Susan Smith Richardson
Safeguarding Press Integrity for 2020
Air Date: September 16, 2019
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is the newest CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, Susan Smith Richardson. Our viewers may remember our last conversation on ‘leaks with integrity’ with predecessor Peter Bale, a former CEO as well. Formerly editorial director of newsroom practice change at Solutions Journalism Network, Susan Smith Richardson has edited leading newspapers from Texas and Chicago to Los Angeles and Sacramento. “The Center has a proud legacy of hard-hitting journalism. I plan to build on that legacy, focusing on making our work more accessible and more relevant to communities across the country,” Richardson said in the announcement of her appointment. She continued, “At a time of disinformation and disaffection with institutions we have to rethink what issues we cover, how we cover them, and whose stories define what is newsworthy, if we are truly to hold power to account.” Welcome. Susan, I’m so glad to have you here.
RICHARDSON: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.
HEFFNER: How does your experience in various newspaper settings, different cities, exposing corruption and malfeasance, inspire your vision at the helm of the center today?
RICHARDSON: Oh, great question. You know, I’m different I think in being at the helm of the center, I come out of a 30 year career in local journalism, at a time when on the national level, journalism doesn’t have some of the credibility that may be it had 20 or 30 years ago, but when we really drill down on journalism and public credibility on a local level, there’s a different response to journalists, and I like to argue it’s what I call the PTA or the superstore or the Supermarket factor, you can see me there, you can see me at the PTA meeting, you can see me at the house of worship, whatever it is you do. There’s that local connection. And I think that local connection makes for a higher level of relevancy and trust in how we do the work and how we see it affecting communities. So that local experience I have I think is something to take to national, and here’s how I see that working, okay. I think when you work on a national platform, you’re not getting that same type of contact with, you know, everyday people who are really affected by the news. You’re dealing, especially if you’re in Washington, with your sources, you’re dealing, you know, with experts, you’re dealing with policy makers. And I think that means sometimes we forget that the stories we do, even about Washington really resonate and have an impact on people’s lives outside of the beltway.
So the local approach is more thinking about how these stories directly affect people’s lives. And I think that’s what you get by being, you know, outside of a, outside of a place like Washington or outside of kind of this larger national context. So for me, what I think I’ve learned from local is just simply this: How do we think about audience first in terms of how we tell our stories? How do we think about how major institutions at every step of telling that story affects people’s lives? That’s the value I think I bring to the table coming from local, because every day in terms of producing news and thinking about what stories we did, I was thinking about impact and what it meant to people. It was very hard to get away from that because you’re hearing directly from people all the time about a story you produce.
I think that’s really valuable right now to bring to the national conversation.
HEFFNER: In that national conversation I think your aspiration ultimately is to scale the integrity so that at the national level there is that trust and we’re reviving a kind of relationship that you’re describing between readers as citizens, not just consumers.
HEFFNER: How can we do that?
RICHARDSON: Well, I think integrity is connected to two things. One, you build trust over time. You build trust because your work does have integrity. And I think we define integrity a lot of times as journalists in these very big and lofty ways. While we’re not going to let a corporation affect, you know whether or not we choose to tell a story, we won’t take pressure from special interests. Those are all key and fundamental measures of integrity. But I also think integrity comes down to this question of really thinking constantly about what’s in the public interest, not always as defined by us, but as defined by, you know, members of the public.
Here’s my point and I’m going to tell a story that may sound really counter to a lot of principles, but I think it makes a point. Years ago I was working in Austin, Texas, Capitol of Austin. I have a circle of friends who are not journalists. And I was involved in the story about a small town mayor who was not releasing some public records. So one of my friends asked me after reading a piece I wrote about it, well, is this just really about the mayor and the people of that community, or is it about, you think you have the right to get the information because you’re the town newspaper. And I thought to myself, what kind of question is this? Right? But as I really thought about it and we, you know, engaged in this vigorous argument about it, so the point was not the public didn’t have a right to the information.
