During an interview last May, Donald Trump called Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold a "nasty guy." The then-candidate had boasted publicly of donating $1 million to veterans groups as part of a TV fundraising stunt. Months later, Fahrenthold still couldn't find any evidence of that donation, and Trump's team wasn't offering details. Trump finally cut a check after the Post and others published stories about it. When Fahrenthold asked Trump if he'd done so because of the media's questioning, Trump started calling him names.
It's stories like these that make a "nasty guy" into a journalistic superhero. That's the metaphor University of Montana School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson invoked when he teased Fahrenthold's Monday night lecture on campus: "Look, up in the sky! @Fahrenthold coming to save Missoula from misinformation," he tweeted.
Journalists flocked from as far as Billings and Great Falls to listen to Fahrenthold's stories from the campaign trail. But the standing-room audience in the University Center ballroom included more than just journalists. Fahrenthold has become a minor celebrity for his dogged investigations of Trump over the last year. (His Twitter following, for one, has swelled from 4,000 to over 330,000.)
Fahrenthold broke the "pussy tape" story, but his most impressive work involved searching for answers about Trump's history of charitable giving. He discovered virtually no evidence that the candidate has donated anything since 2009, while confirming that our current president did use his foundation's money to purchase two self-portraits.
That Fahrenthold's investigations didn't sink Trump's candidacy says something significant about journalism, the American electorate, or both. During a Q&A, one journalism student asked Fahrenthold how to counter the public's "crisis of belief" toward fact-based reporting. Someone else asked, in effect, if he thought democracy was doomed. The question produced the evening's most uncomfortable, and salient, moment.
"There's a guy in power that a lot of people don't like," Fahrenthold replied, "but there's nothing that's changed about us or about how our system works that's different now than it was on Nov. 8."
"You, sir, are ridiculous!" a man yelled from the back of the room.
"Thank you, sir," Fahrenthold said.