Investigative journalism, when done right, exposes some of the dark truths that belie the power structures in the United States, and Sally Denton, the 2017 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer, devoted her career to investigating the corruption of some of America's most powerful and high profile families, companies and institutions. Last Tuesday, Denton spoke to University and local community members about what it means to hold powerful people accountable, and what happens when they invariably try to "kill the messenger."
Sally Denton is a Nevada native, investigative journalist and historian whose visit to the University was marked by wise words, calls to action and reflection on a career that continues to pursue truth. She regaled audience members with the tales of her colorful career, from getting her start at a small Boulder City paper (where she was fired for an investigative piece on a crooked politician) to taking down a powerful family's drug and gun smuggling operation in Kentucky to later becoming an author. Denton explored the rewards, pushback and exposure to "methods used to kill the messenger."
Denton used several examples of intimidation she faced throughout her career to illustrate the hardships that come with devoting your life to pursuing truth, but she had words of wisdom for students and aspiring investigative reporters.
"My sons once told me, ‘we know the risks mom, so what are the rewards,'" Denton said during her talk. "Well, journalism brings little money, but it does bring a lot of satisfaction in going after the right people."
Not only did Denton give a talk to the greater public when receiving her award, but she and John L. Smith, a Las Vegas-based columnist and reporter, spoke to a group of investigative journalism students over lunch. Students in the class were able to speak with Denton and Smith about how to best report their upcoming class project.
The conversation went beyond the day-to-day challenges of investigative reporting, but they also discussed the news industry as a whole when Professor Caesar Andrews asked Smith about the current state of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Smith and the class engaged in a frank discussion about what happens when the interests of a publisher become the interests of the paper.
"America's newspapers are not purchased by the poor, but professional papers maintain a separation, and it was clear from the start that there was no separation," Smith said. " But I'm hopeful that as time goes on they'll put distance between themselves and their sacred cows so to speak."
During the course of her visit, students and community members learned just how adversarial the world of investigative reporting can be, but there was also an emphasis on hope for the coming generation of reporters. During her talk, Denton was sure to emphasize the importance of the role of investigative journalism and the First Amendment in a democracy as well as the increasing diversity in news coverage.
"The entire democracy rests upon the First Amendment, " Denton said. "A lot of what I do is just try to return people to their rightful place in history, I think it's one of the most important things that I can do."
For more information about Denton and the 2017 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer events, visit journalism.unr.edu.
About the award:
The Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer Program was established in 2001 to inspire new generations of writers in honor of Laxalt, who developed from news reporter to fiction and nonfiction author during his prolific career. Considered by many to be Nevada's finest writer, Laxalt founded the University of Nevada Press and wrote 17 books, four of which were entered for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote for National Geographic and served as a professor in the University's Reynolds School of Journalism for 18 years, teaching magazine writing and literary journalism.