The integrity piece he was questioning was, was this the newspaper doing it because the newspaper didn’t get it? Or was it because the newspaper didn’t get it but the real intention was the public needed the information. If you get the subtle difference, it’s a question of what’s this about us or was it really about being concerned that the people in this small community didn’t have the information? Had it turned into a war between the paper and the mayor? And it, it sounds like, so what’s the point, isn’t it one and the same? But he was pushing me to see that it wasn’t always one and the same. Sometimes we think as journalists, we have this right to information, which we do, but the integrity played in me is always this, are we really in, are we really putting the public interest in that case a very specific community, in the lead of some of these issues we’re engaged with what was the perceived value to the public in this particular fight that we were having?
So it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s a point to me of integrity. It comes down to this: I think one of the critical issues we’re facing when it comes to developing trust is a question of how we define what is important and how we define public interest. Are we alone? Do we alone have the authority to do that? And if so, how are we actually engaging with people in our specific communities to define what they say is valuable? Do we have our set of what’s valuable? And then a community set of what’s valuable that don’t overlap. That was the essence of what that question was. And to me the question of integrity, which is integral to building trust, is really having a connection with the communities you report about, with all of the people in those communities in order to truly be able to say we have a line and a sense of what is in the public interest.
HEFFNER: Isn’t the thrust of the center’s work approaching 2020 to hold accountable and administration that has demonstrated a real corruption and problematic corruption in noncompliance with some of the constitutional standards?
RICHARDSON: Uh Hugh.
HEFFNER: How does that fit into this?
RICHARDSON: Oh, Yeah, absolutely. It does fit into that. But I, I think there are two issues that we’re dealing with right now in the national media. So first let’s just tease out the part that CPI is responsible for. We do investigative journalism. We’re not in some of the day-to-day that you saw, over the last, I mean, on any given day about whatever President Trump decided he was going to say, whether it’s about, you know, Greenland or named the issue, right? Or gun control. We don’t do the day to day. That’s a conversation though that is very problematic because who drives the conversation is often the President. Then there’s a whole second level of work that we do, which is a deep dive investigative work.
And in that one, yes, as you’re saying, our role is to expose abuses of power and how indeed this Administration as does any other, participates with special interests and does not work toward, you know, a larger common good. That’s easy enough to define. So that is the work we do. But kind of getting back to the essence of your question and the point I’m trying to make about defining the integrity. Yes, we’ve got the constitutional duties, we want to hold the feet to fire of policymakers, feet to fire and the elected officials feet to fire. But there still is this other question of, you know, fundamental, what are the key issues and concerns that are, that these policies and practices from, how are these policies and practices from Washington having a direct effect on people’s daily lives. What we’re trying to do is while exposing those abuses of power, think about them a lot more from the standpoint of how they are affecting people’s every day lives.
So for example, we did a series about the Trump tax policy just before I arrived. And the whole point of the policy was to do some of what you’re saying, but also to really show what it means to everyday folks. So we took a look at the what, one point $5 trillion in cuts that a President and Congress approved, and we looked at who benefited, we looked at how it affected working class people who were supposed to get a break and advancement from that, we looked at how it affected corporations, which we really took as our watchdog and our public policy duty. But we also look to at how it affected communities of color. Where I’m trying to go with how we look at abuses of power is yes, there are many people who are writing about what’s happening with the government and whether or not it’s serving the interests. What we want to do is have that same conversation, but take it and look more directly at what that means in people’s lives and not just deal with the issues inside of a Washington perspective. That’s, there’s a nuance difference in that approach. I think.
HEFFNER: From the point of view of the public and response to the special prosecutor, special prosecutor Robert Mueller uncovered correspondence that might be analogous to a Panama Papers in what is the template for the Panama Papers in America to uncover the corruption from within our government. Is there a strategy for how we can do that today? You know, given the amount of encryption and security and the inability of on the part of a lot of investigators to find a smoking gun.
RICHARDSON: Huh. I mean I think that’s a big complicated question and that’s something that a lot of news organizations in their different way are tackling. I think you’ve got probably a wealth of groups who are trying to get to that. You’ve got The Intercept – which uses its own resources. You’ve got ProPublica, I will say our particular work right now and where we’re focused is around defining a lane for us that we think is not necessarily being covered. So while I don’t want to say what you just said wasn’t significant, it is, I think there are folks who were looking at that. What we are trying to do, and this is how we’ve evolved since our relationship with ICIJ, is to really think a lot more first and foremost about a domestic lane of coverage that isn’t necessarily being focused on right now.
