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Freedom key to watchdog role, experts say

| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 11:00 p.m.

Talking with a Tribune-Review reporter changed the lives of Patti Katter and other wives of wounded military veterans, Katter acknowledges.

In an award-winning 2011 series, “Wounded Warriors,” reporter Carl Prine relied on thousands of pages of leaked classified documents to reveal widespread problems at the special military medical units for wounded, sick and injured troops.

The stories contradicted assurances Pentagon leaders gave Congress that the military did a good job caring for wounded troops. Patti and Ken Katter of Saginaw, Mich., were among dozens interviewed, following Ken Katter's return from Iraq.

She later founded a nonprofit, Voices of Warriors, to help veterans transition into civilian life and to carry on reforms the Trib highlighted.

“There have been so many soldiers who have tried to tell people that their treatment in the Warrior Transition Battalion wasn't adequate, but it was always their word against the Army's,” she said.

She believes the evidence that Prine uncovered “might have saved lives — really.”

Defense Department documents leaked to the Trib “gave us a sense of accountability and transparency to read what they really thought about their programs,” she explained.

The “Wounded Warriors” series is among investigations by Trib reporters that involved filing Freedom of Information requests with government agencies, finding people willing to talk or leak information, and conducting scores of interviews. Such work is possible because America's news media operate with relatively little government intervention.

“The American press was born to be a watchdog of government,” said Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today, and an adjunct professor of journalism at American University in Washington. “We need to be able to do that.”

Pennsylvania's shield law, one of the nation's oldest, allows reporters to use anonymous sources and provides that they don't have to disclose sources of information.

“Press freedoms are incredibly important, as important as any time in history,” said Mike Dillon, Duquesne University journalism professor. “The average Joe has so much information and commentary coming from so many directions ... most Americans choose to live in an echo chamber.”

The law twice shielded Prine from revealing sources — after writing a 2001 story about the conviction of rapist and accused serial killer Randall Bishop, and again when government whistle-blowers leaked boxes of documents showing years of bureaucratic complacency tied to the 2003 starvation death of Kristen Tatar, 4, of Armstrong County.

“I packed a toothbrush when I went to Kittanning during the trial of Kristen's father,” Prine said. “I was willing to stay in jail forever, rather than break a promise I gave to everyone who told the truth about what happened to that little girl. It's important to remember that officials seemed to spend more time trying to find out my sources than they did saving a child from being beaten, tied to a crib with a filthy shoelace and then slowly starved to death.

“That's exactly why the shield law exists — to tell people the truth about what happens without government trying to protect itself from embarrassment.”

A Defense Department whistle-blower leaked the internal files of the wounded warrior program to the newspaper. Many whistle-blowers wouldn't be willing to do that if they thought journalists couldn't protect their identities, experts said.

“Would they continue to come forward? The short answer is no,” said Joyce Rothschild, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, who conducted a national study of whistle-blowers. “My research shows clearly that the majority of whistle-blowers suffer some form of retaliation.”

When Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Ed Joyner worked off-duty for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during a March 2010 scandal involving Roethlisberger and a college coed at a Georgia bar, the Trib analyzed 1,038 supplementary employment requests filed by state police employees since 2005 and found that moonlighting gigs defied regulations and the law.

Leaked internal files showed that police brass knew about Joyner's special job with Roethlisberger — and asked him to obtain signed memorabilia for them.

Army whistle-blowers leaked Prine classified battle plans, rules-of-engagement documents, combat award citations and bomb damage information to raise questions about how commanders at Fort Bragg, N.C., covered up the 2006 killings of three Iraqi boys by a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Those files buttressed a two-year Trib investigation, “Rules of Engagement,” that captured national and state awards for investigative reporting.

No one should compromise the ability to gather and disseminate information, said William Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, one of the country's oldest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations.

“It is absolutely fundamental that we be allowed to do our investigative work behind a firewall,” Buzenberg said. “We need to be able to gather information and report it. We have a system where we're allowed to do that, and we cannot compromise that basic freedom.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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