May 23, 2013
Journalism’s Big Investigations Sliding Into a Big Pit
Posted on Aug 2, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
An article in The Arizona Republic said:
In the last four years the picture has grown even dimmer. Those who think that the Internet or television networks or cable TV will move up to big investigations across a wide front are being too optimistic. The figures just will not work. Also, local issues that have been red meat for metropolitan dailies make no sense for investigation by media that have nationwide audiences. Collectively, the net loss in the number, the relevance and the quality of investigations will be grim. An hour of well-orchestrated TV inquiry into how the feds are covering up all those interplanetary aliens at Area 51 does not exactly carry on the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, who might have trouble getting airtime in a day that would rather explore the “Jersey Shore” than the plight of migrant workers.
Interestingly, the international spotlight was pulled away from the expensive “Top Secret America” investigation by a development last week at a relatively lightly funded operation, the WikiLeaks website, which early this year reportedly had only five full-time employees (in addition to hundreds of unpaid volunteers). The site touched off an intense controversy July 25 when it released the “Afghan War Diary,” tens of thousands of classified documents. War opponents hailed the release as a gain for openness, a blow against deception by national leaders, and a potential step toward ending the Afghanistan war.
It would be a mistake to classify together the “Afghan War Diary” and “Top Secret America.” They are very different animals, and the United States, I believe, benefits from both the activities of whistle-blowers and affiliated websites or publications on the one hand and large-scale, traditional investigations on the other. Internet leaks, even those as valuable as the WikiLeaks disclosures, are not acceptable replacements for the investigations historically conducted by big journalism.
Do not take this as a brief for big journalism itself, which is riddled with defects and problems and which suffers because of its size. I side with those critics who maintain that corporate connections and extended interests can make it difficult if not impossible for huge publications to adequately cover certain subjects. The rise of the media conglomerates was often not good for journalism and investigative work. But for the most part over the decades, the super-sized probes were born within newspapers and magazines that were hauling in money. In a newspaper/magazine utopia the publications would have conducted far more and far better investigations: Crime, neglect and governmental abuse have always sprinted far ahead of the hounds of journalism.
If your taste runs toward the grand, or toward reveling in hurrahs late in the game, you might want to work your way through the 12,000 words and the associated material of the praiseworthy “Top Secret America.” I don’t think you often will see such colossal projects in the years ahead. The Washington Post investigation may be one of the last gargantuan dinosaurs of the breed; there will be others, but the herd is in danger and almost certainly will grow thinner as we watch.
T.L. Caswell was on the Los Angeles Times editing staff for more than 25 years and now edits and writes for Truthdig.
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