March 25th, 2007 07:41 EST
Investigative role models, Part 2 - Hot Copy #20B
(Here is the transcript of Hot Copy, No. 20B, Del Marbrook’s weekly podcast)
Last week I urged you to study the work of Bob Woodward, Walter Pincus, Seymour Hersh, Ida Tarbell, I.F. Stone and a few others. At some point in your study of journalism you may say to yourselves, I’d like to stop studying and get on with my career. Uh oh, I hope you don’t ever say that, because the truth is journalism is all about study, endless study for the rest of your life. So before we go any further, give yourself a little test. Ask yourself how wide is my attention span? Am I easily distracted? Do I have a grand compulsion to get a word in edgewise? Well, such traits might help you become a television personality, but they’re not very promising traits for a journalist. For one thing, they suggest you may have too many preconceived notions about things. Gustave Flaubert, the great French novelist, called these notions received ideas. He thought they could be the death of a free society. They are certainly the death of any kind of decent journalism.
So here’s what you should be doing about Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post and Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker: you should be reading their work, you should be reading their books, and you should be reading books about them. You should examine how they string their findings together, how they organize their stories. You should parse their sentences.
You may become a great investigative reporter and not be anything like these men, but you’ll get there a lot sooner if you know all about them. You may write better than they do or not as well. Not all good investigative reporters are good writers.
I’ve had a few role models, too. My first model was the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle. I even wrote him a fan letter when I was a kid, and he wrote back. I admired Walter Lippmann for the clarity of his thought and writing. I admire Pete Hamill for his compassion and warmhearted insight. And I admired a rewrite man at The Providence Journal named Wilbur Doctor. I think of Wilbur after all these years as an alchemist. He took the awful junk we called or teletyped in and turned it into crystal-clear prose. From him I learned to admire clarity, precision, terseness. I once covered a train wreck in Warwick, Rhode Island. It was a bad wreck and we were on deadline for the morning paper. I felt I’d done a great job. I’d even gotten the names of victims, which is often hard to do because the authorities want to notify next of kin first. To top off what I thought was a bravura performance on my part, I shouted into the telephone, "Oh yeah, and Wilbur, the engineer was eating a sandwich just before the wreck." Wilbur tapped out a few words and then asked laconically, "What was in the sandwich?" I won’t tell you what I said, but I sure was deflated, and I’m sure Wilbur was smiling at the other end of the phone. I owe some of my skill as a poet to this wonderful rewrite man.
Wilbur’s boss was an equally laconic city editor named Al Johnson. The best thing that ever happened to me as a newspaperman happened when I was leaving The Providence Journal for another job. Al called me up and said, You’re a good reporter. It was better than the Congressional Medal of Honor, coming from him. My first week on the paper he had called to the Cranston bureau where I was working and said, If you can’t spell cemetery, I don’t think you’re gonna last here very long. I had written an obituary and misspelled cemetery. It was like a death sentence. I was still in the Navy and I was trying out for a summer job. My competitors for the job were all journalism school graduates, most of them Columbia graduates, because The Providence Journal liked Columbia. I went home with a heavy heart and told my wife I had blown it. But I got the job and stayed with the Journal six or seven years. They were the best in my career, because of the idealistic and talented people I met. But I never once thought I had passed muster with Wilbur Doctor or Al Johnson, until I was leaving, and then knowing that I’d somehow earned their approval made me weep going out the door.
Let’s get back to those mountains of paper. Human beings generated them. Lawyers, clerks, assistants of every stripe, interns, researchers, statisticians, you name it. Doing this work meant something to them. They became attached to the data they were generating, to the findings they reached, to the goals they were trying to achieve, and even to the lies they hid in all the small type. So you have to cultivate these people. You have to become their confidante. You have to encourage them to tell you their stories, no matter how boring they may seem, because they know where the truth has been buried. They have their own ideas about the story, the big story. A small part of them, even when they’re part of a conspiracy to conceal the truth, wants people to know what they’ve concealed. You will find these people in every small town in the country, every county seat, every state capital. They make the government run. They know what was done right and what was done wrong. They’re attached to the good and the bad. It’s part of their lives, part of what they do. If you care about these people, they will eventually confide in you and lead you to the goods.
