Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Q & A: Walt Bogdanich. Investigative journalist.

Interview: Walt Bogdanich, assistant editor, Investigative Desk, New York Times, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

I had a great opportunity to meet Mr Bogdanich to discuss his prize-winning series on how counterfeit glycerin – in this case ethylene glycol produced in China found way into the pharmaceutical supply chain in many countries causing death for hundreds of unsuspecting patients. He spoke about putting the pieces together across four continents with a Jake Hooker, a colleague in China.


Q1: How did the germ of the story develop?

In 2006, as patients in Panama were dying in droves from counterfeit cold medicine, I looked on with one overriding thought: this epidemic looked disturbingly familiar. A decade earlier, I had reported on a similar poisoning in Haiti where at least 88 children died from counterfeit fever medicine. In that case, the poisonous ingredient was traced to China, but the government there blocked any further investigation. No one was ever charged, much less punished. The incident was filed away in my memory.

I told my editor Matt Purdy, that I wanted to investigate the Panama deaths even though none of the victims were American. I had a hunch that China might be involved, just as it was a decade earlier in Haiti. Tracing the poison back to its manufacturer would reveal how counterfeiters operated in a globalized economy and China’s role as a major supplier of fake drugs. I wanted to know who would do such a thing. Did they know the consequences of their actions? And why did regulators not do anything about it?


Q2: How did you plan and execute the story?

Reporting in Panama was not without its challenges. When I went there the situation was still playing out. I had never visited the country, had no sources there. In addition, government officials were embarrassed about their role in distributing the lethal cold medicine and were reluctant to discuss the case. I did not lie but we manage to sneak into hospitals. We tracked a person who had consumed the poisonous ethylene glycol – but managed to survive.

I wanted shipping and sales records to document precisely how the poison moved from manufacturer to patient. I eventually got the records - from non-governmental sources - and they confirmed my suspicions: the Panama poison had indeed come from China, passing through a toxic pipeline that stretched across three continents. The poison had been falsely labeled and exported by a trading company owned by the Chinese government. I found that traders outside of China sold and resold the lethal ingredients without verifying that the products were safe, similar to the Haiti incident.


Q3: Describe the how you made connections with the developments in China for your story?

I got in touch with the Times’ foreign desk that put me to Jake Hooker in China. I asked Hooker to find out about the manufacturer in Hengxiang in the Yangtze delta. How did the poison slip into the drug supply? Was the Chinese government aware of the situation? Was the manufacturer certified to sell pharmaceutical ingredients? I sent him a couple of questions, he sent back 40 pages of reporting full of color and detail! I trusted him.

Hooker spoke to many people outside the factory - truckers, farmers living beside factory, salesmen among others. He could speak Chinese. He therefore had access to public records.

Companies must file reports with the local branch of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and these reports have names and addresses of employees, a list of licensed products, and annual inspections from regulatory agencies. Chemical plants must also declare the main ingredients they use to make their products, as part of environmental assessments.

The clinching moment was when Hooker managed to get in touch with another counterfeiter. We had an opportunity to look into his mind to know how he operated.

We found that these counterfeiters and manufacturers used a route across various countries where inspections at ports and custom checkpoints were the least. The Free Trade Areas (FTAs) were used for this purpose.


Q4: How difficult is it to gain access to public records – medical reports, judicial proceedings and customs information – that was used in the story?

Public records are the heart and soul of what I do. That is the beauty of public records. There are always underlying documents to support your story. I checked the internet and culled out information. We made our own databases. I could access websites of those Chinese companies that were in English. I found the names of companies, the products they sold, those that were licensed or regulated. Although I am not a numbers person, I knew there was a way of quantifying the problem. We had to be specific.

Q5: What kind of impact that the stories have?

It brought the attention on to goods from China. The U.S. administration had new regulations for Chinese made goods and issued import alerts at borders. Something as ubiquitous as toothpaste was known to have contamination. This elicited a lot of concern. There were high level negotiations between both the countries on this issue.

In China, although most of the culprits got away, the factory that produced faulty glycerin was shut. The company was owned by Chinese government officials and no one was prosecuted.

Q6: For a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, how does it feel when you crack into these stories?

It is very gratifying. There is a joy in being able to put together all pieces of a story. There is a sense of accomplishment. Here was a 5000 words non-American story in an American newspaper done by Americans. There is a difference between whipping up fast food and laying out French cuisine. It is worth the effort and is memorable.

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It was my first day at NYU, when Mr Bogdanich came to speak to us about his experiences. His speech was very inspiring, reminding us about the true responsibility of a journalist - to keep important issues alive by asking simple questions even when they disappear from public memory, to dig deep into questions left unanswered in everyday reporting. Meeting him one on one for a class assignment was a humbling experience. I strongly feel that every journalist must possess these two qualities - empathy and humility - Mr Bogdanich has both in abundance.