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Friday, July 15, 2022

July 15, 2022: Investigative Journalists: A.C. Thompson and ProPublica

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a fictional character who helps us recognize one of our most vital current journalistic institutions.

I’ve written quite a bit about Treme in this space (and rightfully so, as it just might be my favorite TV show and at least is very high on the list), but interestingly have only mentioned one of my favorite characters from that show, Chris Coy’s reporter L.P. Everett, in this post on Coy’s character on a different David Simon show, The Deuce. Partly that’s because Treme is full to bursting with great characters, played by equally great actors, and I could easily write a post about each and every one of them. And partly it’s because of a strength of Coy’s performance—he effortlessly and thoroughly blends into the role of this seemingly unobtrusive but dogged and determined investigative journalist, making his scenes and plotlines far more about the people being interviewed, the clues being tracked down, the hard-won revelations being discovered. It’s one of the better representations of a fictional journalist I’ve seen on either the small or the big screen, and one I’d point to if I wanted to illustrate to an audience what investigative journalism is and should be.

In creating such a character, Simon and Eric Overmyer were also paying tribute to a real such investigative reporter, A.C. Thompson. Thompson was sent to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by ProPublica, for whom he has worked for many years as both an investigative journalist and a staff reporter. His extensive investigations and reporting on the shootings of civilians by New Orleans police, among other related topics, won him the 2013 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for investigative journalism. In the speech he delivered upon receiving that award, Thompson talks particularly movingly and powerfully about a story of official corruption and brutality in Pincohet’s Chile that he remembered from when he was young, and that had at least partly been his inspiration for moving into a career in journalism. He ends by linking the main story he investigated in New Orleans, that of the police murder of Henry Glover and its corrupt cover-up, to that Chilean story, and notes, “I was sickened by how similar they seemed. That’s what I have to share with you.”

That’s a profoundly sobering thought, and one that rings even truer in 2022 America than it did in 2013 when Thompson delivered his speech. But it’s also perhaps the best possible argument for why we need investigative journalists, in 21st century America as in every nation and era. And I don’t know of any journalistic organization or institution that has done and is doing thoughtful and vital 21st century American investigative journalism better than ProPublica. I don’t want to suggest that it’d be impossible for our more traditional print or TV media to produce such journalism, and they certainly have at times (I almost dedicated a post in this series to Woodward and Bernstein, for example). But it’s worth noting that one thing which links all the folks about whom I’ve written in this series is that they took significant risks to pursue their investigations and the truth, and it seems to me that risk-taking is a trait often found more in the realm of independent media and voices. And in any case, there’s nobody around taking more risks, and doing more vital work, these days than the folks at ProPublica.

Tribute post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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