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Great books about reporters who fought hard and told the truth

SHOWCASE | January 24, 2011

Great reporting is the opposite of access journalism -- it’s about finding out things the people you cover don’t want you to know. Investigative reporter Michael Hudson shares his reading list of journalists who persevered and got the story.

By Michael W. Hudson

The best reporters don’t care much about playing the access game. Hanging out with high officials and VIPs isn’t, for them, the be-all and end-all of journalism. They’re more interested in the stories that are the hardest to get -- often, the ones that the officials and Very Importants would rather not see the light of day. They want to talk to everyone; the folks in charge, of course, but also mid-level and low-level folks who know pieces of the puzzle.

Great reporters practice what Jack Newfield once described as the “Joe Frazier method” of journalism: “Keep coming forward. Don’t get discouraged. Be relentless. Don’t stop moving your hands. Break the other guy’s will.”

With this in mind, I want to share a few of my favorite books about journalism -- not so much how-to books as how-they-did-it-against-all-odds books.

In no particular order:

Once Upon a Distant War (1995) by William Prochnau. Epic tale of the young war correspondents -- including David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Peter Arnett -- who fought to tell the truth about the early days of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Halberstam and the rest of the bunch did their jobs in the face of open hostility from U.S. officials, as well as assassination threats and wiretapping by South Vietnamese intelligence agents. They went to great lengths to overcome military censors and other obstacles. Sheehan once sent out a 25-word coded message that his editors at UPI were able to translate into a 600-word scoop. In another instance, Arnett clamped a story between his teeth and swam across the Mekong River to find a place where he could transmit the news back home.  

Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter (1982) by James Phelan. Page-turning memoir of one of the great magazine journalists of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Phelan was adept at unmasking manipulators and charlatans. He took down Jim Garrison, the erratic New Orleans district attorney who claimed -- based on his own evidence-free conspiracy theories -- that he had “solved” the Kennedy assassination case. He connected to dots on how Howard Hughes secretly funneled cash to Richard Nixon’s ne’er-do-well brother Donald (who dreamed of starting a “Nixonburgers” fast-food chain). He exposed a California con artist who’d hung out a shingle as a chiropractor and ripped off thousands of people, addressing heart problems, chest pains and other ailments with a simple cure-all: enemas.

Phelan went undercover on the chiropractor story, by the way, posing as a patient and getting the full treatment. “It was a weird story, but I knew it was true,” Phelan’s editor on the piece later joked. “When he came in with the manuscript, he gurgled when he walked.”

Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (2008) by Steve Weinberg. Tale of the clash between one of America’s most powerful men and one of its greatest muckrakers.

More than a century ago, Ida Tarbell set the standard for financial journalism, digging into the dirty deals and economic blackmail practiced by the nation’s octopus-like oil monopoly. Tarbell spent years squinting over lawsuits in courthouses around the nation, reading transcripts of legislative hearings, tracking down personal correspondence.

She documented, for example, that Standard Oil had built a corporate espionage network that gathered intelligence on competitors and harassed them into submission, often using the company’s influence over the railroads to gain an upper hand. Rivals’ shipments of oil would be mysteriously sidetracked, at the same moment that their customers would be targeted for last-minute pressure to cancel orders.

A teenaged clerk at Standard Oil helped Tarbell substantiate the existence of the spying network. Reading company documents that he had been instructed to burn, he realized that they were detailed schedules of oil shipments by rival producers. One of the independent oil producers on the list, he discovered, was his Sunday school teacher. He turned over the documents to his teacher, who passed them on to Tarbell.

Somebody’s Gotta Tell It (2002) by Jack Newfield. Memoir of a kid from Brooklyn who fell in love with newspapers reading the great city columnists --  Murray Kempton and Jimmy Cannon -- write about mobsters, Jackie Robinson, racial justice, and fighting the good fight.

Newfield’s affection for underdogs was reflected in the pieces he wrote, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, in the Village Voice, New York Daily News and New York Post. He banged out annual dishonor rolls of New York’s worst slumlords. He crusaded against mob domination of labor unions. He campaigned for a city program to test children for lead poisoning.

Newfield’s model melded activism and investigative reporting: “Pick an issue. Study it. Make yourself an expert so you won’t make any stupid factual errors. Figure out who the decision makers are you want to influence. Name the guilty men.”

All the President's Men (1974) by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. A tale everybody sorta, kinda knows, but still worth a read.

In their later years, Woodward and Bernstein became celebrity journalists. Woodward, in particular, has become an access journalist who, some critics say, gets too close to his highly-placed sources (George W. Bush among them). But back when they were doing their reporting on Nixon and Watergate, the two young newspapermen were outsiders, shoe-leather reporters who talked to folks high and low, including secretaries and bookkeepers. Even as the president’s men used threats and hush money to try to silence everyone who had knowledge of the scandal, Woodward and Bernstein kept knocking on doors, piecing together threads of information into a portrait of a White House that thought it was above the law.

The Investigative Journalist: Folk Heroes of a New Era (1976) by James Dygert. Captivating bios of dozens of investigative reporters.

Among my favorites: Jack White, a construction worker and tugboat captain turned Providence Journal reporter. His sleuthing forced a Congressional investigation of dubious income tax deductions claimed by President Nixon.

Another standout: Miriam Ottenberg, the Washington Star reporter who went undercover in the late 1950s to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Used Car Buyer Beware.” She followed with a string of other exposes -- “Homeowner Beware,” “Investor Beware” and “Debtor Beware” -- earning a name for herself around the nation’s capital as the “Beware Girl.” As a result of her investigations, she noted, “a bunch of new laws and new regulations passed, and a lot of bad guys have left town.”

Investigative Reporting: From Courthouse to White House (1981) by Clark R. Mollenhoff. Professional autobiography of a bulldog reporter who combined old-style muckraking with the expertise of a lawyer (he earned his law degree while working moonlighting as a cub reporter at the Des Moines Register).

I first read this book in the early 1980s when Mollenhoff was a professor of mine at Washington and Lee University. I still return to it often for insights and inspiration. The prose isn’t scintillating, but the stories behind his stories are fascinating -- including his brief kidnapping by small-time mobsters in Iowa, and his press conference showdowns with President Eisenhower in Washington.

Jimmy Hoffa tried to get Mollenhoff to stop investigating Teamster frauds with a straight-forward offer of a bribe: “Now look here, Clark. They don’t pay newspaper reporters enough to be giving me the bad time you’re giving me. Everyone has his price. What’s yours?”

“Jimmy, you don’t have enough money,” Mollenhoff replied. “Let’s get on with the interview.”

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