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What We're Reading: Inspiring investigations

Posted: July 5, 2017 | Tags: journalism, Summer reading

Small illustration of a closed book.

Illustration by Sydney Ling, IRW


Recent investigative and longform work that has inspired our IRW summer interns.

Daniel Teehan

"My Fourth Months as a Private Prison Guard"
by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones

A veteran investigative reporter once told me that trying to report on prisons is like being a war correspondent, only harder, given the extreme lack of access afforded to the press in investigating prison conditions and abuses.

Last year, Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer found a way around this extreme lack of access using a muckraker-era reporting technique — going undercover. Concealing his purpose without lying about his identity, Bauer secured a job as a correctional officer at a small private-prison in Louisiana in order to report on the occluded industry from within.

The result is a simply astounding piece of reportage — a five-part, more than 36,000-word story that documents Bauer’s four-month experience in vivid prose. Bauer has a knack for first-person narrative writing, and his story documents not only the desperate condition of the privatized facility and those confined in it, but the gradual psychological toll that the job gradually inflicts on Bauer, up until the point where his cover is blown.

“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” is an indispensable piece of testimony for the age of mass incarceration, and for a political moment in which the president and attorney general have reversed Department of Justice policy in order to embrace private prisons wholeheartedly. Bauer’s article was showered with press awards and, luckily for the public, was followed by a sequel. Just months after the private prison story ran, Mother Jones published Bauer’s equally-undercover dive into the world of far-right border militias.

Here’s hoping that Bauer’s next “employer” neglects a simple Google search as well!

Sarah Robertson

“Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom” 
by Peter Waldman for Bloomberg Businessweek

This piece stuck with me because it is the latest rendition of a timeless story about labor exploitation in the U.S. In a graphic investigation into workplace safety, Bloomberg shows the dark side of the auto industry boom in Alabama through personal stories, deadly accidents and lost limbs. It reads like "The Jungle" but instead these factories are making parts for Toyota, Honda, and BMW and proudly labeling their products American-made.

The story reminds readers that these conditions are all part of a global "race to the bottom" trend where manufacturers seek the lowest wages with the least regulation. Some of the worst offending factories are foreign-owned and moved production to America to pay wages comparable to those in Asia or Mexico.

"They treated people like interchangeable parts," said one former factory manager.

At the same time, Alabama residents celebrate the industry, going as far as to nickname their state the "New Detroit."

This investigation puts labor exploitation and safety in a global context and makes me shudder to hear praise for Trump's "manufacturing Renaissance."

Reis Thebault

“The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court”
by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker

Early this week, a man named Leonard Leo was on my mind. It had been a couple of months since I read a profile of Leo in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker, “The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court” by Jeffrey Toobin, yet a Monday morning headline jarred my attention back to him.

Leo, Toobin writes, is the chief architect of that pipeline and in June, as CNN reported urgently, the Justice Anthony Kennedy retirement watch had reached a “fever pitch.” For a moment there, it appeared that Leo, who Toobin says is now responsible for a third of the Supreme Court, would extend his influence even further with another empty seat to fill on the Supreme Court’s bench.

And even though Kennedy appears to have decided to stick around, Toobin’s profile of the man who helped build the Federalist Society into one of the most important organizations in the American judicial system is still worth a read or a revisit.

In what is really part explainer and part profile, Toobin combines his penetrating and detailed writing with his access to reveal the man behind the nominations of Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. Toobin writes, "Leo served, in effect, as Trump’s subcontractor on the selection of Gorsuch.” And if President Trump does indeed nominate another justice, it’s safe to assume that person will go through Leo. 

Catherine York

“Documenting Hate”
by ProPublica

I found a ProPublica series called Documenting Hate that I believe is very interesting and timely. Hate crimes have had a constant presence in the national media, but there is no comprehensive database covering the incidents.

This project seeks to collect and verify the reports of hate crimes across the country to create such a database for the use of journalists, researchers and civil-rights organizations. The project is also compiling and producing a series of stories relating to hate crimes.

Two that particularly interested me were "In An Ugly Election Result, Hate Surges Online" which discusses the increase of visits to white supremacist websites after Trump's election and "More Than 100 Federal Agencies Fail to Report Hate Crimes to the FBI’s National Database" covering the disparity in statistics between the number of hate crimes that occur and those that are actually reported.

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