Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

As the only news agency with reporters in all 50 statehouses across the country, The Associated Press is well-positioned to break important state government news. A recent report by an enterprising journalist in Minnesota revealed that 145 local officials earn more than the governor. A staff memo from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains:

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

The disparity jumped out at St. Paul newsman Brian Bakst. While reporting a routine story, he noticed the salary disclosure on a city/county website. A local official, according to the website, made substantially more in salary than the state’s governor.

That little nugget led him to research what had happened across the state since the legislature relaxed what had been a rigid salary cap for local officials. The cap had tied their salaries – and their raises – to the governor’s. He picked away at the story over the next six weeks as time allowed. Eventually, he had compiled salary data from 126 Minnesota cities and counties to report his overall findings: the salaries of city and county top employees had risen sharply since the law was relaxed. In some cases, the pay for a single position had shot up more than $40,000 in about eight years. This reporting emerged just as the state was considering pay raises for its top employees.

Bakst found that at least 145 city or county officials making more than the governor’s $120,303. And as he smartly pointed out in the story, that’s just their base pay. That doesn’t include car allowances and other benefits that add to the compensation package. In addition, he noted that the number of highly compensated workers might be higher than 145 because localities only have to list their top three earners.

After writing the story, Bakst emailed his spreadsheet with localization tips to members around the state as part of the package’s promotion three days ahead of publication. “This looks awesome … thanks,” wrote the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin, who used his own localized version on A1 and Bakst’s statewide story inside.

Bakst also earned front-page play across the state and those that didn’t run his story, ran their localized version using data Bakst had sent them – and credited the AP. The story ranked among the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s most-read.

For smart, enterprising reporting, and for going the extra mile to help members make the story their own, Brian Bakst wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

The Associated Press today published a major investigative report by Washington bureau journalists Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo showing that the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, polluting water and destroying habitat.

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

Here, Ted Bridis, the lead editor on the months-long investigation, describes what went into reporting the hidden, dirty cost of this green energy source:

What prompted AP to explore the topic of ethanol?
This year, among other stories, the Washington investigative team has been exploring some of the little-known costs and consequences of green energy. This project developed out of reporting by and conversations with Dina Cappiello, our excellent environmental reporter, who was “loaned” to our investigations team in the newsroom away from her everyday specialty beat responsibilities to work on some longer-term reporting efforts.

What were the most striking findings?
We were able to conservatively quantify how many acres farmers had set aside for conservation purposes but, driven in part by Washington’s biofuels mandate, had been converted to crops. The figure was at least five million acres _ more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined _ that have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

We also conducted by computer a satellite-imagery analysis to show how many more acres of pristine grassland in the Corn Belt had been plowed into cornfields or soybeans since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Insiders revealed to our reporters how the government’s analysis of ethanol’s carbon dioxide footprint was flawed and influenced by input from the industry. But in many ways no one in government is keeping track of its environmental toll.  

I also think one of our findings was how friendly and accommodating we found farmers and others in the Midwest when our journalists visited and explained the story we were investigating; many farmers, especially, explained they were genuinely conflicted by economic forces, chasing corn profits at the expense of continued conservation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this project?
The tale of U.S. ethanol policy is complicated for many different audiences: farmers, motorists, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others. Turning months of reporting about agricultural and energy policies, scores of interviews and hefty data analyses into a narrative that readers will find compelling and informative is always a challenge.

How did you draw on AP’s resources — around the world and in the 50 states — to do it?
This project represents the efforts of dozens of AP journalists, photographers, video producers, data experts, editors and others who helped in its production

See the AP reporting here, which includes companion photos, video and a detailed interactive. Join a conversation about the AP’s reporting on ethanol today at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.

AP statement on CPJ report

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report today on the Obama administration and the press that references the secret seizure of AP phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year.

Read today’s AP news story about the report, which includes the following statement from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll:

“The report highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in the United States, a country that has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.

“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity. That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.”

