Polk Awards in Journalism, citing reporting that exposed miscarriages of justice and wrongful dealings in politics and business at home, and the massacre and starvation of innocent civilians abroad.
Among the journalists honored for their work in 2018 were two Reuters correspondents imprisoned in Myanmar after uncovering the slaughter of Rohingya villagers, a writer who risked his life in Iraq to document revenge heaped upon questionable ISIS collaborators, and two of Jamal Khashoggi’s Washington Post colleagues who sought to hold Saudi Arabian authorities accountable for his murder.
Reporters won in 16 categories. One revealed how a federal prosecutor now in President Donald Trump’s cabinet helped a wealthy sexual predator avoid a lengthy prison sentence in Florida. Another amassed evidence of ballot fraud in a disputed North Carolina Congressional election. A third trekked to the far reaches of war-torn Yemen to provide visual proof of rampant famine and death.
A team of reporters in Louisiana showed that convictions from split juries disproportionately impacted non-white defendants. Another team in Arizona combed records to reveal false claims and insider deals in the charter school industry. A third converged on the southern border and then spread across the country to show the traumatic effects of separating children from parents and other relatives under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of immigration.
Reporters analyzed a voluminous trove of documents to trace President Trump’s personal wealth to gifts from his father rather than to his own business acumen. Others documented how the social media giants of Silicon Valley misled regulators and the public, and empowered hucksters and propagandists as they followed the quest for ever larger growth. In medical news, winners demonstrated that widely marketed medical devices subject to lax federal oversight endangered patients. In local news, two reporters forced changes at a prestigious Florida hospital after reporting the deaths of 11 young heart patients in 18 months, three in one week.
For the first time, the twelve Polk judges awarded a prize for a podcast. It went to “In the Dark, Season Two,” which cast grave doubts on the guilt of an African-American currently on Mississippi’s death row who was tried six times for the same crime.
“The Polk Awards recognize the changing landscape of news,” said John Darnton, curator of the awards. “The story of a person who in all likelihood is wrongly convicted is tried and true. But the podcast, as a delivery vehicle spread over multiple episodes that makes listeners feel it is unfolding in real time right before their ears, is a new and exciting reincarnation.”
Darnton noted that the judges had reviewed 554 submissions, a record number since the Polk Awards began. “Few years have been as fruitful as this one,” he added. “These winners tell us that the best of our journalists remain resilient, courageous, dedicated and undeterred by attacks on their ability and integrity.”
Bill Siemering, 84 years old, a pioneering force in public radio who wrote the initial mission statement for National Public Radio and was instrumental in launching such enduring programs as “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air,” will be the 37th recipient of the George Polk Career Award.
The George Polk Awards are conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism. The awards place a premium on investigative and enterprising reporting that gains attention and achieves results. They were established in 1949 by LIU to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.
Below are the winners of the 2018 George Polk Awards:
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Reuters receive the award for Foreign Reporting for “Massacre in Myanmar,” establishing that paramilitary police executed 10 Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din. They located a mass grave filled with bones sticking out of the ground and found photos of the execution. Faced with such evidence, Myanmar authorities announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in the massacre, to this date the only government admission of wrongdoing against the Rohingya minority. The reporters, members of the Buddhist majority, were convicted of violating their nation’s official secrets act and are serving seven years in prison despite global efforts to free them.
The award for National Reporting goes to the staff of The New York Times for a series of investigative reports focusing on how social media titans like Facebook maximized profits and misled regulators as well as the public with little regard for the consequences of failing to monitor misuse that included the widespread dissemination of hate-mongering, invasion of privacy and filing false reports. The Times’ stories prodded governmental action across the globe and caused millions of consumers to rethink their use of the Internet.
Jeff Adelson, Gordon Russell, John Simerman and the staff of The Advocate of New Orleans receive the award for State Reporting for a data-driven investigation of the roots and impact of a Louisiana law allowing 10-2 jury verdicts instead of the unanimity required in 48 states. Reporters found that 40% of that state’s felony trial convictions were by split verdict contributing to a staggering imprisonment rate, especially for blacks who comprise a third of Louisiana’s population but two-thirds of its inmates. Seizing on the findings, legislators and then voters amended the state constitution to change the law.
