Like any reporter worth his salt, David Fahrenthold followed the money. As it turned out, the money wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
Fahrenthold, a reporter for The Washington Post, was at a rally in 2016, where Donald Trump, who was then a candidate for president, presented a giant check to a charity for veterans, vowing that he was donating millions of his own money to charitable organizations. Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting ultimately revealed that Trump never made the donation, at least not until Fahrenthold publicly reported about it.
Fahrenthold shared this story with an audience of students, faculty and staff at Northeastern Monday as part of a panel of investigative journalists from ProPublica, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal.
Patricia Wen, the editor of Globe’s Spotlight team, shared the challenges her reporters faced when uncovering the struggles of football player Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in 2017 while serving a sentence for murder. Much of the investigation into Hernandez’s troubled background and the way his football stardom contributed to his downfall involved wading through records, emails, and audio recordings, she said.
“We had four reporters on it and we just did a deep dive into all the material,” said Wen. “And I can tell you, listening to all the jailhouse tapes is a lot of work. I mean, you can imagine you’re sitting there listening to one phone call after another during hundreds of hours of tape, but you never knew where something exciting might happen.”
“This became the first part in our now-five-part series on the ‘Extortion Economy,’” Dudley said. “There are a range of American businesses and industries that are fostering the rise and proliferation of ransomware, which has become the top cyber crime in the world.”
Interspersed between the stories about the reporters’ biggest investigative stories and reflections on their respective careers were nuggets of advice.
Fahrenthold suggested writing everything down, and making a permanent record of your notes. Wen said the job requires a certain level of passion, a deep commitment, and upgrading your skills.
“I wish I had better data skills,” she said. “I think learning those things early on and getting them in your head early would be great.”
Joe Palazzolo, a reporter who covers national legal issues for The Journal, said that when sources refuse to talk to him, he taps into his investigative instincts.
“When I get into a story or I feel that there’s a possibility there, whether it’s a gut thing or there’s something that actually substantiates the feeling, my advice to anyone is just make the call, make the call, make the call,” he advised. “Just keep going.”
Palazzolo is known for breaking multiple stories about President Trump’s involvement in hush-money deals to former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. He also was the first to report that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump.
“No one involved wanted us to report this,” he said. “It wasn’t a thing where one side thought they could gain leverage over another. Your job as a reporter is to find as many of those people as you can, and eventually convince people who are even closer in the circle that you have gained enough information, that this story is coming out hell or high water, and we’ve got to get it right. So that’s kind of what we did.”
The program marked the fourth installment of Northeastern’s series, “The Civic Experience,” which profiles the generation of cutting-edge leaders who are shaping media, politics, and policy.
The next event will feature two speakers who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives, Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and former Representative Chris Gibson, a Republican from New York. The lawmakers, both of whom served in the military, will discuss how their service shaped their careers and led to personal and professional success on Nov. 4 at the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.
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