By Knight Chair Dana Priest.
Reprinted with permission by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Originally published Nov. 14, 2016.
I was on the phone the other day with a senior US official, someone not usually eager to talk to a reporter, when the following conversation occurred:
“Is the FBI likely to follow up on tips that Trump might have some dubious connections to Russia now that he’s been elected?” I asked.
“If they hadn’t begun a serious investigation before the election,” the official responded, “it’s not likely now – unless something were to occur.”
“What do you mean by, ‘something were to occur?'”
“Well, that’s where you all come in.”
Wham! Of course.
With the two houses of Congress controlled by Republicans and a Democratic party in chaos, of course it falls on the shoulders of journalists to deepen the solid investigative work begun during the campaign.
The new president may merit a brief honeymoon in governing while he figures out what his policies will be and how he will implement them. But we should not wait one nanosecond to lay out the unprecedented set of conflicts of interests he and his family bring to the presidency, to compare his campaign rhetoric with his post-election decisions, and to chronicle post-election moves made by state and local governments where authorities may feel emboldened to push the boundaries of their power and our laws.
While we are dutifully reporting on the presidential transition, we should also dig out our helmets and flack jackets, harden our legal defenses, and get ready for the coming war on transparency. Here are eight steps to take immediately:
Rebuild sources: Call every source you’ve ever had who is either still in government or still connected to those who are. Touch base, renew old connections, and remind folks that you’re all ears.
Join forces: Triangulate tips and sources across the newsroom, like we did after 9/11, when reporting became more difficult.
Make outside partnerships: Reporting organizations outside your own newspaper, especially those abroad and with international reach, can help uncover the moves being considered and implemented in foreign countries.
Discover the first family: Now part of the White House team, Donald Trump’s children and son-in-law are an important target for deep-dive reporting into their own financial holdings and their professional and personal records.
Renew the hunt: Find those tax filings!
Out disinformation: Find a way to take on the many false news sites that now hold a destructive sway over some Americans.
Create a war chest: Donate and persuade your news organization to donate large sums to legal defense organizations preparing to jump in with legal challenges the moment Trump moves against access, or worse. The two groups that come to mind are the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Civil Liberties Union. Encourage your senior editors to get ready for the inevitable, quickly.
Be grateful: Celebrate your freedom to do hard-hitting, illuminating work by doing much more of it.
Dana Priest is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning national security reporter at The Washington Post and the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland’s journalism school. She is the co-founder of PressUncuffed.org, an organization promoting student research and journalism on press freedom issues and working to free imprisoned journalists abroad.