Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rewards of Honest Journalism

Real journalism is tough to find these days in America. It's expensive to pay someone to investigate things. It also can mean lack of access to powerful people. If you do investigations and expose corruption among the powerful they likely won't give you much access in the future.

So with regards to claims of WMD little investigation was actually done. It was more a matter of regurgitating claims from anonymous intelligence sources, which turned out to be the Office of Vice President or some other dubious institution.

This whole thing is exposed rather blatantly with organizations like Fox News. Take the ACORN scandal. Here's a group that tries to bring minorities and the poor into the democratic process. So when a scam artist doctored some video footage to make it appear they had engaged in immoral behavior, Fox, rather than looking into it, just fell for it hook line and sinker because it promoted their agenda. Watch in this video clip how Rachel Maddow contrasts the story as shown on Fox with the actual raw footage to show how reality was turned on it's head in Fox's efforts to demonize ACORN. But the goal was achieved. ACORN has been destroyed.

But should we expect people to do investigative work? If all they can expect is grief and suffering, while being abandoned by their own news agencies and co-workers, why would anybody bother? Consider a few examples of real journalism and the corresponding rewards.

In 1998 Mike Gallagher published an important story about Chiquita Banana, formerly the United Fruit Company. Abuse of workers in Central America, cocaine trafficking, etc. All kinds of awful things. He was fired for this work based on a claim that he'd unlawfully heard some Chiquita company voice mails, a charge he denied. It was all irrelevant to the story. Chiquita never addressed the claims, but did persuade the SEC to drop their investigation into charges of criminal wrongdoing.

In 1996 Gary Webb published a series of stories regarding CIA funding for the Nicaraguan Contras. To fund the terrorist war the CIA used cocaine which was being funneled to the United States and was largely responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80's. Webb charged that the Reagan administration blocked efforts to prosecute drug traffickers to keep the money flowing. His general thesis is not seriously disputed, but his series ended his career. He was found dead in 2004 with 2 gunshot wounds to the head. His death was ruled a suicide.

In 1998 April Oliver and Jack Smith produced a story with regards to Operation Tailwind. This was a covert operation that occurred in Laos in 1970. Oliver and Smith claimed that the real purpose was to go after some American defectors and that sarin gas has been used. For that story they were fired.

The Fox method is cheaper and involves less risk. They simply dutifully report stories that their corporate masters prefer without bothering with the hard work involved in investigation. What we need to do is turn them off and listen to real journalists. They do exist.


Darf Ferrara said...

The law of demand says that when a price increases less is consumed. If costs of investigative journalism goes up then we'll get less.

I don't think that you are correct though. The costs of have gone down. Being shunned by people in power has been a cost. Reporters got beaten up for taking picture of FDR in a wheelchair for example. But the cost of pushing a story is lower. For example, your blog just made eight more people aware of all these stories. And the lack of fact-checking lowers the costs even further.

By the way, you seem to imply that Fox news isn't ruffling feathers by attacking ACORN. You realize that ACORN has ties to the President?

Jon said...

I'm not really saying the dollar cost has gone up. I'd think you're right that it has gone down. What I'm saying is that people get fired for doing investigations, so we should naturally see limited journalism.

I'm not saying Fox is afraid to upset the President. They do it every chance they get. My point is they are prone to falling for these kinds of scams because it furthers their political agenda and they aren't good about investigative reporting. They are prone to regurgitating statements from "government officials" etc.

Darf Ferrara said...

I understand that dollars aren't the only cost, but you haven't shown that the odds of getting fired today are any higher than they were 75 or 100 years ago. Possibly the democratization of news services (many cable channels, every american having a voice via blogs, etc, etc) has made it more difficult to pay for investigations than it was when three networks and a few papers had an oligopoly on reporting? But I'm still not convinced. John Edwards got nailed, Bill Clinton got nailed, all those congressmen and their pages. Of course, sex scandals is what people like to know about. It seems that you just don't approve of the peoples preferences in journalism.