How a reporter discovered lobbyists get state pensions

A tip received in the New York Statehouse, shared with other AP statehouse reporters across the country, leads to the news that public pensions are available to hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay gives the backstory:

It was a tip that walked in the door. A former Albany journalist who stopped by AP’s New York Capitol bureau to say hello offered a jaw-dropping piece of information: He had just landed a job lobbying for the New York Conference of Mayors and was surprised to learn that the non-governmental job came with a special government perk — a full state pension.

So Capitol reporter Michael Gormley started to dig. At first, officials who oversee the New York state pension system told him they were unaware that lobbyists for eight private associations representing counties, cities and school boards were entitled to state pensions. So Gormley filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and found that the state indeed offers lobbyists that benefit, on the premise that they serve governments and the public.

Stephen Acquario

In this May 9, 2013 file photo, Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, attends a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Acquario is among hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states who get public pensions because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Gormley also was able to obtain the names of people falling into that category, along with some financial data. Among the people pinpointed were the executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties, who already makes $204,000 annually and gets a company car, and New York Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter Baynes, who makes $196,000 a year and also gets a company vehicle. Both will retire with full state pensions.

But Gormley didn’t stop there. With the assistance of East Desk editor Amy Fiscus, he enlisted his statehouse colleagues across the country to determine that a similar pension benefit is offered to hundreds of such lobbyists in at least 20 states. Several states are questioning whether the practice is proper, and two states — New Jersey and Illinois — have legislation pending to end it.

For thinking beyond his state’s borders to produce a smart piece of accountability journalism that once again underscores the value of AP’s statehouse reporting, Gormley wins this week’s Best of the States $300 prize.

AP statement on DOJ review of media guidelines

“The Associated Press is gratified that the Department of Justice took our concerns seriously. The description of the new guidelines released today indicates they will result in meaningful, additional protection for journalists. We’ll obviously be reviewing them more closely when the actual language of the guidelines is released, but we are heartened by this step.”

Erin Madigan White
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Associated Press

Read the AP news story.

AP CEO lays out 5 measures to ensure press freedom

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

In the wake of a secret seizure of AP journalists’ phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice last month, Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the overbroad action is already having a chilling effect on journalism.

In a speech today at the National Press Club in Washington, Pruitt, a First Amendment lawyer by training, outlined five steps that are “imperative to give meaning to the powers spelled out” in the Constitution to safeguard press freedom:  

  • “First: We want the Department of Justice to recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government. This would have given AP the chance to point out the many failings of the subpoena. We believe notice was required under existing regulations; if the DOJ sees it differently, then regulations must be strengthened to remove any doubt.
  • Second: We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained. In the AP phone records case, the Justice Department determined, on its own, that advance notice could be skipped, with no checks from any other branch of government. Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.
  • Third: We want the DOJ guidelines updated to bring them into the 21st century. The guidelines were created before the Internet era. They didn’t foresee emails or text.  The guidelines need to ensure that the protections afforded journalists from the forced disclosure of information encompass all forms of communication.
  • Fourth: We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action.
  • Fifth: We want the Department to formally institutionalize what Attorney General Holder has said: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.  The Department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen.  This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”

Read the full text of Pruitt’s prepared remarks.

Read the AP news story.

AP’s everyday work of seeking access to government information, with names attached

The rules by which journalists engage with government officials can sound arcane. “Background briefing.” “Off the record.” “Not for direct attribution.” But arguments over applying these rules are part of a struggle that really matters. Most democratic countries explicitly promise the right to speak and publish freely. But often only implied is the right to gather the information you want to speak about or publish, or to have someone gather it on the public’s behalf.

Which is why, at the AP, we see it as our everyday job to argue for access to the workings of government and the information government holds. Government officials increasingly offer to provide official information only on the condition that they are not identified as the source. These so-called background or off-the-record briefings are popular in government because officials can present information without taking responsibility for it. Without attribution it is hard for citizens to know whom in government to hold accountable. We believe anonymity should be reserved for sources who want to share important information with the public but could lose their job, or even their life, if they were identified. That clearly isn’t a risk for most government officials when they insist briefings be “on background.”

