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Tomorrow's Woodwards And Bernsteins

Russ Baker

June 13, 2005

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker ( )is a longtime contributor to  He is currently involved with launching a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism. He can be reached at

Well, wasn’t that some excitement over the unmasking of Deep Throat? Besides resolving a long-standing mystery, the revelation came at an especially auspicious moment. Investigative journalism desperately needs a boost right about now.

With W. Mark Felt’s confession, we now know that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were not making it up. They had a real, knowledgeable flesh-and-blood insider feeding them information about dark doings in the Republic that proved completely reliable, whatever the motives of the informant. They actually did hold covert meetings in underground parking structures and engage in all manner of classic derring-do.  The goings-on came to define the very essence of investigative reporting. A generation of young journalists were thus inspired, and investigative reporting grew and thrived.

But that Golden Age is gone, and we need to figure out why, and what can be done to revive it.

To what extent has investigative reporting dried up? Today, many news organizations have disbanded their investigative units altogether. Others have turned investigative teams into “projects” units that tend more toward unmasking consumer scams, relatively narrow acts of wrongdoing, or perennial injustices than digging for revelations that affront our very notion of how democracy ought to function.

The absence of the latter type of reporting was even apparent at last weekend’s Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual convention in Denver.  The award for best reporting by a large newspaper went to The New York Times for a series exposing how the railroad industry, with government acquiescence, shirks its responsibility for fatal accidents, which rose to 369 at railroad crossings last year. This story, which also won the Pulitzer Prize, was extremely well done and deserving of recognition, as were stories about racial profiling, shoddy highway construction and more.  But too few winning entries spotlight the uniquely dangerous violations of the public trust that define the current administration.

True, IRE did honor Ron Suskind for his book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, and the Center for Public Integrity forOutsourcing the Pentagon, an exhaustive study of no-bid contracting. But Suskind is a solo reporter and the CPI is a nonprofit. Where are the news organizations? There is an immediate need for more resources devoted to exploring and exposing what may prove to be one of the most corrupt, dishonest administrations in American history. Far more important, there is a long-term need for the kind of rigorous journalistic oversight that is the handmaiden to democracy.

The obstacles to serious investigative reporting are many:

Financial: Today, with ownership of the media increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, everything is about generating larger and larger profit margins and better quarterly corporate reports. Putting a reporter on a six-month project with no guaranteed outcome is less “cost-effective” than having that person crank out a new article every day. Quality and quantity are often natural enemies.

Conflicting Interests : The large media corporations are often part of larger conglomerates with a strong interest in obscuring the most crucial revelations. Obviously NBC, a small unit within the huge military contractor GE, has a hard time doing stories about military contractors who dominate Washington decision-making, help promote unnecessary wars and waste a fortune in taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, the media corporations  increasingly find themselves with pending business before the very same administration they ought to be giving fits to—such as when the FCC is considering changes in ownership rules that will benefit the company.

Intimidation: Years of criticism from the right-wing "noise machine" has made news organizations wary of tough, original reporting that could bring accusations of a liberal bias. In addition, this administration has masterfully played up mini-scandals about reporting techniques  (including the "60 Minutes" use of improperly-authenticated documents about Bush’s National Guard service, and Newsweek’s reporting on allegations that U.S. interrogators threw copies of the Quran into the toilet.) These small tempests have served to distract the public from the larger questions about official wrongdoing: on the one hand Bush’s dereliction of military duty, and on the other the horrific mismanagement of prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

They’ve also intimidated news decision-makers. Tales of pulled punches and initiatives not pursued continue to leak out of this country’s newsrooms. And we’ve seen an unfortunate increase in news executives’ zeal for prematurely confessing error and professing eagerness for self-reform.

Against this backdrop, old-fashioned muckraking appears doomed unless concerned individuals and institutions take bold action.

Here are a few ideas:

1) Mount a public education effort to teach the public about the importance of investigative journalism. Stress the differences between public issue investigations and gossipy exposes—a difference the public seems increasingly unable to comprehend.

2) Protect whistleblowers so that those with the inside information can come forward without imperiling themselves, their families and their careers. Acknowledge the indispensability of anonymous sources (but only real Deep Throats, not “senior government officials” who use the cloak of anonymity to float material sanctioned by their bosses.)

3) Recognize that good journalism and high profits just aren’t a viable fit. Investigative journalism is too essential, too elemental to freedom and self-governance to be left to the vagaries of Wall Street.

4) Support efforts to acknowledge the crucial role of journalism in a free society by finding alternative ways of paying for it.

At a time when public funding of journalism is retrenching—witness the crisis at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—we will almost certainly need to ask foundations and visionary individuals of means to step up to the plate. Thus far, such largesse has been minimal. But it’s getting too late in the day to hold back investing in the truth. The time is now for a Herculean commitment.



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