W. Joseph Campbell

The elusive ‘defining moment’ in investigative journalism

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

The Financial Times of London has asserted that the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post stands as the “defining moment” in investigative reporting–a claim I challenged yesterday.

Not the Post's doing

The notion that the Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is a hardy meme–and is one of 10 prominent media-driven myths I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The heroic-journalist trope has been driven principally the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men. The movie’s inescapable message was that the work of reporters brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But even principals at the Post over the years have dismissed the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

So if not Watergate, what then was the “defining moment” in investigative reporting?

And how’s “defining moment” to be defined, anyway? The essay in the Financial Times didn’t say.

I argue that the “defining moment” in investigative reporting would have to be that collection of reports recognized years afterward as a landmark in journalism, for having exposed corruption or misconduct. The reports would have been so significant as to have changed government policy and/or altered practices among journalists.

Not many media investigations have had such profound and lasting effect. As Jack Shafer of slate.com has correctly noted:

“Too many journalists who wave the investigative banner merely act as the conduit for other people’s probing.” That is, they often feed off government-led investigations. Woodward and Bernstein did so, to an extent.

A review of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded for investigative reporting over the past 25 years turns up impressive and intriguing candidates. But most winners of the Pulitzer for investigative journalism are local and decidedly narrow in focus and impact; none of them meets my definition of “defining moment.”

The Post won the 2008 Pulitzer for public service for its outstanding reports about abuses at the Walter Reed Army hospital. The first installment of the Post series described the venerable institution as “a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.”

It was a shameful scandal that led to much soul-searching, some reforms, and a few broken careers in Army medicine. The series projected a faint whiff of controversy, too, because conditions at Walter Reed had been the subject of somewhat similar reporting two years earlier by salon.com.

The Boston Globe in 2003 won the public service Pulitzer for its reports about sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests–a series that seems to have stood up well over time and perhaps qualifies as landmark in investigative reporting.

But is it widely recognized and remembered as such? I don’t think so.

A few media historians have identified the so-called “Arizona Project” in the 1970s as landmark investigative journalism.

The Arizona Project brought together reporters and editors from 23 newspapers, in response to a call by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization to conduct a collaborative inquiry into the bombing death of Don Bolles, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic.

The project produced 40 articles about organized crime in Arizona.

David Sloan and Lisa Mullikin Parcell wrote in their book, American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices that the Arizona Project “was a defining moment in the history of investigative reporting–a rare instance when normally competitive journalists set aside their egos, stepped outside their news organizations, and cooperated on a dramatic and startling story.”

But in all, the Arizona Project produced mixed results.

It didn’t lead to a succession of similar joint ventures by journalists. Prominent news organizations such as the Post and the New York Times declined to participate. And critics said the undertaking smacked of a kind of arrogant vigilantism by journalists.

The Financial Times in its essay published Friday mentioned in addition to the Watergate reporting by the Post a few other works of outstanding investigative journalism.

It said the journalistic “exposures such as The Sunday Times on the effects of Thalidomide in the 1970s, The Guardian on bribery scandals in British Aerospace in 2003 and The New Yorker’s revelations about abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004″ have prominent places on “a long roll of honor” in investigative journalism.

Intriguing cases, all. But are they recognized as landmarks? Maybe.

Tarbell (Library of Congress)

How about the muckraking period early in the 20th century–notably Ida Tarbell’s two-year exposé of Standard Oil, published in McClure’s magazine from 1904 to 1906? That work certainly is recognized as memorable, as a landmark, even.

But its effects tend to have been overstated. Tarbell’s work, detailed and searching though it was, did not bring about the breakup of Standard Oil, as is often claimed.

The breakup came years after Tarbell’s series, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil had violated antitrust laws.

In the end, we have a few candidates but no overwhelming favorite for the “defining moment” in investigative journalism. And perhaps that’s not so surprising.

Like most works of journalism, investigative reporting tends to be time-specific and of transient importance–and short-lived in its effects.


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