Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker (www.russbaker.com
)is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is
currently involved with launching a nonprofit organization
dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
The obstacles to serious investigative reporting are
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
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
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
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
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
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.