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Monday, May 1, 2006
Are The Watchdogs Still Watching?
Is the investigative spirit of the 1970s still alive, or has it surrendered to bottom-line pressures?
By Kanupriya Vashisht
On a warm June afternoon 30 years ago, Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic’s tireless muckraker, walked across the parking lot of the Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix to his white Datsun — and his death.
Mobsters had silenced the reporter who was digging into dubious mafia dealings in Arizona. But the dynamite bomb that exploded under his driver’s seat blew up much more than they had intended.
Led by Bob Greene, a Newsday editor at the time, the newly formed Investigative Reporters and Editors organization descended on Phoenix in an unprecedented show of support. They blew the whistle on corruption across the state and proved to the world that killing an investigative reporter would in no way kill investigations.
The Arizona Project, as it was called, resulted in a 23-part series on crime and corruption in the state. Media outlets all over the world ran the series. WKOY in Phoenix read a segment every afternoon at 3 p.m., and drivers pulled to the side of the road to listen on their car radios.
“All the way through we were filled with enthusiasm, an incredible sense that we were doing the right thing,” Greene said. “We were less into ourselves, more into a cause. It was for me the proudest moment I have ever had.”
When Irish journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned down in Dublin in 1996 for exposing Dublin’s most powerful drug lords, an Irish television network approached Greene to re-create the journalistic camaraderie of the ’70s and strike back at the narcotics dealers. But times had changed. The network could not get the momentum started. All that remains of her now is a book, Veronica Guerin: The Life and Death of a Crime Reporter, which claims she was ruthless, devious and a bad mother. And a movie, Veronica Guerin (played by Cate Blanchett), which anoints her as a martyr.
As 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of Don Bolles’ death, it is time to examine the state of investigative journalism in American newsrooms today.
“Investigative reporting is the future,” said Wendell Rawls, Pulitzer Prize-winning director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists at the Center for Public Integrity. And to see what the future holds, it is imperative to analyze the present.
Investigative Journalism: Then and Now
The 1970s were the golden years for maverick muckrakers. Newsrooms echoed with idealism and the clack-clack-ding of typewriters. Every newsroom prided itself on its investigative staff. Even Hollywood glamorized investigative reporting in movies such as All the President’s Men (1976).
“Many people today think that investigative reporting was born with Woodward and Bernstein,” Rawls said. “That’s not at all true, but perhaps it reached its high watermark with them and has been on the decline ever since.”
Bit by bit, the hushed click of computer keyboards replaced the clacking typewriter. In today’s competitive era of 24/7 news, editors and reporters walk a fine line between quick information and in-depth reporting. Most newsrooms don’t have the time or resources to spend weeks, let alone months, on a project.
“This pressure to get it out first has hurt investigative reporting,” said Greene, who retired as assistant managing editor of Newsday in 1992. “Great investigative reporting is meticulous, constantly checked and double-checked, not dependent on anonymous sources. And all this takes time.”
Rosemary Armao, IRE’s former executive director and an editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo, calls the state of investigative journalism in American newsrooms “depressing.” She doesn’t mince words: “I left a U.S. newspaper, went first to Africa and am now in Bosnia. I guess that pretty much tells you my feeling about the state of our business right now.”
Students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University recently conducted an electronic survey about the current state of investigative reporting in American newsrooms. The survey went to IRE members at the 100 largest newspapers across the country. The 20 percent response rate was somewhat low, as is common with most electronic surveys.
Of the 86 investigative reporters and editors who responded, 42 percent thought there was greater support for investigative reporting in newsrooms today than 10 years ago, yet only 12 percent of their newsrooms had four or more investigative reporters. Sixteen percent no longer had investigative teams. Forty-one percent of the respondents acknowledged some level of interest among senior editors, but most didn’t have any editors assigned to the investigative beat.
Follow-up calls to 30 reporters and editors revealed much less support for investigative reporting in smaller newsrooms because of fewer staff and tighter resources.
“We’re an endangered species,” said Doug Pardue, a special assignments editor at the Post and Courier in South Carolina. “The mentality is that all reporters are investigative reporters. Even if there isn’t a team, we can still get investigative stories.”
