Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:March 17th, 2007 07:46 EST
Investigative Role Models, Part 1 - Hot Copy #20A

Investigative Role Models, Part 1 - Hot Copy #20A

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Here is the transcript of Hot Copy, No. 20, Del Marbrook’s weekly podcast)

If you think of the people who read what you write or listen to what you have to say as an audience, you shouldn’t be a journalist. Journalism is not about you. If you want to play god, be a surgeon. If you want to get rich, play the market. If you want attention, study theater.

Journalism is about getting as close to the truth as you can and then finding a way to get it across to others. A byline is as much a blameline as it is anything else. You get the blame if you distort the story, if you misinterpret the facts, if you fail to get them in the first place. A byline puts responsibility for the story on your shoulders.

If you’re not a big reader, forget about investigative journalism. If you can’t wait to get a word in during a conversation, forget about journalism. Period. It’s not about what you have to say, it’s not about you being clever.

I can teach you how to be an investigative reporter, but I sure don’t want to try doing it in a classroom. It‘s best learned by doing. But while you’re still in a classroom there are some things you should be doing. You should be reading everything you can find about I.F. Stone, the dogged muckraker who closed his famous weekly in 1971.

The term muckraking comes from Teddy Roosevelt, who coined it from John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It has a long tradition in British and American journalism. You should read everything you can find about Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker.

I think I hear some of you say, Okay, Del, tell us which books to read. But I hope none of you really do say it, for this reason: Investigative reporting is about independent and diligent research. It’s not hard to find out who these people are, what they wrote, and what has been written about them. So if you want me or your professors to hand out reading assignments, maybe you should think twice about being journalists. Journalism is not about handouts. It’s about rigorous independence of mind.

It’s true that investigative reporters, like detectives, have a bag of tricks they use to get the job done. But it’s even more true that depending on the same tired old tricks every day won’t get the job done. You have to think out of the box. You have to follow lead after lead down dead-end alleys. But, above all, you have to read. If you’re not a reader, why would you think you deserve readers?

Okay, so what do you read? The hawkers who sold newspapers on the streets in the old days, including myself, used to shout, Whuddya read, hey, hey, whuddya read? It’s still a good question. It’s still the operative question. Here’s the deal.

We live in a society obsessed with putting everything down on paper, in microfiche or on a disk or in a memory stick. One reason for this is that our society is so complex we need lawyers to help us find our way through it. This is why we have so many lawyer-politicians, for better or worse. And lawyers generate documents, mountains of them. Most of them are boring, mind-bendingly boring. If you want to be a good investigative reporter you better get used to mining those boring mountains, every last sentence of them, because nine times out of ten the truth you’re looking for is hidden in those documents.

That’s the most important thing I.F. Stone’s life teaches us. Read, read, read. Especially the fine print. Especially page 999 in a 3,000-page document. The fact is government, whether it’s a small town, New York City or the federal government, usually points the finger to its own dirty work in legalistic documents that lawyers and their staffs got paid to produce. They can always say it’s all on the record, but they’re hoping like hell neither you nor anybody else will read the record. We’re a society of records, and one of the great debates of our time is just how much of our personal lives should be put on the record by the government.

At this point—before I give you any more pointers on how to become an investigative reporter or how to decide you’re not suited for it—let me lay out a tragedy for you. You remember that I said that reporting is about getting as close to the truth as you can and then finding a way to tell it? Well, the tragedy, as you will learn all too soon, is that most readers and most television viewers don’t give a hoot about the truth. You could shout it from the rooftops, you could ram it down their throats, you could make it a requirement for a passport, and they still wouldn’t love it, because lies taste good, they sound good, they look good, while the truth is often big trouble. Lies are the fast food of the mind. Bad for you, but well nigh irresistible. This is the lesson of Nazi Germany and Iraq: the public that prefers simpleminded lies to the complex truth ends up selling itself out to the bad guys.

So you’re confronted, as a journalist, with the task of not only finding the truth but convincing people that it’s important enough to confront. And that’s not always easy. It’s a lot like finding out Pete Rose broke baseball’s betting rules or Barry Bonds used steroids. It’s not something we usually want to hear. And lawyers and politicians know this, and accordingly they often tell the lies they know people want to hear. I did not have sex with that woman. I did not lie to the FBI. I did not cook the books. Etc. Etc. Very often a good journalist is confronted with having to say the gods have clay feet. And very often the messenger gets shot for saying it, which is why guys like our erstwhile vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, made careers out of blaming the press for everything under the sun, especially the things he was trying to hide from the sun.  Every generation of politicians comes with two kinds of liars: those who blame the civil servants for all the ills of the country and those who blame the press, and sometimes they both get blamed.

