This pullback from investigative journalism weakens one of society’s only true defenses against corruption and government malfeasance.The only true defenses against corruption and government malfeasance is being threatened.
In the last couple of years, the sanctity of the freedom of the press and the check on power and corruption that freedom offers through watchdog journalism has been challenged intensely.
From allegations in 2012 that the Department of Homeland Security is recording the communication metadata of journalists and buyers of metadata, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s monitoring of FOX News and Associated Press reporters’ phones, emails and personal movements, to the continuing drama surrounding the stealing and unauthorized disclosure of state secrets from Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the administration has taken an extraordinarily hard line against whistleblowing and investigative reporting.
This, however, has not been limited to American borders. In Jordan, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission has ordered the nation’s internet service providers to block more than 200 websites that do not comply with the nation’s newly-changed press and publications law — including al Jazeera, Time Out magazine and the Muslim Brotherhood of the Jordan site. Singapore and Russia have issued laws prohibiting the publication or public utterance of speech considered to be “promoting homosexual behavior” positively.
In the U.K., the editor of the Guardian has been called before Parliament to answer for the newspaper’s publication of leaked documents from former National Security Agency contractor Snowden, which exposed the depth both American and British intelligence surveil electronic communications at home and abroad.
“[There] is a war on journalism right now,” said Jeremy Scahill, producer of the documentary “Dirty Wars,” to Juan Gonzalez of “Democracy Now!” “[You] have, on the one hand, President Obama saying that his administration is going to be the most transparent in history and that they want to be friends with the press; and on the other hand, they are monitoring the metadata of journalists, they are seizing phone records, they’re trying to compel journalists to testify against their sources, they’re trying to figure out who journalists are talking to within government so that they can go and indict those people.”
Journalism under attack
This amounts to a chilling effect on new journalists who are seeking to take on investigative reporting. From June 2008 to June 2013, 456 journalists have been forced into exile worldwide — per the Committee to Protect Journalists. From 2000 to 2012, 1,801 reporters have been jailed for their coverage; 1,017 investigative journalists have been killed since 1992; 38 investigative reporters have been considered missing since 1995, without evidence to confirm death or final disposition.
This pullback from investigative journalism weakens one of society’s only true defenses against corruption and government malfeasance. The right of the public to be informed of the actions of government is — at least, in America — a firmly-defined tenet of the American identity. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press against governmental infringement, and it has been in this — the independent media — that scandals have been uncovered, presidencies ended and the malpractice of the nation’s elected officials was exposed.
However, with the demise of newspapers and the consolidation of the media companies, investigative journalism has — increasingly — been neglected by the major newsrooms. Due to steeply-declining revenue streams, most of the major print news operations have cut staff, ended daily editions or reduced their publication frequency, went partially or fully online or shutdown operations completely.
New Orleans does not have a daily newspaper anymore; Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., Harrisburg, Pa. and Syracuse, NY, do not have one either. In an era where newsroom budgets are closely-examined, regularly cut and stretched to abnormal proportions, amenities such as foreign news bureaus and reporters who can be afforded the time to do full investigations have increasingly been cut. In many communities, there is not a local investigative team, meaning that critical issues of local concern may go ignored in the national media.
“We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were,” opined Leonard Downie, Jr. for the Washington Post on the anniversary of the Watergate Scandal. “However, the impact of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized so much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities — but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it.”
“Hardly a week goes by without someone lamenting the death of investigative reporting,” wrote reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele in Nieman Reports. “Tis a familiar litany: The media are cutting back; crucial stories aren’t being covered; democracy will suffer.”
On the other side of the equation, as the television and Internet news outlets increasingly are absorbed into the major media conglomerates, avenues toward independent-minded reporting is lost. As the major conglomerates would generally frown against reporting that may hurt an advertiser or shine a poor light of a component of the multinational company, most conglomerate-owned newsrooms focus on consumer- or crime-based exposes and government investigations that are likely to boost ratings. As six companies — Comcast, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS — own more than 90 percent of the American media market, this leaves little room for hard-driving journalism.
Protecting the call for accountability
This leaves the responsibility for independent investigative journalists to the smaller newsroom and the citizen reporter. Increasingly, major stories and global events are not being broken by seasoned journalists, but by bloggers and non-reporters at the scene. The Arab Spring protests, for example, were primarily reported on and documented by individuals that lived in the regions — usually, with smartphones and dial-up Internet connections.
As the future of journalism is defined, the question of what value investigative journalism has in the current marketplace remains murky. While everyone would agree that investigative journalism is essential, few are sure what model should be used to sustain it. “Investigative nonprofits are being started all the time,” Downie continued. “But many of the fledgling sites are struggling to survive. Foundations that provide seed money seldom are interested in helping with long-term sustainability. Fundraising and membership drives must compete with other causes. Some start-ups have already failed. Others have had to cut costs and staff to stay alive.”
“Good journalism does not come cheap. The most powerful journalism — breakthrough journalism — can be shockingly expensive,” said Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, in 2008. “The first story in the Globeís Pulitzer-winning investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and a 40-year cover-up, was published in January 2002, but it required eight months of reporting and major litigation before a single word appeared in print.”
This country has a strong history of independent, investigative reporting, starting with investigations and public questions concerning unfair British taxation in the 1600s, and including some of the most memorable and poignant examples of inclusive investigating — including revelations concerning the nation’s meat supply at the turn of the twentieth century, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s internment of Japanese-Americans, the Tuskegee Experiments, Watergate and the recent NSA disclosures, to name a few.
The independent media is needed — not only in the U.S., but worldwide — to bring violations against humanity to light and to lend a voice to the victimized. If society is to protect that legacy and ensure that the most sacred of the people’s protections stay intact, a conscious effort to protect and to provide for this type of journalism must be demanded and provided for.