Monday, March 14, 2005

Charles Taylor: "What will pass for investigative reporting is someone may get hold of an early report" (NYT proves him correct this morning)

Yesterday, The Third Estate Sunday Review had a DVD review (yes, I assisted with the writing of it) of Orwell Rolls In His Grave. If you haven't read the review, please do so.

But to discuss this morning's Times, I think we all need to note something from the film Orwell Rolls In His Grave:

What will pass for investigative reporting is someone may get hold of an early report from some committee that's about to come out or an investigative report from the inspector general report that's going to castigate the secretary of this or that so you'll breathlessly go on the air and you'll say ABC has learned or whatever network is and you'll be out of breath and it's all exciting and you'll be out of breath and it look like the facelss minions that comprise the network hundreds of them out there ferreting out information for you to serve the public. It's complete bunk, it's not happening at all. The public would never know from the media that they spent 11 million dollars to keep any free air time provisions out of amu legislation, successfully by the way.

That's Charles Taylor speaking to Robert Kane Pappas (director of Orwell Rolls In His Grave).
(Charles Taylor is a former 60 Minutes producer and the founder of The Center For Public Integrity.)

What passes for investigative reporting is the section you need to remember. And you need to remember it as you read Eric Lichtblau's front pager "Government Report on U.S. Aviation Warns of Security Holes." From the article:

Intelligence indicates that Al Qaeda may have discussed plans to hijack chartered planes, helicopters and other general aviation aircraft for attacks because they are less well-guarded than commercial airliners, according to a previously undisclosed 24-page special assessment on aviation security by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security two weeks ago.

Note "according to a previously undisclosed 24-page special assessment." We've dealt with this before at this site (and dealt with when it comes to Lichtblau's supposed scoops). This is strong reporting for the Times? I'm not saying it doesn't belong in the paper. I'm not even faulting Lichtblau's writing. I am saying don't mistake it as a "scoop" or as anything they can pat themselves on the back for. The only "scoop" was getting the report handed to the paper (trading independence for access has mutual rewards for both parties).

Which is a good way to comment on something that Roy, Maria, Wally, Joan, Brad, Trina, Cedric and ??? all e-mailed about this weekend. The e-mails were regarding some story (I haven't seen it -- I did read the pull quotes quoted in the e-mails -- busy weekend) that fits into the general "oh bloggers aren't reporters!" nonsense. I think there are bloggers who are reporters. (We're a resource/review. We're not a breaking news site and don't pretend to be.) But when certain print reporters want to refer to bloggers as people who just sit around in their pajamas or whatever other sneering terms, well, hey, show us what you broke. Not what you were handed. Not a report coming out of organization or a committee. Not something that the ACLU got via a freedom of information request and you then read. What have you done yourself?

Lichtblau's turned in a nice book report. I'd give him an A. It's a book report, not a book review. A book report summarizes the text of the book. A review critiques the book. Lichtblau's done a very nice book report. I couldn't admire it more if it came in a nice, shiny binder. But I don't mistake it for a scoop and neither should you. I'd put a gold star on his report and pat him on the head, but I wouldn't mistake it for investigative reporting.

There's a place for the type of article Lichtblau's turned in. And it is important to know " The report also said . . ."; "The assessment does not identify . . ."; "The report also sought to codify . . ."; " the report says . . ."; " The analysis appears to rely . . ."; " The assessment, which showed . . ."; ". . . agendas," the report said . . ."; " It warns that . . ."; ". . . similar agendas," the report said."; " The report detailed particular vulnerabilities . . ."; and ". . . no security," the report said." But let's not confuse it with investigative journalism. Let's not confuse it with anything other than a report being handed to the Times and the Times summarizing the investigation of someone else but getting credit for it. (If people are foolish enough to give them credit.)

If this is the kind of 'real work' that a print reporter quoted in the e-mails is so proud of, perhaps he needs to rethink what reporting means? I'm not seeing a lot of 'digging' or 'bravery' involved in printing this summary. Maybe I'm missing something?

