Biodiversity in the investigative ecosystem

I’ve been reminded these past few days how many different species inhabit the mini-ecosystem that is nonprofit investigative reporting. In the natural world, biodiversity is key to an ecosystem’s  survival. Can the same be said of the journalism world?

The biodiversity metaphor came to mind on Saturday, while I was moderating the panel that opened the Columbia Spectator’s Media Conference. Sharing twin billing were Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor and founder of Pro Publica, and Jeffrey Klein, the investigative journalist who co-founded the progressive muckraking magazine Mother Jones in 1976. No two people could be more different in temperament. Klein, a proponent of what he calls oppositional investigative reporting, has had a storied career exposing the shenanigans of Republican politicians, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. A left-wing liberal who believes that partisan journalism not only has a long, but also honorable, journalistic tradition, Klein likes to throw bombs (he famously said that most journalists are “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” and during the panel, made it clear – in far more colorful language – that Bob Woodward and Mike Wallace are exemplars of that pack).

Steiger  is hardly the flamethrower. But he’s a torchbearer for the nonpartisan, nonideological, professionally produced investigative reporting of the type that has won Pulitzers since 1985, when the venerable prize body opened an award in the investigative reporting category.  One of the best funded and best staffed investigative reporting operations in the U.S., if not the world, Pro Publica has won two Pulitzers in the four years since its founding. Steiger believes that as traditional news outlets cut back on reporting resources, centers like his, partisan outfits like Mother Jones and journalism schools will pick up the slack. “Americans have a passion for stuff that is impartial but tough,” he said, “I think there’s an important role for what we do, an important role for what Mother Jones does, and an important role for what The National Review does.”

But back to biodversity. For the past half century or so, the dominant species in the journalism ecosystem, at least in the U.S., were the big newspapers and TV networks that dominated the media markets all across the country. The big media operated on the professional norms of objectivity and impartiality. Today, at the dawn of the era of “post-industrial journalism ,”  those species are looking more and more like dinosaurs. Will the post-industrial investigative journalism ecosystem be filled with many more varied species, with none of them becoming dominant? Will the professional norms that underpinned industrial media be replaced by something else? Will we be seeing an investigative reporting world populated by  Pro Publicas, Mother Joneses and, maybe also outfits like Project Veritas?

The brainchild of the young, conservative activist James O’Keefe, Project Veritas has done sting operations or “staged encounters” that use undercover video to  embarrass liberal icons like the National Public Radio, teachers unions and Planned Parenthood. Two years ago, O’Keefe and his crew were  found guilty of a misdemeanor for posing as telephone repairmen in order to get access to the office of a Democratic senator’s office in New Orleans. While their lawyer insisted they were doing investigative journalism, The New York Times, for one, referred to O’Keefe as a “conservative provocateur.”

To be sure, the vast majority of the nonprofit investigative outfits out there use less provocative and sensational methods. Klein himself is squeamish about sting operations, although he says that investigative journalists by necessity have to be cunning. Set up 36 years ago as an alternative to the prevailing voices of the time, Mother Jones is known for its fact-based and professionally produced reporting. Over the years, its six National Magazine Awards give it a prestige that many of the investigative wannabes do not have. Partisan investigative reporting should therefore not be equated with controversial techniques or shoddy reporting.

After all,  the investigative techniques employed by nonpartisan  mainstream media have been controversial as well – the sting operations of To Catch a Predator have been widely criticized, and some years ago, ABC News reporters were found guilty of fraud when they lied their way into jobs at  the food giant Food Lion in order to expose the company’s allegedly unsanitary practices.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK, who was in town to receive an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. As Rusbriger explained at a forum at the Paley Center, newspapers in the UK have always been aligned with political points of view if not political parties. The Guardian, whose lineage dates back to 1821, is known as a left-of-center newspaper. It’s owned by the Scott Trust, a limited company that operates like a nonprofit as its earnings are not paid out to shareholders but reinvested in journalism; its mandate is”to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian.”  Today the Guardian is a global brand, its website one of the top news sites of the world. It has a distinguished record in investigative journalism, including reporting that has targeted  the UK’s most powerful media institutions. It broke the phone hacking story that brought down The News of the World, and its probing of the BBC’s Newsnight program has led to the resignation of the public broadcaster’s director general.

One argument for nonprofit journalism is that its reporting is freed from profit imperatives and interventionist proprietors. The Guardian is certainly a shining example. But elsewhere, nonprofit reporting has its own pressures, including the funding cycles and preferences of donors. If funded by partisan groups, it can be at the mercy of political agendas as well. But then again, so can a hugely profitable commercial operation like Fox News.

So for now, biodiversity seems an apt aspiration. Diversity was certainly scant in the era of industrial media. As that era comes to a close, what we can hope for is  an ecosystem where for-profit and nonprofit, as well as partisan and nonpartisan, journalism coexist, providing  a healthy environment where the exchange of news, information and ideas holds power to account. And yes, that includes media power as well.

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