Utica native and journalist Jim Asher ’70 has spent the majority of his decades-long career uncovering injustice for America’s most respected newspapers. After working on the groundbreaking Panama Papers series, which won a Pulitzer in spring 2017, Asher left a high-powered job as Washington Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers to join a fledgling startup on a mission to change the world.
Asher talked to us about his new gig, the most important stories of his career, and why journalism in the Trump era matters more than ever.
You were born and raised in Utica. Does the Mohawk Valley still feel like home?
Absolutely. My family lived in Utica for generations. I used to go to a barbershop on Sunset Avenue with a sign in the window that said “we know your grandfather.” It was absolutely true — they cut my grandpa’s hair. After a brief stint at the University of Toronto, I came back to attend UC. I graduated in 1970 with a degree in journalism.
What was your first job out of college?
My first job was at the Utica Daily Press. After a year and a half, I quit to pursue my masters at Newhouse in Syracuse. From there I went to the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut. When my wife went to law school in the Philadelphia area, I got a job at the Courier Post in Camden, New Jersey, which was a very good newspaper with a talented staff. After nearly a decade there, I moved to The Philadelphia Inquirer and later The Baltimore Sun. In 2002, I became national investigative editor for Knight Ridder in Washington, which later was bought by the McClatchy Company. I was Washington bureau chief for McClatchy from 2011 until 2016.
The way I tell it, I went from Utica to Bridgeport to Camden to Baltimore—all of them were armpit cities on the east coast of America, full of people who felt powerless. I made it my goal to find their stories and give them access to the levers of power. It was never politics that drove me—it was injustice.
"It was never politics that drove me—it was injustice."
You’ve covered drug-related crimes, murder and violence in Baltimore and Camden. Did your work as a journalist ever put you in harm’s way?
I’ve gotten death threats after getting people out of jail. There was a drug dealer in Baltimore who was allegedly going to try to kill me. My family has been threatened. But I’ve always been focused on the way journalism can reveal things, and the way journalism can make people’s lives better. In order to do that work, journalists have to be really aggressive and interested in the truth all the time, even when that carries great consequences.
The Panama Papers, which won the 2017 Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting, seems to fit with that theme.
The Panama Papers was a monumental, international effort which I had a little corner of, but I’m very proud of my involvement. It began in the spring of 2015. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists got access to a wealth of secret corporate records from a Panamanian law firm. The ICIJ was looking for a U.S. partner to help look into it, and they approached McClatchy. I said, “Absolutely.” McClatchy became their sole U.S. journalistic partner, and we started working together.
What’s the story all about?
The root of the story came from gigantic leak given to a German newspaper. It was a gigantic quantity of information—11.5 million documents in all. Financial records, corporate records, data from people who were trying to hide their wealth all around the world in these secret offshore companies. The German paper had no idea how to handle this quantity of data, so they went to ICIJ, which used its network of journalists around the world; there were approximately 370 reporters and editors and 100 news organizations involved in the project. The series revealed how a massive number of world leaders, politicians and their associates exploit secretive offshore tax havens to hide their wealth. It was a hugely important story to tell, and it had serious consequences. Governments have fallen and people have been jailed as a result. Our reporting revealed that the tentacles of corruption went deeper than anyone imagined and touched thousands of regular people in various ways. It’s a powerful thing when journalists can uncover this level of large-scale injustice.
Has covering injustice for so many years changed your perspective as a journalist? Do you approach stories differently because of it?
It’s one of the things I learned at the Philly Inquirer: The more you look closely, the more you find a bigger truth. You have to see the forest, not just the trees. That fundamental idea has always stuck with me.
That’s been a common critique of journalists during the 2016 Presidential Election—that they missed the big picture and predicted the wrong outcome. What’s your take?
Well, I will say that most of the journalistic crowd was completely stunned by Trump’s election. I was not, in large measure because I’d spent so much of my career around real people. Most of the journalists who were driving the coverage lived in New York and D.C. They had no idea what real people across the country were thinking about. For 18 months before November, journalists were going around pretending to cover the election, but they didn’t really do it. I think the outcome would have been different if journalists had covered things as they were instead of what they hoped them to be. I see the disconnect between journalists and real people as endemic. My experience, rooted in pulling myself up by the bootstraps and being surrounded by real people, started in Utica. It’s informed my journalism.
"My experience, rooted in pulling myself up by the bootstraps and being surrounded by real people, started in Utica. It’s informed my journalism."
So Washington D.C. is a bit like the antithesis to a city like Utica.
I think so. When I was at McClatchy, everybody who wanted to get a job would say, “I would love to work in Washington.” I couldn’t understand why that was the goal. D.C. is a faux city full of faux people who talk in a language that is distant from the truth. The goal should be to get out and talk to real people. I’d tell them that in order to be a good journalist, you need to look men and women in the face and become empathetic to the human experience. You’ll never do that in Washington D.C.
Was that part of why you left McClatchy in January 2016?
In part. The strategic direction of the McClatchy Company changed in my final months as bureau chief. They decided to close down foreign bureaus and refocus the Washington bureau to cover local politicians. I felt that eliminating national beats, the healthcare beat, the transportation beat, and others meant propagating the propaganda of politicians. I felt that direction was the wrong way to go. When you narrow the focus of journalism, you narrow the number of readers interested in it. The change meant constricting the readership to a single geographic area, which I disagreed with.
The other reason was this new project I’m currently working on. Almost two years ago, Rick Tulsky, a superior journalist and a good friend, contacted me about a non-profit journalism organization he had created. He wanted to put together a group of investigative journalists and explore issues of inequality and inequity across the country. I said, “That sounds interesting. What if I join you?” So in January 2016, I left McClatchy and began work on InjusticeWatch.org.
Describe your new role.
As the Washington editor for Injustice Watch, I look around the country for stories to focus on, mainly within the criminal justice system. We’re still getting our footing, but the goal is to partner with news organizations, both legacy and upstart digitals around the country, to add more heft to the journalism landscape and to bring more coverage to all these injustices.
"My career has given me a sense that, for the most part, people strive to have a good life. They want to have friends, strong families, and a future, and they struggle to be good people. And for those folks, I do the journalism I do."
Do you see another Pulitzer in your future?
[Laughs]. Well, I will say that the Pulitzer felt like a capstone to a long career. It’s a real feather in my cap. But for me, it’s never been about the awards. It’s about the single mom on the streets of Camden who tried to raise her kid in a way that gave him a future, and the good people of Baltimore who confront violence everyday. It’s about holding policy makers accountable for the public treasuries. I guess that’s my connection to the people in all the cities I’ve worked in. My career has given me a sense that, for the most part, people strive to have a good life. They want to have friends, strong families, and a future, and they struggle to be good people. And for those folks, I do the journalism I do. They shouldn’t be abused by their police, their government. They shouldn’t be forgotten when the people who have all the advantages are able to thrive. As long as I’m doing that kind of journalism, I don’t need the awards.
For more on Jim Asher, look for an extended version of this interview in the Fall 2017 issue of Utica, the Utica College magazine.