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Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2010

THE RIGHT (AND WRONG) WAY TO DO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM.... In most instances, institutional investigative journalism has come from mainstream news outlets and left-leaning outlets like The Nation and Mother Jones. The right, historically, has avoided this kind of work, preferring to create outlets like Fox News, National Review, and the Weekly Standard.

Whether you find those conservative outlets valuable or not, it's fair to say investigative journalism isn't part of their m.o. When was the last time you saw one of these Republican-friendly outlets "break" a major news story, thanks to some in-depth, shoe-leather journalism? It just doesn't happen.

There are, however, some conservatives who want to change this, and are beginning to take investigative journalism seriously, especially at the state level. What's wrong with this? In theory, nothing. Investigative journalism can play a valuable role in holding officials accountable and ensuring transparency. If journalists on the right want to do some digging and turn up public malfeasance, more power to them.

The problem isn't that conservatives are doing investigative journalism. The problem is that conservatives haven't figured out how to do investigative journalism especially well.

Laura McGann has an interesting piece in the new issue of the Monthly.

When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told an audience at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference that conservative publications should aspire to create right-leaning equivalents of the New York Times and "put accuracy first," he was booed by the crowd.

But with Democrats back in power and the fourth estate in shambles, conservatives are starting to discover the virtues of shoe-leather reporting, and are throwing their organizational savvy and financial clout behind sustained investigative ventures. The Franklin Center, which is run by a Republican political consultant with no journalism background, supports ten state-level investigative news sites under the moniker Watchdog.org. Meanwhile, free-market state-based think tanks have begun hiring reporters to work in-house, focusing on local and state spending -- in the last six months alone, they have brought at least eighteen reporters on board.

More established conservative brands have also jumped into the fray.

So far, so good. The more investigative journalism, the better.

But there are some problems that are quickly becoming apparent.

The first is that conservative investigative journalism tends to produce reports that are wrong. The feather in their cap tends to be the Breitbart/O'Keefe ACORN sting, which produced a heavily-edited, misleading video. Another conservative outlet had a "scoop" last fall about federal stimulus aid going to zip codes that don't exist, but the story turned out to be nothing -- some local agencies had simply mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database. The big conservative investigative breakthrough was a story about some typos. The researchers failed to do the necessary follow-up.

If investigative journalism is producing reports that aren't true, it's less than useless.

The second is that conservative investigative journalism, while ostensibly about improving transparency, is surrounded by secrecy.

Franklin hosts strategy calls, and an e-mail listserv for conservative reporting organizations, and hosts investigative journalism training sessions for reporters at free-market think tanks and Web sites -- at least fifty of them have been invited to attend a training session in June, according to an internal e-mail—but instructs participants not to discuss the event with outsiders. For a little over a year, the group has also been giving grants to state-based conservative think tanks with a free-market bent to hire in-house reporters. But don't bother asking who's getting the money. Jason Stverak, the former political operative who runs Franklin, won't disclose anything about the independent projects his organization is bankrolling (though he'll have to on his 2009 tax returns). Nor will the directors of the state-based groups that have brought journalists on board say where they got the money to do so.

The Franklin Center and the Sam Adams Alliance, the free-market group that gave Franklin its initial start-up money, are also mum about where their funding comes from -- which is more than a little ironic given Franklin's obsession with transparency in government. When I asked Stverak to explain the reasons for the secrecy, he argued that how the money flowed was irrelevant since Franklin's credibility hangs on the quality of the journalism it produces, not its funding sources. "We are trusted sources of real information," he maintained. "Fox News, ABC, CBS, CNN -- these guys wouldn't wager their reputation on content they didn't find credible."

But in reality, Stverak appears to be banking on exactly the opposite being true -- that in the age of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, cash-strapped news outlets will eagerly latch on to the scoops his team delivers and won't spend too much time questioning the underlying reporting or the bona fides of his organization, which looks more like a political attack machine than a traditional news operation. That kind of ideologically motivated, willfully misleading muckraking may be a well-worn strategy among partisan operatives. But it isn't journalism.


Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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Meanwhile, free-market state-based think tanks have begun hiring reporters to work in-house, focusing on local and state spending -- in the last six months alone, they have brought at least eighteen reporters on board.

One wonders exactly what their criteria for calling someone a "reporter" actually is. Will said people actually do investigative work or merely "catapult the propaganda" under the look and feel of a legitmate news organization (like a rightwing, allegedly non-comedy version of the Onion News Network). Inquiring minds want to know!

Posted by: electrolite on May 5, 2010 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Incompetency and dishonesty? From movement conservatives???

Posted by: Monty on May 5, 2010 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly.

It points to the big flaw of ideologues, the inability to deal with change or things that are contrary to their tightly held beliefs.

Today's ideological Con is pretty much a clone of Steinbeck's "East of Eden"'s Aron Trask. An inability to see the world as it is not what they want. When the universe doesn't bend to their notions, they freak out and go round the bend.

