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ProPublica and Partners Win Three Polk Awards

ProPublica and partners won three George Polk Awards in Journalism on Monday, with work recognized in the national reporting, medical reporting and podcast reporting categories. Administered by Long Island University, the Polk Awards honor intrepid, bold and influential reporting, placing a premium on investigative work that is original, resourceful and thought-provoking.

Friends of the Court” won the national reporting award for “revealing secret, lavish and highly questionable gifts that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received for decades from wealthy benefactors.” ProPublica’s Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan, Brett Murphy, Alex Mierjeski and Kirsten Berg contributed to the series.

In response to the reporting, the Supreme Court announced in November that it had unanimously adopted the first ethics code in its 234-year history, and Thomas for the first time acknowledged that he should have reported selling real estate to billionaire Harlan Crow in 2014. Writing in his annual financial disclosure form, Thomas said he “inadvertently failed to realize” that the deal needed to be publicly disclosed. Thomas also disclosed receiving three private jet trips from Crow, two of which ProPublica reported on. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to authorize subpoenas of Crow and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo as part of the panel’s ongoing effort to investigate ethics lapses by justices. Crow has said he never tried to influence Thomas on any matters.

With Every Breath,” an investigative project from ProPublica and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was honored with the medical reporting award. In the series, ProPublica reporter Debbie Cenziper and Post-Gazette reporters Michael D. Sallah, Michael Korsh and Evan Robinson-Johnson joined forces to expose how global powerhouse Philips Respironics concealed thousands of complaints about a dangerous defect in its popular breathing machines over the course of a decade. The company failed to disclose these complaints despite a federal law that requires device makers to quickly report breakdowns to the federal government.

The investigative team, which included students from Northwestern University’s Medill Investigative Lab, also revealed for the first time that the Food and Drug Administration had received warnings about unexplained contaminants in the machines years before the global giant announced a massive recall but repeatedly failed to warn the public or dig deeper into the company’s lagging response. Those using the machines included some of the most fragile people in the country, including infants, the elderly, veterans and patients with chronic conditions.

Following the investigation, federal lawmakers called for an immediate criminal probe of Philips by the Department of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said it will launch an inquiry of the FDA’s oversight of medical device recalls for the first time in years.

In January, Philips Respironics said it will stop selling sleep apnea machines and other respiratory devices in the United States under a settlement with the federal government that will all but end the company’s reign as one of the top makers of breathing machines in the country.

Philips has said that new testing shows the machines pose no “appreciable harm.” The company also has said it reviewed the complaints on a case-by-case basis and gave them to the FDA after the recall out of an “abundance of caution.”

The FDA has asked Philips to conduct additional testing.

The Kids of Rutherford County,” a four-part narrative podcast by Local Reporting Network partner Meribah Knight of WPLN Nashville Public Radio, ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong and Daniel Guillemette of Serial Productions, The New York Times, won the podcast reporting award. The podcast builds on a joint investigation by WPLN and ProPublica, whose reporting uncovered that a Tennessee county was wrongfully arresting and illegally jailing children for over a decade. The podcast reveals how this came to be, with particular attention to the adults responsible for it and the two juvenile delinquents-turned-lawyers who try to do something about it.

Within days of the first story’s publication in 2021, there was an outcry from community leaders and Tennessee lawmakers. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. Middle Tennessee State University cut ties with the judge, Donna Scott Davenport, who oversees the system and taught a criminal justice class there. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office called on judicial authorities to conduct a review of Davenport, and 11 members of Congress sent a letter asking the DOJ to open an investigation into Rutherford’s juvenile justice system. Subsequently, Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.

This year, as part of the 75th anniversary celebration of the Polk Awards, ProPublica’s founder emeritus Paul Steiger will be honored as a Polk Laureate among 16 other journalists whose careers reflect the awards’ commitment to outstanding investigative reporting. Steiger was the founding editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica from 2008 through 2012 and part-time executive chairman from 2013 through 2020.

See a list of all of this year’s Polk Award Winners.

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