I was 23 years old and working for an underground weekly newspaper in Phoenix, Arizona, when I reported on prison guards routinely beating and torturing men held at the state prison in Florence.
After my first few articles, the prison warden banned me from visiting inmates, and he ordered the prison staff to cut my articles out of newspapers before they were given to them. I snuck in six more times to interview inmates and see many of the harsh conditions for myself.
It was the early 1970s, and this was my first experience as a journalist. The newspaper paid me $20 per article, barely enough to cover my gas for the hour-plus drive to and from the prison, so at the urging of my editor I applied for a $1,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
When I received a telegram — it was almost a half-century ago — saying I’d won the grant, it was one of the happiest and most encouraging days of my young life. Because of that money, I was able to continue reporting a story nobody else wanted to touch – stories that played a key role in U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearings on brutal prison condition in Arizona. During those hearings, an assistant warden was asked by the commission why I was banned from the prison and my work was censored. His response: “Mark Nykanen represents a direct and immediate threat to the security of the institution.”
I went on to work in local radio and television, and in the 1980s I was hired by NBC News as on on-camera investigative reporter. The network aired scores of my stories, ranging from child sexual abuse to environmental toxins. My investigations aired on a number of the network’s shows: NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, a prime-time documentary, and on a newsmagazine that went up against 60 Minutes. We lost in the ratings to that familiar crew but won significant critical acclaim. I also received many honors, including several Emmys and a shared DuPont-Columbia award. Since then, I’ve traded the world of hard truth for fiction and built a career as a novelist.
This year, I’m giving back. I’m donating to the Fund for Investigative Journalism to help more reporters expose injustice and publish stories that lead to change. I’m asking you to make a donation, too. Please click here to make a donation today.
Every little bit helps. Trust me, that first grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism helped launch a career built on an ongoing commitment to positive change.
The late muckraker Jack Anderson called investigative reporting “high-risk journalism.” That remains as true now as it did in Anderson’s heyday. Let’s support the journalists courageous enough to risk so much to tell their stories.