by Erin J. Mansfield
“[Joining The Stony Brook Press] was the best thing that I ever did,” Scott Higham told a packed auditorium of enthusiastic journalism students at the Stony Brook Student Union last Wednesday night.
Higham won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2002. He graduated from Stony Brook University in the eighties and attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has been an investigative reporter with the Washington Post since 2000.
While an undergrad at Stony Brook, Higham began working for The Press. “I wanted to make friends,” he said candidly. He soon found himself investigating falsified well documents at a local construction site, a story that led him to what one only sees in movies – a man meeting him at a dark gas station with a manila envelope. He wrote what his friend told him was a “holy shit” story. “It’s when you open the paper and say to yourself, ‘Holy shit!’”
Higham became the Executive Editor of The Press. He dedicated all of his time to the paper, produced it weekly, and, as a result, almost flunked out of school. It was then that he realized his dream to become an investigative holy shit journalist because, “You can really make a difference.”
And make a difference he did.
He was the first reporter at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, about which he humbly commented, “I was able to be a witness to history,” as if he were the luckiest man in the world.
Most notably, Higham exposed the faulty child-protection system in Washington DC, where many children died while under the supervision of the organization. It resulted in an overhaul of the system, including the firings of judges and social workers who were aware of the flawed policies; the removal of a Maryland congressman for the first time in 200 years; and a Pulitzer Prize.
He more recently reported on the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib prison scandals, and is currently on leave from the Washington Post while he writes a follow-up book about Chandra Levy, the Washington DC intern who disappeared in 2001.
Higham said that the most important lesson in investigative journalism is persistence, “Never taking no for an answer.” You spend day after day, making phone call after phone call, and, “Sometimes you just break through to the other side.”
Towards the end of his speech, when a student asked him if he ever regretted becoming a journalist, he swiftly replied, “No.”