Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Journalists keep watch on the powerful

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

At least 18 journalists around the world have been verified as killed this year by government officials, criminals, military and others.

Last week Egypt convicted three journalists it didn’t like and threw them in prison.

It’s a treacherous backdrop to the role of journalists as public watchdog. You might wonder why anyone is crazy enough to head into a dangerous street, home or country so they can report to the public about what’s going on. You wouldn’t wonder long if you had a chance to ask them; these are people who take seriously their role to shine a light on those who are protecting their own interests rather than yours.

Among the summer tourists in San Francisco last week were some 1,500 journalists like that, attending the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. They arrived from all over the country, some on their own dime and some supported by their companies or foundations. Nine were from The Bee.

They were there to learn from the best in the industry as well as to learn technology skills that enable deeper reporting and investigative journalism that is faster and more accurate.

They share a belief that watchdog journalism is perhaps the single greatest service journalists can provide their communities. Even in small newsrooms, even as the news business is changing, many journalists continue to watch the powerful.

In Los Angeles this month it was the L.A. Times report from David Willman that the $40 billion Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that was supposed to protect the United States from missile attack doesn’t reliably work. In half of 16 tests, the system failed.

In Florida this year it was The Miami Herald’s report that 477 children died in six years because of a decision by the state Department of Children & Families to keep more at-risk children with their families even as it cut funding to keep an eye on those troubled families.

In Sacramento this month it was Charles Piller’s report in The Bee that a Caltrans decision to hire an inexperienced Chinese company to build significant parts of the $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge led to troubling construction problems that raise public safety concerns.

More reliable database reporting tools allow us to regularly publish reports like the story June 17 by Diana Lambert and Phillip Reese showing school districts spent 23 percent more on travel last year than three years earlier. Or the investigation by Jon Ortiz and Jim Miller on May 31 that showed state agencies routinely transfer employees to vacant positions to ensure they protect their budgets. Positions left unfilled for six months are supposed to be cut.

I’ve heard from some public employees who are angry about this kind of coverage. They think it sows distrust in government and validates extreme anti-government political views.

I don’t agree. The point of watchdog journalism is to provide a balance to power – power that relies on taxpayer dollars, power that is meant to serve the public, power that too often is manipulated by special interests, whether the very rich, corporations or labor unions.

That power might come from the private sector, such as when Chris Hansen, the hedge fund manager who failed in his bid to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle, secretly contributed $100,000 to a group trying to force a public vote on Sacramento’s public subsidy of a downtown arena. The Bee discovered the Hansen contribution, which violated state law, and he publicly apologized.

We take some heat when those in power don’t like our coverage, and sometimes we end up in court fighting for information. But the consequences of tough coverage for journalists in Sacramento are far different than for the three Al-Jazeera reporters in Egypt, all of whom previously worked for established international news organizations including The New York Times, the BBC and The Asahi Shimbun in Japan. They were sentenced to at least seven years in prison without evidence proving the allegation they conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood and broadcast false reports.

That verdict is a powerful symbol of what can happen when a government that cannot withstand public scrutiny becomes intolerant of a free press.

A successful democracy, though, relies upon scrutiny from an involved public and an aggressive press trained in skills like those presented the last few days at the IRE conference.

Last week U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller presided over the 2014 Judicial Learning Center Summer Institute, at which a couple of dozen civics teachers talked via videoconference with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Dan Morain, The Bee’s editorial page editor, was there as well.

Stephanie Cook, a teacher at George Washington Carver High School, asked Kennedy what he saw as the “biggest threat to democracy” in the United States. Kennedy’s reply? “Indifference.”

“This country has a purpose and a meaning and a destiny,” he said. “There is a sense that the only important thing is the here and now. It is almost narcissistic.”

Kennedy said education is imperative to counter that narcissism. That starts with grade school, but it ought not to end with high school or college. Education can be lifelong with a free and active press.