Pardue said investigative reporting is the first thing to go in a newsroom because it requires more resources.
During the 1970s, reporters sought out topics to investigate.
“In the wake of Watergate and environmentalism, there was a lot of interest in muckraking,” wrote Joseph Bernt in The Big Chill. In the 1980s, large metropolitan newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer pursued investigative stories about government and corporations.
By 1995, investigative stories had dried up. “Papers increasingly started going after something that couldn’t fight back, something that couldn’t get sued, something that had public records,” Bernt wrote.
The Chicago Tribune, which ran more than 30 investigative pieces in 1980, was publishing next to none in 1995.
“Investigation had been replaced by enterprise journalism, and the stories that came out of the Tribune in 1995 were more on how to lose a hundred pounds, or how to make a million dollars,” Bernt wrote.
A common complaint among reporters and readers today is that there isn’t enough investigative journalism. Bob Greene disagrees.
“Everyone says it’s bad now. It’s the same as it has always been.”
IRE’s executive director, Brant Houston, said each decade has had its strengths. The ’70s developed the methodology, the ’80s brought in long-term “gotcha” projects, the ’90s introduced technology and sophisticated social research methods. Today we have all that plus global networks and international collaborations.
Investigative journalism, Houston said, is really carried out by people who believe in the importance of the story.
“They work on those stories whether or not they’re getting paid a lot. Their compensation is the story.”
Other investigative reporters insist that investigative journalism has never been better. According to Seymour Hersh, America’s foremost investigative journalist, “Investigative reporting needs to be at its best when the climate is bad.”
During Nixon’s downfall, Hersh said, newspapers were important to readers.
“Now with Bush in free fall, newspapers once again are becoming very important. We’ve had muckraking going back a hundred years. It isn’t going to go away now.”
Don Barlett, the investigative editor at large for Time magazine, echoed Hersh’s belief that a closed political atmosphere doesn’t hamper investigative journalism.
“All it does is make the reporter come up with a way to get around the roadblocks,” he said.
When Barlett started reporting in the 1950s, investigative journalism was confined to large papers that pursued corrupt politicians and corrupt unions. Investigative journalism is more widespread today.
James Steele, Barlett’s partner and editor at large at Time magazine, said the biggest change over the past 30 years has been positive. Anonymous sources have become just a tiny part of investigative reporting. He is concerned, however, that when newsrooms cut staffs, investigative reporters are sometimes the first to go because they’re viewed as a frill.
Investigative reporting is faster today because of technology. Fifteen years ago, Newsday’s Bob Greene had to go to Washington if he needed a report on a finance corporation or the Securities Exchange Commission. A request for military information submitted to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis could take months to process. Sometimes the delay would force Greene to catch a plane to St. Louis and get the records himself.
“With the Internet, all these things are at the tip of our fingertips now,” he said.
John Dunbar, project manager at the Center for Public Integrity, can’t imagine functioning as a reporter or researcher without the Internet.
“I have become a black belt in Google. What used to take me 20 phone calls and a couple of days now takes 15 minutes.”
The Internet has also leveled the playing field, giving small papers the same access as The New York Times, Barlett said.
According to Jo Craven McGintey, a computer-assisted reporting expert at The New York Times, “It’s getting harder and harder to avoid technology as a reporter.” On the flip side, however, the Internet has become the main source of information for some journalists. “We are generating reporters who think if it isn’t on the Internet, then it must not exist,” Dunbar said.
Many newspapers, television networks, magazines and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. Newspapers face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street. The hushed meetings today are often not between editors and reporters on the brink of bringing down a government, but between publishers and lawyers deciding the fate of an investigative story that might hurt advertisers.
“Large newspaper organizations are extremely vain operations,” CPI’s Dunbar said. “The handful of national dailies that commit resources to investigative reporting do so because they want to get awards. Large corporations try to get as much return on their dollar as they can, and there’s no economic upside to investigative reporting.”
