This year, it was tempting at times to think about leaving behind this journalism thing and opening a hot dog stand on the beach.
Facts – the basic currency of our jobs – don’t seem to hold the same sway they once did. We’re living in a new era of press intimidation. Our industry as a whole is still a financial mess.
But we believe dearly in the power of investigative reporting. We stuck with it this year and saw example after example that showed the power of investigative reporting to force positive change. Investigative journalists around the country made life better for Americans, from leading the cultural reckoning over sexual abuse to exposing corruption.
Here at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, we measure our success by impact. And we’re proud of the year we had.
So, here are five things that changed in 2017 because of our reporting:
1. A new class of exploited workers is getting liberated.
In October, reporters Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter uncovered a whole new class of exploited workers: drug court defendants sent to work for free at rehabilitation programs that actually were little more than work camps.
The response came swiftly and strongly, from governments, companies and workers. For example:
- Four class-action lawsuits have been filed by former participants alleging modern-day slavery and human trafficking and seeking millions of dollars in back pay.
- Four government investigations have been launched, too, including inquiries into workers’ compensation fraud in Arkansas and food stamp fraud in Oklahoma. The Tulsa drug court has stopped sending people to at least one rehab featured in our stories.
- A Coca-Cola bottling plant and the plastics company of Arkansas’ Senate majority leader have stopped using unpaid labor from rehab work camps. Rachael Ray’s pet food brand is reconsidering its use of chicken from one of the major rehab work camp beneficiaries.
- The Arkansas and Oklahoma chapters of the ACLU have launched their own inquiries. “This system allows corporations to profit on the backs of people our government claims to help,” said one ACLU leader.
The responses from officials and experts were something else:
“You have got to be kidding me,” said a constitutional expert.
“That’s insanity gone to sea,” said an architect of Oklahoma’s drug court law.
“That sounds like something from the early 1900s,” said the head of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. “And this is going on right now? And how is it legal? Them being ordered to work for free is nothing short of slavery.”
“It is against the law. The people who this happened to need to call us or email us and let us know,” said a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
2. The VA didn’t make corruption legal after all.
In September, reporter Aaron Glantz got a tip that the Department of Veterans Affairs was about to unilaterally void a 50-year-old anti-corruption law that barred for-profit colleges from giving money to VA officials who implement the GI Bill.
He started calling veterans groups and higher education advocates. No one could believe it. This was a law, after all, passed by Congress in response to a scandal under President Dwight Eisenhower. The Trump administration couldn’t just void a law it didn’t like. Could it?
It did, and after Glantz exposed it, opposition built quickly. Soon, four senators wrote to VA Secretary David Shulkin asking him to scrap the rule change. Then a fifth. Finally, the VA reversed course and said it would hold off on voiding the corruption law.
On Oct. 16, after hearing from 21 veterans groups, dozens of consumer advocates and the chief White House ethics lawyers for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the VA formally revoked the rule change before it went into effect.
Plus, because of Glantz’s previous work on the VA:
- Senators last week demanded that the VA disclose five years’ worth of contracts to understand how for-profit colleges were allowed to pay cash to get recruiting access to veterans.
- A doctor known as the “Candy Man” for his willingness to dispense narcotic painkillers to veterans lost his medical license for good.
3. The Marines’ nude-photo sharing was stopped.
In collaboration with nonprofit news organization The War Horse, we reported in March that hundreds of Marines solicited and shared photographs of naked female service members and veterans on Facebook.
From the end of January to the beginning of March, more than two dozen women – many on active duty, including officers and enlisted service members – had been identified by their full name, rank and military duty station in photographs posted and linked to from the private Facebook page Marines United.
It became front-page news across the country. In the wake of the reporting, the Senate Armed Services Committee launched an investigation, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to reform how the military handles sexual abuse allegations.
Congress voted to criminalize revenge pornography in the Department of Defense. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
Last month, more than 200 service members and defense officials signed an open letter calling for stronger programs to combat sexual harassment and abuse.
Nearly 100 commanders and active-duty service members were punished for their involvement in the sexual exploitation and online harassment of hundreds – potentially thousands – of men and women. Punishments have ranged from administrative measures to special courts-martial. Military and congressional investigations are ongoing.
4. A movement to protect teen pregnancy prevention research has emerged.
In July, we broke the news that the Trump administration quietly axed $213.6 million in teen pregnancy prevention programs and research at more than 80 institutions around the country.
The decision abruptly ended five-year grants that were designed to find scientifically valid ways to help teenagers make healthy decisions that avoid unwanted pregnancies.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill for the Department of Health and Human Services that continues the grants for 2018.
However, the House’s 2018 appropriations bill eliminates the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and instead adds $20 million for abstinence-only programs called “sexual risk avoidance.” But votes on the budget have been delayed until next year.
5. Trump’s close friend got out of the slumlord business.
The day after publication of our investigation exposing poor treatment of tens of thousands of renters by Colony Starwood Homes, Trump confidant Thomas Barrack left the company he founded. Within the following week, one group of tenants launched an online petition to decry poor conditions and rising rents and another staged a sit-in at the San Francisco offices of the chairman of the company’s board.
We inspired a bunch of other change, too.
- The Navy promised to stop looking the other way when shipyard workers are killed and injured.
- For the first time ever, the Alabama House passed a bill to require religious day cares to submit to government regulations because we had exposed the disastrous consequences of lack of oversight.
- Tennessee became the third state in the nation to require police to enter all missing persons into a national database of Jane and John Does – the unidentified dead – to improve the chances of matches between the two.
- A cannabis workers bill zoomed through the California Assembly, with ample mention of our 2016 investigation exposing the abuse and exploitation of women who migrate to the Emerald Triangle for trimming season.
- Our exposé of racial and gender discrimination by temp agencies has had far-reaching impact, most recently when the main target of our investigation, Automation Personnel Services, had to pay $50,000 to settle with a female job seeker.
There are all kinds of ways our stories can force change: laws, firings, cultural changes. But the most satisfying is often the most personal.
Here’s a text message our reporters got from one man who was sent to a rehab work camp: “I want y’all to know how much I appreciate what y’all have done. This could change my life, I will never forget what you have done thank ya’ll so much.”