December 2015 Features

How to Win a Pulitzer

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, left, listens and looks on as reporter Carol D. Leonnig, right, has a moment while her editor Peter Wallsten, not pictured, speaks about Carol D. Leonnig's Pulitzer Prize award for National Reporting during a gathering at The Washington Post on April 20, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, left, listens and looks on as reporter Carol D. Leonnig, right, has a moment while her editor Peter Wallsten, not pictured, speaks about Carol D. Leonnig’s Pulitzer Prize award for National Reporting during a gathering at The Washington Post on April 20, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

By Robert DiGiacomo

Carol Leonnig ’87 was in the middle of an anniversary dinner with her husband, John Reeder, at a Mexican restaurant last September, when urgent messages from colleagues at The Washington Post began flooding her cell phone. A fence jumper had penetrated the Secret Service cordon around the White House and caused the building to be shut down. For Leonnig, an award-winning investigative reporter who had already broken multiple stories about problems within the Secret Service, the celebration would have to wait.

Aided by sources she had carefully nurtured over a two-year period, Leonnig went on to reveal that the intruder—contrary to an initial Secret Service report—had made his way deep into the White House, reaching the ceremonial East Room, before being apprehended. This “get,” as well as a subsequent exposé detailing a 2011 shooting at the White House that was initially dismissed by the Secret Service, led to the resignation of the agency’s director, Julia Pierson, and other changes within its top ranks.

The Secret Service revelations struck a chord with congressional leaders, who quoted Leonnig’s work during an oversight hearing for the agency, as well as with her peers. In April, Leonnig received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She has also been honored with a George Polk Award for investigative reporting and a citation by the White House Correspondents Association. Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor and a driving force behind the Secret Service coverage, says her reporting represented “especially groundbreaking work” in penetrating one of the world’s “most secretive organizations” and “most closed cultures.”=


In a newsroom full of stars, Leonnig stands out for displaying a rare combination of tenacity and decorum. At a time when digital methods are rising, she practices journalism the “old-fashioned” way, by developing sources through face-to-face meetings and sifting through reams of documents to uncover the facts. When there’s breaking news, be it a political scandal or a mass shooting, Leonnig is often called upon to work the phones to persuade people to share what they know and what really happened.

During more than 15 years at The Post, Leonnig has trained a spotlight on everything from environmental concerns about lead in the District’s drinking water; to the political scandal and subsequent corruption convictions for ex-Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife over gifts they received while he was in office; to the U.S. government spying on its citizens. For the latter stories on Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures, she shared a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. “Carol understands the secret of deep investigative reporting,” says her colleague Sari Horwitz ’79, a three-time Pulitzer Prize–winner. “She is patient and never takes no for an answer.”

Post reporter Rosalind Helderman, who has collaborated with Leonnig on stories about Hillary Clinton’s use of email during her tenure as secretary of state and the McDonnell scandal, witnesses “a master class in reporting” daily from her colleague. “Carol is patient with people who don’t think they want to talk,” Helderman says. “She never tries to trick or bluff people. She often explains to them in plain terms the risks they face in speaking to her, gaining their trust as she shows she understands that the decision to speak is often not an easy one.”

Soft-spoken and known for her quick wit, Leonnig grew up outside the nation’s capital in a Maryland farming community that has become suburbanized. As the daughter of two attorneys, she knows how to make a good argument but is not the argumentative type. Credit goes to her mother, Dolly, for instilling the good manners that continue to serve her well even with the most hardened of Washington insiders. “I start off fairly gently and slowly with people, approaching them as I would someone at a cocktail party, and build some rapport,” Leonnig explains. “There are times that call for far more direct questioning of savvy politicians, and that is something I’ve had to learn.”


An anthropology major at Bryn Mawr, Leonnig gained a taste for journalism during her freshman year. She helped report a sledding accident behind Rhoads Hall for the Bi-College News, the newspaper that serves both Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, and was tasked with reviewing campus security records. “My first document-based reporting,” she recalls. Later, as its deputy editor, she shepherded the school paper through the weekly printing process at a Philadelphia plant and savored the moments when the new edition arrived.

In her first job as a suburban correspondent at The Philadelphia Inquirer’s South Jersey bureau, Leonnig worked alongside a cadre of young reporters, rushing around in her battered Toyota Corolla to cover night municipal meetings and sometimes dictating the news by pay phone. “Being personally responsible for a zone of coverage gave us a sense of duty and a possible point of pride if we landed an important story,” she says. “It also gave me my first lesson in the hardcore reality that people will lie to reporters.” To her editor at the time, Dianna Marder, Leonnig possessed a surprising sense of calm for someone her age. “Carol kept her focus and was able to do what was needed. She was absolutely confident but humble; knew when to ask for advice; and had a great sense of humor, which helped her communicate with sources.”