The biggest concern for investigative reporters today is jobs, Dunbar said. “I talk to a lot of reporters, and the universal chorus out there is, ‘We just keep getting our budget cut.’ ”
The news hole for investigative stories keeps shrinking. Most owners and publishers are pressuring their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism.
“If the industry doesn’t support reporters, we’re doomed,” Dunbar said.
Good journalists are “a pain in the ass,” Dunbar said. They irritate people, they cost a lot and they’re hard to manage, but they’re important.
David Boardman, managing editor of the Seattle Times and president of IRE, worries that cutbacks will hurt the quality as well as the number of investigative projects.
“Even if newspapers don’t dismiss reporters, often the first thing to go is the training budget, which is crucial to investigative reporters.”
The Post and Courier’s Doug Pardue likened investigative reporters to the wide receivers of a football team. They carry the ball only three or four times a game, but they make a huge difference, he said.
These are troubled times for newspapers. The Audit Bureau of Circulations recently announced that the combined circulation for newspapers dropped 2.6 percent in the six months ending September 2005. If that trend continues, dailies could lose as many as 2.5 million subscribers this year. In addition, newspaper stocks are down about 20 percent, in part because consumers are moving online and taking advertising dollars with them. Classified ads, one of the mainstays of small and medium-size newspapers, are migrating to free Web sites such as Craigslist and Google Base.
“When I joined the newspapers, people used to think they were institutions that will never change, that will be there forever,” said Dan Keating, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. “Nobody thinks that anymore. I hate to think about advertising dollars, but that is a question we have to ask now. Are we still going to have the advertising dollars to support investigative reporting?”
As the mainstream media become more profit-minded, the line between corporate considerations and journalism is blurring. Too often, news organizations aren’t willing to alienate advertisers or undertake expensive investigative reporting. John Dunbar, who was the chief investigative reporter at the Florida Times Union in 1998, said he was reassigned to cover the mayor’s office because his yearlong research on the city’s corrupt building and zoning division threatened to ruffle some advertisers.
With the trend toward more soft news, Newsday’s Greene predicted a decline in investigative stories. “(They) take up a lot of space, and the trend of sound bites doesn’t lend itself to investigative stories. More and more people want their news digested for them, and that will hurt investigative reporting.”
A January 2005 study by the Pew Center showed that one in five Americans relied on comedy shows to get their presidential campaign news.
Walter Cronkite, once the most trusted man on American television, said advertisers on traditional networks keep telling producers to make the news more interesting. “Interesting,” he explained, “is a code word for entertaining.”
In addition, many people no longer trust journalists to perform their watchdog role.
“They think we have our own agendas,” Greene said. “One of the great things we carried with us at all times was that the public believed in us. We were for them the court of last resort. It’s different now.”
Future of Investigative Journalism
Investigative journalism may thrive not in newspapers, but in other media. Magazines such as The New Yorker and Mother Jones and investigative news organizations such as IRE and CPI already are outlets for in-depth reporting.
So are books. “I think books are the new outlet for investigative reporting, taking over from big metro newspapers,” said Rosemary Armao, who trains Bosnian journalists in investigative reporting. “By far the best investigative reporting on schools and education is in book form.”
IRE’s Brant Houston recommended taking risks. “You can fear the new, or you can embrace it,” he said. “History so far shows that no major media have yet disappeared because of the advent of new media.”
Yahoo!, the Internet portal, recently stretched the boundaries of online journalism by hiring TV correspondent Kevin Sites to travel the world’s war zones for one year. A veteran of CNN and NBC, Sites has already reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Colombia and Iraq. Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone debuted online from Somalia on Sept. 26.
If this model works, it could attract investigative journalists working on shoestring budgets who want to tell their stories to audiences around the globe. Another generation of investigative reporters could “virtually” charge through alleys of corruption, frauds and scams. And they’d be pleased to find a World Wide Web carrying their message beyond the blast of dynamite.
Kanupriya Vashisht is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona Sate University. She spent three years as journalist in India, working with Asian Age and India Post, a U.S.-based weekly news magazine. She contributes to the Hindustan Times online, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix Magazine and East West Woman magazine.