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Sunshine Week: How the nation's media shed light on wrongdoing in 2018

The newspaper you are reading is a friend of the people.

So are television stations in Buffalo and beyond. Podcasts that you've probably never heard of are friends of the people, too, as are the producers of at least one documentary on Netflix.

These days the news media is often labeled just the opposite, by you-know-who, without any evidence. Of course, sometimes reporters get things wrong: We are human, and we make mistakes. When we do, we writhe in embarrassment and correct them.

Far more often, though, reporters spend days poring through documents or striving to win the trust of people who know what the public ought to know – and quite often, that hard work pays off.

It's important to remember that this week, which is Sunshine Week, an annual commemoration of all the good that can result from open access to government information. Sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week aims to encourage public officials to allow open access to government data and documents.

But with the media under constant attack these days, perhaps it's best to view Sunshine Week more broadly, as a celebration of sunshine itself.

After all, 2018 once again proved the truth of a famous quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

So, to mark Sunshine Week, then, here's a look at 10 examples from around the country in which reporters shed light on wrongdoing – and, in doing so, proved they are anything but the enemy of the people.

Buffalo's bad priests: For more than a year now, reporters have been uncovering what the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has covered up for decades: dozens of sexual abuse cases among priests.

It started when an abuse victim called a news conference – and when Jay Tokasz of The Buffalo News got the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits to admit to molesting "probably dozens" of boys. Reporters at The News and other outlets followed up with dozens of stories, including reports by Charlie Specht of WKBW-TV, that revealed the secret files of Bishop Richard J. Malone. Those files showed, among other things, that one priest had written "love you" to an 8-year-old boy on Facebook.

The results of all this digging? A "60 Minutes" report on CBS and concurrent federal and state investigations into sexual abuse in the diocese.

A corrupt prosecution: The headline of Julie K. Brown's report in the Miami Herald last Nov. 28 read: "How a future Trump Cabinet member gave a serial sex abuser the deal of a lifetime."

And with a deep dive into court records and interviews with victims of serial predator Jeffrey Epstein, Brown delivered on that headline's promise. She proved that when serving as a federal prosecutor more than a decade ago, Alex Acosta – now President Trump's labor secretary – agreed to a sweetheart deal that allowed a multimillionaire to serve a mere 13-month jail sentence for a string of sex crimes.

Those revelations had ramifications, too. A federal judge ruled last month that Acosta's prosecution team broke the law by keeping secret the plea agreement that allowed Epstein to serve such a short term after sexually abusing more than 30 underage girls.

A troubled hospital: John's Hopkins Medicine has an international reputation, but last November, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Baltimore-based medical outfit didn't exactly bring along quality when it took over All Children's Heart Institute in St. Petersburg.

Instead, "patients started dying at an astounding rate," the Times reported.

Eleven surgery patients died within 18 months. And after the Times reported those deaths and the shoddy practices behind them, several top hospital executives resigned, and the facility stopped doing surgeries pending the completion of an independent investigation.

Justice denied: Unanimous jury verdicts are largely seen as the American way of ensuring justice, but for years, that wasn't the case in Louisiana.

The state allowed 10-2 verdicts – and the New Orleans Advocate last year found that about 40 percent of the state's criminal verdicts were just that. As a result, the state had unusually high rates of conviction and incarceration.

That report led to a wave of outrage statewide – and the passage of an amendment to the state constitution in November that requires jury verdicts to be unanimous.

Justice denied again: Prosecutors accused Curtis Flowers of murdering four people in a Mississippi furniture story in 1996. Six times since then, juries have convicted him, and again and again, Flowers' attorneys got those convictions overturned on appeal.

A podcast called "In the Dark, Season 2," produced by APM Reports of Minnesota, spelled all that out last year – along with new evidence of Flowers' innocence. And now Flowers is about to get a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will determine whether race played a role in the jury selection at his trials and therefore corrupted the verdicts.

Rogue cops: The Asbury Park Press reported last year that more than 200 police officers across New Jersey had been credibly accused of victimizing the state's residents – and those rogue cops usually kept their jobs or got promoted.

Reporters dug through 30,000 pages of public records over two years to tell that story, and then they kept digging. The paper even successfully sued to win the release of a killer cop's files.

Embarrassed by all this, the state started rooting out those rogue cops and reforming its measures for keeping police officers accountable.

Revealing election fraud: Leslie McRae Dowless Jr. is a household name in the Charlotte area now, and it's in large part due to reporters such as Joe Bruno of WSOC-TV, who — over months of reporting — showed how Dowless appeared to corrupt a congressional election by tampering with and forging absentee ballots.

While Dowless' efforts benefited the Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, both parties eventually agreed that they had no choice but to throw out the election results and schedule a new, cleaner election.

Dangerous medical devices: Last June, Netflix aired "The Bleeding Edge," a documentary that spelled out how dangerous medical devices sometimes make their way to the market without even a clinical trial.

People are dying as a result, Netflix reported – and not surprisingly, the medical device industry reacted. Even before the documentary aired, Bayer Inc. announced it would stop selling Essure, a birth control device that "The Bleeding Edge" tied to serious health problems among women who used it.

A charter for money-making: The Arizona Republic reported last August that the state's charter school program is as much a license to make money as it is an educational endeavor. The newspaper found the program was rife with no-bid contracts and that many of Arizona's charter schools weren't performing any better than the underfunded public schools they were intended to challenge.

Not surprisingly, that reporting led to a call for change – and a charter reform bill is in the works in the Arizona State Legislature.

Clearing the air: The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, Calif., reported last year that toxic air pollution was killing people in Mexicali, Mexico, and spilling over the U.S. border.

In response, California quickly developed a plan to battle air pollution in California's Imperial Valley.

So you might as well say that the newspaper in Palm Springs did just what all the other journalism organizations cited above did. They all cleared the air and let the sunshine in.

That's a fact worth remembering during Sunshine Week and far beyond – and whenever you read another unsubstantiated tweet calling the press "the enemy of the people."

Jerry Zremski is Washington bureau chief for The Buffalo News. In June 2017, he reported on possible insider trading in a stock that Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, was heavily invested in. And last August, in an indictment that mentioned Zremski's reporting, federal prosecutors accused Collins of setting off a series of insider stock trades.

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