ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This column was originally published in Not Shutting Up, a newsletter about the issues facing journalism and democracy. Sign up for it here.
No investigative story ever really ends.
If you don’t believe me, here’s an example from my own reporting days.
In 2005, when I was at the Los Angeles Times, I was part of a team that investigated what California calls probate conservatorship.
Our stories explained that the system was designed to help families protect enfeebled relatives from predators and self-neglect. In such cases, courts took basic freedoms from grown men and women and gave conservators sweeping power over their money and the smallest details of their lives.
California had better mechanisms than most states to ensure people didn’t become needlessly ensnared in the system — on paper. Yet in reality, those protections turned out to be either ineffective or easy to circumvent, our stories showed. As a result, so-called professional conservators were able to swiftly take control of strangers’ lives and estates. In the worst cases, conservators victimized their wards, charging them exorbitant fees, neglecting their needs and sometimes looting their assets.
After the series ran, there was a gratifying push to address many of the systemic weaknesses our journalism exposed. At that point, my job seemingly done, I moved on to other reporting assignments and eventually editing.
Then, in 2008, pop star Britney Spears was placed under conservatorship in Los Angeles County, in the very courthouse where I had spent innumerable hours excavating records. I remember reading about the case and thinking, that’s odd. Virtually none of the people whose cases I’d encountered were healthy enough to navigate the supermarket, let alone a world tour.
Over the last several months, there’s been an upsurge of reporting on the Spears conservatorship, including The New York Times’ documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” What’s been uncovered about her case suggests that not much of what we exposed was ever fixed. I know Liz Day — the co-creator of the documentary and a senior story editor at the Times — from the days when she was ProPublica’s head of research.
I emailed and asked if she’d be kind enough to discuss her work on the Spears story with a fellow conservatorship nerd. She agreed, and we spoke on July 2. Here are the highlights of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed:
What drew you to the subject of Britney Spears’ conservatorship for your reporting, and ultimately for a documentary?
I had long wanted to do a documentary about Britney Spears because we're in a similar age group, and I feel like I grew up with her. When I was in high school, she was kind of America’s golden girl pop princess. And then when I was in college, she was just completely battered by the paparazzi and the tabloids. So it felt like her arc alone was very rich to explore. And then, obviously, I’d been aware of the conservatorship and kind of attracted by the mystery and paradox that it presents. Conservatorships are supposed to be reserved for seriously infirm or elderly people with dementia. Yet this person, Britney, was able to work and make millions of dollars performing and be a huge superstar. So how can those two things be true? It was a story in which you could concentrate on this specific person, but [also] zoom out and understand power and money and family dynamics and the legal system.
What aspects of the story did you find the most interesting or the most surprising?
I’m surprised, even to this day, that there are basic questions about this conservatorship and guardianship standards at large. For example, Britney’s court-appointed counsel, does he have to do what she tells him that she wants done? Or does he have to do what he thinks is in her best interest? I’ve talked to multiple experts, and each one gives a different shade of nuance to that answer. I’m just endlessly surprised by the lack of clear standards and agreed-upon rules in this world.
Give us some insight into how you pursued the reporting on this story. How did you start? What were the steps after that?
We started with the premise of just reexamining Britney in the way that “O.J.: Made in America” examined that story, with a new lens two decades on. We tried to read and watch everything that has ever been done on Britney or that she’s appeared in. And from there we built a gigantic spreadsheet with every possible source that we could contact and just started making calls and talking to people. There were a lot of reasons for people to be hesitant, because this is an ongoing legal case. People felt very burned by the press in the past. There’s a lot of NDAs, a lot of barriers.
We used a pretty simple pitch, which was: We want to correct misperceptions about Britney and/or the conservatorship. I think a lot of people felt that there were things they wanted the public to understand. We started to get people to talk off the record or on background, and then we’d get them to go on the record, get them to go on camera.
Shortly after we started, for the first time in the decade-long conservatorship, public filings started being filed saying Britney wants changes, she wants her dad out, she wants more transparency. We just parked ourselves at the courthouse and tried to capture that unfolding drama.
How limiting was it that this is a case in which a lot of the court records are confidential, and Britney herself and a lot of members of her family have been unwilling to talk?
It’s been very difficult because many, if not most, of the court records are sealed. As Adam Streisand, a lawyer in the documentary, says, “We don't know what we don’t know.” But I will say that we have actually opened a lot of doors and seen many of the things that we couldn't know. And the closer we got, only more questions were raised as to whether this conservatorship is appropriate or in Britney’s best interest. We made a lot of effort every which way to try to reach [Britney], but we don’t know whether she got the requests. One of the powers that her conservators have is to restrict any and all visitors to Britney.
