As scoops go, it was a doozy. The news broke Aug. 8 that Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace was resigning under a cloud after an Alaska Public Media investigation revealed he had fabricated major portions of his résumé, from education to work experience to military service. Every paragraph brought new revelations, and by the end, readers were left wondering: “How could this happen?”
There’s a long, specific answer to that question, and dueling investigations by the mayor’s office and the Assembly may provide the answer. But there’s also a short, obvious answer: Gerace lied every which way, and the people and systems that were supposed to wave red flags and stop his hiring were asleep at the switch. There were multiple junctures where Gerace’s fabricated credentials should have been discovered — the initial application review by municipal HR, HR Director Niki Tshibaka’s research on Gerace before presenting him as a nominee to the Assembly, the Assembly’s confirmation process — where former coworkers of Gerace brought concerns forward, no less.
But in the end, those failsafes weren’t sufficient. And Gerace would have continued in the position for who knows how long if it weren’t for the two people who did bother to chase down the dubious details: Lex Treinen, a reporter at Alaska Public Media, and Curtis Gilbert, a correspondent for American Public Media Reports. The pair pulled string on inconsistencies in Gerace’s claimed credentials, tracking down military records and former college officials. In the end, the whole mess unraveled, and so did Gerace’s tenure as health director.
Like the ADN’s recent collaborations with national journalism nonprofit ProPublica, the Alaska Public Media/American Public Media Reports effort was a solid example of investigative journalism and public service reporting.
News reporting has gotten a bad rap lately. It’s not as though that’s happened for no reason: Unfortunately, some media outlets — particularly national cable news networks — have been all too eager to chase viewers by appealing to their pre-existing biases instead of staying above the partisan fray, blurring the line between opinion content and news programming. Their decision to pick sides has been profitable, but it has eroded trust in news reporting well beyond the outlets themselves. And that loss of trust has been actively pushed by politicians — some local, some national — who recognize that if they can get their supporters to distrust the news, they won’t believe the reporters who inevitably find the skeletons in the politicians’ closets.
That distrust has filtered down to a local level, with reporters receiving threats, being bullied and sometimes receiving physical abuse in the course of their jobs. That should be unacceptable to Alaskans, because local news reporters and their work are often what’s keeping government honest. And that’s a full-time job.
The impact of journalism can be felt in its absence. A 2018 study found that communities without a local newspaper were more likely to see municipal bond interest rates rise significantly because of the loss of local reporting and its ability to stem corruption and waste in public spending. That meant projects cost taxpayers more and public money was spent less wisely. Another study found that when local reporting declines, so does voter participation, while corruption spreads.
And the Gerace scandal is far from the only recent example that demonstrates local reporting’s value. Two Alaska attorneys general have resigned in the past two years after ADN reporting on sexual harassment and misconduct they perpetrated. As with Gerace, it’s an open question how long those officials would have continued in their position if there hadn’t been a light shining on their misdeeds.
It’s no secret that news has been a challenging business for the past few decades; both the ADN and Alaska Public Media are fortunate to have subscribers and donors who see value in the work that local reporters are doing, and who help fund that reporting through subscriptions and pledges. If you’re among them, thank you — it’s your support that makes this work possible.
Most importantly, though: Our community would be poorer without local news coverage, and stories that hold Alaska’s public officials to account would be few and far between. Local reporters have earned your trust, and they work every day to keep it. With your help, we’ll keep government honest together.