Jimmy Carter, a man with an impeccable reputation as our most revered former president, came to Washington with a clique of provincials blaming the civil service for most of the ills of the country. It was a despicable lie. This was the very civil service he and his cronies needed to get things done, and it happened to be the best civil service in the world. And it still is, in spite of the current administration’s heroic efforts to turn it into a Soviet-style ideologically obedient apparatus. In other words, President Carter came to town with a formula for failure on his lips, and sure enough he couldn’t get much done by badmouthing the people he needed most to do it. This lie was his weapons-of-mass-destruction gambit. It enabled him and his associates to distract the public from the real issues that needed to be confronted.

So you see that being an investigative reporter isn’t going to be a bed of roses, in spite of the deserved fame and fortune heaped upon guys like Bob Woodward, which brings me to the subject of role models. Woodward’s life is a great model to follow. It’s not the I.F. Stone model. In some ways it’s the antithesis of it, but it’s a great model because here is a man who is so adept at listening, so skilled at drawing people out and putting them at ease that year after year he produces insights into the way government works that help us understand our own lives and the events that shape them.

In part this comes of Woodward’s nature. He’s the consummate listener. His demeanor instills trust and integrity. But it’s not just his nature. He was a beat reporter. He taught himself, and others taught him, how to interview, how to listen, how to sort facts out, how to interpret what people confide in you in the context of the facts as you gather them. Of course, he’s a reader. Of course he endlessly reads documents. Of course he goes down blind alleys and gets frustrated. He’s one kind of model. The cultivator of sources, the man who apprehends the big picture.

But in the same newsroom at The Washington Post is another very different kind of model, Walter Pincus. He’s not as visible or as celebrated as his colleague, but among journalists he is just as highly regarded. Pincus is a reader. He is more in the I.F. Stone mold. He reads and reads until he thinks he understands where to look next, and then he reads some more, and then he goes out and pokes around, and ends up in obscure archives reading some more. Then he makes a thousand telephone calls and does dozens of interviews, and the chances are the people he is interviewing are stunned and probably a little scared at how much he already knows. Pincus is a bit like a CSI or a research scientist. He’s reading the type off the paper trail, and that trail more often than not leads him to scandals, big stories, public donnybrooks. He has his sources too, like Woodward, but the two colleagues at what is arguably the nation’s most famous newspaper represent different styles, different approaches to the same task, getting at the truth.

I once worked at The National Press Building in Washington. I was doing my own kind of digging. I had started a biweekly newsletter with a colleague and we were telling school districts how to deal with the federal government and its propensity to speak bafflegab and bury people in boilerplate. We were looking for obscure aid programs and explaining them in English which we hoped the educators would grasp. It was fun, but it wasn’t big-time journalism. It was merely helpful journalism, as a lot of journalism is. Down the hall was a guy named Seymour Hersh. He was already famous for having broken the My Lai massacre story in Vietnam. I don’t know what Hersh was working on at the time, but because he kept his door open and always waved at fellow journalists, I had an opportunity to watch him operate. His little office was a catastrophe of papers. They were everywhere. On the floor, on chairs, on top of files, on window sills, in boxes, and Hersh wore the telephone like a part in his hair. I can’t remember him being off the phone, but the funny thing is I can’t remember him ever talking on the phone. He was listening, listening and reading papers at the same time. And his face usually bore a look of wry amusement.

In some ways Hersh is a third kind of model. He does the reading, he does the listening, he does the walking and the poking around, but his sensibility is different, and that’s why he’s a staff writer for The New Yorker and not working on one of the great daily newspapers. Not that he hasn’t worked on a great daily. He was a New York Times reporter. But Hersh has an independent streak a mile wide and more than a mile deep. He tends to see stories, or he tends to want to explore stories, that reflect the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. He has an overarching historical sense that prompts him not to run with the story of the day or the week or even the year, but the story of the decade. My Lai was such a story. This kind of sensibility doesn’t bend easily to newsroom pressures or to the ideas of assignment editors who may not be as attuned to the Zeitgeist as Hersh is.  On the other hand, The New Yorker loves such stories, and that’s why Hersh is there.

So now you have three living role models to study and a number of journalists to read about. But how do you use these role models? What is the nitty-gritty of following their examples like? Next week we’ll talk about that.

This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.