In which case, also note the bravery of Steven R. Weisman who reports from the combat zone that is the front of his TV set to give us "Rice on a Run for President: No, Nyet, Nein." Armed with determination and antacids, Weisman makes it through the Sunday Chat & Chews (no easy task) to present us with a summary of what Condi Rice said . . . on national TV.

Again, there's no problem with such a piece in appearing in the paper. Even in the main section.
But the quotes I'm seeing in e-mails from the article in question about 'bloggers reporting from the comfort of . . . in their pajamas' makes me wonder if some (or, in this case, one) print reporters are confusing or deluding themselves about what's actually going on at their own organizations. The Times continues to waste the readers time with near daily transcriptions of what goes in the courtroom of the Michael Jackson case. There was a time when the paper of record would have refrained from this infotainment. Now they embrace it. Breathlessly.

If this is how it's going to be, my only regret is that they didn't make the change when Zza Zza Gabor had her encounter with the meter maid or when Joey Heatherton got nasty in a passport line. Imagine the life-shattering information we must have missed out on in those cases without the Times there to give us a daily (and lengthy) update. And surely we all lost out since in those cases the paper didn't run front page photos of Hetherton or Gabor.

Possibly lower academic test scores could be traced to the paper of record's previous stand-offish attitude towards infotainment? The emphasis the New York Times is giving this story seems to suggest there's some inherent value in this story that serves the public good.

There's a place for resource/review stories, even in the paper of record. But when the paper of record is going all out to nail down yet another celebrity justice case and publishing reporting from outside a reporter's TV screen and publishing book reviews of reports that were passed on to them, maybe it's not a good time to knock bloggers? Certainly Ron at Why Are We Back In Iraq? does actual reporting. He's hunting down stories all the time.

(I have no idea what Ron wears while typing. Although we are a resource/review, I'm either dressed for the day if it's a work day or I'm wearing sweats. On special occassions, I may be a little more formally dressed -- such as if I'm entertaining and have to break away to do an entry.)

Now maybe this reporter quoted (who doesn't work for the Times) knows something the rest of us don't. Maybe he knows a better domestic paper than the Times. (I keep praying there's one out there but I haven't seen it yet. But keep the suggestions coming at because I am seriously in search of one and do follow up on all leads.)
And when the best that the nation has to offer is running book reports as front page scoops, I don't really know that the print journalist is on very strong ground.

I have several friends who are print journalists. Why is it that the many stories about what they didn't get to publish are always so much more interesting than the few stories they did get to print? That's a question for another day. But the point is a print reporter is working through a rolodex more often than not. We're not seeing anyone to challenge the title of Bernstein & Woodward (inverted intentionally) when they were doing investigative reporting at the Washington Post. Don't kid yourself and don't kid us.

TV largely reports what's in the papers.

Who's doing investigative reporting nonstop in the mainstream media? And don't throw out the 'brave souls' in the Green Zone because I've been biting my tongue for over two weeks now to allow someone the enjoyment of a prize win before commenting further on that.

Let's go back to Charles Taylor's statement above and focus on the last half of it:

The public would never know from the media that they spent 11 million dollars to keep any free air time provisions out of amu legislation, successfully by the way.

Now covering that might make for some investigative reporting. Leaving the comfort of the desks for something other than a power lunch, might make for investigative reporting.

But before the next print journalist pipes off about bloggers not being reporters, he or she might want to take a good look at their own paper. The New York Daily News, for instance, can rightly claim credit for the expose on D.U. that they did. That's one story though. (Though the Daily News and Newsday deserve credit for investigation the Bernie Kerik story when papers like the New York Times were busy cheerleading and then had to play catch up as a result of the revelations the Daily News and Newsday uncovered.)

Depending on the number of reporters working for your paper, I'm not really sure that pointing to a "scoop" deriving from true investigative reporting that happened two months ago is all that astounding. (Maybe if the paper in question employees only one reporter.) What are the other reporters doing? (I believe this was the point Howell Raines was getting at in his brief tenure as executive-editor of the Times.) Lot of people drawing salaries (but apparently not enough to cover the Poor People's March in NYC during the GOP convention), but not a lot of "scoops" coming down the pike, are there?

