Wednesday, January 11, 2006

January 9, 2006

January 9, 2006

The Endangered Scoop

Let's play the blame game. Whose fault is it, anyway. Seriously. Whose fault is that:

* We still don't know who met with VP Dick Cheney five years ago to formulate the national energy policies that have now brought us record high energy prices.
* We didn't know in time that the Iraq/Niger/Yellow cake business was a scam – and three years later we still don't know who cooked it up,
* We didn't know in time that there were no WMD in Iraq, and there hadn't been for years,
* We didn't know soon enough that US troops were “mistreating” Iraq prisoners, even though reporters were "embedded" with those troops,
* We didn't learn for almost four years that the NSA was breaking the law listening in on Americans and reading our email.
* Why did it take so long to find out what Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay were up to when the evidence has been laying around since at least 2002 just waiting for someone it all together.

Who's to blame for that dismal list of disgrace?

Simple. My former profession, journalism, is to blame – hands down. Journalists are supposed to be in the show and tell” business. But over the past five years they have done neither very well -- if at all.

Let's look at it another way. If the police failed to prevent by catching those who commit crimes, who do you blame – the crooks or the cops? I blame the cops. Crooks are just doing what crooks do – being crooks. They are those proverbial bears in the woods doing what's expected of them. It's the cops' job to make me safe as possible from them. If crime is running rampant in my town, it's the cops' fault.

All the “crimes” listed above were committed by the Bush folk and, while it's despicable behavior, it's nothing we haven come to expect of them. Neo-conservatives, like al Qaida, have made it perfectly clear what they are all about. So I don't blame them for trying. I blame the media for failing to find out what they are trying and exposing it. Neo-cons like to say chant that “we are a nation of laws.” Shouldn't the media have known the same people were breaking those laws – and told us. And not after the damage is done, but in time for Americans to put their two cents in.

What passes for news today too often belongs on the History Channel.

Back in the old days, (yeah, yeah, I know how that sounds....back when I had to walk ten miles to work in the snow and put cardboard in shoes because I was so poor...,) reporters lived for the scoop. There was nothing worse than being assigned to cover a PTA meeting or a city council meeting – unless of course you caught a public official up to no good. Ah, the rush. It's the highest high on earth for a reporter to uncover evil-doers evil-doing. And to write that story and see it on the front page the next morning.

That all changed, I believe, during the Clinton years -- which was also when cable news and the 24-hour news cycle really got rolling. Reporters, who once spent days pouring over public records and picking through campaign finance disclosures, suddenly found themselves chasing a puissant $29.000 real estate deal in Arkansas, women who claimed to have seen Willy's Willie's, and a blue dress with an unspeakable stain upon it.

Many veteran reporters didn't like it. But the reading and viewing public seemed captivated by it. This was news with a twist, news that also entertained. This was news with the legs of a Mexican soap opera. There was something shallow, but titillating, in each day's reporting episode, teasing that something even more prudently jaw dropping tomorrow. Film at 11.

I remember a different time -- a time when real investigative reorters stalked the halls of power, and meant business, and were backed by their employers.

In the late 1980s I had the privilege of working with a great team of investigative reporters at the Arizona Republic. The paper had not only set up a separate budget for this team, but had taken them out of the newsroom and ensconced them in a secure, almost bunker-like, office in the basement. The team included it's own senior researcher, a remarkable man named John Doherty, now sadly deceased. John was Google on two legs. Anything I wanted to know John could provide. And we did some award-winning reporting back then John, Andy, Jerry and I.

But you'd be hard pressed to find similar investigative teams today. Which is precisely the reason the Bushites have gotten way with so much for so long. By the time Bush replaced Clinton in the White House damn few investigative teams remained. Media outlets had slashed their budgets for such labor intensive, time consuming and potentially litigious endeavors.

That's why I put the ultimate blame for the misdeeds of the Bush administration has gotten away with directly on the media. They could have done more – a lot more. They should have done more. And, even now, with new bodies turning up weekly, they are still not doing that job.

