So typical of women, isn’t it? Taking on a tough job that others don’t want and succeeding despite stacked odds.
At least that’s my take on what’s happened to investigative journalism over the last few years — and my big takeaway from what went down during a remarkable 2019.
Women are rocking the trade.
Have a gander at the current corps of Pulitzer Prize winners, announced in April.
Women got awards in seven of the eight reporting categories: Public service, breaking news, investigative, explanatory, feature writing and national and international reporting. They were shut out only in local reporting.
According to my unofficial count, which was based on write-ups and photos of the reporters at the Pulitzer ceremony (and could exclude some who won as part of a staff), there were 17 female winners all told last year. That’s after 19 were honored in 2018.
Compare those numbers to a decade, and two decades ago. Just six women won reporting Pulitzers in 2010, and three did so in 2000. What a turn-around.
Not long ago some of these categories were considered dead or dying.
Major newspapers, as is commonly known, have folded up their foreign desks or gutted them, so American readers see significantly less coverage of international news in their favorite outlets, and promising reporters have less opportunity.
A similar dynamic had been in play in investigative journalism, which prior to Trump was considered too expensive to produce and not capable of driving revenue. Magazines, newspapers and broadcast operations laid off hundreds of enterprise-project veterans during the previous decade. As a result, untold instances of injustices went unreported.
Into the void came this new wave of women, many of them young, armed with drive and skill.
They are literally changing the face of investigative work. You see them on network and cable TV regularly. A few look like movie stars. Not exactly the old image of some chain-smoking fellow in his 50s, trudging around in a fedora and rumpled raincoat.
Meghan Twohey, who won a Pulitzer in 2018 for public service, and Rebecca Ballhaus, a winner in last year’s national reporting category, are examples of exceptionally talented journalists who could play themselves in the movie version. Not that appearances should matter. They shouldn’t.
But looking good on TV while explaining transgressions helps spread the message behind the reportage, while spurring appreciation from viewers of how challenging it is to expose these under-the-radar wrongs.
In addition to all the award winners, many others are making a difference.
Some in high-profile positions — Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni of the New York Times, to name just two — are people I’ve worked with directly, so I’ve seen first-hand what they can do. Haberman won a Pulitzer in 2018. Karni seems poised to do the same.
Susannah Cahalan, a friend and colleague from her early days of reporting at the New York Post, last year followed up her bestselling “Brain on Fire” memoir with “The Great Pretender,” a re-examination of a 1970s study of psych wards that could change how we regard the treatment of mental illness.
I try to help through my own work at the Hatch Institute, which is proud to have published investigative stories by women who had never done this kind of project before.
And my previous role as investigations editor at the Post paired me with Jeane MacIntosh, who’s up there among the most resourceful, determined reporters I’ve worked with. She’s no longer in journalism, but others have followed at the paper, including Melissa Klein, Isabel Vincent and Sara Dorn, all of whom did outstanding work in 2019.
Susan Edelman deserves special praise. Her weekly blockbusters on the city’s Education Department provide constant scrutiny of an agency whose $25 billion annual budget is more than what every other American city spends each year — on everything — and half the states’ budgets as well. Yet it somehow merits limited coverage.
Edelman, it’s worth noting, deserved a Pulitzer in 2007 for chronicling the life-threatening diseases affecting 9/11 responders. That year the rival New York Daily News won the prize for editorial writing based largely on information she’d reported for the Post.
Nationally, the best known female journalist is Rachel Maddow, who had a standout 2019, which included her breaking stories on her MSNBC show, landing exclusive interviews and unraveling complicated issues for her audience, something she does quite well.
She also came out with a new book, “Blowout,” which I’m reading now and recommend. It’s a deep dive into the powerful and corrupting practices of big oil and gas.
With the most important presidential election of our lifetimes looming, I’m looking forward to seeing if she can top that in 2020.
Fortunately, finally, she won’t be alone.