W. Joseph Campbell

Investigative reporting’s ‘golden era’ lasted 25 years? Think again

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 5, 2010 at 6:43 am

In a lengthy, hand-wringing look at the state of investigative reporting, the September issue of American Journalism Review indulges in the “golden age” fallacy while hinting broadly at the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

The article, funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute and titled “Investigative Shortfall,” contains this passage:

“Elevated to hero status after two Washington Post reporters helped bring down a corrupt U.S. president and his cronies, investigative reporters enjoyed a golden era from the late 1970s into the 2000s.”

In other words, about 25 years.

However, the article presents scant corroboration for its 25-year “golden era” claim, beyond offering generalization such as:

“In cities blessed with activist media, reporters took aim at corruption, waste, incompetence and injustice in politics, government, charities and corporations. Cameras confronted culprits. An aroused populace demanded change. People went to jail; old laws were rewritten and new ones passed. Competition for investigative prizes swelled; others came into being.”

I think Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, had it right when he said recently: “There’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of ‘investigative journalism’ that never really existed.”

I address the “golden age” fallacy in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I note in Getting It Wrong how  “media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of … [Bob] Woodward and Bernstein.”

They’re the “two Washington Post reporters” to whom American Journalism Review refers, claiming they “helped bring down a corrupt U.S. president and his cronies,” a reference to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive” to the outcome of Watergate.

I further write:

“… to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So against the tableau of federal prosecutors, judges, Congress, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of the Woodward and Bernstein were marginal. To say they “helped bring down” Nixon’s corrupt presidency is to indulge in overstatement.

The article’s woe-is-us tone about investigative reporting is hardly novel.

Brant Houston, formerly of the non-profit Investigation Reporters and Editors organization, noted this year in an article in Daedalus magazine:

“Each year that I served as executive director of IRE, from 1997 to 2007, journalists interviewed me (as they had my predecessors) about the pending death of investigative journalism.”

Those years would embrace a substantial portion of the supposed “golden era” of investigative reporting.

Undeniably, the decline of traditional, mainstream media-based investigative journalism has accelerated in recent years, given the layoffs and buyouts that have swept American newspapers.

But as Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com pointed out a number of years ago, “newspapers aren’t the only organizations trolling for investigative news. The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity has broken as many stories as almost any big-city daily in the last couple of decades ….

“Activist organizations have similarly collected countless investigative scoops about human rights abuses, environmental crimes, consumer rip-offs, and more,” Shafer wrote, adding:

“Long before today’s newsroom budget crunch, newspapers were de facto outsourcing a good share of investigative reporting to the nonprofits, whose findings they trumpeted on their front pages.”

True enough.

It’s premature to write off investigative journalism in America, even given the deep cuts in newsroom staffs. That’d be as wrong as believing investigative reporting once enjoyed a 25-year golden age.

WJC

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