The Boston Phoenix
July 23 - 30, 1998

[Don't Quote Me]

Truth and consequences

The current outcry over sleazy media ethics makes it all too easy to discredit investigative reporting

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

These are heady days for corrupt government officials, sleazy businesspeople, and other time-honored targets of investigative journalists. Thanks to a series of well-documented ethical crises, news organizations today are held in remarkably low esteem.

Critics, naturally, are gleeful that the arrogant media are finally getting their comeuppance. But though the public is right to be disgusted by the unsubstantiated sensationalism of the CNN-Time nerve-gas fiasco and the fabrications of Stephen Glass and Patricia Smith, there's a real danger that one of the media's most vital functions -- telling unpleasant, unpopular truths about government and institutions -- is being irreparably compromised.

Major scandals such as these aside, there's plenty of good work being done. But press-bashers find it far more satisfying to nitpick over ethical misdemeanors and minor reporting errors than to consider the greater truths that are at issue. Witness self-appointed watchdog Steven Brill, who, in the debut issue of his Brill's Content, attempted to discredit a serious investigation of Bill Clinton by charging -- not very convincingly -- that it was driven by illegal leaks to the press. If that mentality had prevailed a quarter-century ago, Woodward and Bernstein would have been vilified for their reliance on Deep Throat, and Richard Nixon could have relaxed through the remaining years of his outlaw presidency.

These developments are tragic, because investigative reporting occupies such a delicate position. Early in the century it enjoyed a brief flowering, with muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell taking on John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil monopoly and Upton Sinclair exposing the filth and dangers of the meatpacking industry. For the most part, however, the press before Woodward and Bernstein had been toadies to power. The brave few who spoke out against racism, McCarthyism, and foreign adventurism, such as George Seldes and I.F. Stone, were forced to the sidelines, publishing courageous but little-read newsletters. Watergate brought muckraking back into vogue, but it's been on the decline since the 1980s, and it could easily be snuffed out altogether as the profit-driven megacorporations that control the news business decide it just isn't worth the hassle.

A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.

The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb's conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports' flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.

Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you're a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.

In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb's central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.

In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb's reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency "continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs." At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.

Even more disturbing is the case of Michael Gallagher, fired by the Cincinnati Enquirer last month after the paper claimed -- in an extraordinary front-page apology published on three consecutive days -- that Gallagher's massive May series on the Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International was largely based on voice-mail messages that Gallagher stole from Chiquita's corporate offices. The Enquirer paid Chiquita more than $10 million, and Gallagher could go to prison.

Now, Gallagher had no right to break the law and lie about it to his editors, if that's indeed what he did. But it's deeply troubling that the paper, owned by the notoriously gutless Gannett, the country's largest newspaper chain, caved so quickly, especially since no one other than Chiquita -- and even then only in vague, generic terms -- has questioned Gallagher's and colleague Cameron McWhirter's findings. Among other things, Gallagher and McWhirter reported that Chiquita engaged in sleazy and possibly illegal real-estate deals in Guatemala and Colombia to get around foreign-ownership restrictions, and that it used dangerous pesticides that are banned in the United States and Europe, a practice that may have killed an 18-year-old Chiquita-subsidiary employee in Costa Rica.

At least in this case, the Times took serious notice of the substance of Gallagher's reporting. In a lengthy front-page follow-up last Friday headlined CHIQUITA STILL UNDER CLOUD AFTER NEWSPAPER'S RETREAT, the paper noted that Chiquita is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and that "no one has disputed the authenticity of the voice mail and internal Chiquita records that formed the basis for the most sensational allegations." More typical, though, was Friday's Wall Street Journal, which led with a story on the Enquirer series that read like a whodunit, starring vigilant Chiquita executives ferreting out the journalistic intruder in their midst.

Bruce Shapiro, who teaches investigative reporting at Yale, put it this way in Salon: "Amid all these serious charges of lawbreaking and exploitation on a transnational scale, it is Mike Gallagher -- fired, sued, and awaiting a grand jury subpoena -- who is being written about as a criminal." An indignant Daniel Schorr, who was forced out of CBS in 1976 for leaking secret congressional testimony about CIA misdeeds to the Village Voice, asserted on National Public Radio: "This is another great blow to investigative journalism. No Pulitzer has ever been awarded to a journalist in jail, but that time may come."

Probably not, actually. Unfortunately for Gallagher, the public is deeply ambivalent about -- even hostile toward -- tough investigative journalism that exposes important truths through unethical or illegal means. The Gallagher case is just the most spectacular recent example.

In 1996, a federal jury awarded $5.5 million to the Food Lion supermarket chain because ABC News employees had lied to obtain jobs so they could shoot hidden-camera video of unsanitary food-handling practices. (The reward was later reduced by the judge.) The footage was used to bolster a PrimeTime Live report that shopping at Food Lion could be hazardous to one's health -- an assertion that was never seriously challenged. Thus, a legal principle was established that held it is never permissible for a journalist to misrepresent himself, even if the story that results could prevent illness or even death.

That dangerous precedent was reinforced a few weeks ago, when a federal jury in Bangor, Maine, awarded $525,000 to a truck driver and his employers, ruling that NBC journalists had committed negligence and misrepresentation by sweet-talking the trucker into letting them ride along and then doing a piece exposing safety hazards. Dateline NBC reported that the driver called his log "a joke book," explaining that he faked entries so that he could evade laws regulating the number of hours a trucker could be on the road. Never mind that a commuter in Boston would presumably have an interest in knowing that the driver of the tractor-trailer bearing down on her hadn't pulled his rig over since leaving Chicago, as was the case with the driver profiled by Dateline.

The ethics of investigative reporting have long been the subject of debate. In the 1970s, for example, the Chicago Sun-Times touched off a huge public outcry when it covertly opened a small bar and reported on the public officials who paraded through looking for bribes. The Sun-Times' 25-part series won national attention, but not a Pulitzer, and the ethical questions raised by the newspaper's going undercover were cited as a principal reason for why it was shut out. But it's one thing to conclude that the ends don't justify the means when it comes to awarding the profession's most prestigious prize. It's quite another to "criminalize journalism," as Daniel Schorr puts it -- to place outside of legal boundaries reporting techniques that certainly aren't pretty, but that are sometimes necessary to bring the truth to light.

It has not always been thus. In his autobiography Double Vision (Beacon Press, 1995), Ben Bagdikian recounts the skullduggery involved in his obtaining the Pentagon Papers for the Washington Post: the clandestine meeting with State Department leaker Daniel Ellsberg, the furtive discussions with Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, the conferences with lawyers, the screaming matches. Everyone knew the Post might be breaking the law -- possibly several laws. But in the end, publisher Katharine Graham sided with Bradlee and Bagdikian, ruling that the public's need to know about the government's shameful secret history of the Vietnam War overrode any other interests.

"Katharine Graham's last-minute decision took courage," Bagdikian wrote. "She did it knowing that her decision would enrage a ruthless White House that already hated her and her paper."

Graham, thankfully, still presides over the Washington Post. Unfortunately, her values now seem like those of a distant era.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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