The award for Local Reporting is awarded to Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi of the Tampa Bay Times for “Heartbroken,” an investigative series revealing that 11 patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., had died during and after heart surgery in an 18-month span, three in one week. They traced some deaths to such shoddy work as burst sutures and failed patches despite futile pleas by frontline medical staffers that the hospital was risking young lives. After the series was published, six administrators lost their jobs and the hospital’s Baltimore-based parent institution ceased such surgery in the Florida hospital pending an independent investigator’s report.
David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner of The New York Times are honored for Political Reporting for an 18-month study of President Trump’s financial history revealing that, far from the product of his business acumen, Trump’s personal wealth derives from his inherited fortune and what the paper called “dubious tax schemes.” Starting with three pages from a 20-year-old tax return, the reporters produced a 13,000-word account demonstrating the mythology of Trump’s persona as a self-made business leader who turned a $1 million loan from his father into a fortune. In fact, the paper reported, starting when he was just three years old, Donald Trump inherited at least $413 million.
The award for Medical Reporting goes to Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Amy Herdy for “The Bleeding Edge,” a documentary aired by Netflix that delved into the failure of risk-prone medical devices brought to the market without clinical trials and implanted in patients by physicians who can lack appropriate training for the surgical procedures involved. This documentary, which attributed numerous deaths and injuries to corporate greed as well as lax government regulation, was especially critical of the birth-control device Essure, which was developed with funding from a former FDA commissioner. The Bayer Corporation pulled Essure from the market days before “The Bleeding Edge” first aired.
Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald is honored in the Justice Reporting category for “Perversion of Justice,” a series that solved an old mystery: How did Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy hedge fund manager who sexually abused under-age girls as young as 14 and lured them into prostitution, wangle a plea deal allowing him to serve 13 months on local work release rather than serious federal prison time? Brown traced the deal to a secret meeting between Alexander Acosta, then a federal prosecutor, and a former colleague of Acosta’s in a prestigious Washington law firm. Following the meeting, Brown reported, Acosta initiated a non-prosecution agreement for Epstein that played down the nature of his crimes and essentially shut down a pending FBI investigation. Brown identified 80 victims, tracked down 60 of them and persuaded eight to go on the record. The Herald’s series evoked a huge outcry that cost Acosta, now U.S. Secretary of Labor, any chance of attaining his next career goal as President Trump’s Attorney General.
The staff of ProPublica wins the award for Immigration Reporting for “Zero Tolerance,” a series of reports that dramatically altered the conversation about the Trump Administration’s strategy of separating children from adults accused of entering the U.S. illegally along the southern border in a thinly veiled deterrence effort. By June, some 2,300 of them had been separated in two months when a ProPublica reporter obtained an audio recording of the cries of 10 Central American children screaming for their parents while a Border Patrol agent joked, “We have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.” Subsequent stories revealed intolerable conditions at federal shelters, including hundreds of allegations of sex abuse that, abetted by reporting from other news organizations, forced the end of family separations as part of the “zero tolerance” policy.
The award for Education Reporting goes to Craig Harris, Anne Ryman, Alden Woods and Justin Price of The Arizona Republic for initially disclosing insider deals, no-bid contracts and political chicanery that provided windfall profits for investors in a number of prominent Arizona charter schools, often at the expense of underfunded public schools that educate all but 30,000 of Arizona’s 1.1 million students. Subsequent reports revealed that the state’s charter schools had evolved from locally supported alternatives to large chains, including two with business ties to Gov. Doug Ducey that received inordinate state support. The reporters found that charter schools used up nearly two-thirds of $143 million in low-interest state construction loans established for all schools, spent more on administration and less on classroom teaching than public schools did, and failed to outperform neighboring public schools. Legislative reform is on the horizon; even Ducey, a strong charter school advocate, has called for change.
Photojournalist Larry C. Price along with contributing reporters for Undark Magazine, a non-profit online publication, is honored with the award for Environmental Reporting for “Breathtaking,” a series of reports from seven countries on five continents illustrating the sources and effects of deadly particulate pollutants. Price’s striking photos and videos were accompanied by text from authors in India, Bangladesh, China, Chile, Nigeria, Macedonia and the U.S. (from California’s San Joaquin Valley, where fine airborne particles are byproducts of farm practices by agribusinesses that produce a quarter of America’s food supply). Undark, which made the reports available to major publications across the globe at no cost, received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for the project.
