Much of my career has been dedicated to what we call “investigative reporting.” In general, I find that phrase to be redundant: any worthwhile reporting needs to be, on at least some level, investigative. It has been my greatest journalistic love from the beginning, and my passion for it has never left me.
My first paying job in journalism paid very little, but when I reported the story of a fatal house fire in which several African-Americans lost their lives, it turned out the story went much deeper than it first appeared. At least one of the victims had been shot before the house caught fire. It became a case of arson—and murder.
As a young man of 20, I was completely unprepared for the nasty backlash against me for reporting the truth that powerful people wanted to keep hidden, but it was the experience that got me hooked on investigative journalism. I discovered that I had a passion for getting to the truth, or as close to the truth as I can get. I learned was how hard it can be to dig out things that people, especially powerful people, don’t want the public to know—things which more often than not turn out to be things that your fellow citizens need to know.
Many decades later, the people trying to hide the news are still out there—those who are mad because a story is too inflammatory, or too controversial, or because it makes important people look bad. And in many ways they are more powerful than ever.
Today our free press—and with it the idea of an informed electorate—is in peril. One reason is that the news has become big business, and much of it is owned by conglomerates. These huge media enterprises have extensive legislative and regulatory agendas in Washington. Those agendas are very much threatened when investigative journalists uncover stories that are embarrassing—or worse—to lawmakers. Too often, the top priority for large media companies is not the news, but the imperative to protect the interests of their parent companies, and their advertisers. Burying or soft-pedaling a story is simply censorship masquerading as good business.
This is a threat to journalism—and journalists—everywhere. Do a good job and report the truth, and you’re probably going to catch hell. The catching hell part has happened to me many times over the years—during the civil rights movement, during the Vietnam War, covering Watergate, and yes, reporting on Abu Ghraib and on President George W. Bush’s failure to fulfill his military service obligations. The trick is being willing to do it anyway.