Happy New Year (and a long needed update)

Happy New Year, everyone. As I sit here writing this, it’s 7:34 EST and I’m struggling with some serious jet lag from two weeks in India. If you want to kill some time, here’s some pictures. There’s about a zero chance I make it to midnight.

But since we’re talking jet lag, here’s an important update I’ve been meaning to do for three months.

In September I made the decision to move on from the Center for Public Integrity, the place that had been my home for over four years and where I turned my high school dreams of journalism into an actual job.

I accepted an offer from Defense News to take over their coverage of the Air Force, which is what I’ve been doing for the fourth quarter of 2012. It’s been an exciting and interesting change of pace, and a new challenge I’m really enjoying.

What’s this mean for you? Well, really, nothing. If you follow me on twitter, and you really should, you’ll see my usual blather has continued unabated. I’ll try to update this site more often, though, if for no other reason than that I’m paying ten bucks a year for the domain and I should get my money’s worth. Hopefully you’ll stick around.

In the meantime, happy holidays.

Aaron

These are a few of my favorite things…

(Ok, terrible title. Sorry. I’ve had Coltrane on the brain recently.)

The other day I was talking with a colleague, and he brought up an interesting question. I’ve been with the Center for over four years now. I’ve written over 200 stories and collaborated on many more. So after all that, what am I most proud of?

The easy (and cheesy) answer is the stuff that’s not printed – helping to build the Center, being a team player, actually winning a softball game… but journalists all have egos, and I’m just as afflicted as everyone else. So I started thinking about which stories I’m more proud of. Here’s my stab at putting together a list, in no particular order.

Note: These aren’t necessarily my biggest stories, the ones that got the most attention; nor are they the stories that took the longest to do. And I know I’m forgetting some. But these are the ones that pop into my head when I think of stuff I’m proud of. Obviously this is just a sampling- if you need to kill some time, you can see everything I’ve done over on my articles page. With those caveats out of the way… enjoy.

– Congress investigates treatment of Michigan spill victims (9/14/10): It’s kind of odd that of all the stories I did, the one that sticks in my heart the most is on a subject I was never supposed to cover. We have an incredibly talented environmental team at the Center, who have an amazing ability to get to the heart of how big picture issues impact the small guy when environmental regulations fail. But I guess they were all busy in early September, so I got tapped to write a piece about a trailer park full of people who were trying to fight back against an oil giant after their lives were impacted by a spill.

Enbridge, the company in question, had gone around after the spill offering air purifiers and a small amount of cash to the victims of the spill – as long as they signed a waiver releasing the company from any liability. Now suffering from lesions in their throats and faced with chronic breathing issues, the residents of the trailer park – almost all of whom are on fixed income – found themselves trapped in a nightmare situation.

I’m proudest of this piece because it showed the real cost of these kinds of tragedies. It’s rare, in my work with the Center, that I get to write about individuals rather than institutions. I spent most of a weekend sitting in my bedroom calling these folks and listening to them tell me their stories. It was emotionally draining, hearing what was happening to them – only a small portion of the stories made it into the piece, but I talked to about 10 individuals, and every one of them just wanted someone to care about them. That’s what was rewarding about it, I guess – at the end of the day, when the piece came out, these people felt like they were being heard for the first time. They were so thankful that anyone cared. That feeling is always going to remain with me.

The Army Tank That Could Not Be Stopped (7/30/12): I wrote about this one a few days ago, but it’s still fresh in my mind. This was a serious piece of heavy journalist lifting, featuring a giant database that we had to organize and sort, a lot of calls to make, and some seriously confusing military apparatus to navigate in order to get the answers to our questions. But it was totally worth it- heavy work leads to heavy pickup, it seems. And while the response from other reporters and experts in the field has been rewarding, the actual outrage from people who don’t follow this stuff day in and day out is what really make the piece worth it.

Plus, tanks are just fun to write about. One day I’ll figure out how to get a junket out to Lima to test drive one.

– Transportation lobbyist raises money for Transportation Secretary’s Son (6/1/11): Ok, this is a short one, but it was still really fun. It just so clearly shows how Washington works. Transportation lobbyist holds giant fundraiser for son of Secretary of Transportation while lobbying on transportation issues. Is it illegal? Not at all. Did this break any new ground? Nope. But sometimes it’s nice just to keep everyone honest.