So AP journalists are instructed to ask that briefings be on the record. Sometimes they succeed. When government officials refuse, our journalists are instructed to use their best judgment about whether the information is important enough, and credible enough, to distribute despite the restrictions.

The struggle for access is not only about words. The White House often bars photojournalists from events with the president. The only images of those events are thus by government-employed photographers. You get to see only what the White House wants you to see. In those cases the AP generally declines to distribute the government handout photos, unless the restrictions were unavoidable.

The importance we place on being allowed to gather the news without interference was given a great deal of attention after it was revealed last month that the Justice Department had thrown an investigative drift net over the phone records of some of our reporters and editors to identify their sources. We protested, vehemently. As AP CEO Gary Pruitt said, this was an unprecedented intrusion and chilled our ability to gather news. The case was unusual, but our position flowed from the work we do each day to assure access to the workings of governments all around the world.

AP CEO: Secret seizure of phone records ‘unconstitutional’

Image

In this Sunday, May 19, 2013, photo provided by CBS News, Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, discusses the leak investigation that led to his reporters’ phone records being subpoenaed by the Justice Department on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in Washington. (AP Photo/CBS, Chris Usher)

Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the U.S. Justice Department’s sweeping and secret seizure of journalists’ telephone records “unconstitutional” during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Pruitt, a former First Amendment attorney, told host Bob Schieffer that the DOJ acted as “judge, jury and executioner” with the overbroad action and said it would have a negative impact on journalism. Some officials are already telling AP they’re “a little reluctant” to talk and fear they’re being monitored by the government, he said.

Read or watch the AP news story.

Updated: AP responds to latest DOJ letter

Statement from May 14, 2013

From Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press:

We appreciate the DOJ’s prompt response, but it does not adequately address our concerns. The letter simply restates the law and claims that officials have complied with it. There are three significant concerns:

The scope of the subpoena was overbroad under the law, given that it involved seizing records from a broad range of telephones across AP’s newsgathering operation. More than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones. How can we consider this inquiry to be narrowly drawn?

Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation. They offer no explanation of this, however.

Instead they captured the telephone numbers between scores of AP journalists and the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news. How would narrowing the scope of the phone records have compromised their investigation?

In their response today, the DOJ says the seized records cover only a portion of April and May of 2012. However, in their original notification to us on May 10, they say they have “received toll records from April and May 2012,” and then list 20 different numbers for AP offices and staff.

Finally, they say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.

We believe it is related to AP’s May 2012 reporting that the U.S. government had foiled a plot to put a bomb on an airliner to the United States. We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.

The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it.

Statement from May 13, 2013

The U.S. Department of Justice notified The Associated Press on Friday, May 10, that it had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines.

AP is asking the DOJ for an immediate explanation of the extraordinary action and for the records to be returned to AP and all copies destroyed.  

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt protested the massive intrusion into AP’s newsgathering activities in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, May 13.

In the letter Pruitt states:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

Read the AP news story.

Former AP White House photographer honored for ‘Lifetime Achievement’

Former Associated Press Senior White House photographer Ron Edmonds is being honored by the White House News Photographers Association with its Lifetime Achievement Award. It will be presented at the 2013 “Eyes of History” annual awards gala on Saturday, May 11, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

Image

President Barack Obama congratulates AP White House Photographer Ron Edmonds, with his wife Grace and daughter Ashley, upon his retirement from AP. (White House photo by Lawrence Jackson, July 30, 2009)

Edmonds is “the quintessential Washington photojournalist,” said J. David Ake, AP assistant chief of bureau for photography in Washington. “Many of his images have stood the test of time and are now icons in our collective memory. He was arguably during his Washington tenure, the AP’s most published photographer.”

In interviews with AP and PBS, Edmonds offered recollections of his fascinating career and the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan — a split-second that he captured and that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

“I have had one of the most fantastic jobs in the world,” Edmonds told colleagues in an email upon his retirement from AP after 28 years. “It has allowed me to work with some of the greatest journalists in the world and to make images of some of the biggest events in the last thirty years. I hope that in some small way, I have helped the Associated Press maintain its prominence as the number-one news organization.”