Capital City Fund For Investigative Journalism

Letter From Co-Founder

From SpotlightDC Co-founder Colbert I. King

The beating, while brutal, was not out of the ordinary in a city like Washington, D.C., where assaults seem to come a dime a dozen. This particular assault and street robbery, however, was brought into sharp relief because of where it occurred and the victim’s high profile.

The incident took place on January 8, 2006, in a quiet residential neighborhood in an upscale section of Northwest D.C. The actual crime scene was off the beaten path, only a stone’s throw from the home of the victim, David E. Rosenbaum, a much-revered, veteran New York Times journalist and father of two.

Two days later, he was dead.

A week after his death, the Washington Post published an editorial about the assault and robbery, in part because Rosenbaum had been a longtime fixture in our chief rival’s Washington bureau. His death also caught the editorial board’s attention because a laundry list of unanswered questions was raised about the care and treatment he received at the hands of D.C. police and workers at the D.C. Fire and Emergency Service and Howard University Hospital, where he died.

The editorial was penned in my capacity as deputy editorial-page editor. But I went on to write an additional editorial about his death and returned to the tragedy in six byline columns, which dove deeper and deeper into the various roles played by police, fire, EMS, and hospital workers in the critical hours following the attack, and the circumstances of his hospitalization leading up to his death.

The Rosenbaum columns uncovered massive problems with D.C. government and H.U. Hospital performance. D.C. government investigations were launched. People were disciplined and fired. Policies and procedures were changed. Reforms were introduced.

And at no time, while working on the Rosenbaum stories, did it dawn on me that I was practicing investigative journalism. All the elements were there, as the craft is defined: deep digging, methodical testing of answers and explanations, fact-checking, an eye for unmasking misuse and abuses of authority, exposing what is obscure and hidden from the public, uncovering truths in records and reports and memories.

Washington, D.C., is made out to be, by its boosters, the globe’s political epicenter, the magnet for international intellectual property. It’s not quite all that.

From the District of Columbia’s city hall, the John Wilson Building, to the halls of Capitol Hill, Washington is a government town — thus, a place where the coin of the realm is the Public Trust. Abuses of power, corrupt practices and dishonesty in public affairs are actions that devalue and debase the Public Trust. Those corrosive behaviors remain at work today.

Public agencies and officials, like those that failed David Rosenbaum, are still around. They have different shapes and structures and perform different missions. But they all do it on the public’s dollar. Deep and sustained fact-based coverage of issues related to problem-plagued policies and programs overseen by people in positions of power is what SpotlightDC aims to give the public — by means of investigative journalism.

Journalism of the nature envisioned by SpotlightDC will fulfill the much-needed watchdog role over the District’s sprawling government — and serve as the means by which transparency is brought to decision-making. SpotlightDC-supported investigative journalists will hold public officials accountable for their actions.

I no longer work around a newsroom or editorial board. SpotlightDC is, for me, the way to keep a valuable craft alive — and local government on its toes.

Colby King
May 2020
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