Praising and Preserving the Muckraking Spirit
Muckraking: The Journalism that Changed America
Edited by Judith and William Serrin
The New Press 392 pages; $25
Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
Edited by Kristina Borjesson
Prometheus Books 392 pages; $26
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
How ironic that these two books arrive on my desk the same day, one celebrating muckraking's abiding glories, the other lamenting its supposed descent in the face of conglomerated media cowardice.
How could such opposite analyses reach print at the same time? Which is closer to truth?
One lesson of journalism, and probably of life in general, is that seeming contradictions can be simultaneously true. These two volumes illustrate the point: Muckrakers still ride, but their position is fragile.
The Serrins' book, "Muckraking," makes a powerful statement simply by reprinting dozens of investigations and underlining their impact. "Today, almost everything written about journalism is negative," the editors write. But, they believe, "it is also true that journalism has, throughout the centuries, and continuing today, made America better.... What we hope to do is to remind journalists, historians, and the readers and viewers...that doing journalism is honorable and that honorable journalism can do good."
Their examples go back almost three centuries and include many classics: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on "swill milk" killing schoolchildren (1858), Nellie Bly on a New York City "mad-house" (1887), Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil (1905), Seymour Hersh on My Lai (1969), and Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate (1972). More current examples also appear: Houston's KHOU-TV on Ford-Firestone tire deaths, the Miami Herald on local vote fraud, St. Paul's Pioneer Press on cheating in the University of Minnesota sports program, Newsday on Bosnian death camps. (Readers should know that the editors single out an AJR article on speaking fees for reporters. See "Talk Is Expensive," May 1994.)
Naturally, any such listing dares us to second-guess. I regret that the authors almost totally overlook the past decade's groundbreaking computer-assisted investigations. Another problem is that many entries are excerpted rather than printed in full. Perhaps that is inevitable, but it means you lose the sense of the whole and the flow of the writing.
Still, the book succeeds in reinforcing faith that the journalist-as-reformer has long been, and still is, a mighty force.
"Into the Buzzsaw," on the other hand, draws on the outrage of journalists who see a pernicious trend away from hard-hitting coverage. They describe news organizations as increasingly intimidated by legal threats, as too cozy with government and as reluctant to invest precious resources in low-output, big-trouble journalistic adventurism.
Borjesson, an Emmy-winning producer who has worked for CBS and CNN, writes that "investigative reporting is dwindling...because it is expensive, attracts lawsuits, and can be hostile to the corporate interests and/or government connections of a news division's parent company."
The book's 18 contributors provide what Borjesson calls "candid behind-the-scenes views of what's happening in American journalism today."
Some are familiar figures defending their beleaguered work: April Oliver, who lost her job at CNN over its controversial Tailwind report on the possible U.S. use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War (see "An Ill Tailwind," September 1998); and Gary Webb, whose own paper, the San Jose Mercury News, published and then apologized for "shortcomings" in his report on possible CIA connections to drug selling in Los Angeles (see "The Web That Gary Spun," January/February 1997).
Others tell less-well known but troubling stories:
• J. Robert Port details a 17-month battle to persuade Associated Press executives to publish evidence of an American massacre during the Korean War.
• Michael Levine, DEA agent-turned-journalist, deplores the mainstream media's neglect of his chilling allegations about illegal acts by the CIA and U.S. drug warriors.
• Three different journalists outline disturbing dissembling by the government and military over concern that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by friendly fire in 1996--and the media's reluctance to seriously engage the matter.
Evaluating these issues gets extremely tricky. Some of the writers seem disgruntled. Their pieces tell only their sides of the story. Investigative reporters as a class are prone to becoming fixated, almost paranoid. Some of the seeming faint-heartedness that so irks them is perfectly appropriate quality control by editors wanting to get things right.
Yet "Into the Buzzsaw," with its uncomfortable insider detail, does leave you concerned that squeamishness may be rising. Challenging the status quo requires ever-higher energy costs and career risk from journalists.
An ominous undertone is the possible connection between press inattention and the events surrounding September 11. As Michael Levine puts it in his chapter: "Did mainstream media...shill for an inept and bumbling FBI and CIA in a campaign to convince Americans that our homeland defense was in the most capable hands possible when, in fact, the Boy Scouts of America might have done a better job?"
These are just the kind of disquieting questions we depend on muckrakers to pursue. Investigative reporters can be hard-headed, inflamed, over-the-top. They push beyond what seems reasonable. They are not always right, but their tenacity and bravado lead to stories that otherwise might never be told. They are cultural irritants whose role is indispensable but possibly imperiled.
"If you want a watchdog to warn you of intruders," the late journalist Alan Barth once wrote, "you must put up with a certain amount of mistaken barking." These two books reaffirm the worth of both the bark, and occasional bite, of the muckrakers.###