I don't know that the Times can hide behind, for instance, Raymond Bonner considering the paper's historical treatment of Bonner. But I don't think one investigative journalist cuts it. I don't think one for every ten reporters working for a paper cuts it.

The Times has a number of reporters on the international scene (I could be wrong, but I believe they have the largest international staff of any domestic paper). Even if one overlooks the "interesting" reporting of Juan Forero, there's still not a lot to be impressed with. (Unless you play the "by comparison" card. By comparison to the ____, the New York Times has more
. . .) And that's the Times which is doing a little more than most. Imagine what it's like other papers.

The reason I dubbed the paper of record the New York Timid is because they seem so scared of anything passing for real news. For instance, Naomi Klein broke a story. And if you read The Guardian or The Nation, you heard about that. The Times didn't break that story. They didn't even assign a reporter to complete a book report on Naomi Klein's reporting.

When you look at it from that perspective, you start to understand why Howell Raines griped about the dead weight on the Times payroll. (Which of course was met with "boos" and "How dare he!"s.) It must be nice to work at the Times (no, I'm not angling for a job). You come in and report what someone said in public. Maybe you make a call to get a "balanced" quote. You type the thing up and you're apparently done for the day.

Exactly what are all the people being paid for?

Now it can rouse itself. It did when everyone was on "holiday" when the tsunami struck. And you saw some honest to God reporting from the paper of record. Some of it summaries, some of it breaking news, some of it probing and, yes, investigative. The Times could do that every day.
It chooses not to do so. You would have thought that after so many reporters and photographers proved themselves repeatedly in that early two week period, there would have been pats on the back resulting in utilizing those journalists more (not to mention front paging them more often). What happened instead is that star reporters returned from holiday (some of whom tried to muscle in on the tsunami coverage -- at which point there was nothing outstanding about it) and the paper returned to "normal" (with all the boring aspects that entails).

I am seriously looking at every newspaper suggestion a member sends in. I'm not finding anything better the Times. This goes to the state of journalism in this country. And when it's so piss-poor perhaps the last thing some angry print journalist should be ranting about is bloggers.

Which brings us to Marcia's e-mail about a story in this morning's Times, Jonathan D. Glater's
"Liberal Bloggers Reaching Out to Major Media." Marcia notes the CJR article on Bob Somerby ( by Steve Twomey):

In the beginning, he was more polite, Somerby explains, but that went nowhere with your press corps. “And increasingly, I think they just have to be yelled at,” Somerby says.

And Marcia wonders whether this "bridge" some left and left-leaning bloggers are attempting to build will result in the usual trade of access for independence? I have no idea. If we're dealing with people who are breaking the news, they certainly have a valid beef that the mainstream press ignores them. In which case, a bridge may be needed. But Marcia points out that mainstream reporters brag about checking out a right wing site every morning (we all know the one she's speaking of) and adds, "I'm not really sure a bridge is going to address that. I think Somerby's attitude is more effective."

(As most members know, Somerby writes The Daily Howler.)

If the "bridge" is an attempt to make sure that stories left and left leaning bloggers are breaking is known, more power to the bridge. But, to quote Marcia again, "if this is just a way to advance yourself and gain 'respectability' which means you temper your criticisms of worthy targets, that's distrubing."

(If this is an issue the community's concerned about and we get e-mails on, there will be a response entry tonight.)

[Note: I'm sure there are many other bloggers breaking news. I cited Ron of Why Are We Back In Iraq? because I'm familiar with his work and I know from e-mails how many leads he's pursuing in a given week. There are other bloggers doing legwork who have easily won the right to be called reporters. And again, we're not a breaking news cite here. We're a resource/review. Other than the comment about the pajamas -- I don't own a pair -- nothing in the remarks of the print journalist offended me personally.]