Being an investigative journalist can be thrilling when you finally connect the dots and break the story. But it is also very thankless work, involving a lot of late nights. It can be even more disheartening when you think you broke the story, only to find out that some nobody from The Nowhere Gazette already did it months ago. That’s because for every Bob Woodward, there are a bunch of unknowns who have changed the world without us ever noticing them.
FIFA Was Taken Down by One Determined Old Reporter
Soccer is the sport where grown men make a mockery of concussions by pretending to get concussions from being touched on the shoulder. It is also a rather corrupt game. The 2015 FIFA scandal, which involved bribery, racketeering, and other words we associate with organized crime, finally gave proof to fans that their game had been stolen by greedy millionaires who act and sound like low-rate Bond villains. But while the scandal raged through the media like a whirlwind, it was the result of a decade-and-a-half’s worth of work by one old reporter.
Andrew Jennings is an old, old-school investigative reporter who has reported on such weighty matters as the Iran-Contra affair and the Chechen mafia. His biggest story, however, started with a tip from an old friend. That friend? Bourne series director Paul Greengrass. Mr. Greengrass suggested that his then-colleague at World In Action look into FIFA. He did, for about 15 years. Jennings likes to take his time. “This journalism business is easy, you know – you just find some disgraceful, disgustingly corrupt people and you work on it.”
Slowly, Jennings discovered that he had to tackle this affair not like a corporate scandal, but like an organized crime sting. So he did his best Elliott Ness impression, hiked into a FIFA press conference, and asked President Sepp Blatter, “Herr Blatter, have you ever taken a bribe?” This, Jennings claimed, was not only to rattle Blatter, but also to show any disgruntled employee that he was the man to inform, and they did with regularity. Six weeks later, Jennings found himself outside a building in Zurich at midnight, “wondering why I’ve been asked to go there by somebody I don’t know,” when “a senior FIFA official” rolled up and gave him so much evidence that he needed to write two whole books and a BBC documentary about what was going on.
Then the FBI got involved. The “fish-out-of-water comedy” feel never let up. Jennings was taken to London to meet “three men with American accents [and] government-style haircuts [who] introduce themselves as FBI special agents and give me their business cards, which say ‘organized crime squad.'” With the FBI’s resources and Jennings’ documents, a massive case was built against FIFA. In the end, several executives were arrested and Blatter resigned, much to the old reporter’s glee.
And that was it for Jennings. After 15 years of doggedly uncovering one of the biggest corruption scandals of the decade, on the morning the FIFA scandal reached its media apex, “I turned [the phone] off actually to get some more sleep because whatever is happening at six in the morning is still going to be there at lunchtime, isn’t it?” For Andrew Jennings, the world only moves when he says so, just ask Sepp Blatter.
A 22-Year-Old Crime Journalist Broke the Sandusky Story Months Before Anyone Cared
In 2009, 22-year-old Sara Ganim was living and working in the small town of State College, Pennsylvania. Penn State and its legendary football team were part of everyday life for her, but that didn’t stop her from burning the whole legacy to the ground.
While she was covering the local crime beat, a source of Ganim’s started to gossip about some crazy kid going to the cops throwing a bunch of allegations at Penn State’s retired assistant coach and local hero, Jerry Sandusky. Ganim smelled a story and headed the one place where unsubstantiated rumors are as good as facts: online message boards. Dusting off her old Penn State login, Ganim started poking the student body about hearsay concerning Sandusky being inappropriate with young boys, and there was a lot of it. Eventually, she had not only found a bunch of his victims but also had discovered that Sandusky was under a secret grand jury investigation for sexual abuse. That’s the kind of thing that can win you a Pulitzer in the big city, but in a small college football town, all it got Ganim was a lot of dirty looks.
When Ganim and her paper, The Patriot-News, started reporting on the case, she was met with a whole lot of nothing. Bigger papers ignored her, while the locals treated her and the paper like it was toxic for publishing mere “rumors” about their beloved Sandusky. But Ganim would not stop writing stories about the entire rotten scale of the scandal. Only months later, when Sandusky was arrested, did the media catch up and start covering the trial. But that wasn’t enough for Ganim. With the country now focused on Sandusky, she went after everyone involved in the cover-up – which was just about everyone. And she got results. Less than a day after The Patriot-News called for their resignation, the university fired its president, Graham Spanier, and head coach Joe Paterno.
