Mourning the Loss of Investigative Reporting

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, June 7, 2009

After Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Wilke died last month, his family didn't hold his memorial service in a church. They held it at the Newseum. It was a perfect choice to honor a man for whom newspapering was a civic religion.

His father was a United Church of Christ minister and a nationally known activist for the disabled. His brother is a minister, too, and he officiated at John's service last week. John, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 54, wasn't much of a churchgoer. But as I sat and listened for two hours to the stories of his too-short life, I learned that the same instinct that drove his father and brother to the cloth made journalism sacred for John. As one childhood friend put it: "John, too, was a man who had a moral mission, but without the clerical collar."

John's brother, the Rev. Kit Wilke, tried to explain it to us ink-stained heathens in the room. "There's something about what has been called the most secular, the most skeptical, the most cynical of professions," he began. "You journalists love the truth. . . . You also know that truth is elusive, that it must be gone after, sought. It doesn't come easily. No one owns it and dispenses it. In fact, what you usually spend your time going after are those who think they have it."

That's where the moral mission comes in. "You journalists seem to me to believe that knowing the truth, or at least seeking the truth, is far better than accepting the fables that this town and so many other places pass off as the truth," Kit went on. "That elusive truth that you as journalists, as scientists and poets, seek is the One we religious types still insist knows our pain and in some way echoes through this universe."

As I listened to Kit try to find God in his brother's humanistic quest, I got the sense I was hearing a eulogy not just for John but also for his calling. In that room were several hundred people, most of them journalists, many of whom had fled the profession -- or were forced to flee -- by the sudden collapse of our economic model. And we were there on the seventh floor of the Newseum, our very own Natural History Museum, already imparting on us roughly the same status as the fossils a few blocks away at the Smithsonian.

Of course, John was one of the great specimens of the journalistic species, and his skills would have been in demand had he lived into his 90s, as his mother has. The worry for journalism is that there will be fewer John Wilkes -- or perhaps no John Wilkes -- to replace him.

It was John's work that led to the indictment of former representative Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) over his financial dealings. Six months after John's story about mutual fund giant Mario Gabelli, the investor settled civil fraud claims with the government for about $100 million. John cared not about political party as he detailed the dubious uses of federal funds by Reps. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, both Democrats, and former representative Charles Taylor of North Carolina, a Republican.

Most people associate journalism with globetrotting White House correspondents or the ideologues of the op-ed page. But the ones losing their jobs now are more important: thousands of lesser-known John Wilkes across the country, holding officials to account at all levels of government. At a Senate hearing last month on the decline of newspapers, David Simon, the reporter turned HBO producer, put it this way: "The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician."

That's all the more true because we won't have John Wilke on the case. He was the perfect answer to complaints about the "elite" media; he drove a cab before going to journalism school, preferred a bomber jacket to a business suit and liked to end the workday with a few beers. He never flagged in his belief in the old adage that a newspaperman's job is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- a sentiment adapted, as it happens, from the Psalms.

Brother Kit returned to the theme in his closing prayer for John -- and for the rest of us. "Embrace our brother, our friend, the source of so much intensity and laughter, so much truth, so many wrongs righted, so many lies exposed, so much love," the minister said. "May his friends still put fear in the hearts of those who think they have won a victory because of prevarication."

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