Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Trends in Investigative Reporting

One of the most striking things I noticed at the recent conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Baltimore was the depth of the media crisis in the U.S.

It seemed every second or third person I met had been laid off, repositioned or downsized in recent months. This also included the speakers at the various sessions. One presenter said he was one of two surviving members of a local TV investigative unit that had 11 employees. Another talented reporter at a Florida newspaper was let go earlier in the year, despite her consistently strong enterprise work. One colleague who has done outstanding work over the years is considering getting out of journalism altogether following the shutdown of her newspaper.

Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, took part in a fascinating discussion with Bob Woodward. He talked about the dominance of the newspaper industry for the last half century. In many cases, the business model was so rich that no single advertiser could dictate terms to an editor or publisher who wanted to do challenging journalism. That might be so, but even then if often took the alternative media and some courageous individual practitioners to push the mainstream media in the right direction. Still, Downie maintains it was a unique golden era that has now vanished. And he said it's not going to return.

Leavening this grim atmosphere was a feeling at the conference that there are new models springing up which could point a way forward for investigative work. These are publicly-funded enterprises that raise money from universities, foundations, and sometimes users themselves. There is a certain irony in seeing that in the land of free enterprise, where public broadcasting ranks lowest in the world in terms of state support, there is now an interest in a public journalism model.

This comes at a time when public broadcasters are facing their own set of financial challenges. But the new models don't depend directly on government support. Through alliances with universities, and by strategically linking with non-profit foundations, investigative reporting centres have sprung up in several U.S. locations.

Now comes news that Britain is following the lead of the United States in establishing an independent investigative journalism fund.

A number of prominent British journalists have banded together to create The Investigations Fund, supporting public interest journalism. Its mission: "to support the sort of investigation of grass root stories and services that is dying by the minute as local newspapers are hit hard; and to support those many stories of vital public interest in Britain that have an important international connection, particularly in the developing world, but where the costs of chasing down the truth may seem prohibitively high."

The Potter Foundation in Britain has provided two million pounds to create a bureau of investigative journalism in connection with the initiative.

It will be interesting to follow how this trend develops. In Canada, there is a new Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting that has recently achieved charitable status. It will now need to tap into substantial funding sources to be able to commission some ambitious projects.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review of American Radical

Here is my review of American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

American Radical
The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
By D.D. Guttenplan
Farrar Straus Giroux

"EVERY government is run by liars," I.F. Stone once famously said. "And nothing they say should be believed."

Isadore Feinstein Stone's trademark skepticism served him well in an American journalistic career that spanned more than half a century. While many of his colleagues chased official sources and provided surface coverage of events, he laid bare the underlying realities of U.S. society and fearlessly held politicians of all stripes to account.

As D.D. Guttenplan's highly readable biography shows, it wasn't hard to guess what the career path would be for the son of an immigrant Philadelphia peddler in the 1920s.

At 14, Stone began publishing his own neighbourhood newspaper, filling it with editorials that provided opinion on everything from the American economy to the Treaty of Versailles. Before he turned 25, he was writing lead editorials for one of New York's most influential dailies.

While he might have carved out a comfortable niche in the journalistic mainstream, Stone had a penchant for independent thinking that didn't often sit well with his bosses or government officials.

At 19, when an editor turned down his request to cover the murder trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, he quit the paper to attend anyhow. And while he held significant positions with major American publications over the years, his greatest journalistic triumphs came as the one-man proprietor of the independent I.F. Stone Weekly.

Stone himself would have been impressed by the prodigious amount of material that Guttenplan amassed to chronicle his life. It includes more than 100 interviews and mountains of archival documents, along with the fruits of a 15-year battle to pry loose information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

What emerges is a story so rich in detail and historical context that the reader derives an added benefit of learning about key elements of U.S. political and intellectual history through the decades. Stone's support for New Deal ideas is chronicled against the backdrop of the lead-up to the Second World War.

His socialist and anti-fascist sentiments lead to his fierce critiques of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. And his analysis of Vietnam made him a darling of the New Left in the 1960s.

Even though his radical politics enraged his enemies, it was his investigative journalism that critics found hard to assail. His Hidden History of the Korean War questioned American tactics and policies in triggering the conflict, while he was also one of the first American journalists to wonder openly whether the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a manufactured pretext for wider U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The sweep of history has proven many of Stone's insights and exposés to be correct.

Stone succeeded by carefully examining the public record, looking for clues to the truth. Guttenplan, an American investigative journalist based in London, does the same. He unearthed the FBI files that detailed a massive and paranoid undercover campaign to follow Stone everywhere, open his mail, tap his telephone and recruit informants.

Even the doorman at his Park Avenue apartment building was on the bureau's payroll.

What the FBI failed to appreciate was that Stone's independent nature meant he would never be unquestioningly obedient to any single party or cause. Despite his sympathies, he routinely criticized Communist parties and governments.

While he passionately supported the young state of Israel, he infuriated Zionists by calling for a binational state and equal rights for Palestinians. And though he called Richard Nixon a fascist in the 1950s, he saw much to admire in Dwight Eisenhower.

After working on the biography for 18 years, Guttenplan has created a labour of love for a man he admires. It shows.