Mississippi Today investigative reporter Anna Wolfe is one of six finalists for the 2023 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism honors, for her explosive series “The Backchannel.”
Wolfe’s series unearthed new evidence about former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in the state’s massive welfare scandal, inspiring multiple court defendants to come forward with allegations against Bryant or publicly insist Bryant be held accountable.
Wolfe and Mississippi Today are among six finalists for the award, which will be announced on March 15. The six newsroom finalists are: The New York Times, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, Reuters, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Mississippi Today.
“This year’s finalists represent investigative journalism at its finest – classic stories that begin with a reporter tugging at a loose thread or following a lead, and uncovering truths too vital to ignore,” said Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, where the award is housed. “We prize great public interest journalism for both its excellence and its impact, and these finalists represent the very best of both.”
Wolfe and former Mississippi Today reporter Michelle Liu won the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for their investigation, in conjunction with The Marshall Project, of the state’s restitution centers.
Below is the Shorenstein Center’s full description of Mississippi Today’s series:
Reporter Anna Wolfe read a startling statistic published in a 2017 report: Mississippi, the most impoverished state in the nation, was approving just 1.5% of families applying for cash welfare assistance. That statistic sent Wolfe looking for where the state was sending the federal funds, if not to families who needed them. Over the next five years, Wolfe submitted more than 80 public records requests and faced repeated stonewalling from government officials and agencies. Through the challenging reporting process, she discovered that the state was funneling tens of millions-worth of welfare grants through two nonprofits under the guise of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s nebulous anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi, which refused to provide direct aid, instead leading needy families down dead ends. After the arrests of state welfare agency and nonprofit officials for embezzlement, Wolfe’s reporting didn’t stop: through private text messages that officials concealed from the public, Wolfe uncovered corruption and influence peddling extending all the way to Bryant and former NFL legend Brett Favre. Bryant admitted to many of the report’s findings in a rare on-the-record interview. Multiple defendants have since come forward with allegations against Bryant or have relied on the reporting in court filings that insist Bryant be held accountable. Congressman Bennie Thompson and the NAACP president urged the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice to investigate Bryant’s otherwise ignored role in the scandal, and Thompson has vowed to hold congressional hearings. State lawmakers, citing the investigation, held multiple hearings about how the state could better spend its welfare grants. Several legislators filed bills in early 2023 to reform the welfare agency’s management and oversight over federal funds. Meanwhile, federal criminal investigations into the scandal continue.Shorenstein Center press release from Feb. 23