Dec 8, 2013
Journalism’s Big Investigations Sliding Into a Big Pit
Posted on Aug 2, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
The Washington Post set off a flare over the United States last month when it published a series of investigative articles that found we now have, in effect, a fourth branch of government, one draped in secrecy, one that even our national leaders don’t understand.
The investigation, labeled “Top Secret America,” discovered that this shadowy establishment had arisen, with no comprehensive oversight, mainly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As reported by the newspaper, the federal, military and corporate apparatus that has been created is enormous:
The Post disclosures triggered bells in thousands of news operations around the globe, generating reports by all the major U.S. TV networks and newspapers and many websites, including Truthdig. The news was serious, and it was taken seriously. Among others, syndicated columnist Joe Conason testified to the gravity of the issues being raised, declaring on this site that the involvement of corporations and lobbyists in the secret complex is “a challenge to democracy of unprecedented proportions” and that our “democracy and our security both depend on bringing this monstrous bureaucracy to heel.”
As significant as the Post series is, this article isn’t about the findings. It’s about where the report came from, and how America, sadly, may be losing major journalistic investigations.
The Web page of “Top Secret America” says the investigation—led by double Pulitzer winner Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—consumed almost two years and involved more than 20 journalists, “including investigative reporters, cartography experts, database reporters, video journalists, researchers, interactive graphic designers, digital designers, graphic designers, and graphics editors.” The page is filled with elements connecting to one or more articles, videos, blogs, maps, charts, graphs, lists and tweets.
Clearly, this inquiry is a product of big journalism: A probe this massive, lengthy and expensive could not have been pulled off by anything less than a sophisticated, well-funded and well-staffed organization like the Post.
That does not mean important investigative work cannot be done—and has not been done—by small organizations, tiny teams of journalists or even individual reporters. Journalistic history is full of substantial initiatives that sprang from limited resources and circumstances, and some of those have had far-reaching national or international consequences.
Although the biggest investigations almost invariably have occurred in the domain of major newspapers and magazines, that fact takes nothing away from the stellar achievements of some small-scale investigations, and the distinction between the size of an investigation and its value must be stressed. Big does not necessarily mean excellent; small certainly does not mean second-rate.
The list of writers who achieved high recognition, even fame, without benefit of extensive organizations is long. There are the legendary Upton Sinclair and I.F. Stone, who inspired countless investigators. And on the job currently are Seymour Hersh, venerated by some as a one-man army, and dozens of others producing remarkable articles and books that deeply affect American attitudes and lives. Many of them, such as Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer, are working with small organizations or alone after having been part of big journalism earlier in their careers.
Valuable contributions have also come from television and, in recent times, the Internet. An exemplar is the long-running “60 Minutes,” the predominant investigative show of network TV, which has produced many hard-hitting broadcasts and won more than 75 Emmys in the process. On the Internet the number of good investigative blogs is growing, and these mostly small operations will play increasingly important roles.
Even so, at times the truth lies far below the surface, at a depth that yields only to journalistic bulldozers. Big investigations can produce big payoffs, especially in cases requiring hundreds or thousands of contacts; when data are spread across a huge area; when many investigators must travel many miles; when meaning comes into focus only under analysis by numerous specialists. The problem is, the big print publications that usually have opened their wallets for this seem to be on a steep, one-way slide to a place where such investigations will be rare.
Although the Washington Post Co. and the New York Times Co. have enjoyed fiscal upturns recently, those improvements—probably transitory—have come in an era of anxiety and general decline for American print journalism.
On Monday it was announced that the Washington Post Co. had agreed to sell the renowned weekly magazine Newsweek, which it has owned since 1961. In doing so it cast off a financial liability that lost $28 million last year.
In 2009 The New York Times found itself turning to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú for a $250 million loan. “The deal comes as the Times Company looks to raise money amid flagging advertising sales …,” an NYT article said at the time.
Another prominent media company, Tribune, which is the owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, is trying to fight its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
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