Facing South

Is Investigative Journalism Dead?

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David Sirota has a good piece at The American Prospect that deflates the hot air of self-congratulation filling the media in the wake of Deep Throat's unveiling. While the talk shows and newspapers herald the Golden Age of investigative journalism that Woodward and Bernstein supposedly ushered in, Sirota points to the more dismal reality of Woodward's life in the post-Nixon era:

Interestingly, one of the much-lauded reporters who broke Watergate, Bob Woodward, actually epitomizes these problems [of lack of tough investigative reporting today]. More than any other, his career charts the decline of the national press corps to the laughingstock it is today. Here was a tough-nosed reporter who made his name doing the gritty, unglamorous work that eventually exposed one of the most egregious abuses of power in American history. But instead of using the credibility he had earned from Watergate to build a career exposing corruption, he quickly dove into the Beltway culture, where that kind of thing is looked down upon. He used his fame to suck up to those in power, and then write books like Bush at War that simply told power's story, ultimately becoming just another bloviating cardboard cutout on the pundit circuit.

To be sure, Woodward's sad story is just one in a constellation of similar tales, and certainly he can't be blamed for all of journalism's current failings. But make no mistake about it: Woodward's pathetic trajectory was a very powerful model for young journalists. He helped legitimize the practice of discarding what journalism should be about (investigation and challenging power) in favor of exactly what journalism should never be about (glamour, propaganda, and genuflection).

Right on target. I would add one critical point: the problem isn't just about lazy and deferential reporters -- although there's plenty of that, especially in Washington -- it's also about the change in media.

When magazines like Southern Exposure launched in the 1970s, investigative reporting was driven by print media, and that's where the bulk of hard-nosed investigative reporters remain today. Visit the website of Investigative Reporters and Editors (also born in the 1970s), and you'll see dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists doing solid investigative work, mostly for newspapers. A lot of the reporting is too "micro" for my tastes -- small-government scandals, for example, versus stories about the big economic players that shape our lives -- but it's good reporting nonetheless.

But newspapers are the fastest-declining segment of the media market, and many papers are slashing their investigative budgets. And most critically, no other media (TV, radio, internet) has stepped in to support and publish investigative reporting on the scale that newspapers and other print media historically have.

As others have noted, much of what passes for "investigative reporting" on websites and blogs is simply a lot of Google and Lexus/Nexus searches -- if someone actually calls a source, knocks on a contact's door, or does other "shoe leather" journalism, it's considered a big deal. This isn't necessarily bad; as bloggers insist, "we don't pretend to be journalists." The point is that there are few media outlets emerging to replace print media's declining investigative influence.

Turning that around will require vigilance in challenging corporate media on one hand, and building up our resources for investigative reporting on the other (shameless plug: you can support the Institute's/Southern Exposure's award-winning investigative reporting here!).

But to bring this back to Sirota's point: we also can't let individual reporters off the hook. Despite all the constraints, lots of reporters in mainstream media have -- unlike Bob Woodward -- managed to keep a stiff spine, maintain a hunger for the truth, and have remembered the words of newspaper magnate E.W. Scripps at the turn of the 20th century: "A newspaper must at all times antagonize the selfish interests." Now we need journalists across the media spectrum -- from old media to new -- to take these words to heart.

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