Take just Cheney's (secret) Energy Task Force: No national security issues to confuse the argument here. This just your simple, Journalism 101, open governance story. But we still know nothing. Reporters have reported. In the old days I can assure you we'd know who met with whom and what they said. How? By never taking no for an answer. Some reporter would have camped out in the back seat of some source's office until they spilled the beans.

I knew reporters like that, and they are no longer welcomed in today's newsrooms. Why? Because they are pains in the ass – that's why. Real investigative reporters are born that way. They are pushy sons-a-bitches. They tend to go out of their way to intrude, to challenge, to storm out of meetings when they don 't get their way. In today's painfully politically correct, self-esteem-protecting, white bread workplace such behavior is the human resources director's worst nightmare.

The last investigation I did was for partisan Democrats. It was March 2002 and I uncovered DeLay's dealings with Abramoff. I couldn't even give it away. (That 2002 report is posted here) The point being most of the information now being peddled in the Times and Washington Post as "scoops," was readily available nearly four years ago. Why didn't they write about then? The only conclusion I can come to is that the media was afraid that launching a full frontal attack on the darling of the far right, even if justified,, would only reinforce the right wing fiction that the media is a lackey of the left.

So most old mad-dog reporters are gone now, fired or retired. (Some can be even be found pecking pathetically away in blogland obscurity.)

Meanwhile, back at papers that once broke history-changing stories, it's “hear, see, and write about not evil.” Instead of assigning a Mad Dog reporter to the biggest story since Vietnam, the New York Times assigned Mad Woman, Judith Miller. Who, rather than stalking the administration for leakers likely to tell her what was really going on, she became a press release service for the Vice President's office.

But there's something even more disturbing than that in how the Times mishandled the WMD story. It's expected that a reporter will run into stonewalls when trying to unearth the truth from another organization, like the White House. But it says something very, very unsettling when the wrongdoing was happening right there under the noses of hundreds of reporters, right there in the New York Times own newsroom. Where were the other reporters at the Times while Miss Run Amok was running amok? Now that would have been a scoop worth bagging!

Another problem is that the media is all lawyered up now. And so mistakes scare the hell out of editors. When Dan Rather pulled the trigger prematurely on the Bush/Air National Guard story everyone in the mainstream media ran for cover. The few remaining mad dog reporters were put on leashes and told to stick to reporting only what is already known.

Which is largely the reason the NY Times sat on the NSA spying story for over a year.

Memo to the Times: A year-old story is no longer a scoop.
It's a badge of cowardliness and dereliction of duty.

You see, the Times did not want to get itself "Rathered," especially since the paper now had a pretty good idea of what Judy "Hi there sailor" Miller had been up to. So when the president called and asked the Times to spike the story, they complied. Imagine that. If the subject of an investigation had ever called me and asked that I kill or hold something I had learned about him, I would have taken that as the ultimate form of confirmation. And, I would have redoubled my efforts knowing for sure now that I was truly onto something big.”

If I had had a story as important as the NSA spying story was, and my editors refused to publish it the moment I had it nailed down, I would have taken it, or leaked it to, another paper. No real journalist would sit on a confirmed story that important for that long for the reasons being proffered.

This is a good time to recall how the media responded when the Nixon administration got a court order blocking the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Times immediately knew that the right thing to do was to make sure that story got out. They put their own business and legal interests aside and passed that hot potato right off to the Washington Post, which published the material the next day.

That's the way it was in "the old days," when journalists understood that their job – their ONLY job – was to keep the publics' business public.


Memo to
“The Media”

From: The American People

Re: Refresher Course in Journalism

1) You are in the news business. You are NOT in the national security business. It is your job to find out what public officials are doing, and then tell us.

2) If I want entertainment I have 500 cable channels pumping it right into my house 24/7. So stop trying to make news entertaining and get back to making it timely, credible and useful.

3) Cut your entertainment and sports budgets if you must to find the money necessary to fund real investigative units. Staff them with hungry mad dog journalists – then stay the hell out of their way.

4) When you learn something that's news worthy, report it. If someone tries to convince you not to report they just became part of the story. So, report that too.

This Year's Assignment:
Pin the list of missed scoops I list above. Pin them up in you offices, newsrooms and coffee rooms. Keep them there until you remember why it is you exist and why we should care whether or not you continue to exist.