Ganim has since moved to the big leagues, having accepted both a Pulitzer Prize and a position at CNN. She’s still writing stories about the Penn State scandal – and she probably won’t stop until the only people left in the Penn State admin offices are the janitors.
The Researchers Who Exposed Volkswagen Emissions are Still Begging for Funding
When Daniel Carder and his research team managed to scrounge together a $70,000 grant (about a buck fifty in research grant dollars) to test the emissions of some new “clean diesel” vehicles in 2012, they never expected to cripple one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world. It also made them famous, though not in a way that would get them any cash.
Instead of rolling a bunch of cars on treadmills in a lab, Carder tested emissions by going on a road trip from LA to Seattle, performing road tests as they went. To their great surprise, certain Volkswagen vehicles were showing as much as 35 times the levels of emissions they expected. Carder immediately assumed they had messed up because, in science, a tiny deviation means you haven’t wasted your time, but a massive one usually means ‘Dave didn’t calibrate the microscopes properly and now we’re all fired.’
Thankfully, Dave hadn’t. After the researchers submitted their results, whose conclusion probably contained a single “Um, what” at the end, several government agencies started having strong words with Volkswagen. Carder and his team were surprised by the massive reaction to the study – mostly because it had been already been published for a year and a half before anyone noticed. Eventually, the company confessed to having used illegal devices to cheat the more commonly-used emissions tests. The cover-up cost Volkswagen almost $15 billion, its stock plunged 30 percent, and CEO Martin Winterkorn was forced to take all of the blame and resign (because that’s part of the CEO job description these days.)
For his incredible contribution to environmental protection, Carder was named one of the Time Magazine 100 most influential people in 2016, garnering the type of fame quiet engineers probably have stress dreams about, but that was about it. Even though Volkswagen was forced to fund $4.7 billion in transport research to compensate for stinking up the planet, Carder and his team are still struggling to find funding. In fact, his university budget is still facing cuts, meaning he’ll have to manage his next earth-shattering breakthrough with an abacus and a handful of quarters for gas money.
Grieving Father Uncovers International Banking Scandal
If popular culture has taught us anything, it’s that grief does one of two things to people: pushes them into depression or triggers a riotous rampage of revenge. This is a story about the latter, namely, how a grieving father messed up the most corrupt elements of the world’s banking system with paperwork.
In 1995, Alisa Flatow was killed by a suicide bomber while visiting Israel as part of a school study group. Her father, Stephen Flatow, successfully sued Iran, who were shown to have financed the terrorist group responsible, for damages in the amount of $247.5 million. We probably should have mentioned her dad was a lawyer.
Shockingly, Iran didn’t pay up. But they probably should have, because they had no clue who they were dealing with. Flatow started digging into an Iranian-owned skyscraper on 5th Avenue in New York City. Among the building’s tenants were a Juicy Couture shop, billionaire oil traders, and multiple charitable foundations. But here was the thing: The United States wasn’t supposed to do business with Iran, even if the technical owners of the building were an Iranian charitable group.
Flatow wrote to the New York district attorney’s office asking for the damages for his daughter’s death to be paid by the Alavi Foundation, one of the “charities” that owned the skyscraper. According to Flatow, Alavi was nothing more than a business front for the Iranian government. After a collective spit take and some garbled noises, the government did some research and realized Flatow was right. The building’s tenants were paying rent that was getting funneled straight to Iran.
Although Iran was the mastermind behind the whole affair, Lloyds and Credit Suisse were the ones managing the operation stateside. Their most important job, tellingly, was disguising the money flowing from Iran as ordinary, non-evil money. This triggered confessions from several other banks (including Barclays, HSBC, and ING) and an enormous fine of $8.9 billion levied at French multinational bank BNP Paribas for effectively balancing the devil’s checkbook.
Long story short: Do not mess with grieving fathers who happen to be lawyers.