ProPublica reporters Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliot participated in an Ask Me Anything session on Friday morning, taking questions from Reddit users – and one PR volunteer from the Red Cross – about their investigation into the nonprofit’s response to Superstorm Sandy.
Their piece found that the organization rerouted some emergency relief vehicles for press appearances, among other shortcomings during the response.
The Red Cross has actively pushed back against the report with a fact sheet and other tactics, contending that the ProPublica-National Public Radio team cherry-picked quotes and information for a negative slant on the organization’s performance. ProPublica is standing by its story.
Here are six takeaways from the AMA:
- The duo was asked by Twitter user @dcschrader, whose profile describes him as American Red Cross PR volunteer Dave Schrader, what positive things the group’s volunteers and workers had to say. Elliot replied in part, "It was very difficult to find sources with positive things to say about the Red Cross’ responses to Sandy and Isaac."
- Asked specifically by Schrader about their interview with a Florida emergency manager, Eisinger replied, "When I asked him specifically about the Red Cross’ efforts during Sandy, he told me, ‘I’m not in the business of criticizing people.’ He did not, however, then praise the Red Cross’ response to Sandy." "That’s some spin," commented another user.
- The Red Cross, through its law firm Gibson Dunn, initially fought a ProPublica public-records requests, arguing that how it spent Sandy donation money was a "trade secret." ProPublica previously reported on this when it occurred in June.
- When asked if the diversion of vehicles for PR purposes and photo opportunities was a matter of official policy, the reporters said the Red Cross’ national headquarters was cited as a hindrance to service delivery during Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy. One of those hindrances included "diverting assets for PR purposes." This was backed up by multiple interviews, including sources on the record, the reporters said.
- One Reddit user questioned the reporters about why ProPublica covers some big stories but not others. Eisinger said the outlet has 20 reporters, so they have to pick and choose stories based on instinct, if the topic "stirs the conscience," its relevance to public interest, and if they can report it out. He acknowledged ProPublica writers "probably miss good tips."
- A self-identified longtime volunteer with the Red Cross disputed ProPublica’s allegations that a post-Sandy press conference in Staten Island with the organization’s CEO, Gail McGovern, was "staged" and Red Cross wasn’t there. Elliot replied, saying ProPublica didn’t report that the Red Cross wasn’t present. The problem, rather, was the fact the organization was there and multiple officials complained about emergency response vehicles being tied up for hours at the press event.