Jon said...

You're not making much sense to me. What's this about proving that the odds of getting fired today are higher? Did I argue that point? What are you talking about with people's preferences in journalism? Did I argue that people aren't interested in sex scandals?

This is pretty straightforward. Investigative journalism is hard to come by. We saw weaknesses there with regards to WMD. Here's a few concrete examples of people doing good investigative journalism and getting smacked down for it, which serves to perhaps partly explain why investigative journalism is so limited. Is this the only cause? Absolutely not. Your spinning this into arguments I didn't make, talking about side issues.

Darf Ferrara said...

In your original sentence you use the phrase "these days in America", as if the olden days of yore were a time when spunky journalists bore any risk to life and limb to bring the story. If you think that things have not changed for the worse then we can agree.

You ask "should we expect people to do investigative work?" seemingly implying that we should. You muddy the waters with a Fox news piece that, for all its faults, is a piece of investigative journalism that goes after the powerful. You give some examples of "important" stories that few people have cared about. You conclude with "What we need to do is turn them (Fox News) off and listen to real journalists" implying that people that have different preferences in news reporting than you are wrong. Is your contention that people have poor tastes? Then we agree. I just don't think it is the problem that you think it is.

Jon said...

I think it's useful to focus on the point of my post. I didn't mean to imply that investigative journalism used to be a lot better, but even if that was implied it's not really the point of the post, so it's irrelevant anyway and not worth debating.

I think there is a perception that the news media are investigative, exposing corruption, shining the light of truth on scumbags, looking out for the little guy. If you don't share that perception, good.

The claim that news agencies never go after powerful people is not something I've asserted, is not something I believe, and is not entailed in my post, so once again I'm not seeing the point of what you offer. As if Watergate wasn't a big story. Of course it was and that's not surprising to me.

I'm saying nothing about American preferences and I don't think your speculations about their preferences are all that valuable unless you demonstrate them with argument. How do you know whether Americans are more interested in Watergate than COINTELPRO for example? The fact that one was covered and the other wasn't doesn't tell us anything.

Darf Ferrara said...

Do you think that your point ( the idea that news media are investigative, exposing corruption, shining the light of truth on scumbags and looking out for the little guy, is false) may have been diffused by giving three examples of the news media investigating, exposing corruption, and shining the light of truth on scumbags?

Jon said...

Good lord man. First supposedly I argued that the odds of getting fired have gone up. Then I'm unhappy about people's preferences in journalism. Then supposedly I'm arguing that news media never go after powerful people.

So what is it now? Now my "point" is that the media apparently never do investigative journalism. Is that what you think my point is? And so my examples of investigative journalism disprove this supposed point of mine? Pretty silly of me to argue a point only to refute it with the very examples I offered.

I think the actual point I'm making in my post, clarified in my second comment here, is not hard to understand. Your problem is with the arguments you construct in your own head, not with what I've written.

Darf Ferrara said...

Can I rephrase your point as "I would prefer more investigative journalism"?

I misunderstood your point originally because your post contains many separate ideas and I interpreted them in light of previous arguments of yours. Let's go through your post. WMD weren't investigated much. ACORN was investigated poorly. Other investigations led to attacks on the people investigating. You then claim three different points as "the" point you made in the post. There just isn't the coherence that I would expect in a professional writer.

Jon said...

Here's what I see as my points.

1-There isn't a lot of investigative journalism, which is unfortunate as we can see in the recent cases of WMD and ACORN.

2-That's not too surprising when we see how people get smacked down for doing good investigative journalism. Not saying no other causes are relevant.

Side benefit: Here's some interesting stories that if you haven't heard of you may find that they are worth looking into.

This has become for you:

1-The odds of getting fired for doing investigative journalism have gone up.
2-I'm unhappy that people prefer sex scandal stories.
3-The media never go after powerful people.
4-No individual journalist has ever done investigative work.

None of these are statements I affirm, so I don't see any disagreement between us.