How To Fix American Journalism

How To Fix American Journalism

American journalism has lost its crusader instinct. Here’s how to get it back.


(Marshall Arisman)

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

It’s an age-old debate among journalists: which approach to covering the news is superior—the American, with its striving after objectivity and balance, or the European, with its frank embrace of slant and party? Should news organizations seek out all sides of an issue, or should they present the news with an unabashed tilt? By now, it seems clear that the Americans (at their best) have the edge. Newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, for all their shortcomings, offer a rich daily diet of news, from distant wars to local schools; analysis of events and trends; coverage of arts and culture; and opinion from both in-house columnists and outside contributors. Another top paper, the Financial Times, though based in London, follows an American-style approach. The European model has its own impressive exemplars, notably The Guardian, but overall the American way has, I think, shown its superiority.

Yet in the American quest for balance, something critical has been lost: the crusader instinct. I don’t mean crusades of the lurid “Remember the Maine” type waged by the yellow rags of yore (or, sometimes, the screaming tabloids of today). Rather, I’m referring to the sustained coverage of key issues with a passion and tenacity that can help mobilize the masses and bring about lasting change.

Today, most investigative projects at American news organizations are limited in scope, episodic in nature and aimed at specific rather than systemic abuses. A good example is “Invisible Child,” the December 2013 New York Times series describing a year in the life of Dasani, a homeless girl in Brooklyn. Totaling more than 28,000 words and appearing over five consecutive days, the series was the largest investigative project ever run by the paper at one time. The reporter, Andrea Elliott, eloquently captured the travails of Dasani’s daily life and the terrible conditions that she and her family had to endure at the decrepit shelter in which they lived. The series landed with a bang: it set loose a flood of comments, a flow of contributions to the family, and squawks from City Hall that its policies were being misrepresented. The City Council held hearings on the quality of services for New York’s homeless, and eventually more than 400 children were removed from two substandard shelters.

But the series caused some grumbling as well. Exploring it, Bill Grueskin, then a dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, sent a query to about fifty journalists, lawyers, professors and students, asking for their impressions. He got many complaints, which he summarized for the Columbia Journalism Review: the series was too long; it failed to acknowledge the effects of the paper’s own reporting on the family’s fortunes; it focused too relentlessly on narrative, at the expense of analyzing the policies and politics that feed the persistence of homelessness in New York. Finally, there were reservations about the “single story” approach, in which a complex issue is told through the experiences of one subject.

In the ensuing weeks, another problem emerged: a lack of follow-up. With the publication of the final installment, Dasani and her family largely disappeared from the pages of the Times, and while the paper continued to run occasional pieces about homeless children in New York, the subject generally faded from view. As a result, the initial uproar set off by the story waned, as did its impact.

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In both conception and duration, the ”Invisible Child” series displayed all the signs of an ingrained trait of American journalism: the pursuit of prizes. Probably no profession (except maybe the film industry) gives out more of them. In their lust for Pulitzers, Polks and Peabodies, news organizations devote many man-hours to packaging entries for these competitions. To the extent that these prizes encourage publishers and editors to devote the time and money needed to carry out such projects, they deserve support. But the profession’s prize-itis has also fed a blockbuster mentality in which papers make an all-out push on a given project—and then move on. As a result, any positive impact these projects initially have often dissipates.

A counterexample is offered by Alan Schwarz’s coverage of concussions in football, also appearing in the Times. In more than 100 articles spread over four years (2007 to 2011), Schwarz showed that the rate of concussions among pro-football players, and of dementia among retired ones, was far higher than had been suspected. Schwarz also documented the National Football League’s efforts to obfuscate these results and the helmet industry’s failure to provide a product offering sufficient protection. His articles forced the NFL to overhaul its rules for handling concussions; helped spur the resignation of two members of a league committee that had conducted flawed research on the issue; prompted several congressional hearings on sports-related brain injuries; and inspired many other journalists to look into the incidence of concussions in sports in general.

In short, Schwarz changed the entire public discourse on the issue. Notably, his reporting was not part of any investigative project, nor was he an investigative reporter. Rather, Schwarz was a beat sports reporter with a love of math and statistics (which helped him discern patterns in the data on injuries and illnesses that others might overlook), and one who, seeing an injustice, wouldn’t let it drop. Murray Chass, the renowned Times sportswriter, has called it “the most remarkable feat in sports journalism history.”

Schwarz’s stories dealt with a deep-seated institutional problem. Many investigative projects, by contrast, focus on abuses at a particular company, a single agency or one college campus. Such reporting is certainly worthwhile and can serve as the building blocks for a larger-scale probe, but overall, the field has, I think, suffered from a narrowness of vision and a lack of ambition.

The transformative impact that a news organization can have when it sets its sights higher is shown by The Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. A team of reporters worked on the story for eight months before the publication of the first article in January 2002. It was followed by hundreds of stories extending over more than two years. The Globe reporters documented the abuse that scores of priests in the Boston Archdiocese had inflicted on hundreds of minors, as well as the steps that the church had taken to keep the details from becoming public. The Globe eventually set up a website offering thousands of pages of depositions, letters and internal church documents, augmented by video, message boards and photo galleries, plus a phone number that people could call with abuse stories. These efforts helped prompt the resignation of the archbishop of Boston and the filing of many lawsuits against the diocese. The revelations, in turn, encouraged victims throughout the country and in other nations to come forward with their own stories.

