(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.