Recently, a couple of reporters at The New York Times 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 Jan. 6 at the Capitol, and they were talking about what to do about then-President Trump.
His conduct, McCarthy said, had been “atrocious and totally wrong.” Moreover, wrote 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 at a rally on the National Mall that day were ‘not right by any shape or any form.’” He added, “I’ve had 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 could themselves incite more violence. Not surprisingly, there have been plenty of denials, but the two reporters have countered with one key point: They have the audio recordings.
I happen to believe these stories are important for the insight they provide into key politicians’ thinking at a dark moment in our history – and on those politicians’ willingness to backtrack in the year since. But whether you agree or not, the willingness of two reporters to dig deep into what actually happened and set the record straight has sent shockwaves through Washington and cast the behavior of powerful officials in a new light.
This is what good investigative journalism does. It is an essential part of our representative democracy, offering all of us – the people who have the most at stake in who represents us in Washington and how they and other officials behave on our behalf – the chance to understand more fully what’s going on. I often think to myself how dull our lives would be without the difficult, important work that enterprising journalists do. They get for us the facts and – mostly – put them in context so that we can understand what we need to know.
I’m not going to recite a list of all the important stories that journalists have uncovered or helped to explain; it would take us hours. But a quick look back at some relatively recent investigative work gives you a sense of the key importance they play. There was the 2019 Washington Post story on a confidential “trove” of government papers documenting nearly two decades of US officials’ misleading statements about the war in Afghanistan. And Ronan Farrow’s groundbreaking investigation of the sexual predation of Harvey Weinstein. There’s been ongoing coverage of the dark corners of America’s war on terror, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. The work by the Seattle Times on how failures of government oversight helped lead to the crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX. The Boston Globe’s earth-shattering investigations of abusive behavior by priests and the Catholic Church hierarchy’s efforts to cover it up.
It’s possible that just by reciting that tiny fraction of important work, I’ve spurred you to think of other examples, from Watergate to the exposure of corruption or malfeasance or toxic pollution or some other community harm where you live. And that’s my point: Journalists are constantly finding and exposing the truth in ways that, ideally, spur us to improve our lives, communities, government, and democratic system as a whole. They have a lot of power – they can destroy the career of public officials and private-sector leaders – and certainly some of them have their faults, obsessing over feuds and conflict and giving them more attention than they deserve. But overall, I’ve found journalists as a whole and investigative journalists in particular to be intelligent, compassionate, and people of integrity.
And I’ll say it again: They’re vital to our representative democracy. We need the work journalists do to remain a free and independent nation, with power residing ultimately in the hands of its citizens. There’s a reason that one of the first things authoritarians do is try to bring the press to heel. They understand, perhaps better than we who get to take these things for granted, how a thriving free press lets people form their own opinions.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.