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What the future holds for investigative reporting

SHOWCASE | April 14, 2008

More than 40 practitioners, writing in Nieman Reports, get into the past, present and future of watchdog reporting as they see it—and as they are and will be doing it.

By Barry Sussman

Last September, Melissa Ludtke, the editor of Nieman Reports, started putting aside clips and notes and talking to people about producing an issue dedicated to investigative reporting. Now the product is complete—the Spring 2008 edition, titled “21st Century Muckrakers.” And quite a product it is.

It's a landmark issue, in fact. It denotes the transition of watchdog journalism from, mostly, print newspapers to digital formats; and from commercial news organizations to nonprofit groups and, in two instances, to investigative reporting units at universities.

Some of the nation’s leading practitioners and observers, including Barlett and Steele, Charles Lewis, Florence Graves, Walter Pincus, Morton Mintz, Murrey Marder, Paul Steiger, Steve Weinberg, Michael Kirk, Steven Aftergood, Mark Schapiro, Rick Rodriguez, Brant Houston, Danny Schechter and numerous others—more than 40 in all—contributed essays or book reviews. (Eleven of the writers, incidentally, also are contributors to this Nieman Watchdog Web site.)

There’s not much romanticizing. Barlett and Steele write that, “With a few notable exceptions, even in the best of times investigative reporting was little more than window-dressing in the American press… Investigative articles often were published only when indefatigable reporters spent nights and weekends pursuing leads after covering their regular beats.” They point out that one of the most celebrated investigative reports, Seymour Hersh’s exposé of the My Lai atrocity, was done without the support of any newspaper—and that more than a year went by with no press coverage at all from the time of the event until Hersh’s disclosure of it. They quote Hersh as saying: “A source of amazement among all those interviewed was that the story had yet to reach the press.”

In his essay, retired Washington Post diplomatic reporter Murrey Marder, the sponsor of the Nieman Foundation’s Watchdog Project, is also highly critical, writing: “In the shock of two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Congress and press both defaulted as counterweights” against Bush administration abuses of power.  Even before Bush, writes Marder, “the print and broadcast press corps in Washington, D.C., were far more advocates of watchdog reporting than they were performers of it.”

These are important cautions. Fortunately there are counterweights to them in the magazine, in the form of proud accounts of excellent reporting.

For example, Michael Kirk and Michael Wiser, producers of the new PBS Frontline four-and-a-half hour program, “Bush’s War,” explain their project thusly:

While we’d told parts of the story before, neither “Frontline” nor any other news organization had attempted to portray the Shakespearean dimensions of the full story of how decisions by the most powerful people in our government led us to the situation our country confronts today.

…We knew that our greatest challenge would be finding a way to translate the massive amount of material we’d accumulated into an accessible and comprehensible story.

…So we drew boxes, stacking them to indicate how one event followed another chronologically. We whittled down our starting list of hundreds of key events to fewer than 100 of what we saw as more important moments. Into the boxes that remained, we plugged in the behind-the-scene stories we’d discovered about the key players involved.”

So that’s how they do this stuff for TV—with boxes!? Whittling down from hundreds of boxes? Well, why not?

Copley News Service reporter Marcus Stern writes of how, sitting in his office in Washington, DC, he was skeptical of former Rep. Randy Cunningham’s motives for making two visits to Saudi Arabia, “but after a wide-ranging swing through public  records, I had nothing to debunk the reason he gave.”

So what did Stern do when he examined public records and couldn’t find any suggestion of wrongdoing by Cunningham? He examined more public records! “I decided to do one last thing: to see if the Congressman had updated his living accommodations.”


That was the starting point for the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting that exposed Cunningham as “the most corrupt member of Congress ever caught, both in dollar amount and audacity,” according to Stern.

Separately, Florence Graves and Charles Lewis describe two investigative reporting units set up at universities.

Graves, a longtime investigative reporter, is the founding director of The Schuster Institute or Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Launched in 2004, the group does independent reporting, with students taking part. Its main areas of interest are political and social justice, gender and justice, and an ‘innocence project” aimed at finding and exposing wrongful convictions.

Lewis and others are about to start what will be called the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. “Not only do we intend to do significant, original, national and international investigative reporting for multimedia publication or broadcast, the workshop also will serve as a laboratory 'incubator' to develop new models for conducting and delivering investigative journalism,” Lewis wrote. “We will also partner with other nonprofit institutions or with investigative journalists.” Lewis, as the founder of the Center for Public Integrity about 20 years ago, has a record as an outstanding innovator in the realm of nonprofit journalism.

The most ambitious new program, described in detail in the magazine, is Pro Publica, the much-awaited nonprofit news organization to be led by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. Writing in January, Steiger said he was wading through more than 850 résumés to create a team of 24 journalists:

I am learning two things. One is that there is no shortage of very talented reporters eager for an opportunity to expose abuses of power. The second is that many see little hope of carrying forward this work at a whole range of newspapers and other news organizations where just a few years ago they would have been delighted to spend the rest of their careers.

There’s a good bit more on watchdog journalism in this issue, and there is more to come, as well. Nieman Reports is a quarterly publication. Ludtke says that “in the three other editions to be published this year, smaller collections of stories about various aspects of investigative reporting will appear.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.