Posted by: Former Dan on May 5, 2010 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

I seem to recall that PRAVDA had "investigative journalist's" too. They used to investigate the evils of capitolism. And they propped up the Soviet regime.
Here, they'll be invetigating the "evils" of Democrat's and liberals. And they'll prop up the corpoatist regime.
No difference that I can see.

We are doomed as a nation when, in thinking about our Fourth Estate, I want to drink a fifth...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 5, 2010 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

to paraphrase a recent quote from a poster boy for the MSM:

"hey, people can just fact check on their own."

read or watch stuff at your own risk...

not quite as bad as giving your kids children's tylenol at your/their own risk... it's just the way we do things now.

whatta country!

Posted by: neill on May 5, 2010 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

But in reality, Stverak appears to be banking on exactly the opposite being true -- that in the age of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, cash-strapped news outlets will eagerly latch on to the scoops his team delivers and won't spend too much time questioning the underlying reporting or the bona fides of his organization [...]

And, even if they do...

NYTimes had a front page article yesterday, on the BP spill, quoting a grassroots" eco-organisation saying that it wasn't all that bad (or words to that effect). Yesterday afternoon. TPM Muckraker dug a bit into the composition of the organisation and found it to be in pay of the Big Oil, including one of the firms involved in the very spill they were talking about (there's grass and then there's astroturf and, apparently, they look just the same to some people).

Today, NYT has a "clarification", admitting to having been negligent in not saying more about the organisation. The two-para notice is on the corrections page (obverse of front). Compared with the number of people who had read the front page article, the impact will be minimal; how many people read corrections? Then too, the correction was only half-hearted; a connection to Big Oil was mentioned, but not the specifics given by the TPM. So, by and large, the white-washing hte Big Oil has set out to achieve it *has* achieved.

The same will be true about this "journalistic" laboratory, where they'll cook up whatever's necessary and sell it to the public as the real meat.

Posted by: exlibra on May 5, 2010 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

It points to the big flaw of ideologues, the inability to deal with change or things that are contrary to their tightly held beliefs.

That was the biggest laugh I've had all day.

So let's get this straight: the Repubs have decided to change and create pseudo or fake news "reporting" organizations so that they can further keep control of the MSM news narrative. And in response to this change in the political battefield, Steve and some of you commenters rally around the old "Repubs are stupid" line that conform to your own tightly held beliefs.

So in your world, it's the repubs are the ones who have an inability to change even though they're the ones introducing a change in response to losing an election and it's the Democrat supporters who can deal with new things even though they're the ones clingin to the tired old response of making fun of Repubs, which is the same thing you always do.

Wow.

Posted by: Observer on May 5, 2010 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

What's new?

The Washington Times has had cheap shot "journalistic" investigations for over 20 years. The Spectator also funded the Arkansas project. Now that the Times is bankrupt some other kleptocrat is funding another hit squad.

The Washington Examiner is also doing the same type of thing.

Posted by: Smauel Knight on May 5, 2010 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

These clowns just want to use the media's First Amendment protections to dig up dirt, smear, and slander liberals and/or Democrats. That's it. That's all there is to it.

Just look at O'Keefe and (Not Very) Brietbart -- they weren't doing real reporting on an issue that affects most Americans. They smeared a group that helps poor and black people the first time, and then tried to illegally spy on a member of Congress.

By pretending to be journalists, they can use things like shield laws to lie with impunity.

This is not going to end well ... but for whom is up for debate.

Posted by: Mark D on May 5, 2010 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

It's not a change, though, at least not in outcome. Their methods are going to be different, but in reality it's a deepening of the ongoing strategy, rather than a new strategy.

It would be a change if they sent out investigative reporters to find and report the truth. But they're not. They're just looking for ways to make their standard procedure of creating and disseminating lies seem more credible. That's it. That's the "change" you're talking about, that us craaaaaaaazy lefties can't wrap our simple little minds around.

It's disgusting and crass, and your comment has made clear that you've essentially agreed to support it.

Posted by: Tree on May 5, 2010 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Observer, I believe the point Benen & Co. make is that there is change, and then there is "change," just as there's news, and then there is "news." But your "point" is taken, of course.

Posted by: WAJim on May 5, 2010 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: stream on May 5, 2010 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

@observer,

I'm glad I made your day, but you seem to lack reading comprehension and reinforce "pubs are dumb."

The problem is a lack of Ideological change.

Ideology change isn't tactical changes such as investigative reporting. Ideology is at the strategic and doctrinal basis of the GOP which entails a much higher level of thinking than just doing something different. The policies and doctrine of the GOP remain the same (Looooooow taxes! / Corps are good, Gov't is bad/ Enviros are freaks / Blacks are to be feared etc etc etc) which have been blowing up in everyone's face in recent days.

And that is why you don't get it.

Look up what strategic/tactical/doctrinal mean.