So where I’m pivoting the organization is into some areas that I think aren’t being addressed. For example, we recently created an inequality beat because we want to be able to look at government from this perspective. What is the role of government as an engine of redistributing wealth? We don’t talk about that in very plain terms. But when you think about all of the things that are happening, whether it’s a tax cut or it’s the earned income tax cut that goes to low-income families, government has a huge role in the redistribution of wealth. A lot of the things we’re thinking about in positioning the Center, we’re not saying we don’t believe in, you know, standing on those issues that we’ve historically stood on. But we’re in a fairly competitive and crowded nonprofit journalism space now and there are a lot of people with more resources who are going after some of these issues that we don’t want to say we don’t care about, but they’re not, but there are many issues that aren’t being covered that we think we need to take the lead in defining, really looking closely at government’s role in generation of wealth with a clear focus on what that means to people across the country around inequality is an important area that we think isn’t being covered. And one thing I want to say is thinking short term and long term, I mean short term there are a whole series of issues that have been presented by this presidency that you know are probably, yes, unprecedented. There is also a long-term question here. We don’t know what’s going to happen, who will be president in two years. You know we, we don’t know. What I want to lead us to think about is both, yes there is a short term and some immediate crises, but there’s also a long-term thought about trends. You opened by saying, I talked about disinformation, disaffection with institutions and the other word I use was demographic change. I’m seeing us as part of, and I think this is the way we should be thinking about where we are as news organizations, there’s short term, but there’s also the long-term set of issues that are playing out. And I think as investigative news organizations, one of the advantages we have is yes, we can go deep dive in the now, but we can also begin to think long-term out. Part of recognizing what I call those three Ds: The disaffection is that part of that disaffection means that there are political trends that are playing out that led to the presidency, the president we have, but will also have a long-term impact no matter who’s there. You know, if just Bernie Sanders were president tomorrow, some of the trends around disaffection with institutions will continue. Demographic change as we move towards 2040 and become a nation that has a majority of people of color, that’s going to happen, no matter what and that’s creating its own political issues and disinformation will continue. What I’m trying to do in thinking about the Center is yes; deal with the place now, but also thinking long-term. Where are the critical issues that are defining, you know, both the zeitgeist and the politics of the country?
HEFFNER: It sounds like you’re tapping into what is a very inspiring message at the Solutions Journalism Network too, in furthering the goal of taking that disaffection and tapping into resiliency among the public to champion solutions for their communities. And when we think about this problem nationally of disaffection, those systemic economic policies that have drowned us in the place we are today, won’t it require major blockbuster investigations to trigger a renewal of our democracy, but specifically a reevaluation of how the government is redistributing wealth,
HEFFNER: It’s not in a socialistic function that’s in an oligarchic function right now.
RICHARDSON: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
HEFFNER: I’m just wondering what those blockbuster stories that may resonate both on the local and national level will be.
RICHARDSON: Yeah, I completely agree with you. And some of that I think comes from my own background, what those stories are, and then I want to talk a little bit about the accountability piece and how by taking a solution to account you actually push more accountability around these issues. Well, I mean, a very basic story that we worked on when I was in Chicago when I was editor of the Chicago Reporter had to do with, you know, the foreclosure crisis. And when you looked at all the data, the foreclosure crisis, no surprise, this is a national story as well, had a disproportionate impact on Latino and African American communities.
This is a question of both you know, a clear issue of inequality. As we began to drill down on the data, which has been reported, often, you know, when these communities were buying homes, they were buying them at a higher interest rate. And you know, there were a number of layered factors from redlining to predatory lending that all added up to create the crisis. These are structural inequalities that the reporting took us to. And then when we got down to another level, we also realized that a handful of banks were involved in these practices and some of them were international banks like Deutsche Bank. So it’s a deep contextual layered investigation that pointed out how it was happening, where it was happening and what the dollar impact was. There are many of those stories, whether it’s around housing, mass incarceration, county jails, you name it that we can do and actually look at on a national level.
