Earmarks to Nowhere

My Columbia Journalism School master’s thesis in Jan. 5, 2011 edition of USA Today.

In January 2011, USA Today and NBC Nightly News published my investigation into what I call “uncooked pork:” earmarks that had been set aside by Congress but never spent.

Through exhaustive public records requests, the story documented that approximately one out of every three federal highway earmark dollars had gone unspent in the last 20 years. Together, they cost states $7.5 billion in lost funding, often because of simple, sloppy mistakes like naming the wrong road in a highway bill. You can read the full report here or watch the NBC Nightly news segment in the media player below.

The story prompted the Senate to pass bill taking away unused earmarks and a Senate call for an investigation into unspent highway earmarks. In August 2012, President Obama ordered $473 million of the unspent highway earmarks to be returned to states to pay for future projects. And five years later, the Obama administration freed up another $1.9 billion of unspent earmark money. That’s a total of about $2.4 billion of spending that was reallocated to infrastructure projects in need of funding thanks to my reporting. 

One of the enduring lessons I took from this project was that reporting on issues of public interest can make a positive impact on the world.  I shared that message at my ten-year college reunion in 2016. I had the honor of giving a presentation to my classmates about journalism with impact, and why it matters. You can view that presentation here.

The story originated as a newstip I got while covering the Congressional battle over the renewal of the 2005 highway bill. When I started journalism school at Columbia in 2009, I turned it into my master’s thesis for the investigative program at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. At the time, I never would have dreamed that my master’s thesis would land on page one of a national newspaper or on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Brian had just stopped by my journalism ethics class at Columbia Journalism School for a guest lecture, so it was an amazing experience to hear him introduce my master’s thesis live on air a few weeks later.

I’m forever grateful to Sheila Coronel, head of the Stabile program, for believing in me and helping me pitch the project to USA Today, and to Blake Morrison, then-investigations editor at USA Today, for picking it up and pairing me with Gregory Korte to report the story for the paper.