Investigative Reporting’s Critical Role in Our History

By Carl Bernstein
Journalist and Author

I write to you in three capacities: As a second-generation native of the nation’s capital; as a journalist; and as a proud American citizen.

All three of those elements, from my perspective, figure in the immense good for the city and the nation that would come from building a memorial, prominently located near the National Mall, that is dedicated to journalists who sacrificed their lives in service to the free press and the national interest of the United States and the ideals of democracy itself. Such a monument would also honor the concomitant role and ideals of investigative journalists and their reporting in preserving freedom and democracy.

In the 60 years since I went to work at the old Evening Star, located not far from the Mall, I’ve covered and written countless stories – from the March on Washington to the overdue destruction of the WW II “Tempos” on the Mall to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era – that emphasized the Mall’s importance in our national life.

There are gleaming memorials to our greatest national heroes and presidents and fallen soldiers within sight of the Mall, which are seen every year by millions of Americans and foreign visitors.

But, inexplicably, there is no proximate memorial or consecrated ground to the heroism and immeasurable contribution of the hundreds of journalists who sacrificed their lives so that our nation could remain free and a beacon of democracy for all the world. Those journalists – reporters, photographers, editors, couriers – died on battlefields foreign and domestic in service to the Constitution of the United States, the First Amendment, freedom of the press, and the very survival of our nation and democracy itself.

Then there is the contribution of what has become known as investigative reporting to this country and the world.

Investigation journalists have fought government control of media and preserved a free press in the United States that is unique in the world in its ability to report without prior restraint or being silenced or shut down for pursuing the truth.

Investigative journalism has played a critical role in our history. Whether it was the muckrakers at the turn of the 20th century or Watergate, journalists have exposed wrongdoing that the powerful wanted to keep secret. Through such reporting, journalists have changed the course of history.

Such journalism can be risky, even dangerous. Don Bolles, a reporter investigating organized crime and land fraud schemes in Phoenix, Arizona, died after detonating a bomb placed in his car.

During Watergate, when Bob Woodward and I were warned that our lives might be in danger, there was not a moment’s hesitancy by the publisher and editor of the Washington Post to make clear that their institution would not be intimidated or pressured in pursuing the story, no matter where it led.

Investigative journalism will be essential in the future. As autocrats around the world tighten their grip, among their first targets are investigative reporters. Think of Jamal Khashoggi. Or the brave reporters who have died in Russia under Putin’s autocracy for their pursuit of the truth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at the end of 2020, China had jailed 47 journalists, Turkey had imprisoned 37 and 10 were in jail in Belarus.

This memorial will remind visitors that journalists act on their behalf to preserve and advance the cause of freedom and democracy around the world: and in the process, to expose wrongdoing, corruption and waste, to hold the powerful accountable. I can think of no cause more deserving than a memorial near the National Mall, where the public can see it and appreciate how the press safeguards their freedoms.

In the early 1970s, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story for The Washington Post, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and setting the standard for modern investigative reporting, for which they and The Post were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The author of five best-selling books, Bernstein is currently at work on several multi-media projects, including a memoir about growing up at a Washington newspaper, The Evening Star, during the Kennedy era; and a dramatic TV series about the United States Congress for HBO. He is also an on-air political analyst for CNN and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair magazine.

To read all of the essays submitted to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission in support of a prominent site for the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, click here