I should also note we made a lot of effort for her father to participate in the documentary and our follow-up reporting, going to his representatives and lawyer saying, if not him, please provide someone who can present his point of view. But they ultimately declined repeated requests.
Were there particular facts or elements you found that just made the hairs on the back of your neck tingle?
A systemic issue that I think is shocking is that Britney has to pay for everyone. In this case, she not only pays for her own court-appointed counsel, she pays for her dad’s lawyers — he has multiple sets of lawyers who are actively fighting against her wishes in court. Recently, one set of her dad’s lawyers billed $890,000 for roughly four months of work, which is about $10,000 a day. And that includes PR specialists that were defending the conservatorship to the media.
Yeah, that brings me back. That was a big theme of the reporting we did as well.
Yeah, I think Britney’s case is both extremely unique, but also universal in some ways to the guardianship or conservatorship system. Britney’s is very unusual [in] that she’s actively going out and performing and making money. So she’s a very unusual conservatee. Her own lawyer has called her a high-functioning conservatee, which conservatorship experts have noted is an oxymoron in the conservatorship system. If you’re high-functioning, how are you a conservatee?
The other thing that’s very interesting about Britney performing is that the conservators of the estate have the ability to enter into contracts for her. She’s the one doing the work, yet she’s not the one legally who is even able to consent and sign the deal. That raises all sorts of questions when her father, as conservator of the estate, is being paid not only a salary, but also was approved by the court to get a percentage of various deals that are multimillion-dollar deals. If he makes a decision for Britney to do a second Las Vegas residency, is that because it’s in her best interest? Or because he could make a percentage of that deal?
Why do you think this particular case and your reporting on it has lit such a fuse among so many people?
I think for a few reasons. My colleague, Samantha Stark, the director of the documentary, didn’t know much about Britney when we started the project, but she was really attracted to why Britney has such a rabid fan base. She really wanted to understand, like, why do people love her so much? I think she found a lot of emotion in their stories. A lot of Britney’s fans identify as outsiders and thus they emotionally really connect with her arc and the various trials that she’s been through.
I think also it shines light on this very little understood corner of the legal system that is very important. You know, we don’t even know how many conservatorships there are in America. It’s estimated at a million, but any of us could one day potentially be forced into a conservatorship. So I think it’s important to understand it’s an extreme last resort that can take away so many basic rights. It’s really important that the system works properly, as it should.
Do you think that another element woven through here is that this is a grown woman who’s been entrusted to the care of her father? There seems to be a powerful strand of misogyny in this case.
Yes, I think that’s a very fair observation. A lot of cultural observers note there are a lot of male rock stars and celebrities who are allowed to do whatever they want with the money that they’ve earned whether or not their parents or outsiders approve. So I think that’s a valid question. We know that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was under a conservatorship, so it’s not as if there’s never been a male celebrity under one. But I think that’s very fair.
Where do things stand in the case as of today and where do things go from here?
Britney spoke last week in court and made some really explosive allegations against the conservatorship and her management and her father. She’s also very blatantly said, I don’t want to be in this, I want this over with, I want my life back. This is abusive.
A few days ago, Britney’s father, Jamie, filed two court filings, one of which was calling for an investigation into the various claims Britney made. We know that yesterday, Bessemer Trust, which is the professional wealth management firm that had been approved to join as co-conservator of the estate alongside Jamie, asked the court for permission to resign. They said in their court filing, we were told that this was a voluntary conservatorship, and last week Britney said she doesn’t want to be in this. We’ll have to see if the court approves their application to resign.
The other thing that’s important to note about where we stand is that Britney’s court-appointed counsel, Sam Ingham, has not yet filed a petition to terminate the conservatorship, which is what Britney said she wanted, to end it without having a medical evaluation. And he has not yet done that. [Note: On July 6, a few days after this conversation, Samuel Ingham III filed a motion to resign as Spears’ court-appointed attorney.] So will someone involved in the case file an official petition to terminate it? Will a medical evaluation be required? Will Jamie oppose a petition to terminate? There’s also a question of whether Britney will try to hire a new lawyer of her choosing. She pointed out in her speech that while she’s grown closer to her court-appointed lawyer, she never had the opportunity to choose her own lawyer and she would like to do that. So that’s also a potential next step.