A reporter who ignores a whistleblower might miss an astonishing but true story. That’s one of the many lessons I learned from Andrew Schneider. The investigative public health journalist died on February 17 from heart failure due to a respiratory disease.
Schneider was respected by co-workers for his dogged search for the truth. Others, including myself, are also remembering him for his significant contributions to public health. My colleague, Bob Harrison, MD, MPH at University of California San Francisco told me
“I tell my students about the importance of independent investigative journalists in telling the truth about toxic chemicals. I always mention Andy’s work and his influence on me.”
Harrison was recalling Schneider’s reporting for the Baltimore Sun in 2006 about individuals with severe lung disease. They’d worked with the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl and were gravely ill.
“Andy's story of these workers led to a series of studies in California that helped set the stage for the nation’s only OSHA standard to regulate diacetyl, and to a nationwide NIOSH and Fed-OSHA emphasis program in a host of industries,” noted Harrison.
I first met Schneider while he was reporting for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the man-made asbestos disaster in Libby, Montana. The W.R. Grace caused disaster in that town----including hundreds of deaths--seemed that it might be repeating itself in Louisa County, Virginia. I was working at the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the time and a whistleblower had come forward who was familiar with what was happening at Louisa County mine. (It too had previously been owned by W.R. Grace.) The whistleblower’s story was mind boggling, but I was inclined to believe it. MSHA inspectors later confirmed some of what the whistleblower reported.
That’s when Schneider told me that he doesn’t ignore what he hears from a whistleblower. The story may not be precisely what the whistleblower asserts, but there’s usually something to their story---and potentially something quite remarkable.
In a 2009 interview with fellow journalist William Heisel, I see Schneider offered a similar sentiment:
“I very rarely ignore whistle blowers, no matter how crazy they sound. I've learned too many times over the years that if they are that passionate about something, there's probably something going on. It may not be what they suspect, but there is something going on. I have never had an emotionally passionate source be completely wrong.”
David McCumber, who worked with Schneider at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and co-author of their book: An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal, wrote a wonderful tribute to his friend. McCumber’s piece includes touching recollections from Schneider’s colleagues.
Mary Pat Flaherty reported with Schneider on one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning stories. She told McCumber:
“For many years in many cities, (Andy) delivered a body of work that held movers and shakers accountable to the moved and shaken.”
Indeed he did and the world is a better place because of him. Andrew, you will be missed.
P.S. My colleague Jennifer Sass has her own wonderful remembrance about Andrew. It made me smile to remember the story of his puppy named Libby.