A Q&A with AP’s health law expert

Viewers of C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” today got the chance to interact with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press’ expert on the rollout of the nation’s new health insurance system. During the 45-minute segment, he took questions from callers and discussed trends in national health care spending and health law costs.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Among the key points he underscored:

  • Health care costs are rising, but not as fast as they used to. “It’s rising more or less in line with the overall growth of the economy, which is, if you think of it, a lot of money that the U.S. still spends for health care, but it becomes more affordable when that bill is rising more or less in line with the growth of the economy rather than galloping ahead,” he said.
  • The new law may leave some Americans who have a serious chronic illness “underinsured” because their annual out-of-pocket costs could still be high.
  • The law has varying effects across the states. For example, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand Medicaid, but the other 25 have not, which can impact health insurance affordability for low-income patients.

AP, which has reporters in all 50 states — a footprint unmatched by any other news organization — is providing comprehensive coverage and support for member news organizations in localizing stories as the law is being implemented across the states.

Why AP is publishing story about missing American tied to CIA

The Associated Press today is publishing an article about serious blunders at the Central Intelligence Agency and an effort to cover them up. At the heart of the story is a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who was recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA. Without any authority to do so, the analysts sent Levinson into Iran, where he disappeared in 2007.

His condition and whereabouts are not known and the Iranian government says it has no information.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains why AP decided to publish this story:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

AP calls for greater White House access in New York Times op-ed

UPDATED: Dec. 11, 2013

Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography, wrote this opinion piece published in The New York Times: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.
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Nov. 21, 2013

The Associated Press today reiterated its call for greater access to President Barack Obama for photographers who cover the White House.

“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” said a letter delivered today to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that was signed by AP and many other news organizations. “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”

The letter echoed concerns raised by AP since President Obama’s first days in office in 2009.

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon underscored key points in the dispute:

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

What is The AP seeking?
The AP and other media organizations are seeking more regular photo access to the President in the Oval Office and elsewhere as he performs official duties or meets with staff. While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents. We believe we should have access to a wider selection of presidential events where we know access to be possible.

Don’t we already see photos of these occasions?
A small group of photographers and a videographer, collectively known as the “travel pool,” enjoys some access to the Oval Office and other presidential activities but increasingly the Obama administration labels events as “private” before then releasing official photos shot by White House photographers such as Pete Souza.

These images are posted on the White House Flickr page — http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse — where they are available for free.

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela's cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela’s cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

The photos on that page are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?

What sort of situations have the media been excluded from?
The media were prevented from documenting the President’s first day on the job – surely an historic occasion. In addition, we have been denied access to legislation being signed as well as notable foreign leaders and other visitors of interest, such as the Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai. In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

And AP isn’t the only news organization with this complaint?
The AP joined with numerous other news organizations, including all the major television networks, as well as media umbrella organizations such as APME, ASNE and the White House Correspondents’ Association to protest this diminished access in a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. In that letter we also requested a meeting with Mr. Carney to discuss the issue.

Hasn’t the AP used White House photos in the past?
We recognize that certain areas of the White House are off-limits to the media because they are secure or private areas, such as the President’s living quarters. On those occasions where something newsworthy or notable happens in these areas we sometimes distribute the official photos. Each such scenario is considered on a case-by-case basis. To be clear – we are asking to be allowed consistent, independent access into the room when the President signs legislation, greets visitors of note, or otherwise discharges his public duties.

Read a PDF of the letter to Carney.

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.