Posted by: Former Dan on May 5, 2010 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

You call it investigative journalism. We call it opposition research disguised as 'investigative journalism'.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on May 5, 2010 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

The Franklin Center? Is that like the Franklin Mint? that place which sells self produced historical items.

But seriously folks:

Most conservatives rely on GOTCHA journalism... Ah he said "They trees are blue." That must mean he sees green as blue and this makes him a security threat.

The perfect example of this, was then Bill Clinton was berated for defining the word "is." Yes he lied about Monica. But, the general conservative populaton was convinced that this one phrase would do him in because the publci outcry would be so great.

Not! to use a popular phrase of the time.

Most people look at the whole person and their life before making judgement on one phrase or mistake. For Repubs and occassional Dems, its the words which matter and one word slip up can kill you.

It has something to do with too close a focus on the subject.

I would not expect too much from the conservative press. Although the Christian Science Monitor used to do a good job.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on May 5, 2010 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

4th Estate in shambles? Steve the 4th Estate no longer exists! There is no longer an independent press in this country. The Nation can not do it alone. All other forms news reporting is corperate owned and corperate run. Blogs only reach those who are of like minds. Whaat would happen if Watergate happened today and there is no Woods and Bernstene(SP) I shutter to think what is taking place in high office when there is no threat of investigative jounalism.

Posted by: nodak on May 5, 2010 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

If investigative journalism is producing reports that aren't true, it's [strike]less than useless[/strike] typical of conservative propaganda and perfect for that purpose.

Posted by: Gregory on May 5, 2010 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

Geezus H, you people are blind sometimes. I'll just respond to Former Dan as representative of the whole lot.

The problem is a lack of Ideological change.

Okay let's take that as a starting point. Let's somewhat arbitrarily take 1972 (high point for Nixon) as a reference point.

Who's played the "ideological change" game better?
in/around 1970 conservatives "lost" in Roe V Wade. In response they created a long term Supreme Court strategy and now have 3 relatively young justices on the court and a lock for the next 20 years on the Chief Justice chair. In the first of many "gifts" corporations are now allowed to contribute to political campaigns. In response Democrats just made fun of Clarence "no questions" Thomas.

in/around 1980 conservatives created think tanks to counter the reality based reporting that was prevalent. In response Democrats just made fun of them.
in/around 1990, conservatives created Fox News in response to reality based cable news reporting. In response, Democrats just made fun of them.

So how has this worked out? Let's see:
in/around 1970 a Republican president proposed universal healthcare. In 2010 the entire Republican party voted against it and hundreds of thousands of voters freaked out and the Democratic president timidly presented corporate control of the healthcare industry ("exchanges") as good because universal healthcare insurance provided by the gov't would be "bad".

in/around 1970 the average CEO made something like 27x the average worker. in 2010 the average CEO makes something like 250x the average worker. In response, the *Democratic* party leader proposes to lower corporate and personal taxes after voting as a senator to bail out Wall Street with $700B of gov't money before then proceeding to bailout the automotive industry.

How's that ideological change working out for you so far?

You can continue to keep believing you're smarter than your enemies, (that's pretty well your only response ever), even though by almost every available measure the world has gotten more ideologically favourable to them rather than less.

Obama is "sui generis". Dems will go back to losing elections and the narrative in 2016.

Posted by: Observer on May 5, 2010 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

Two things:

1] When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told an audience at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference that conservative publications should aspire to create right-leaning equivalents of the New York Times and "put accuracy first," he was booed by the crowd. Seriously!?!? Booed for suggesting that news stories be accurate?!?! Is this for real? Is there video of it?

2] This is a Rovian trick, of course. The Right-Wing Noise Machine is preparing to unleash some really twisted smear campaigns. So, they are pre-branding the stuff as "investigative journalism" so the attacks will have cover. They'll let the lies flow and crow about how liberals can't handle "the truth." I'd bet everything on it.

Posted by: chrenson on May 5, 2010 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK
If investigative journalism is producing reports that aren't true, it's less than useless.

Useless as journalism, sure. But as with conservative "think" tanks, the purpose isn't to produce reports that are true, it's to produce reports that start with their preferred conclusions, and work backwards from there to find or fabricate supporting "evidence."

It's win-win for them. Either they succeed in getting their "journalists" taken seriously (like Fox "journalists" and right-wing think tank "experts"), and undermine the truth, as in the ACORN case, or they're seen for the mockery they are, and the compulsive need for "balance" in news reporting results in legitimate investigative journalism being discredited based on alleged faults in their process.

Posted by: Redshift on May 5, 2010 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

If had to guesss, I'd say that the crowd at the CPCA was reflexively booing the NYT, not the idea of news accuracy as a guiding principle of journalism.

Posted by: xpatriate on May 5, 2010 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

This is how their "think" tanks work, too.

Posted by: Zandru on May 6, 2010 at 1:31 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Mariam Rabil on October 7, 2010 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK
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