Leonnig further honed her reporting chops during a nearly decade-long stint at The Charlotte Observer, where she started in a bureau in Hickory, North Carolina. Despite feeling out of place—and getting asked if she were a “damn Yankee” on at least one occasion—Leonnig learned to build trust with a reporter’s dream team of “politicians, housewives, developers, and criminals.” She eventually got promoted to cover the state capital and later shifted to the paper’s Washington bureau.

But even when new to a beat, Leonnig had a nose for what didn’t smell right, according to Paige Williams, a former colleague at The Observer. Williams, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, recalls riding in a car with Leonnig, when they passed a flashy Mercedes being driven by a local official. “Carol immediately said, ‘What’s the head of the housing authority doing driving a Mercedes?’” Williams recalls. “That was Carol—her instincts were always firing.”


One of Leonnig’s greatest challenges is convincing government officials it’s in their best interests to open up. “Often people are afraid to talk,” she says. “Either they’re not authorized or they have a reason to hide facts. I want to reach out to people who are honorable public servants who are not happy with [the status quo].”

Her ability to appeal to these better motives perhaps never proved so urgent as with the Secret Service story, which broke in early 2012. Post White House correspondent David Nakamura asked Leonnig to help him figure out how a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia, nearly got off track after members of the president’s Secret Service detail were caught carousing drunkenly with prostitutes. Once Leonnig started reporting the story, agents slowly emerged one by one to talk about the incident and other alleged lapses that culminated in her stories about major breaches in White House security. “So many agents said over and over that they did not trust their leadership to keep up with the threats of the 21st century,” she says. “They consistently said the president was in danger because of this lackluster leadership team.”

The sensitive nature of the reporting, coupled with the White House’s determination to identify sources of leaks, has made for some cloak-and-dagger moments worthy of All the President’s Men. Leonnig would meet certain agents at sites in and around the District, never at their offices. One meeting had to be postponed as she arrived by car, after an agent waved her on, because he believed he was being tailed. If a source didn’t want to meet, Leonnig had to take care with telephone calls, sometimes using code words or other communications practices she would rather not disclose.

Even with such precautions, some sources have lost their jobs because, Leonnig believes, government investigators would rather focus on “whistleblowers” than address systemic issues. That her sources suffered these personal setbacks made the career honor of receiving her solo Pulitzer somewhat bittersweet. “The sources that helped make it happen were still in the shadows or being actively hunted by their agency for sharing embarrassing information about the service,” she says.


Even for someone conditioned to working nights and weekends, the Secret Service story took on a life of its own. Leonnig would sometimes toil round the clock to report the story while making media appearances on CNN, PBS, MSNBC, and NPR to discuss it. Unlike some of her assignments involving violent situations, she could at least explain to her daughters why she felt the story mattered. Even so, Leonnig sometimes faces a skeptical audience at home. Her daughters, Elise, 13, and Molly, 9, like to sum up her job in this way—“My mom writes bad news about the government”—and never cottoned to spending the occasional “boring” Sunday with Mom in the Post’s utilitarian fourth-floor newsroom.

Mostly, Leonnig as mom tries to put work aside for the girls’ important moments—she claims to be one of the few parents to actually look forward to field trips. She typically works from home once a week; is grateful her kids get to enjoy a weekly “grandmother day”; and relies a lot on her husband, a senior manager at the Environmental Protection Agency and one highly engaged dad. Still, she admits it’s hard to turn off the journalist inside when she’s on mom duty. “You’re on the school bus wondering about its safety record,” she says.

While Leonnig had to skip out on her own anniversary dinner, she has since enjoyed some champagne-worthy moments, including attending a private reception with President and Mrs. Obama at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner and a memorable meal at an Italian restaurant in New York with her husband, mother, and close friends following the ceremony for the Pulitzers. There’s also a sense of real accomplishment. “In my very first job, The Philadelphia Inquirer instilled in me the value of reporting that has impact,” she says. “This was certainly the most impact I have had in my career.”

Leonnig_Prez and First Lady with Us (photo courtesy of White House) copyLeonnig and her husband, John Reeder, at the VIP reception hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Photograph courtesy of The White House.