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Why investigative journalism matters

Recently, 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,” adding, “I’ve had it with this guy.” 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. But whether you agree or not, the willingness of two reporters to dig deep into what actually happened has 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 ordinary people the chance to understand more fully what’s going on.

I’m not going to recite a list of all the important stories that journalists have uncovered; it would take us hours. But a quick look back gives you a sense of the key importance they play.

There was the 2019 Washington Post story documenting nearly two decades of US officials’ misleading statements about the war in Afghanistan. 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’s cover-up.

I’m sure you can think of other examples, from Watergate to the exposure of corruption 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.

I’ll say it again: They’re vital to our representative democracy. We need their work to keep power residing ultimately in the hands of 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.

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