Debbie talks with author and investigative journalist David Cay Johnston about his childhood that inspired him to pursue justice and truth in life, his groundbreaking financial reporting, the state of journalism today and, of course, Donald Trump—the subject of his new book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America.
In many ways, all roads in David Cay Johnston’s life seem to have been carefully crafted to lead to this moment in history, in politics, in time—to President Donald Trump’s America.
With 50 years of investigative journalism under his belt, in his recent work and his new book It’s Even Worse Than You Think, Johnston has found an apt subject who single-handedly embodies much of the phenomena he has spent his life documenting for readers.
As he says in this episode, “We need to constantly be aware that those people who have positions of power and privilege—not all of them, but enough of them that it matters—try to twist the rules, try to oppress other people, try to take care of themselves at the expense of other people.”
Born in San Francisco in 1948, Johnston’s uncommon roots hint at the journalist he would become. His father was a World War II vet from New Orleans, had a third-grade formal education, read a book every day, and once had dinner with FDR. Racial discrimination enraged him. When the news would come on television, he’d grab Johnston and his brother, stand them in front of the set, and demand they pay attention. Upon a broadcast showing black citizens being assaulted with fire hoses, Johnston has recalled his father shutting the TV off and telling them that had Johnston and his brother been born black in the South, this would be happening to them. He mandated that they do something about it.
Johnston’s mother was, as he describes her, “a disowned heiress.” Her father was sued when she was a child, and she decided to testify against him—even after he told her she’d be disowned. (Listen to this episode for the full story.) As Johnston’s own father advocated for the Democrats, his mother was a Republican* who took her son to a Richard Nixon rally in 1960. In a world where journalists tend to tread partisan lines, if only subconsciously, it’s perhaps this political duality in Johnston’s upbringing that led to him becoming a gadfly to anyone abusing power, regardless of party or affiliation. (After all, while he made big waves last year for getting his hands on a partial return of Donald Trump’s taxes, he pursued Bernie Sanders’ as well.)
But more likely, Johnston’s lack of partisan reporting is simply the result of his approach to journalism at large. His career began at a local weekly paper and continued at the San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. With his lens fixed on corruption and abuses of all variety, over the years his work took a heavy focus on taxes and financials—perhaps the penultimate playground of corruption in the modern age. To steal a quote from ad legend Bill Bernbach and apply it to the world of journalism, a reporter’s job in this realm is to bring the dead facts to life, and that’s precisely what Johnston excels at: distilling otherwise illegible data and presenting it in a simple blend of sentences that people can understand—and moreover, realize how it is actually impacting them.
All told, Johnston is cut from what was already rare cloth at the start of his career, and what is an even rarer breed of materials today: the true investigative journalist. As a reporter, it’s all too easy to accept press releases as fact. It’s easy to take quotes from elected officials and run them without question or depth or analysis, especially in today’s strapped newsrooms where writers have a quota and inches to fill, and fewer resources than ever before. It’s much harder to dig. To do stories that can actually speak truth to power, and have real impact on people's lives. What Johnston does is not easy (believe me, I, and many others I know, have tried).
It is also often a thankless job. Perhaps a measure of an investigative journalist’s impact is the degree to which they are hated. And Johnston is indeed hated—by those his work has brought down, by those simply under his lens, by those he has detailed extensively … such as Trump, who Johnston says has been threatening to sue him since 1989.
Does it all bother him? As he says in this episode, “No. You do what's right. You do what you believe is right, and what in my business you can prove is true.”
Despite the intense baggage of his craft, his more than five decades of work reveal an undeniable passion for the truth.
Of course, occasionally, there is recognition—he won a Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 2001, “For his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms.” He was also a finalist in 2000 and 2003.
As a result of his thoughts on the media industry today, he founded the website DCReport.org, a decidedly low-fi yet important nonprofit repository of investigative journalism, seeking to report “what the president and congress do, not what they say.” The goal: To reveal, “in plain English, how you and your family are affected by what happens in Washington, DC.” One early victory: posting the famous partial Trump tax return, which led to such interest the site crashed.
As for Trump, Johnston has said that his first book devoted entirely to him, The Making of Donald Trump (2016), stems from his frustration at the U.S. media’s failure to detail the corruption of his past during the presidential campaign. His latest book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think, reveals the deeper issues of having Trump at the wheel—and how, ultimately, we’re going to be the ones who pay for it. Kirkus Reviews aptly dubbed it “thoroughly depressing—but urgent, necessary reading.”
This is not all fawning praise. Johnston has his detractors. He has made mistakes (and come clean). But in an era where journalism—and, indeed, facts—are perpetually under attack, Johnston is an investigative journalist we direly need.
And one added bonus: As he told The New York Times, his fascination with Donald Trump will never cease. “I’m going to follow him for the rest of his life,” he said.
*But they didn’t fight about politics at home. Rather, they fought about money—perhaps another clue into Johnston’s work.
A Selection of David Cay Johnston’s Books: