One of the defining moments of my journalism career came when I read “The Great Tax Giveaway” by the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer reporting duo Don Barlett and James Steele. I was in graduate school at the time, and although the series had been written a decade earlier it resonated with me in a way that few other stories had before or since and would become a template in forging my own work.
The overhaul “reaches deep into our national sense of justice—and gives us back a trust in government that has slipped away in the maze of tax preferences for the rich and powerful,” said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a political titan from my hometown of Chicago who would later spend 17 months in prison for mail fraud.
The series taught me two things: First, the power of effectively wielding irony in investigative stories—holding up two opposing ideas to expose hypocrisy. Lawmakers said the tax overhaul was fair; Barlett and Steele showed it wasn’t. The second thing the stories taught me was that it is possible to tackle subjects of great importance even if, on the surface, they appear dry. Tax law might sound mundane to some, but Barlett and Steele captured its vital importance, revealing it as a reflection our values.