Remember when we trusted reporters to search out the truth without regard for who might be responsible for nefarious goings-on found at the end of the trail?
Now I readily admit that my view of investigative reporting in this country may be through rose-colored glasses. Maybe journalistics never were as dogged in their pursuit of wrongdoing by government functionaries, business executives, elected officials, and others as I imagined they were.
Still, it is unarguable that print and television media have gone downhill in this regard.
There are good reasons why. For example, financial pressures caused by declining readership have put pressure on newspapers to be more entertaining in this age of competition from a wide variety of free Internet information sources.
Our local community newspaper, the Salem Statesman Journal, has become a lot "frothier" compared to how I remember it in the first decades after I moved here in 1977. Indepth analytic stories about important local issues are few and far between. Mostly the news and editorial pages parrot positions of City officials and the Chamber of Commerce.
The Statesman Journal web site has become a clone of USA Today's. This reflects its position as part of the Gannett media empire. Independent community newspapers are a dying breed.
Sadly, so is independent investigative reporting.
This is a core message in Charles Lewis' Politico piece, "Why I left 60 Minutes: The big networks say they care about uncovering the truth. That's not what I saw." The article is based on his book, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity."
Here's some excerpts from the Politico piece.
Ernest Hemingway famously said that “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” He was talking about the novelist, I suppose. But his dictum applies to the investigative journalist, in spades. It is the born reporter who insistently, even masochistically, clings to the notion that things are not what they outwardly seem and pursues the hidden truth in any situation even when other people prefer to ignore it. For most people this simply is not normal human activity
...But when I embarked on this profession, I was in many ways prepared for all that—for the threats, the lawsuits and the general hostility. That was just the cost of doing business. What I didn’t foresee, what floored me and frustrated me, was that sometimes the biggest obstacles in the pursuit of what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth” came from the inside—from my bosses and my bosses’ bosses who, despite their professed support, had no real interest in publishing the hardest-hitting stories.
...But I had also seen things at two networks that had troubled me profoundly: nationally important stories not pursued; well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices that were not investigated precisely because of the connections and the power they boasted.
...Many people, then and since, have asked me what exactly I was thinking—after all, I was walking away from a successful career full of future promise. Certainly, quitting 60 Minutes was the most impetuous thing I have ever done. But looking back, I realize how I’d changed. Beneath my polite, mild-mannered exterior, I’d developed a bullheaded determination not to be denied, misled or manipulated.
And more than at any previous time, I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally. I joked to friends that it had become far easier to investigate the bastards—whoever they are—than to suffer through the reticence, bureaucratic hand-wringing and internal censorship of my employer.
...Just weeks after I quit, I decided to begin a nonprofit investigation reporting organization—a place dedicated to digging deep beneath the smarminess of Washington’s daily-access journalism into the documents few reporters seemed to be reading, which I knew from experience would reveal broad patterns of cronyism, favoritism, personal enrichment and outrageous (though mostly legal) corruption. My dream was a journalistic utopia—an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate.
Well, that's my dream also. As a blogger, I answer to no one. (I also get paid by no one.) So I get to investigate whoever or whatever I want.
Like City of Salem public officials.
My exposé of how five large beautiful healthy downtown trees were cut down for no good reason, titled "Outrage: the true story of Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings," is a great example of how a single determined person can reveal the truth about backroom dealings between government officials and well-connected business types (in this case, a city Public Works Director and a bank president who was the incoming president of the Chamber of Commerce).
I'm proud of my "Outrage" report. I was pleased that our local alternative newspaper, Salem Weekly, covered the report promptly, as did Ken Adams on both his CCTV Valley View show and KMUZ radio program.
I've been told that the Salem Statesman Journal, our above-mentioned community newspaper, is still planning to do a story about my report -- though it now has been two months since I sat down with an investigative reporter from the paper and talked about the report.
Hopefully a story will be published.
It would be disturbing if our local newspaper passed up on a chance to do an investigative story about disturbing City Hall goings-on when the reporting already has been done by someone, me, complete with copies of public records documents that back up every assertion I made in "Outrage."
(Read all about them on the first link here.)
Optimist that I am, I look forward to the Statesman Journal dedicating itself to doing what Charles Lewis talked about in his Politico piece: looking into "broad patterns of cronyism, favoritism, personal enrichment and outrageous (though mostly legal) corruption."
I found this stuff happening in Salem through the public records documents I analyzed. But it shouldn't only be bloggers who are doing the investigative journalism in this town. Or elsewhere in the United States. The mainstream media needs to get back to being an independent watchdog of truth.
Here's something that both pleased and bothered me about a recent Salem City Council meeting.
A city councilor, Laura Tesler, warned people not to trust "bloggers" -- who, almost certainly, prominently included me, since I've been the most frequent and vociferous blogger critic of decisions made by city officials.
Yet when I asked Tesler (and other city officials) to point out significant errors in any of my blog posts about City Hall actions, they haven't responded to my "put up or shut up" challenge. So I'm pleased that folks at the City of Salem are aware that the truth is getting out through my blog about the crazy stuff they're doing, and so far have been unable to document any errors in my truth-telling.
What bothered me was the almost sickly sweet praise given to Statesman Journal reporting at the same city council meeting.
This indicated to me that our community newspaper is giving city officials too much of a free pass, failing to do investigative and analytic journalism rather than merely reporting on City of Salem press releases and staff reports.
Again, it shouldn't be up to us bloggers to tell the public what their supposed public servants are doing for them. And, I have to add, to them. I'm one unpaid retired guy. The Statesman Journal is a whole freaking newspaper with lots of reporters, backed up by the massive Gannett Corporation.
The Statesman Journal has the capacity to do great investigative journalism. The question is, does it want to?