The award for Magazine Reporting goes to Ben Taub of The New Yorker for “Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge,” a firsthand account of the detention of more than 100,000 Iraqis and summary execution of hundreds, mostly members of the country’s Sunni minority, found to have collaborated with ousted ISIS occupation forces by vengeful Shiites in sham trials featuring confessions extracted by torture. In one stunning example, after a man made a persuasive case that he was a victim of mistaken identity, it took nine minutes for a Shiite tribunal to convict him anyway. Repeatedly threatened and detained by militias during his three weeks in Iraq, Taub pressed on to document an important story largely ignored in the West. Taub was also honored last year for his account of the devastating effects of Lake Chad’s shrinkage, making him the eighth back-to-back Polk laureate and the first in 20 years.
PBS NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson wins the award for Foreign Television Reporting for her graphic reports portraying victims of the humanitarian disaster resulting from the proxy war fought between forces allied with Saudi Arabia and Iran in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen. Ferguson flew into southern Yemen and slipped away from Saudi authorities who had barred reporters from going north. Garbed in Yemeni woman’s attire to avoid detection, she crossed areas dominated by Al Qaeda fighters to reach places where famine and disease were taking their highest toll in what she characterized as the weaponization of hunger as a tool of war in her PBS dispatches as well as a New Yorker Magazine essay.
The award for Local Television Reporting goes to Joe Bruno of WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., for stories that helped establish with certainty that McCrae Dowless, a Republican political consultant, orchestrated a plot to destroy some properly cast absentee ballots and fraudulently include others in a rural North Carolina Congressional race that the GOP candidate led by 905 votes. His interest piqued by a state election board’s initial refusal to certify the results, Bruno and his crew travelled well out of the station’s normal coverage area to locate unsuspecting victims who had handed their ballots to Dowless’s operatives and subsequently found two women who confessed to the election fraud in interviews aired across the nation and online. Well into 2019, the election result was still unsettled.
Reporter Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark of Minnesota-based APM Reports are honored for “In the Dark: Season Two.” Baran and Freemark’s work make a detailed and compelling case for the innocence of death-row inmate Curtis Flowers who has been tried and convicted a sixth time (following five successful appeals) for the 1996 murder of four people in a furniture store in the tiny Mississippi town of Winona, a crime he swears he did not commit. Buoyed by evidence the AMP reporters had uncovered that includes a key witness recantation, Flowers’ lawyers gained a rare writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear his appeal this spring.
A Special Award is presented to columnist David Ignatius and Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah of The Washington Post for their eloquence and resolve in demanding accountability from the Saudi Arabian government and candor from the Trump Administration in the wake of the gruesome murder of their colleague and friend, Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In column after column, nine in all, Ignatius hammered home the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s likely role in Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment, a connection U.S. intelligence agencies established despite President Trump’s equivocation, and Attiah, who had recruited Khashoggi as a Post contributor and hired him as a columnist, came out from behind her editor’s desk to wage a public campaign on behalf of the truth.
Bill Siemering, the Career laureate, began broadcasting at the University of Wisconsin student station, WHA. He then spent eight years as general manager of WBFO on the SUNY Buffalo campus, transforming it into a reliable chronicler of Vietnam-era dissent and a valued forum for dialogue and debate. After passage of Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Siemering joined the founding board of NPR and became its first director of programming. In later years he fostered the establishment of independent radio in nations across Africa.
Winners of the 2018 awards will be honored at a luncheon ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan on Friday, April 5. The journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault will read the award citations and will also moderate this year’s David J. Steinberg Seminar of the George Polk Awards, “After 70 Years, Still Honoring Reporters Who Seek to Right Wrongs,” on Thursday evening, April 4, at LIU Brooklyn’s Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts. Several of this year’s award winners are expected to take part in the seminar, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
John Darnton, Polk Awards Curator, 917-306-8046,
Ralph Engelman, Polk Awards Faculty Coordinator, 718-757-9294, Ralph.Engelman@liu.edu
About Long Island University (LIU)
LIU, founded in 1926, is a nationally recognized teaching and research institution which continues to redefine higher education. Recognized by Forbes for its emphasis on experiential learning and by the Brookings Institution for its “value added” to student outcomes, as well as accolades and recognitions from US News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education. LIU’s network of 200,000 alumni includes industry leaders and entrepreneurs across the globe. LIU’s renowned faculty, the LIU Promise student mentoring program, innovation in engaged learning, further distinguish LIU as a leader among the nation’s most respected universities. Visit liu.edu for more information.