Jeff Stier

In other reports, Duhigg parsed local municipal water system records for evidence of malfeasance, chicanery, and greed in the monitoring of water systems nationwide. He was helped in his onerous endeavor by the stalwarts at the Natural Resource Defense Council, a well-known anti-chemical, anti-business activist group, best know heretofore for promulgating (with the crucial assistance of CBS News) the great Alar scare of 1989. The NRDC helped to gather damning evidence of water contamination.

The reporter and the activists did indeed find widespread evidence of lax regulation and less-than-ideal adherence to numerous regulatory strictures, with occasional spikes in the concentration of various pollutants and chemicals nationwide. But they found nothing that would impact human health.

This pattern was repeated over the course of the “Toxic Waters” series, with plentiful notations of briefly spiking pollution levels, but few of sufficient intensity or duration to warrant regulatory intervention. Duhigg attacked the EPA repeatedly for giving waterborne chemicals too easy a pass. But atrazine, for one example, has been evaluated rigorously by numerous scientific and regulatory bodies, including the EPA, and has been found to not even be a potential health hazard.

At the series’ conclusion, an objective outsider’s appraisal would have detected numerous “concerns” but no actual instances of human health impact from all the alleged violations. No surprise there; trace levels of chemicals are to be expected in our water (and air and food).

Why should we care about occasionally elevated levels of atrazine in the water? We shouldn’t. Journalists should win investigative reporting awards for digging deeper than an activist press release. They should ask, who are these groups? Have their allegations been accurate in the past? Or are they just Alar-esque scares? Duhigg, the investigative journalist, didn’t bother to ask.

The award dinner’s keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thompson, lamented the rise of “traffic for the sake of traffic” and “purposeless repurposing” rather than serious journalism. His insightful criticism applied well to the series they were gathered to praise.

Maybe next year The Deadline Club can find some real investigative journalism to honor.

Jeff Stier

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. You can follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier.