Two Pulitzer Prizes — for reporting on the CIA’s secret prisons, and conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center — are just the tip of the journalistic iceberg for Dana Priest. A career reporter (primarily at The Washington Post) and bestselling author, she is the recipient of: the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism awarded by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University; the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the National Defense; the Arthur Ross Media Award for “distinguished writing and reporting” on American diplomacy; and the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Award “for exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous service to your community, fellow citizens and veterans.”
And the work continues. Her recent Washington Post stories on national security issues have awakened readers, including government officials, to issues on spyware while she also helps to up the game for the next generation of journalists as the Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.
So many great stories. And so many stories about those stories.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in journalism?
I was a photographer — amateur, self-taught — in college because being a photographer let me be in the middle of everything. Once you had a camera and said you were from the newspaper, people — the police, the administration — let you do everything. Then an editor of the student newspaper said, “Why don’t you try writing?” Well, we had no journalism department. No journalism teacher. It was the blind leading the blind, but that meant we could do anything we wanted. And so we did. I had some great older mentors in community journalism in the city, and learned about land records, did stories about slums … and a wild story about students who took over the U.S. embassy in Iran.
How did you transition to pro?
A series of internships at real papers.
Was it tough going from “doing what you want” to traditional intern work?
Oh my god, yes. When I got to the San Jose Mercury, my very first internship, I was put on the style desk. I was interested in international news. I wanted to do one story where I told my editor I would wear a wire. She looked at me with a straight face and said, “We don’t do that kind of thing here.”
Had you already decided that journalism was the career for you?
The internship at The Washington Post foreign desk while going to grad school at Columbia was the first time I truly decided. The head of the department let me do actual stories, including front page stories on fun subjects like tit-for-tat diplomacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union on spies. I got to fly to Jamaica and cover the heads of the Caribbean States Conference. I dropped out because I was so committed to journalism and in debt from going to Columbia that I went and got a job at the St. Petersburg Times and had a blast covering all sorts of crazy things in Florida.
Wait, you mean crazy things happen in Florida? I’m shocked.
I know. Hard to believe. That’s when I did a story on an elderly couple that was confused and ended up on an airport runway and then drove off into the bay.
Can you recall the first time you felt like something you wrote had an impact beyond informing the reader?
In St. Petersburg, probably the most well-read piece I did was a veterinary practice that put to sleep the wrong dog. It got a lot of publicity and I think it got their license pulled. I was pretty young but thought that was pretty cool.
What are some differences between covering national security early in your career versus now.
There are so many. It always had its problems but it was nothing like today. One is that you could talk to both sides — Republican and Democrat. They were more willing to explain their positions and give you actual information that you might not have or might not be able to get from the other side. Congress did really read the newspaper. [Journalists] really did help set the agenda for lawmakers. We would be the ones coming out with the scandal and they would then hold hearings and usually do something about it. Plus, we didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle, even with CNN, and we were without social media, which really screwed things up.
Did you ever worry that a story you wrote could negatively impact national security?
Absolutely. When covering the CIA, exposing black sites, the agency didn’t want us to print. They pleaded with us at various levels up to the Oval Office not to run them. I was not the ultimate decision maker, but I thought obsessively about the subject and whether exposing them would get people hurt or would actually somehow damage national security. I have learned about being level-headed and walking up to the line but not going over the line. But often the government doesn’t help you figure out where that line is.
What do you think the majority of Americans don’t know — but should know — about national security?
One is that all countries operate in their own self-interest. That’s the number one mode of operation for every country. If something happens and you don’t understand it, you need to ask the question: what is their interest? If you know enough about the country, you’ll know that answer. The other thing is that our relationship with other countries is from that dynamic. If we have ruptures with other countries but our fundamental interest is to be in partnership — like against terrorism — then the reality is that we are all going to work toward our best interest. For example, after 9/11, Europeans were quick to criticize the U.S. about lethal drones but behind the scenes, their intelligence organizations were working closely with ours because it was in their interest to do that. They had a bigger terrorist threat than we did. Even if there’s a kerfuffle for a while, it’s a surface-level thing. Below the surface, it’s most likely that the military and the intel communities are still working together. That was a real revelation. Once I understood it, it changed the way I looked at the world.
Has it been a significant plus to your work to be able to speak three languages?
I can’t say that I’m fluent anymore in French and Spanish, but it’s been a total plus. I have good sources in the French government and military and made some in French intel. And Spanish, for sure, not only in immigration — I covered that a bit — but on the military side. It does open doors. It really does.
You’ve won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative work that brought about real change. But is there a story or issue you reported on that you feel didn’t get enough attention?
I did a series on the Pegasus spyware — Israeli spyware sold to countries with authoritarian governments. That did get a lot of attention in Europe and the Biden administration put the company on the blacklist for products made in the U.S., but I think it stopped there. Really, the proliferation of spyware doesn’t affect Americans as much right now, but it’s going to become a bigger deal for Americans and it already is for countries around the world. It’s having a profound effect on pro-democracy and human rights activities, and anyone who dares to organize against repressive and corrupt regimes. It’s military-grade spyware that should be treated like a weapon.
What’s your least favorite part of being a reporter?
When I can’t write a good lede. Honestly. I get so excited about the reporting and then sit down with all the excitement and all the facts and something just goes “clunk.”
How many tabs are usually open at one time on your computer?
Probably around four. If I have a student sitting next to me, perhaps more. I still don’t know how to put a tab up on the toolbar so I don’t have to minimize.
Speaking of students, did teaching find you or did you seek out teaching?
I had not thought of doing it. I was approached at a really good time when I felt like I wasn’t as productive at The Post as I had been, and it was bothering me. Nobody’s fault but my own. I was approached by the University of Maryland and figured I’d apply for it and see what I think. I was concerned. I saw young people being hired, mostly for platform development. They knew the tech but didn’t know how to report. So when I applied, I said that’s what I wanted to do: teach people how to talk to people and gain trust. So that’s what I do. We have different themes like reporting on imprisoned journalists overseas. How to contact and develop relationships with all sorts of people involved with the prisoner, including families and colleagues and the government that put them in prison. Developing sources and speaking to people isn’t easy for students. They grew up texting their friends. It’s a handicap. I am always so gratified when I send them back to the same source over and over and they get it and they are very excited by and large. Well, not everybody.
The pandemic certainly fed into the lack of in-person reporting.
That was bad. But I did a lot of work on the phone in the newsroom in my early career. Non-journalists don’t understand that. I would go to the Pentagon maybe once a week, sometimes more, but did a lot of reporting on the phone. It was no excuse.
Teaching is one way of giving back. What other ways can journalists help the future of the field?
Right now, I spend a lot of my time on the board of a small community newspaper in Virginia [the nonprofit Fauquier Times] trying to keep it afloat and mentor some of the journalists. It’s the only place where you get that same feeling we had then. You were connected to the community in an intrinsic way. All sides knew that you could make a difference. There’s a great debate now with pressure from large companies to bring a data center to the county and all sides are united against it. They still haven’t won, but it’s a great “David and Goliath in the countryside” story. I’m all for new people with experience going back into local news.
Is it harder today to have the
time to report and write the big stories?
Luckily at The Post, where I work part-time on the investigative unit, you pretty much have the time you need. But that’s rare. Medium-size papers are where that really hurts, with budget and revenue problems. Our investigative unity is bigger than it’s ever been. I’m not an on-the-beat reporter for intelligence. For those, it’s a lot harder because of the competition and the news cycle. You don’t wait until 6:00 to write the story. You put pieces up ASAP, and that definitely has a negative impact on whether you can verify to the extent that I can on the investigative staff. There’s so much pressure to be competitive all the time. That’s why so much of the Russian investigation was wrong and hasn’t been corrected. That’s my pet peeve: getting it wrong and not correcting.
Do your students have to publish corrections when they get something wrong in an assignment for class?
I require them to fact check and have another student fact check. If you have errors and the student checking it lets them stay in, then you both get downgraded. There’s no excuse for it.
How can journalists help combat misinformation and disinformation?
I think journalism institutions can do a lot that they still aren’t doing. Put up the background of every reporter that works for them so that as a reader you can see who the person is. Two, be more open with their process. I don’t mean having cameras in the newsroom, but we haven’t explained ourselves and how we operate so people understand it better. I also really do think mainstream big papers have slid into using more loaded verbs and adjectives, and that’s not good. They need to pull that back. I don’t know if it was a knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s presidency being so unorthodox, and chronic misinformation, but I think a lot of our language changed during that presidency. We need to go back a bit and make sure we don’t succumb to some kind of bias in our language — that we prove to people that what we are saying is factual.
It’s harder for some readers now to distinguish between editorial and news.
I really think we should go back to a time when editorials did not hog such a high place in news online. People are so confused about that. It gets a lot of eyeballs but we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because a paper like The Post has mainly liberal commentators, people don’t know the difference between editorial and news, and it feeds the image of it as a liberal paper. In news reporting, it should just be grounded journalism. I hate having to run through all those editorials before getting back to the news. ,
LOU HARRY is editor of Quill and has written for more than 40 publications and websites.
Feature image: A screen grab from the “Frontline” documentary “Global Spyware Scandal: Exposing Pegasus.” The two-part series examines how the hacking tool was used on journalists, activists, the wife and fiancée of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and others. (Photo courtesy of Dana Priest/PBS)