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Neil Barsky’s Farewell to The Marshall Project

Our founder and board chair’s letter on criminal justice reform and the nonprofit journalism sector

Dear Marshallers,

I want to let you know that I am resigning as chairman of The Marshall Project, and will remain on our board through Dec. 31. Under our leadership — new Board Chair Liz Simons, President Carroll Bogert and Editor-in-Chief Susan Chira — we are in superb hands.

Founding The Marshall Project has been the most rewarding experience of my career. Finding purpose in one's life is never simple, as we try to balance our needs to earn a living, do what we love, and put good in the world. I like to think that, in our little way, we have built something together that accommodates each of these deeply human needs.

The Marshall Project’s work has never been more urgent. Despite some favorable developments over the past several years, it is worth reminding ourselves that the American criminal justice system remains a national disgrace. In my opinion, our courts, jails, police forces and prisons (also housing, education, transportation systems and more) greatly favor rich over poor, and White over Black or brown. In other countries, this situation might be called a caste system or apartheid. It is easy to become numb to brutality, dehumanization and racism. Marshallers: May we never lose our sense of outrage.

It is also important that we not become cynical. This past weekend, I attended a symposium at Bennington College about prison education. I met college instructors and a number of formerly incarcerated individuals who overcame extraordinary obstacles to receive degrees in prison, and who now work in the community. It is impossible to not have one's belief in the human spirit affirmed after getting to know them and hearing their stories. In this context, I hope we also never lose our ability to be inspired by the heroism of others.

This might be a good time to reflect on why I chose journalism as the vehicle to do our work. The tension between advocacy and journalism never goes away, and from time to time, I have heard people say we are too partisan or not partisan enough. Here, I am unwavering: Despite my strong personal views about the rancid criminal justice system, I am certain that our work will have the greatest impact only if it is independent and nonpartisan.

From the moment I became aware of the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and Watergate, I aspired to be a newspaper reporter. I was attracted to the romance and enjoyed the idea of being an outsider. But more importantly, I was drawn to the press' ability to rouse public opinion. The Selma marchers were unmistakable heroes, but so were the men and women who chronicled the violence on Bloody Sunday, which directly led to Congress' passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Opposition to the Vietnam War came in many forms, but how much longer would the war have dragged on, and how many more Vietnamese and American people would have died, had the courageous men and women on the ground not reported honestly about the reality of America's failed mission? Finally, Richard Nixon's power grab was undeniably thwarted by reporters covering the Watergate scandal, and it is worth contemplating where the country would have been without them.

Given immediate threats to voting rights, immigrant rights and women's health, I am afraid the press' report card in the Trump era is still incomplete.

Journalism evolves, and it is important that we evolve with it. The Marshall Project’s Pulitzer-winning, deeply-reported series about the use of attack dogs as weapons by police departments was certainly journalism at its finest. But so too was the work of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who kept her video camera on Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for a full nine minutes, as he choked the life out of George Floyd. Great reporting can still change the world, and it will come in many different forms.

From these examples, I think we can glean why it is so important that we created The Marshall Project as a nonpartisan journalism outfit. The public’s skepticism about the media has never been greater. The miracle potion of The Marshall Project is that we are truth-seekers and storytellers. This is our franchise, and once lost, is very difficult to recover.

Ultimately, journalism is an act of optimism. We become reporters because, deep down, we believe that if only people knew about civil rights workers being beaten on a Selma bridge or war atrocities being committed in our country’s name halfway around the world, there would be a clamoring for justice.

I don’t believe “objectivity” is achievable or desirable, and I don’t think reporters need to check their humanity at the door while doing their jobs. But I do believe in fairness. I believe in letting the facts we uncover determine our conclusion, rather than the other way around. I believe in reporting things that might make us uncomfortable. The Marshall Project has made a difference in the lives of others precisely because of the high journalistic standards first set by Bill Keller, now continuing under Susan. I am confident that this will continue for years to come.

Finally, please know it has been a privilege to work with each and every member of The Marshall Project team, and I eagerly await the great journalism to come in the years ahead.

Warm regards to all,

Neil

Before you go...

Can you help us make a difference?

The Marshall Project produces journalism that makes an impact. Our investigation into violence using police dogs prompted departments from Indiana to Louisiana to change their policies. Thousands of cameras were installed in the infamous Attica prison after we revealed the extent of violent abuse by guards. Municipalities stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration because of our reporting. Supreme Court justices have cited us, along with incarcerated people acting as their own lawyers.

The type of reporting we practice takes persistence, skill and, above all, time, which is why we need your support. Thanks to generous readers like you, The Marshall Project has already raised nearly $25,000 of our $100,000 goal during our year-end campaign. The funds we raise now are going to be essential to sustaining this important work. We’ve still got a long way to go to reach our goal, though.

To help us get there, a generous group of donors will be matching all new donations. They’ve pledged $100,000 in matching funds and are matching donations dollar-for-dollar until our December 31 deadline. Will you join The Marshall Project today and double the impact of your donation?

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Neil Barsky has enjoyed a varied career in the fields of journalism, finance and film. He is founder and former chairman of The Marshall Project. He has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, working for the New York Daily News and the Wall Street Journal. He also had a career in finance and served as an equity research analyst in the areas of real estate, casinos and hotels for Morgan Stanley. Neil went on to build two hedge fund businesses, Midtown Capital and Alson Capital Partners.