Margaret Engel, NF ’79, is the executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which gives fellowships to reporters who want to embark on major, public-spirited projects. She is a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post, and reported for The Des Moines Register and the Lorain (Ohio) Journal. She is on the advisory board of the Fund for Investigative Journalism and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards board. She and her twin sister, Allison, wrote “Red Hot Patriot,” a play about journalist Molly Ivins.

This is the fourth in a series of Q. and A.’s with former Nieman Fellows about watchdog reporting.

Alicia Patterson Foundation executive director Margaret Engel, NF ’79, spoke at the 2012 I.F. Stone Medal ceremony at the Nieman Foundation in December. Photo by Lisa Abitbol

What role do you see nonprofits and other start-up investigative journalism organizations playing in the future of watchdog reporting?

I think we have to try to fund it wherever we can. It’s no substitute for the diminished newsrooms across America, but at least it’s keeping some practitioners working in the field. So I am a big supporter of the Investigative News Network, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Center for Public Integrity.

What’s shocking to me is the millions and millions that got brought in as profits by television stations through this last campaign cycle—and we’ve not heard one word about the fact that these profits should be going into improving journalism in America’s television stations. I’ve read that the money’s been used to pay down debt, to pay for shareholders. But I think there’s a true obligation to use this excess found money to improve journalism.

What can or should be done to encourage more watchdog journalism?

There just needs to be more money. It’s simply something that should be on the radar screen of American charities now—for instance, the whole network of community foundations. They’ve normally been giving to food shelters—those types of basic charities. Journalism has become a charity, and I think that journalism is deserving of charity dollars. So I’m hoping that family foundations and community foundations start to understand what the absence of watchdog journalism in their communities will mean, and that they will start to fund nonprofit investigative journalism.

Family foundations are the biggest growth area in philanthropy—the $5 million to $30 million family foundation—and so many of them care about the environment, for example, or children’s issues. But a lot of the information that shows you where the environmental problems are, and where the problems are in human resources, come from journalists looking at what’s not being done properly. So I really see that’s not too large an extension to say: If you’re interested in environmental issues, you should support journalistic groups that are looking into natural resources and pollution.

Tell me about the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

It’s this great little life raft in a sea of high waves. We just wish we were larger and could supply more fellowships.

We give money to reporters to do that big story they always said they’d do if they didn’t have a deadline. The fellowships are for six months or a year. And people have been doing this since the early ’60s. Next to the Nieman Foundation, we’re the oldest journalistic foundation out there.

It’s investigative, in-depth serious reporting. And many of the fellows—and there have been hundreds now—say they’ve done the best work of their career under the Patterson Fellowship because they have the latitude to really explore and find terrific stories.

Please discuss some of your favorite examples of successful watchdog journalism. What made each stand out to you?

One that recently knocked me out was Matt Taibbi’s analysis of the HSBC settlement with the Justice Department on direct money laundering. The reason it was so good is that he really went beneath the applause that comes over these big-dollar settlements the Justice Department announces. They sound so impressive, but actually it’s about five weeks of income for the banks. And the bank has been literally laundering billions of dollars for terrorists and drug lords. In fact it was so brazen that they even had designed boxes to fit the precise dimensions of the teller window so they could shove more cash through.

And so what he did in analyzing this Justice Department triumphant press release was to go back and find out just what it meant for the bank. And he found out that instead of getting criminal time or prosecutions for laundering these billions, the government got them to agree to partially defer their bonuses. Partially defer their bonuses! Instead of prosecuting them, they’re letting them keep their bonuses.

He wrote about how the financial lords get to win at the Justice Department— and then he contrasted this with a day in the Brooklyn courts, where he found all these low-level prosecutions of people with possession. Not selling, just possession. So it was really an analysis of the failed drug war.

I see him really as a Tom Paine character, where he is finding true problems and doing decent reporting that I didn’t see anywhere else.

I also thought that Mike Berens and Ken Armstrong’s piece on the state of Washington using methadone for poor patients because it was cheaper, even though there’s a great risk of overdose because methadone is a real unreliable drug, was very well factually laid out.

And then also Fred Schulte: His piece for the Center for Public Integrity about the whole up-coding in Medicaid, and how this is a potential $11 billion excess that the taxpayers have been shelling out. It’s a loophole in doctors’ and hospitals’ efforts to get around what they perceive as too-low Medicaid reimbursements.

I also thought that the Center for Public Integrity’s Looting the Seas series was wonderful.

What’s one watchdog story anyone can do?

Finding out what cases your state medical, nursing and pharmacy boards originate and discipline—it’s just falling-off-a-tree easy. It’s shocking how many pharmacy boards, for example, have really terrific regulators and enforcers, and they get no attention. They’re out there really trying to protect the public. All those records are public.

Some of the material is terrifying. You’d want to know if the doctor that you’re going to has actually been on probation because he has serious alcohol and drug dependency problems. I did this story in several jurisdictions and there were people still practicing who had murder convictions against them—murdering patients—and they still hadn’t taken their licenses. You can find out which pharmacies are distributing pills to anyone who comes in. Nursing is a real problem—drug diversion, drug habits. You can find this in any state.

There are some bad actors in each of those fields, and the good people don’t mind having these stories done, because they are paying through their licensing fees to have this regulation done. They want the bad actors out of the field, too. It just astounds me that there are regulators out there working for us, and the press doesn’t have time to get to them.

Dan Froomkin writes about accountability journalism for Nieman Reports.

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