Such triumphs do not come cheap. The Globe spent more than $1 million on the project and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs. Beyond a strong financial commitment, however, the paper was willing to stick with the story and keep a spotlight on it. Such persistence remains exceptional in American journalism.

Its absence is especially glaring in what is perhaps the most urgent story of the day: the rise of the global oligarchy. While income inequality has received extensive coverage, the essential nature of the new plutocracy it has spawned has not. The activities of tycoons like David Rubenstein, Stephen Schwarzman, Leon Black, Daniel Loeb, Paul Tudor Jones, Henry Kravis, Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the Walton family; institutions like Blackstone, the Carlyle Group, Silver Lake Partners, PIMCO and Third Point; forums and meeting places like Davos, the Bilderberg Group, the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, the TED conferences, the Clinton Global Initiative, Google’s Zeitgeist gathering and the Grill Room of the Four Seasons—this great interlocking world of big banks, hedge funds, money managers, private-equity and venture-capital funds, foundations and philanthropies has received only sporadic and superficial coverage in the American press. These titans—the 1 percent of the 1 percent—not only control tremendous wealth but also use it to buy influence, shape policies, promote ideas, sway public opinion and push their favorite projects. Yet aside from occasional exposés (like Jane Mayer’s important examination of the Koch brothers) and book-length investigations (like Chrystia Freeland’s revealing Plutocrats, about the rise of the global super-rich), we get mostly admiring profiles of innovators, geniuses and visionaries.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been much good reporting on the world of big money. In the lead-up to the financial collapse, Mark Pittman of Bloomberg wrote story after story revealing the deceptive and risky practices of Wall Street. The New York Times, in its “Reckoning” series, performed an extended autopsy on the actions that had led to the collapse. In 2012, Reuters exposed widespread misconduct by Chesapeake Energy, leading to the ouster of the company’s chief executives, and a Times investigation into bribery by Walmart executives in Mexico provoked several top resignations and the opening of a federal investigation. For the most part, though, these stories do not offer the type of sweeping, ongoing scrutiny that could truly shake things up.

Such an approach was once common. In 1902 and 1903, for instance, McClure’s Magazine ran Ida Tarbell’s dissection of the Standard Oil Company. In nineteen monthly installments, the indefatigable Tarbell exposed the extralegal strong-arm tactics used by John D. Rockefeller and his agents to gain monopoly control of the booming oil industry. Her reporting gave rise to an antitrust suit that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1911 decision to break up the company.

In a more recent example, TheMarker, an Israeli financial newspaper distributed as a supplement to Haaretz, waged an unflagging campaign beginning in the mid-2000s against the extraordinary concentration of economic power in Israel and the dangers that this development posed to Israeli society and democracy. Led by its founding editor, Guy Rolnik, the paper ran periodic stories and columns that paid special attention to the “Israeli oligarchs,” a small group of billionaires and their families who controlled much of the Israeli economy. When the campaign began, the subject of economic concentration was barely discussed in Israel. The stories fed growing outrage over inequality, leading to a series of mass demonstrations in 2011. Those protests, in turn, spurred the Knesset to pass a bill to break up the Israeli conglomerates. It was a remarkable display of how one news organization, through tenacious and unflinching reporting over a period of years, can help spur systemic change.

One of the few journalistic forays in this country to have even a remotely comparable effect was Matt Taibbi’s famous 2009 polemic in Rolling Stone on Goldman Sachs. At the time, that company had such an aura of invincibility that few journalists were willing to take it on. Taibbi’s nearly 10,000-word account of the firm’s history of manipulating the market—highlighted by his lurid description of it as a “giant vampire squid”—helped break the cone of silence around it. Unfortunately, few picked up his lead, and Goldman Sachs has since skillfully rehabilitated itself, thanks in part to its savvy use of philanthropy and manipulation of the media. (See sidebar, No. 8.)

Taibbi was preparing to do more such corporate poking at the Racket, a website conceived by Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, but an internal blow-up led to his abrupt departure and the project’s collapse. Remarkably, of the many high-profile digital-journalism sites—the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, Business Insider—not one scrutinizes America’s oligarchs the way TheMarker did Israel’s. (ProPublica, the prime investigative site on the web, has done impressive reporting on a number of important subjects, including fracking and the secret Fed tapes, but in general it remains wedded to a traditional narrow-focus approach.)

How to explain such timorousness? Clearly, the economic travails of the news business have reduced its appetite for major projects, but this explains only so much. More important, perhaps, is the fear that many American journalists have of appearing partisan or one-sided. In a Q&A with the Columbia Journalism Review, Alan Schwarz specifically mentioned his aversion to being labeled a crusader. “Dispassion is incredibly powerful in a reporter,” he said. “It drives people crazy. If I come off as somebody who’s trying to change football, I lose something.” If you stray too far, he added, people “cut you off.”

Yet showing passion doesn’t mean having to jettison principles like fairness and giving all sides their say. Perhaps the term “campaigner” is better than “crusader” (especially given how the Crusades turned out). In the end, though, reporters must be willing to live with such labels. It’s the price of letting their indignation show.

Ultimately, the main obstacle to truly groundbreaking reporting is intellectual. American journalists need to break free of their current constricting emphasis on “exposés” and “scoops” and adopt a more expansive program that seeks to bare the underlying realities of money, power and influence in America—to show how things really work.

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