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Dan Rather’s delusion and ours: The myth of the investigative reporter. 9/23/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Investigative journalism.

There’s important learning about the future of news that needs to be captured before Dan Rather descends any further into self-parody (see Jeff Jarvis). Rather’s career was up-ended by investigative journalism gone bad. But the hard truth is that investigative journalism was never any good.

Investigative journalism began in 1835 as part-marketing gimmick, part-freak show, when flamboyant NY Herald editor James Gordon Bennett came-up with the outlandish idea that untrained reporters might do better than detectives in solving a crime. And not just any crime, but the kind of titillating crime that all of us, particularly the downscale, still love to see in the news – the violent murder of a prostitute.

Since then, investigative journalism has had a mixed record at best. It is true that hard-digging reporters famously exposed corruption within NYC’s Democratic Party machine (“Tammany Hall”) in the 1870’s. But lacking the rules or restraints of our legal systems, this type of journalism has likely done more harm than good, often destroying the careers and personal lives of innocents. Moreover, in recent decades, investigative journalism has been less about the hard and tedious work of true investigators, and more about simply giving disgruntled sources access to the artificially scarce resource of mass media communications — that’s just about all the journalism “heroics” of Watergate and Enron ever really were. High-ranking, iaw-breaking, and federal investigation-leaking Mark “Deep Throat” Felt made Woodward and Bernstein. The work of whistleblower Sherron Watkins made Enron.

Until j-schools teach courses in criminal, medical, financial, and computer forensics, and news outlets build libraries, labs, and massive amounts of journalism research time into their budgets, there is no reason for the public to believe in investigative journalism. Those like Dan Rather foolish enough to do so will continue to stumble over manual typewriters, kook sources, the multitudes of forensic experts now watching over the Internet, and just about everything else.


1. John Moore - 9/24/07

J-schools also need to teach math and science, so when J’s report on those subjects, they aren’t as confused or as susceptible to manipulation and FUD. Case in point: reporting on global warming.

2. Kediretswe Pule - 10/6/07

i am a Massters student of media & communication in the nelson mandela metro university. i am doing a project on investigative journalism. would you please send me document/material on the history of investigative journalism.

Kediretswe pule
P.o Box 77 000
Port Elizabeth
South Africa

3. Steve Boriss - 10/6/07

Kediretswe, I would recommend reading the passages on investigative journalism in this book, “The History of News” by Mitchell Stephens. Earlier editions were called “The History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite.” There is not a lot about history of investigative journalism in there, but what is in there is very, very good.

4. andar909 - 8/10/08

hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

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