What, what I think we need to do to have even more resonance and add another level of accountability is to be able to point to places, whether in this country or elsewhere where the government response has been, or a community response has been, to look at ways you could work around that. I’ll give a really concrete example about a really powerful story that played out specifically in Chicago. There were a number of investigations that showed African American communities were disproportionally ticketed for a range of parking and driving violations. A lot of this too, as the data played out with structural, the investigation comes out and it was a huge, I mean, it went viral obviously, but there was a big question that was left out of that. So what do you do? When we think about investigative journalism, we think about, you know, the big revelation of what is broken.
But the other side of the accountability is you know, indeed who is responsible for fixing it. Are there responses that may be scalable and that are effective? So after you see a big story like that, the next question became what is being done? Is there another city, not Chicago, that’s thinking about ways to address that problem? So the next leg of that investigation became, we did not do it, another reporter did it -was to go to San Francisco where the city had actually set up a fee scheduled that attempted to address what they thought was a built-in inequality. And the inequality is really this, if you’re poor, you are not going to be able to pay the whole ticket off at once. So is there a ticket structure that you could put in place that would allow communities to be less hard hit by these issues?
So the second part of the accountability of the investigation was going to a place where a city had come up with the strategy and ruthlessly reporting that to see if indeed it had validity in that community and if it was something that could be tried in Chicago. To me when we, you were asking about inequality, there is no shortage of issues in which government has either some institutional role in it or by omission or commission. The more important part to move forward with in these investigations is looking at ways in which there can be responses to that. And that’s the government accountability piece on a new level.
HEFFNER: So how do you guarantee, Susan, in 2020 that we demand from our Fourth Estate, not just credibility but integrity. How can we ensure accountability for those voters who are experiencing the inequity and ensure that that metric, that approach is front and center in the way that the 2020 campaign is covered?
RICHARDSON: I used to use this term call embedded journalism. I don’t think it ever went anywhere, but the whole idea is that I think our ability to have integrity with the public is really, it’s an issue of, of being there. The more, you know, when you cover campaigns, you tend to fly into places and you drop in. I think the most valuable and the journalism that has the most integrity is the journalism that is most connected to communities. So I think if part of our struggle is being able to build stronger connections with the communities that we report about, and I think that certainly makes journalists more in the eyes of the public, less prone to the kind of attacks that we’re facing right now. So I think a stronger sense of connection with communities. And that’s why I’m thinking there is a conveyor belt between local and national.
We know right now we’re in a crisis in terms of State House coverage in local journalism. There’s a lot of funding going into trying to build that up because there’s an understanding that local communities feel they don’t have a voice. There isn’t enough investigative journalism happening on a state level and national organizations can certainly go in and help. I think the way we want to build that integrity is by being there as an ally to local and State House coverage. And that means not just coming in with resources, but really being intentional about going into communities that journalists haven’t always been good about covering and those tend to be divided along issues of race and class.
HEFFNER: But nationally, Susan though, isn’t it important that your center and like-minded institutions of journalism expose the disconnect with respect to economic insecurity?
HEFFNER: Because that really, to go back to your reporting on the tax reform, is the underpinning of how you relate national to local. I’m afraid that journalists, even investigative reporters are not going to be doing their jobs right in 2020 to make it about that issue, to make it about the way in which this administration’s policies have affected the economic climate and exacerbated inequality.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. Well, and I mean I think that’s why we are creating an inequality beat. It is both about now, but it’s also a long-term issue. Inequality is a, you know, has been trending, you know, essentially growing, income inequality has been trending since the 70s. Well, what I really want to emphasize is that yes, we’re in a moment with a very specific president who is very much about, you know, using government as you know, some kind of private collateral. Long-term inequality existed. Inequality existed under Obama. Inequality will exist when Trump is gone. You are correct. Some government, some administrations exacerbate it, and we need to talk about it and we have, and I think why we choose the inequality lane is because we realize the very question you’re asking. Nobody was really consistently diving into what the tax policy meant in a meaningful way from going to Ohio where someone thought they would get a job to, you know, looking at what was happening in the last hearing. My point is that yes, journalists do need to do that on a national level and that’s why we’ve created this area of work.
HEFFNER: Well, congratulations on creating that, exposing the connection between the explosion of corruption and inequality. There is a correlation there, between corruption and inequality. Thank you, Susan for being my guest today.
RICHARDSON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.