April 9, 2010
Updated November 2, 2015 12:54 p.m.
2010 award winner T. Christian Miller, of the non-profit news outlet ProPublica, spoke about his reporting on war contractors in Iraq
The $35,000 annual award, which has been presented for the past 21 years by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, honors outstanding work in investigative journalism that made an impact. This year’s award was the first to go to a journalist at a non-traditional news organization.
“It’s a particular pleasure for me to give this award to T., because it represents the kind of collaboration I am confident will be an increasingly important part of the future of journalism,” said Geneva Overholser
(pictured, at left), director of the School of Journalism, as she presented the award to Miller at a luncheon ceremony.
Miller began reporting on the plight of war contractors when he worked for the Los Angeles Times; he continued his work when he moved to ProPublica, a New York-based non-profit news organization that focuses on investigative stories that serve a public interest. The agency partners with newspapers, network news and online outfits to get the stories published and aired.
Besides the Times, which collaborated with Miller on his stories, ABCNews.com, The Washington Post, Salon.com and TheDailyBeast.com also ran pieces of the series.
Over three years, Miller untangled the bureaucracies of the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor to uncover for the first time how many contractors have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – 1,757, as of Friday. Another 37,000 have been injured.
“No one tracks these people. There is no accountability for them,” he said of the contractor ranks, which he says have become a “disposable army.”
Beyond the casualties, Miller revealed that contractors were not receiving even minimal benefits owed to them when they are injured in war zones. He also found that many of those suffering are working-class Americans who saw the contract work as a way to dig themselves out of debt and take care of their families. Thousands of them are from third world countries who are hired to do the work of cleaning toilets and mopping floors for the American military.
“What the U.S. has done is hire some of the poorest people in the world to do the dirtiest jobs in the most dangerous countries in the world. These are the people who are being killed,” Miller said.
Because of Miller’s work, congressional hearings were held and legislation is being prepared that will hold the DOD more accountable for its hired workers. And the Labor Department also is taking action to step up penalties against errant insurers.
News gathered by collaborative partnerships is becoming increasingly common as news organizations struggle to make the most of resources. But Miller pointed out that these partnerships have the potential to carry more influence than one high-profile outfit pursuing a story.
“The benefit is that you can’t dismiss this as one crazy reporter at one crazy newspaper who is waging a crusade,” he said. “It’s a reverberation effect of many media and many voices participating in many different directions. And it’s increasingly difficult to ignore that story.”
Winning the Selden Ring Award has helped shine even more light on the issue, Miller said.
“The day after I won the award, I sent emails to all the congressional committees involved in this topic and said, ‘This has become a Selden Ring Award winner,’” Miller said. “They all wrote back. It’s a way to put it on their radar screens. They know it’s been recognized. They know we’re going to continue to cover it, and it’s not going to go away.
“That kind of dogged investigative journalism is the exact type that the award was created to recognize.”
And although the award also has brought more attention to non-traditional and non-profit news organizations, Miller cautioned against looking to ProPublica to save the investigative journalism that is seeping out of legacy newsrooms.
“I hope it raises the profile of collaborative media, but I don’t think non-profit journalism is ever going to replace for-profit journalism. It gives a boost to what is out there,” he said. “I really hope a message out of this is that there’s no reason not to work with non-profits. So let’s go down this path and try to double the firepower we used to have by bringing in an outside partner.”
Miller was congratulated at the awards luncheon by legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who related the stories behind how he broke the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War.
He encouraged the audience, which included young reporters from an Investigative Reporters and Editors workshop, to pursue investigative journalism.
“It’s truly a great way to spend time, and I urge all you young people to keep at it,” he said.
The award luncheon also featured a tribute by past award winners to Douglas Ring, benefactor of the prize. Ring died in November 2009.