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PAINTER: Former Tribune staffer helped bring down Larry Nassar

• Feb 12, 2018 at 2:00 PM

The death of newspapers is “greatly exaggerated.”

I’ve borrowed similar words from humorist Mark Twain, who once wrote: “The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.”

Those words best describe how I feel about the plight of newspapers. While it is true that many major daily newspapers are struggling to maintain circulation and advertising dollars, I believe that newspapers are still relevant.

That picture became clearer with the conviction of Larry Nassar, the former doctor of the USA Gymnastic team and team doctor at Michigan State University. We now know that Nassar was convicted of multiple sex crimes and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

We have a newspaper’s remarkable investigative work to thank for putting Nassar behind bars and exposing sexual abuse of USA Gymnastic team members, including the award-winning U.S. Olympic team. The Indianapolis Star’s investigative reporting exposed those abuses.

The Star’s investigative team of Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans wrote the first stories about sexual abuse of U.S. gymnastic team members in 2016. They have been following the trail of the sexual abuse cases for two years.

The name of Marisa Kwiatkowski may look familiar to some Grand Haven Tribune readers. That’s because when I was managing editor of the Tribune, I hired Marisa to her first reporting job in 2004. Marisa, a Grand Valley State University graduate, began her career with us as an intern and then became a full-time reporter, covering education news.

She left after a year to pursue her goal of being an investigative reporter. “I never wanted to do anything else,” Marisa wrote in an email to me. She also wrote that she enjoyed her time at the Tribune.

Marisa landed her first investigative stint with the Times of Northwest Indiana in 2006. She worked there until 2013 when she was hired by the Indianapolis Star. Now she has become a celebrity being interviewed by media outlets throughout the world, along with Alesia and Evans.

In an interview with the New York Times, Marisa explained how her newspaper first became involved in the USA Gymnastics scandal. She told Times reporter Daniel Victor that, in March 2016, she was working on a story about area schools failing to report child abuse. While investigating that story, Marisa was tipped off to a lawsuit accusing the USA Gymnastics organization of covering up sexual abuse.

Marisa was put on a plane to Georgia to look at court documents about the case. She returned to Indianapolis with more than 1,000 pages of material, thus marking the beginning of a two-year investigation into sexual abuse.

On Aug. 4, 2016, the Star published its first story of the investigation under the headline, “A blind eye to sexual abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report sexual abuse cases.” The Star named its investigative series “Out of Balance.”

On Sept. 12, 2016, the Star published the story of Rachael Denhollander, a gymnast from Louisville who told The Star that Nassar sexually abused her under the guise of medical treatment.

“We knew early in our investigation that USA Gymnastics executives had followed a policy of dismissing complaints as ‘hearsay’ unless they were signed by a victim or a victim’s parents,” Marisa told me. “My colleagues and I spent the next few months investigating the impact of that policy on the safety of children in gymnastics. I started to understand the scope of allegations against Larry Nassar after we talked to a dozen other survivors.”

Today, more than 250 women and girls have come forward with stories of abuse at the hands of Nassar.

“Nassar is just one example of a larger problem,” Marisa concluded.

If it hadn’t been for the Star’s remarkable work, Nassar could still be practicing medicine and abusing girls and women.

The Star didn’t win major newspaper awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize, in 2016 because the scope of the story wasn’t known two years ago.

I would rank the Star’s investigative work right up there with The Washington Post’s work on Watergate. They were both significant accomplishments for newspapers.

Their series of stories shows how important of a role that newspapers can play in our lives. We need reporters like Marisa who are willing to take on the establishment.

Yes, newspapers aren’t ready to die.

Marisa will be returning to GVSU in late March to talk to journalists about her newspaper’s investigative work. It should be an interesting talk.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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