– The Curious Spending of Republicans for Choice (1/6/10): Speaking of keeping people honest… my writing partner Josh and I were looking for something to write about one week and decided to start diving into campaign finance forms. One of us stumbled over a group called Republicans for Choice. The name alone caught my eye, but Josh, who has a shockingly encyclopedic knowledge of American politics, actually knew some stuff off-hand about the group. For fun, we took a closer look at the group’s spending.

Turns out that the PAC was spending way below average amounts on politics- about one-half of one percent of their total expenditures. Instead, the money went to a number of consulting groups run by the PAC’s founder, Ann Stone… and also went to funding Stone’s parking tickets and tires. The story took off and had great pickup. I’m fond of it because it was a story that came naturally, entirely from stumbling over a disclosure form, and yet it had serious impact to the donors who backed the PAC.

Blue Dogs Fill Their Bowls with Cash (7/23/09): In a way, this was the piece that really got my career going. My first year at the Center was spent doing mostly support work – primarily cleaning and sorting databases, making the occasional call without doing much writing. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I got to work with data so early, because I learned a ton. But this was the first true byline I had, on a story that I helped conceive and execute.

In 2009, there was a lot of talk about how the Blue Dog Democrats- the “pro-business” coalition in the House – could control what legislation the fledgling Obama presidency would be able to pass. They had the numbers to be a swing block, and they knew it. But no one had actually looked at who was funding the Blue Dogs, and what they were getting in return.

We broke down the fundraising numbers for the members and their political action committee, and really got into the weeds with the data. What we found ended up driving coverage of the Blue Dogs for the rest of the 111th Congress. We ended up doing nine follow up pieces to this story, were interviewed about our findings from radio and television stations around the country, and I got the first taste of how a story can blow up in DC. I’ll probably always be fond of this story.

Breaking Down a Tank

Monday saw the unveiling of one of the biggest challenges of my professional career: my story on the M1 Abrams tank. This is a piece that I first started toying with back in early April, but didn’t get a chance to start working on it full time until late May. Even then, it took months to complete.

The challenge was partly due to the sheer amount of data involved, and I was lucky to have a great partner in Lydia Mulvany, who helped with the data. But for the most part, the real challenge of this piece was just sticking with it – hounding people until they would talk with me, sticking with the data when it took forever, struggling to understand the complexities of Pentagon budgets.

The payoff? Well, it was worth the work. The story itself was great. The overall package was better, complete with an editorial cartoon, a pair of graphs, and a special sidebar feature on various lobbyists used by General Dynamics to promote their agenda on the Hill.

And the piece has gotten a great ride. We ended up with multiple partnerships for the story. The biggest was a complete reprinting on NBCNews.com, which had over half a million hits on its first day up. The piece was also featured on the front page of Huffington Post, a version in Mother Jones, and a run in 28 of the McClatchy publications. Overall, we estimate that we reached over a million individuals with the story – not bad at all.

Welcome to AaronMehta.com

Hi there. Thanks for stumbling into my corner of the internet.

My name is Aaron Mehta, and I’m a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. And if you have come to this site, I assume you’re here for one of two reasons: either you’re interested in learning more about my work, thoughts and ideas, or you got lost in a very strange Google search. If it’s the first, congrats! You made it. (If it’s the later, please resume your search for the latest in fat corgi photos.)

The impetus for this site is to give me a platform to do a little more out-of-the-box writing. In my day job, I do what we in the business call “investigative reporting” – that is, digging deep into stories, getting heavy into facts and figures and providing you, the reader, Serious Journalism. You may get some of that here, but the goal is also to provide analysis of current events, details of how a great story came together, musings on the state or journalism and links to some of the best writing on the web.

And, of course, shameless self-promotion. It is my site, after all.

If you want the crash course in my work, please visit my “articles” page. For my official bio, go to my “about” page. And for bursts and bits of info, follow my on twitter @aaronmehta. And if you want to get in touch with me directly, drop me a line at amehtablog@gmail.com or leave a comment.

Thanks for coming,

Aaron

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