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Holding Power to Account

David Barstow wins historic fourth Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times investigative piece on President Donald Trump’s finances.

david barstow pulitzer prize ceremony
David Barstow at the 2019 Pulitzer Prize ceremony. He and his colleagues Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of investigative stories on President Donald Trump's finances. Image: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

By Sean Hargadon
May 28, 2019
Online Exclusives
7 Responses

New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow approaches every story with the same basic goal — to penetrate the subject matter as deeply as possible.

“It’s always about, how many layers of this onion can I peel away?” says Barstow ’86. “I want to feel like I know as much about this particular topic as anyone else in the world. I need to get to that feeling so that I can then write with both authority and also clarity.”

In fall 2018 Barstow and his colleagues Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner wrapped up an 18-month investigation into President Donald Trump’s personal finances. The series, published Oct. 3, detailed “dubious tax schemes” and outlined the millions the president inherited from his father.

The investigative pieces earned Barstow and his colleagues the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. It is Barstow’s fourth Pulitzer. He is the second journalist to win four, joining Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy. (There are three other members of the four-Pulitzer club: Robert Frost, who won four for poetry, and Eugene ONeil and Robert Sherwood, who both won four for plays.) Barstow and his colleagues were honored May 28 at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony in New York City.

“I know that there is a very large graveyard full of Pulitzer-worthy journalism that doesn’t win,” Barstow says, “so I was completely thrilled that this particular piece was recognized. In terms of degree of difficulty and the size of the ambition of what we were trying to achieve, it was a very intense and exhausting climb up the mountain.”

Barstow and his colleagues spent months “cloistered in a room that only we had the key to,” poring over more than 100,000 pages of documents, including tax returns, financial audits and banking records.

“I feel like it’s a really enormous privilege to be able to write 14,000 words of cold, hard truth about the most powerful person in the world and put those words on the front page of the New York Times and then come to work the next day without worrying about whether or not I’m going to be rounded up.”

Barstow, who joined the New York Times in 1999 and became a member of the investigative team in 2002, says his work allows him to “fully indulge my insane curiosity about the world — and I get paid for that.” This particular project allowed him to learn deeply about the tax strategies employed by the super wealthy. “Maybe that sounds boring to most people, but I get a huge kick out of learning about these worlds that, but for journalism, I would never have an opportunity to really explore.

“The other element is I get an immense satisfaction from putting really important stories that hold power to account on the front page of the New York Times,” he adds. “If you look around the world, there are an awful lot of places — too many places — where the kind of work that I do is simply not permitted; journalists who try to do what I do are locked up or they’re hunted into exile or worse.

“I feel like it’s a really enormous privilege to be able to write 14,000 words of cold, hard truth about the most powerful person in the world and put those words on the front page of the New York Times and then come to work the next day without worrying about whether or not I’m going to be rounded up.”

Highlights of David Barstow's career from the 2015 Medill Hall of Achievement induction ceremony.

Barstow recently served on an advisory committee to strengthen the teaching of investigative journalism skills at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those skills, he says, are critically needed to help differentiate professional journalists from the mass commentary in the blogosphere and on social media.

Barstow, a self-described bookworm who grew up in Concord, Mass., came to Northwestern because Medill encouraged students to take liberal arts courses. He fell in love with journalism during a semester at the Green Bay Press Gazette in the Teaching Newspaper program (now called Journalism Residency). “I loved everything about the sound and feel of a busy newsroom,” he says. “I loved everything about the pace of the day, the adrenaline rush of a deadline breathing down your neck.”

Barstow says he still draws on lessons he learned at Medill in a law and ethics course. “And,” he says, “I will never forget the terror of Dick Hainey’s threats about the need to get your facts right: ‘If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.’ I often think about the electric charge that went through my backbone when I first heard him lecture.”

Barstow was inducted into Medill’s Hall of Achievement in 2015 and received a Northwestern Alumni Association Merit Award in 2010.

He was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting with colleague Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab for their stories on Walmart using bribery to dominate the market in Mexico. Barstow also won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2009 for his series about the Pentagon’s hidden campaign to influence news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 Barstow and colleague Lowell Bergman won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for articles about employers who committed workplace safety violations that resulted in the injuries and deaths of hundreds of American workers.

Barstow, who lives in northern New Jersey, says his big projects are a little bit like his children — “you love them all equally, and when you publish, it’s really interesting to see how they interact and intersect with the world.”

He and his wife, Deborah, have a daughter and a son, Dylan ’13, who studied electrical engineering at Northwestern.

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Reader Responses

  • Thank you for the sunshine. Truth to power is a noble pursuit.

    Fatima Marashi-Hassan '79, Wauwatosa, Wis., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Why make this publication into a political diatribe? The effort he and his investigative team made should be praised, regardless of one's political leaning.

    Anthony Bilotti Highwood, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine

  • What I don't see enough in our press, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post — both of which I have read and/or subscribed to over many years — is political balance and fact-verified reporting.
    For example, I must wonder if a number of current and former Democrat and liberal leaders ever undergo the same balanced, factual examination and disclosure by our journalists, Medill-educated and others. I trust the faculty teaches as much conservative policy as it does liberal/socialist ideals, so students leave campus as I did 60 years ago with an "open" view of the wonderful world I had the opportunity to experience and enjoy over the past 59 years in a global, ever-expanding set of professional career opportunities.

    John Reece Atlanta, via Northwestern Magazine

  • I would very much appreciate knowing if Mr. Barstow has written and had published any reports of dubious affairs of powerful liberal Democrats, because I have the impression that they would not be allowed by those in control at the New York Times.

    Marg Cooke '80, Charlotte, N.C., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Seems like the timing and selection has to do with when he won a Pulitzer and the fact that a Pulitzer is generally considered a BFD in the world of journalism. I would hope (and expect) that those were Northwestern Magazine's criteria here.

    As for what constitutes a "dubious tax scheme," I would hope (and expect, although I have not yet read the article) that Mr. Barstow interviewed those with tax accounting backgrounds and did not come to that conclusion himself — unless he does in fact have that background somehow.

    Ed Finkel '89, Evanston, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Thank you, Mike. My sentiments exactly. I am also concerned about the timing and selection of the subject in this article. Mr. Barstow's past articles appear to be more in line with what he has done in the past, with reporting on cases of unchecked power.

    Jose W. Jimenez '79, Rosemount, Minn.,, via Northwestern Magazine

  • I’m not an ideologue, but how does a journalist such as Mr. Barstow objectively determine what is a “dubious tax scheme,” unless he has a reasonable background in tax accounting and is privy to the IRS code? If there really was something nefarious going on in the president’s tax reporting, wouldn’t the IRS already know this?

    Mike Davis '14 MA, San Francisco, via Northwestern Magazine

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