The New York Times published a series of articles beginning Friday, Jan. 7 that detailed dozens of Illinois politicians who worked in legal but suspect ways with lobbyists. The articles, co-authored by Fredric “Rick” Tulsky and John Sullivan, were the result of nearly a year of investigative reporting by Northwestern’s own Medill Watchdog, a team of students from all schools headed by Tulsky and Sullivan. Tulsky, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Investigative Reporting, talked to NBN Thursday about what Medill Watchdog is all about, and what information they’ll be releasing next.
North by Northwestern: How was Medill Watchdog established? Whose idea was it?
Rick Tulsky: Last year Medill decided to create a program in conjunction with Northwestern for a couple reasons, namely that we wanted to establish an innovative way to do in-depth, systemic reporting on institutional failures that the media isn’t covering very well these days. They brought me and John [Sullivan] to oversee it in February of last year, and we’ve been working on it ever since.
NBN: What is Medill Watchdog’s core mission, and how does it work to accomplish that mission in day-to-day operations?
RT: When I got to town I found there was already a lot of watchdog reporting going on in the Chicagoland area—a lot of other publications have watchdog reporting, but what we set out to do was something distinct and innovative. That is, instead of doing a story about one official who may be involved in some kind of questionable conduct, we wanted to see what kind of institutional flaws were recurring in the system. We wanted to have all our interns dedicated to one project, with everyone working together, to get a greater picture of what’s happening. Going through all the public officials in question and looking up all the lobbyists would be a mammoth job for one person, so by splitting up the work among a team of volunteers it’s a lot more manageable.
NBN:Medill Watchdog recently released the results of an extensive study on Chicago politicians and lobbyists. What exactly did the study find, and why is it important?
RT: I had never worked in Chicago, so I went around and asked people what really struck them about the Chicago political system and someone told me about lobbyists and their relationships with politicians. So last year’s spring quarter students started gathering evidence of economic interests various officials have in Cook County—that was the starting point. Then the summer interns really took a look at lobbyists and what they were involved in, and they started coming up with examples of various officials lobbying and working with lobbyists. Then, starting in October, John and I worked on a consistent basis to finish all the reporting the interns had researched. Meanwhile, the fall interns were starting research on a new project. But what we ultimately found were 14 elected officials who had registered to be lobbyists while they were already serving in office. We found another 14 [elected officials] whose family members or business partners were lobbyists, and who were working in their interests or giving them direct benefits. We launched our website on Jan. 6, and we published all our findings in the New York Times on Jan. 7.
NBN:What is Medill Watchdog working on now? When can we expect the release of another investigation?
RT: One of the advantages of our program is it’s not a class, so we’re not forced to produce stories prematurely—[investigations] can go on longer than just one quarter. So we can’t predict when it will be done, but what we’re doing now is an extension of the first project. We’re going beyond lobbying to look for other conflicts of interest among elected officials, namely various kinds of outside activities they’re involved in. In an ideal world you want elected officials to be focused on acting in the public interest, so what we are examining is all the things that may distract them from that or give the appearance that they’re motivated by something that’s not in the public interest.
NBN:How can students get involved in the investigative team? Do they have to be in Medill?
RT: We accept applications from lots of students every quarter, ranging from sophomores to grad students, and not necessarily Medill students. What John and I look for in applicants are people who understand how important this process is and really care about it. Commitment and dedication are critical qualities here. Most of all, we know people are busy, so we look for people who really have the time to devote to this project. Right now we have three full-time interns and another nine students who work on it at least 10 hours a week.