A look at the changing face of investigative journalism

February 12, 2010 04:15

By: Mark Tapscott
Editorial Page Editor
02/11/10 6:03 PM EST via Washington Examiner

A recurring theme among liberals in the mainstream media, academic circles, the non-profit advocacy community and politicians on the left is the so-called “death of investigative journalism,” due allegedly to the terrible economic straits in which traditional daily newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast news outlets find themselves.

To be sure, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years, hundreds of daily newspapers have been shuttered, venerable names like Newsweek are on life-support, and even The Washington Post and The New York Times are in economic crisis as advertising revenues and readership decline.

On the left, some of the investigative journalism impetus is being picked up by non-profits like Pro Publica and are doing excellent work, though it often comes from the familiar perspectives of conventional mainstream media wisdom. Huffington Post has also made a commitment to support high-quality investigative journalism.

But the idea that only traditional media outlets can do high-quality investigative journalism is a self-serving myth propigated by foks who either can’t or won’t see the reality in front of their noses. Thanks to the Blogosphere, it is a virtual certainty (no pun intended) that there is more investigative reporting being done today than at any other point in American history.

On any given day or issue, and in every state and major city, odds are great that somebody out there is digging and exposing dirt the public has a right to know, whether its Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo Muckraker on the left or Michelle Malkin on the right, or one or a dozen of the thousands of “citizens journalists” (many of whom are unemployed, or formerly employed, traditional journalists).

My personal view – speaking as one who has proudly spent the bulk of his career as a newspaper reporter and editor – is that we are on the cusp of a new golden age of investigative reporting, thanks to the Internet.

Happily, it’s not just Congress, the White House, or other federal outposts that are being subjected to intense new investigative pressures. Much of the best new investigative reporting is being done at the state and local level. The most recently arrived and in many ways most impressive examples of this phenomenon are from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity’s Watchdog.org.

Overseen by Jason Stverak, a former North Dakota Republican Party chairman, Franklin is creating a nationwide network of top-notch investigative journalists – many recruited from the mainstream media – to focus exclusively on politics and government in their states.

Stverak has an excellent oped on National Review Online today that describes just a few examples of what his “watchdogs” have been uncovering in recent months:

“Just recently, a series of state-based watchdog groups have demonstrated that online news websites can churn out substantive investigative pieces. Jim Scarantino, the New Mexico Watchdog at the Rio Grande Foundation, found that N.M.’s lieutenant governor was utilizing tax dollars to buy Christmas cards for her political committee.

“Joe Jordan, a dedicated state-based reporter at NebraskaWatchdog.org, uncovered that their state’s educators were using taxpayer-funded credit cards to purchase a first-class plane tickets to China for $11,000. And it was a Watchdog in Ohio that publicized a candidate’s attempt to pay for votes among college students.”

That these folks are non-partisan, equal-opportunity enemies of political incompetence, hypocrisy and corruption is illustrated in a recent story by Texas Watchdog’s Mark Lisheron on the Lone Star State’s department of housing and community affairs. It seems the bureaucrats under Republican Gov. Rick Perry spent more than $3.7 million to weatherize a total of only 47 houses.

And over in Michigan, Kathy Hoestra, an award-winning local television news reporter now working with Franklin via the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has exposed how a day care center has been diverting funds to a public employees union.

It’s a story, according to Hoekstra, of “private employers in a government employees union; private employees who aren’t; government agencies that deny their role, ignore legislative hearings and transform child care subsidies into union dues: It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland nightmare that violates day care providers’ rights — and keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.”

So next time somebody whines about the “death of quality journalism,” send them here, to Franklin’s Watchdogs.org. Journalism of the best kind is not only not dying, it is in fact getting healthier and more vibrant by the day.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve had the pleasure of helping train about three dozen of Franklin’s watchdogs in computer-assisted research and reporting and I can heartily attest to their exemplifying the best traits of tough journalism, including a stubborn determination to get beyond spin to the facts, a deep-seated skepticism of all public officials, and the incurable addiction to upholding the public’s right to know.

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