Here’s an example. Once in a mid-sized town in Rhode Island I decided I needed to know what an ad valorem tax is, how land, buildings and boats are taxed, and why. So I started talking to tax assessors and tax review committees and appeal boards and disgruntled taxpayers and tax lawyers. I talked, but mostly I listened. And because it’s a dry subject, albeit a political hot button, I found that the people who deal in taxation were grateful to have someone trying to understand what they do and why they do it. I found out that when you buy a house in a town for a high price, it does two things right off: it worries the other taxpayers because it prompts a review and sometimes a revaluation of other people’s properties, and it usually raises the taxes of the property you just bought. This fascinated me, so I decided to follow the appeals process. It worked this way. A guy bought a property for more than it had previously been sold for. His taxes were raised the next year, and he then appealed to a committee. By the time it had all wound its way through the prescribed process, I had become pretty familiar with several different tax assessors in several towns. They trusted me to understand their job, at least its broad outlines. Slowly and cautiously they began to confide certain facts, one of them being that there is a tendency in most growing communities to overtax the newcomers in order to spare the old-timers, the tax assessors' friends. It’s not fair, it’s not even legal, but it’s damned hard to prove, because you have to actually show evidence of it. How do you prove it? I wondered. Well, you go out and you study comparables—properties that resemble your own but are not being taxed as much, and then you find out who owns them. Then you take pictures and make profiles of these properties. It’s time-consuming. The town is hoping you won’t do it. And very often when you do do it, you win the day and get a slight reduction in your taxes, but next year they come back and slam you again, because they’re mad at you. That’s small-town America. And I could have spent a lifetime reporting in those towns without knowing this if I hadn’t befriended a few tax assessors who really wanted to talk about their jobs.
Here’s another instance. I knew an assistant town clerk, one of those idealistic women of a certain age who'd had to go out into the workplace unexpectedly when her marriage failed. She knew I was investigating a local cemetery fund managed by someone appointed by the town. She liked me because we both shared a kind of compulsion to do the right thing even when it was risky. One day, after she had listened to me being frustrated by a bunch of stonewalling town officers, I was about to leave town hall when I passed her desk. She smiled and directed her eyes to an open file drawer, one she had left open. Well, Rhode Island had some sunshine laws on the books, which meant I had a right to look at those records. But that building was crammed with records and I could have spent a lifetime looking for the right documents and never finding them. But there in that drawer was exactly what I was looking for: proof that the cemetery fund was not only being mismanaged but also proof that the town knew about it, because its own auditors had complained about it. The audit was right there in that drawer. And nobody could ever say how I found it, because nobody had told me. She just smiled and stared at the drawer.
That’s often how investigative reporting works. You don’t have to be handsome or beautiful. But you have to listen, and show that you care about these people and their jobs. That’s why Jimmy Carter’s presidency went badly, because his folks didn’t care about those little people. In fact, they wrongly blamed the entire federal civil service for what the politicians had fouled up.
And that brings up another issue. Don’t think all the people who work in these many offices around the country are all in cahoots with the politicians. It may be they got their jobs through the politicians. They certainly have to serve the politicians. But they also serve us, the public, and they don’t always approve of the bad things the people we elect do. After all, they’re citizens too. There is a lot of heroism in these thousands and thousands of public offices. Not just the whistle-blowers who get their names in the papers and get fired and then sue everybody for their jobs, but everyday highway workers, clerks, assistants, people who want to see things run well. They can’t always tell you the absolute truth, but they can often point you in the right direction. So don’t ever make the Jimmy Carter mistake. The bureaucrats are American citizens and voters. They’re not all stooges and fall guys. And, by the way, Jimmy Carter just happened to be a rather notorious example of this pin-the-tail-on-donkey game. Almost all the big-shot candidates do it. Don’t believe them. The bureaucrats didn’t create the mess, the politicians did. They’d have you believe that all our precious tax money is going to pay these lazy, devious bureaucrats, whereas in truth everything would grind to a halt without these bureaucrats, and the real tax money is usually going to the corrupt supporters of the politicians.
If you want to be a good investigative reporter you have to be savvy about this blame game. In fact, and as a general rule, whenever someone blames someone else, especially if that someone else is a lower-level person, you should take a harder look at the person doing the blaming.
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.