Brian Rosenthal: “A lot of the stories that are important have not been investigated simply because of how complicated they are.”

From a Times Insider piece by Alex Traub headlined “A Reporter’s Prize-Winning Tenacity”:

When he was a middle schooler, years before he would dissect politicians and money lenders for The New York Times, Brian Rosenthal sold popcorn.

To raise money for his Boy Scout troop, Brian spent fall evenings alone, turning up virtually every driveway and ringing doorbells in the college town where he grew up, West Lafayette, Ind. Peddling flavors such as Unbelievable Butter and Chocolatey Caramel Crunch, Brian raised almost $6,000 in eighth grade — more than any other Boy Scout in his section of Indiana.

In May this year, Mr. Rosenthal, now 31 and a reporter for The Times’s Metro section, earned another distinction: the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The award recognized Mr. Rosenthal’s exposé of predatory lending in New York’s taxi medallion industry, which devastated a generation of drivers.

The work that went into the taxi stories illustrates what happens when Mr. Rosenthal wields the determination of his popcorn-selling days as an investigative reporter. . . .

No potential source was too obscure for him to call repeatedly, often for weeks on end. The series drew on more than 600 interviews over 18 months of reporting.

Mr. Rosenthal’s signature investigations announce themselves by citing enormous sums of interviews, much like medieval cavalries announced themselves with bugles. These articles feature interviews with “nearly 100 current and former M.T.A. employees,” or “more than 100 other psychiatrists, nurses and officials” or “more than 300 experts, educators and parents.”

Mr. Rosenthal’s life seems organized around being able to conduct these feats of interviewing. He is single and supports nobody else. He lives in a small apartment two blocks from The Times. Until the coronavirus pandemic, he had not cooked himself a meal for nearly a decade, subsisting largely on bodega salads and fast food. That leaves Mr. Rosenthal free to seek out topics that require total immersion.

“A lot of the stories that are important and should be investigated have not been investigated simply because of how complicated they are,” he said.

Kirsten Danis, the editor of the taxi series, credits Mr. Rosenthal’s curiosity for his ability to get to the bottom of difficult subjects.

“He’s always willing to question what he’s found,” she said. “That’s the mark of a truly gifted investigative reporter.”. . .

In just five years, Mr. Rosenthal’s work has been recognized by the Pulitzer board three times. He was part of a team at The Seattle Times that won the breaking news prize in 2015 for coverage of a landslide, and he served as the lead reporter at The Houston Chronicle for a seven-part series on special education that was a finalist for the public service Pulitzer in 2017.

“Only a handful of reporters in their early 30s or younger have attained that level of Pulitzer-winning performance, in my estimation, in the whole history of the Pulitzer Prize,” said Roy J. Harris Jr., who wrote a book chronicling the work of past Pulitzer Prize winners. . . .

He attended journalism school at Northwestern, where he applied a crusading style of journalism to campus politics. As editor of the school paper, Mr. Rosenthal splashed the names of members of a secret society on Page 1. He defended the decision in a letter that quoted the Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and cited the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics three times.

Before joining The Times, Mr. Rosenthal worked at local papers such as The Reno Gazette-Journal in Nevada and The Pharos-Tribune in Logansport, Ind.

Many of his articles have uncovered government policies that harm the powerless. As a reporter at The Seattle Times, Mr. Rosenthal showed that people with mental illnesses in Washington State were frequently detained without psychiatric care, sometimes for months at a time.

In a series for The Houston Chronicle, he showed that tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Texas with disabilities including autism and blindness were systematically denied special education.

His taxi articles showed how poor immigrants were driven to bankruptcy, and sometimes suicide.

“I’ve always liked the underdog,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

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