Why good investigative journalism matters
Recently, a few New York Times reporters published an intriguing story about conversations between House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of his leadership team. It was shortly after the events of January 6 on Capitol Hill, and they were talking about what to do about then-President Trump.
His conduct, McCarthy said, had been “excruciating and utterly bad.” Moreover, write Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin in their article, McCarthy “faulted the president for ‘inciting people’ to attack the Capitol, saying that Mr. Trump’s remarks during a rally on the National Mall this day were “not fair in any way. any shape.” He added, “I got it with this guy.”
Burns and Martin have since published a series of articles on the subject, including McCarthy’s fears that some of his more extreme colleagues might themselves incite more violence. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of denials, but the two reporters hit back with one key point: they have the audio recordings.
I believe these stories are important for the insight they provide into the thinking of key politicians at a dark time in our history – and the willingness of those politicians to reverse course in the year that followed. But whether you agree or not, the willingness of two reporters to dig into what really happened and set the record straight has sent shockwaves through Washington and cast a new light on the behavior of powerful officials.
That’s what good investigative journalism does. It is an essential part of our representative democracy, giving all of us – the people most at stake in knowing who represents us in Washington and how they and other officials behave on our behalf – the chance to better understand what is happening. I often think to myself how boring our lives would be without the hard and important work that enterprising journalists do. They get the facts for us and – importantly – put them into context so we can understand what we need to know.
I’m not going to recite a list of all the important stories journalists have uncovered or helped explain; it would take us hours. But a quick look back at some relatively recent survey work gives you an idea of the key importance they play. There was the 2019 Washington Post article about a confidential “treasure trove” of government documents documenting nearly two decades of misleading statements by US officials about the war in Afghanistan. And Ronan Farrow’s groundbreaking investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation. There has been continuous coverage of the dark corners of America’s War on Terror, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. The Seattle Times’ work on how failures in government oversight contributed to the Boeing 737 MAX crashes. The shocking investigations of the Boston Globe into the abusive behavior of priests and the efforts of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to cover it up.
It’s possible that in reciting that tiny fraction of important work, I’ve prompted you to think of other examples, from Watergate to exposure to corruption or malfeasance or toxic pollution or whatever community harm there where you live. And that’s my point: Journalists consistently find and expose the truth in a way that ideally inspires us to improve our lives, our communities, our government, and the democratic system as a whole. They have a lot of power – they can destroy the careers of civil servants and leaders in the private sector – and some of them certainly have their flaws, obsessing over quarrels and conflicts and giving them more attention than they give them credit for. deserve. But overall, I found journalists as a whole and investigative journalists in particular to be intelligent, compassionate, and of integrity.
And I repeat: they are vital to our representative democracy. We need the work that journalists do to remain a free and independent nation, with power ultimately resting in the hands of its citizens. There’s a reason one of the first things authoritarians do is try to bring the press to heel. They understand, perhaps better than we who take these things for granted, how a thriving free press allows people to form their own opinions.
Lee Hamilton is Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a scholar emeritus at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives for 34 years.