The George Polk award is one of the highest honors in journalism. Past winners include Bob Woodword and Carl Bernstein, whose dogged reporting broke the Watergate scandal. This year, the award went to its youngest recipient ever, 18-year-old Stanford University student Theo Baker. Braving administrative backlash, Baker launched an in-depth investigation into former Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s scientific work that led to Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation.
Baker is a history and computer science major at Stanford. While he only joined The Stanford Daily in the past year, he worked in journalism throughout high school. Baker remembers the rush he felt when an article was accepted by a national publication (as a teenager!). “Oh my God, somebody actually wants to hear what I have to say.”
Baker grew up around journalism. His parents are prolific journalists at the Washington Post and New York Times. However, he aimed to separate himself from his parents’ legacy.
“[My parents’ work] was inspirational for me growing up, but I always thought I’d be staking out my own path. It’s how I ended up doing computer science [and] going to school 3,000 miles away from home.”
Still, Baker remembers his childhood’s constant swirl of information, and the pull of news felt inevitable. His reporting began as a personal project. “Journalism was something I wanted to do for myself. I didn’t know that it would transform into what it’s ended up being,” he said.
Baker found ideas by following his curiosity. He pitched investigations that concerned him, even if they were contentious. “[Stories] come to you by being here and see[ing] what people are talking about,” he said.
Within his first few weeks at The Stanford Daily, Baker explored controversial stories, such as Stanford’s “war on fun,” and a student imposter who had been living on campus. While investigating these pieces, he noticed journalistic backlash. “Everyone was so scared to talk to me,” Baker said. After quoting an Office of Alcohol Policy employee who thought the school’s policies were making things more dangerous, Baker learned that the department head threatened to fire office employees for talking to journalists without approval.
Often, his biggest scoops came in series, not one sudden burst. The imposter article started with a breaking-news piece from when the imposter was discovered. Baker kept investigating, and discovered that the fake student had been living on campus for a whole year.
“One story begets another,” he said.
Baker describes his initial Tessier-Lavigne investigation as “open source journalism.” He began by researching claims about Tessier-Lavigne’s papers. “We worked from what was already public, like anonymous message boards,” Baker explained. “We took it to forensic image analysts and we were able to corroborate some claims and dismiss other claims, which is important. That allowed us to put out our first story with a high degree of confidence about what we were publishing.”
Initially, people in Tessler-Lavigne’s research lab were hesitant to interview with The Stanford Daily. However, as Baker published more stories, interviewees agreed to talk. “Once we [had] written five, ten stories, that’s when more people were willing to talk to us, and we [could] start doing more on-the-ground sourcing,” Baker said. “As a student journalist, you don’t have built-in credibility,” he added. “Until you have a credible enough byline of stories that you’ve worked on, it’s hard to get people to talk to you.”
Ultimately, Baker contacted people at the highest levels of Tessier-Lavigne’s research firm, an astounding accomplishment—even few established adults can make these connections!
“That was an extraordinary thing that there were people who violated their non-disclosure agreements just by talking to me. We’re now up to about eight or nine sources on that story from inside Genentech alone.”
While these interviews could intimidate him (who wouldn’t be scared?), Baker appreciates the opportunities the investigation provided. “I’ve talked to so many people throughout this reporting process that I never would have talked to otherwise, as a 17-year-old kid. There’s no way I would have been reaching out to Nobel Laureates or the editor-in-chief of science magazines if it were not propelled by the momentum of the story that we were on.”
However, Baker’s investigation also put him at risk of backlash. Tessier-Lavigne had a strong reputation as a scientist, having won some of his field’s biggest prizes. Baker’s article shocked Stanford students who respected him.
Baker faced legal threats from Tessier-Lavigne, which he worried could threaten his academic career. “These lawyers were very aggressive in coming after us and sending aggressive and threatening e-mails and letters,” Baker described. “[Tessier-Lavigne] sent a letter to professors and faculty members saying my work was ‘breathtakingly outrageous and replete with falsehood.’ That’s something that goes out to my professors when I’m still taking classes here.”
While Baker sometimes felt fearful to investigate, once he discovered the story, there was no alternative to pursuing it. His perseverance is uniquely impressive — who else would stand up when their school’s president was coming after him? “I was stressed. I wasn’t always able to focus on my classes. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t really like I ever thought there was another option. Once I knew what the story was, there was no way I was ever going to drop it,” Baker asserted.
The pressure that Baker was experiencing almost pushed him to his breaking-point at the point that he received the George Polk award. Baker was preparing his most exhaustive investigation yet, and the award encouraged him to continue.
“We were going back-and-forth with our lawyer and the sources and making sure we felt 100 percent confident in publishing it,” Baker recalled. “We had just decided to pull the trigger when we received word that they were going to give us the Polk award, and it meant everything.”
While Baker’s investigation resulted in Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation, he emphasizes that this wasn’t his goal. However, he was proud of his impact on the scientific community. “The one thing I felt proud of was the opportunity to contribute to the scientific record,” Baker said. “It’s not often that as an 18-year-old you can contribute to the cleansing of the scientific record in a meaningful way, but these widely-cited papers would not have been corrected or retracted without our work.”
Baker doesn’t know what he’ll end up doing in the future, but he’s sure he’ll be writing no matter what. “I know that whatever I do, I’m going to write in the future,” Baker said.
He encourages young people to explore journalism, even if that isn’t their ultimate life goal. “The skills you gain from learning to be skeptical, to ask questions, and expose yourself to new perspectives, those are some of the most valuable things that you can get out of any education,” Baker said. “I encourage anyone to find a home in journalism, at least for a little while.”