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Politicians and the misery of pain

Money in politics has been at the root of the Center’s reporting since its creation under Chuck Lewis 27 years ago. Few stories demonstrate the human and national impact of that more than the state political reporting team’s “Politics of Pain” series launched over the weekend in partnership with The Associated Press.

It’s a horrifying story of the tragedy of addiction to painkillers affecting people across the country and the hidden alliance between pharmaceutical companies and politicians which has arguably delayed any resolution to the crisis.

The story is front-page news today across the country thanks to The Associated Press’ reach and capacity to localize the national data crunched by the Center’s team. I’m going to let project manager Kytja Weir explain the project below, but the release is great validation for the idea put forth by Deputy Executive Editor John Dunbar more than two years ago that the anemic level of investigative reporting at the state level can be greatly bolstered nationwide with help from the Center.

Data reporter Ben Wieder did a remarkable job compiling and analyzing the complex data sets that made the project possible, while Liz Essley Whyte’s reporting brought it to life. Kytja, meanwhile, managed the partnership with the AP, shaped the stories and worked tirelessly to ensure the project went off without a hitch. Executive Editor Gordon Witkin was instrumental.

I strongly believe reporting on money in politics in the states is a vital area for the Center as more and more money flows to local and state races because of deadlock in the Capitol.

We are fortunate to have funding for the state reporting team from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Here’s Kytja with more on the opioid project:

“For the Politics of Pain, we collected and analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006 through 2015 on drug makers and their allies who participated in a little-known national coalition called the Pain Care Forum. With The Associated Press, we reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed more than 150 officials, experts, advocates and others to gain insights into how the political process influenced the response to the opioid epidemic,” she says.

The project shows how Big Pharma and its allies have spent millions of dollars on a 50-state strategy designed to weaken measures aimed at addressing a crippling opioid addiction crisis in America. We traced contributions from drug makers to politicians and advocacy groups who fought limits on drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl that have contributed to the deaths of more than 165,000 people since 2000. Drug companies have reaped enormous profits by aggressively prescribing opioid painkillers that can lead to addiction to other dangerous drugs, including heroin.

To date, our opioid project has appeared on at least 145 front pages across the country, with at least 69 Sunday front pages and 76 front pages today.

The project is highly readable and compelling in my view:
· Politics of pain: Drugmakers fought state opioid limits amid crisis
· Drugmakers fought domino effect of Washington state opioid limits
· Pro-painkiller echo chamber shaped policy amid drug epidemic
· Key findings: Pharma lobbying held deep influence over opioid policies

Panama Papers wins at the ONA

The ICIJ team and network behind the Panama Papers scored another big win on Saturday in Denver. The project won the ICIJ and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, whose team received the leak from a John Doe, the coveted Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award in the “large” newsroom category. (If people realized the ICIJ team could fit in a minivan they would realize it wasn’t exactly large.)

It’s the latest in a huge number of awards and other recognition from officials and peers for the Panama Papers, the “leak of the century”, as The Economist called it. Emilia Diaz-Struck, the ICIJ lead researcher accepted the award with a gracious credit to the entire team led by Gerard Ryle and Marina Walker and the more than 400 journalists around the world who took part in the project.

What else we’re reading and thinking about

Separately at the ONA the strength and modernity of the New York Times was striking with multiple awards, including the general excellent prize, which the Times shared with the innovative video platform AJ+ from Al Jazeera. Among our non-profit family, ProPublica scored with a partnership and the “medium” newsroom award in the investigative category and the Texas Tribune won the general excellence “small” prize as well as explanatory (jointly with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal) and topical reporting.

Facebook was a big presence both in reality and as the elephant in the room at the conference. Facebook product director Fidji Simo was the keynote to kick off the event and elegantly skated over this month’s row over Facebook censoring the famous AP picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running after a napalm attack. The row highlighted the huge impact Facebook has and the debate over its importance as a curator of news. This piece by Reuters on Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s letter to the Norwegian Prime Minister – who had posted the Vietnam image – shows that the company may we waking up to the importance of its role. Columbia J-school’s Emily Bell has practically made the issue of Facebook’s editorial power her thesis and is reported in this piece in the Guardian. Here also is Emily’s piece on why “Facebook is eating the world”. I also encourage you to read this highly critical piece on Facebook by French journalist Frederic Filloux in his weekly must-read Monday Note.

I welcome feedback on this note,

Peter Bale,
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity

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Peter Bale was the Center for Public Integrity's CEO from 2015 to 2016.