By Chris Adams
Indeed, “quid pro quo” is a phrase now on the tips of Americans’ tongues.
“In Washington, it’s easy to find the quid, it’s easy to find the quo,” said James Grimaldi, an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s the pro that’s hard.”
Capitol Hill is filled with lawmakers intent on passing a favored piece of legislation – or perhaps killing one favored by the opposition. They put pet projects into their districts, or for their friends and contributors. Sometimes, they slip through legislation that will benefit them directly, or at least their favored class of constituents. Understanding their motivate is key to covering everything they do.
In a session with fellows from the National Press Foundation, Grimaldi offered a wealth of tips for investigating the underbelly of Congress – and gave reporters a strong reminder of the need to do so. He was joined by David Lightman, a veteran political and congressional reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, who talked about how to get information from Capitol Hill even if you are thousands of miles away in Sacramento or Boise.
“For every issue, for every politician, there is a genesis back home,” said Lightman, who once covered the Maryland legislature. “That’s what we did in Annapolis. That’s what we do in Washington.”
He also cautioned reporters to be careful in their communications. Just like you wouldn’t want to spill the details on a sensitive story while walking the halls of Congress, take care in emails to sources you may not know well.
And don’t get too chummy with politicians.
“You might say, ‘Congressman,’ and he’ll say, ‘Oh, call me Tom,’ ” Lightman said. “Don’t call him Tom. He’s a congressman.”
Grimaldi (Twitter, bio) won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on a major congressional lobbying scandal. He also won NPF’s Everett McKinley Dirksen Award For Distinguished Reporting of Congress for uncovering another congressional scandal.
Grimaldi explained the “iron triangles” of interest groups, executive branch agencies and public interest groups that dictate much of what gets done in Congress. He detailed how reporters can work to expose corruption in that iron triangle, highlighting several records that can be used in the process. He also offered general strategies for attacking stories. (See: Resources)
One key tip: “Do a timeline,” he said. “Always do a timeline. It’s the most important thing you’ll do.”