Liz Essley Whyte joined the Center for Public Integrity in 2014 as a fellow, and she became a reporter in 2015. Her investigative work has won Goldsmith and Gerald Loeb awards, as well as honors from the National Press Club, Editor & Publisher, the Association of Healthcare Journalists and others. She graduated summa cum laude from Hillsdale College and earned a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs from American University.
This year, Essley Whyte published a major story — “Spreading vaccine fears. And cashing in.” — about influencers who make millions by spreading misinformation about vaccines. Since its publication, it has consistently been one of the most-read stories on our site. She also wrote a popular op-ed about her decision to get vaccinated while pregnant. And the Biden administration thanked her when it announced it would publish weekly pandemic reports that the Trump administration had kept secret and that she had revealed in 2020.
You’ve been heavily reporting on COVID-19 since March 2020. How has Public Integrity’s reporting been impactful and necessary throughout the pandemic?
Public Integrity immediately began lending its investigative strength to the fight against COVID-19. In those early days of chaos, we revealed the exact number of ventilators left in the government’s secret stockpile, the scientific model the government was using to predict how many people could die in the pandemic, the state policies that meant people with disabilities would be in the back of the line for ventilators — and more.
In July 2020, I broke the news that the Trump administration was creating detailed, state-by-state reports on the status of the pandemic, along with policy recommendations for local leaders. Many of the reports urged governors to take stricter measures to curb the virus, even though the president at the time was downplaying the pandemic. And some of the data in the reports could not be found elsewhere. But the administration never made them public. So I began collecting the weekly reports from various sources and sharing them with readers and local reporters, who could then use them in their own accountability reporting. In some cases, local government leaders were relying on us to get the White House’s coronavirus advice, as neither their governors nor the White House had passed them along.
All those stories and reports not only helped to hold the government accountable, but also helped people make decisions about traveling out-of-state or taking other pandemic risks. We were information-starved, especially in 2020, and the Center for Public Integrity did vital work to fill that void.
How has the focus of your reporting shifted and adapted in your years on staff?
I first covered campaign finance and lobbying — also known as money and influence — as a member of our state politics team. The ranks of statehouse reporters were dwindling, so we took on a lot of deep dives that most statehouse reporters no longer had time for. We published election ad data, model legislation, conflict of interest disclosures, lobbying data and more — all in handy formats that local reporters could then use to find stories in their regions. We also looked for influence campaigns that were happening in multiple states at once, drawing connections between statehouses.
During that time, I became interested in pharmaceutical companies’ vast lobbying firepower at the state level. That led to two award-winning investigative partnerships: Politics of Pain, in which we examined opioid makers’ influence in statehouses with the Associated Press, and Medicaid Under the Influence, in which we teamed up with NPR to tell the story of drug companies going to great lengths to cozy up to obscure state officials.
So when the pandemic hit, I’d had some experience writing about health. But the first few weeks of working from home in March 2020 were also my first covering health full-time.
Even after being doxxed by anti-vaccine activists earlier this year, you’re still writing and speaking publicly about vaccines. Why?
Getting all those nasty messages, etc., wasn’t fun. But I keep writing about these topics because I’m just doing the job I’m lucky enough to get paid to do. Vaccines are important. I wish I had more time to devote to writing about them in particular.
Why do you think Public Integrity’s mission to investigate inequality is an important one?
Inequality gets to the heart of who we are as a nation, what we believe “the good” is and whether our attempts to achieve that good are working. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Not all inequality is injustice, but some of it is. And good journalism has always sought to expose injustice.
Public Integrity does not have paywalls or advertisements, allowing our journalism to reach all people. Why would you encourage people reading this to support Public Integrity’s mission to investigate inequality?
Supporting good journalism is a great way to strengthen our society. Investigative reporting has a special role to play in keeping elected officials accountable and in shining a light on dark corners where people are hurting. But it is time-intensive and expensive. So we need generous donors to help us keep the lights on, the website up, the data queries running, the FOIA requests multiplying, the staff using old and new ways to tell important stories. Truth is a worthy cause.
Your support is crucial!
Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.