Monday, May 16, 2005

The rotten heart of investigative journalism

Previously, I noted that Seymour Hersh is showered with honors when he "investigates" conservatives and Republicans but drops off the media radar when he does his thing against liberal icons. Just one more blogger complaining about liberal bias. No big deal. It is interesting, however, in light of this old piece from Slate on the CBS Rathergate report:
Evidence of the reviewers' cluelessness comes when the panel assesses the CBS journalists for political bias and discovers none. I don't know that I've met more than four or five investigative journalists in my life who didn't wear their political biases on their flapping tongues. Almost to a one, they're suspicious (paranoid?) about corporate power, dubious about the intentions of governments, and convinced that at this very moment a secret meeting is being held somewhere in which a hateful conspiracy against the masses is being hatched. I won't provoke the investigative-journalist union by alleging that most of its members are Democrats or lefties, but aside from a few right-wing reporters sucking conservative teats inside the government, how many Republican investigative aces can you name?
Not only does Jack Shafer think that paranoia is no disqualification for investigative work, he thinks it is a positive good.
Far from being a handicap, political bias appears to be a necessity for the investigative reporter. On one level, you've got to admire Mapes for rejecting all the mounds of evidence assembled by hundreds of other reporters who tried and failed to conclusively prove that Bush got a special service deal. For all Mapes' faults-and the panel documents her failings by the bushel-the panel still found that her colleagues "highly" regarded her. (One worries about the "lowly" regarded producers at CBS News.)

The zealotry of the investigative reporter is more efficient than a Prius, more powerful than a plate tectonic shift, and as obnoxious as a 2-year-old

This is one more reason to worry about the ideological bias of the newsroom. When a profession stocks its ranks with obsessive zealots it loses its grip on reality and veers into cult territory. This is especially true in light of Cass Sunstein's point (discussed here) that in ideologically uniform groups the extremes pull the center out towards the fringe.

Another problem with the status quo is that investigative journalists only dig into half the world-the half that fits their leftwing paradigm. Voting fraud in Washington or dirty tricks in Wisconsin-when done by democrats-do not fit the grand conspiracy theory. Hence, they do not resonate with the MSM. Convoluted suspicions about Diebold, Dick Cheney, and exit polls, however, deserve a thorough investigations.

The same dichotomy shows up in the treatment of Richard M. Scaife and George Soros. Scaife's support of the American Spectator was seen as prima facie evidence of a VRWC. Dozens of reporters dug into the connections between Clinton critics, Scaife, and Clinton accusers. The Spectator was not treated as part of a free press; it was investigated as a tool of the VRWC. OTOH, the extraordinary efforts of Soros and Co. to defeat Bush in 2004 provoked little outrage among journalists. It was not a big story because he was on the correct side of the ideological divide. His many organs and front groups were quoted by the MSM as though they were just like any other "grassroots" or "public interest" group.

Shafer thinks that the problems at CBS grew out of a managerial failure. Not the decision to let an obsessed Mapes work on a nothing story for five years-that is just par for the course in investigative journalism. No, the problem was in not supervising and vetting her work.
But investigative journalists, like 2-year-olds, require adult supervision, and the debacle that was the 60 Minutes Wednesday report indicates that the adults went on mental holiday that week.
That is a fair point, but it ignores he bureaucratic pressures the "adults" face. Investigations cost money and when news organizations spend money, they expect to get stories to air or print. If the manager kills a story, it looks like he wasted resources. That is no way to enhance a career. Hence, there is always a temptation to sex up a weak story and run it.

I also suspect that resolute adult supervision will create mutterings in the newsroom and dark rumors about the manager's motives. The conspiracy-mongering reporter will never admit that their story is weak. (After all, CBS, Mapes, and Rather still think the TANG memos may be genuine.) They will be prone to see the managerial action as more evidence of the power of the sinister forces they are fighting. Less twisted colleagues will wonder aloud if the manager really has a nose for news. Outsiders will note that he seems to be unable to manage his budget and spends money without getting much in return.

It is fine to speak of "adult supervision" but let's recognize that the current system and personnel work against it.

One last problem is that investigative reporters like to talk. They gossip to their friends, they brag to colleagues, they give speeches. As the Hersh story makes clear they drop hints about things they cannot prove and exaggerate the significance of the facts they unearth. When they do so their credibility is bolstered by their organizational affiliation. Hersh may be a loopy nutcase, but the New Yorker is legendary for its fact-checking.

So, people (including other reporters) are inclined to think that there must be some fire burning somewhere because they hear so many rumors about so much smoke. This is unfair to the innocent targets of the obsessive zealots. Moreover, because of the ideological imbalance of the profession, all of the rumors of smoke will swirl around conservative politicians, activists, and institutions.

See also, Leaks, Bias, and the Truth

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