Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why ‘investigative journalism’ is problematic

Edward Jay Epstein, Between Fact and Fiction:

The problem of journalism in America proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are, therefore, almost entirely dependent on self-interested 'sources' for versions of reality that they report. 

Indeed, given the voluntary nature of the relationship between a reporter and his source, a continued flow of information can only be assured if the journalist's stories promise to serve the interests of the witness. 

Despite the heroic public claims of the news media, daily journalism is largely concerned with finding and retaining profitable sources of pre-packaged stories. 

What is called 'investigative journalism is merely the development of sources within the counter-elite or other dissidents in the government, while 'stenographic reporting' refers to the development of sources among official spokesmen for the government. There is no difference in the basic method of reporting. 

By concealing the machinations and politics behind a leak, journalists suppress part of the truth surrounding a story. Thus, the means by which the medical records of Senator Thomas Eagleton were acquired and passed on to the Knight newspapers (which won the 1973 Pulitizer Prize for disclosing information contained in these records) seems no less important than the senator's medical history itself, especially since copies of the illegally obtained records were later found in the White House safe of John Ehrlichman. 

Max Holland, Leak

As Christopher Hitchen's wrote in his review of The Secret Man, Watergate 'ranks as the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own. Without a consensus about what that agenda was, there is a gaping hole in the center of the narrative. 

(On Bernstein source John Sears): Backgrounding Watergate stories was a perfect way to exact revenge against those who had twarted his aspirations, chiefly Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman. Their decline might even pave the way for him to return to a position of influence and power.

The primary documents also proved that several of Felt's statements to Woodward had been false and/or misleading. p183

(Quoting Joan Didion): “Every reporter, in the development of a story, depends on and coddles, or protects, his or her sources. Only when the protection of the source gets in the way of telling the story does the reporter face a professional, even a moral choice: he can blow the source... or he can roll over, [and] shape the story to continue serving the source.” 

A Felt-sourced story appeared first in the Post, immediately followed an even better account in Time, which had also been sourced by Felt. Ironically, the Post then ran another story citing the Time article as corroboration. 
Renata Adler, After the Tall Timber

The whole purpose of the ‘anonymous source has been precisely reversed. The reason there exists a First Amendment protection for journalists’ confidential sources has always been to permit citizens -- the weak, the vulnerable, the isolated-- to be heard publicly, without fear of retaliation by the strong-- by their employer, for example, or by the forces of government … Instead, almost every ‘anonymous source’ in the press, in recent years, has been an official of some kind, or a person in the course of a vendetta speaking from a position of power.

[Using anonymous sources] makes stories almost impossible to verify. It suppresses a major element of almost every investigative story: who wanted it known.
Edward Jay Epstein, The Annals of Unsolved Crime

A third possible conspiracy involved government officials clandestinely distributing protected data, including FBI 201 files, to select journalists in order to weaken, if not destroy, the Nixon Administration. That the release was “deliberately coordinated,” rather than a spontaneous act of whistle-blowing, is suggested by CIA memoranda, written by CIA officers Martin Lukoskie and Eric Eisenstadt (published as an appendix in Jim Hougan’s book Secret Agenda), one “for the record” and the other for the CIA’s deputy director of plans. The memos discuss how Lukoskie’s operation “has now established a ‘back door entry’ to the Edward Bennett Williams law firm, which is representing the Democratic Party in its suit for damages resulting from the Watergate incident,” and had also managed to feed stories to the Washington Post via Bob Woodward on the understanding that there be no attribution to the CIA operation.
Sir John Keegan, Intelligence in War

As defence correspondent, then defence editor of The Daily Telegraph, i decided that entanglement with intelligence organisations was unwise, having concluded, by that stage of my life, through reading, conversation and a little personal observation, that anyone who mingled in the intelligence world, in the belief that he could make use of contacts thus made, would more probably be made use of, to his disadvantage. I continue to believe that to be the case.
Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time

Diplomats and intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists, and the historians who try to reconstruct the past out of their records are, for the most part, dealing in fantasy.

Jack Shafer:

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?

Far from being a handicap, political bias appears to be a necessity for the investigative reporter.

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