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James Risen (MSJ78)

May 4, 2015 | By Beth Moellers
James Risen
James Risen
James Risen

Investigative journalist James Risen (MSJ78) has covered some of the most important stories of the past two decades, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and resulting domestic surveillance programs. Though he has been honored for his reporting, Risen had to fight to ensure the public’s right to know about the government’s warrantless wiretapping program and faced the threat of jail time for his refusal to reveal his confidential sources.

In 2006, Risen and colleague Eric Lichtblau were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for uncovering the government’s secret domestic wiretapping program. Risen and Lichtblau’s stories for The New York Times set off a national conversation on the tension between protecting civil liberties and fighting terrorism.

But the Times initially resisted Risen’s efforts to publish these stories after the paper was pressured by the White House over national security concerns. Risen eventually told his Times editors that he planned to publish the warrantless wiretapping story in his book, effectively scooping his employer. They relented and published the stories that later won the Pulitzer. Though the stress of the episode “nearly killed me,” as Risen told Vanity Fair in an April 2015 article, he is proud to have brought the story to the public.

“I think the best decision I ever made was to fight for that story and put it in my book,” Risen said. “It changed my life.”

The book “State of War,” which further explains abuses of power by the Bush administration, was a national best-seller. Shortly after its publication, the government began a criminal investigation and subpoenaed Risen to testify. He fought the subpoenas for seven years before being released from testifying.

Risen grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University. He came to Medill one month after graduation and began the graduate journalism program in the summer. In orientation for the new master’s students, late Medill professor Elizabeth Yamashita mentioned that one couple per year ended up married. Little did Risen know that he would fulfill that prophesy. He met his wife Penny in the master’s program and they were engaged in the spring of 1978.

He credits Medill for instilling in him “the standards of the profession.”

His career took him to the (Ft. Wayne, Indiana) Journal-Gazette, the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press. He ran the Detroit bureau for the Los Angeles Times before moving to the paper’s Washington bureau. There he covered economics and later the Central Intelligence Agency beat. In 1998 he joined The New York Times.

Risen was a member of the Times reporting team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for the newspaper’s coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He is the author of three other books: “Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War” (Basic Books, 1998); “The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB” (Random House, 2003) and the best-selling “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

Jim and Penny Risen (MSJ78) have three sons, one of whom, Thomas (MSJ07), is also a Medill master’s alumnus.

Read about all of our Hall of Achievement inductees here.