Think Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman on the big screen as Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame. Think My Lai massacre, Love Canal.
Think Ford Pinto.
If you haven’t given investigative journalism a whole lot of thought lately, you might want to start. Because in the past it’s been an integral part of America’s civic life, it’s natural to assume its out there alive and well like some kind of invisible democratic force field, but the reality is that along with the rest of journalism, everything about investigative journalism has changed virtually overnight. Turns out it’s going to need a new business model.
Good to know that there are people out there working on just that.
Last month The Village Square was honored to co-sponsor a Florida State University visit to Tallahassee from Paul Steiger of ProPublica, the giant in the business of investigative journalism in the public interest. Steiger visited us on a big week for his organization as they had just won their second Pulitzer Prize. Steiger himself is also a giant in the business, having retired from 16 years as the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal to start ProPublica.
These are the people who do the painstaking sleuthing with so many dead-ends and loop-the-loops that it raises the cost of the sleuthing well beyond what is currently feasible in the bottom line of today’s struggling publications. From this work, we learn what the public in a democracy should know, the kind of information that protects us as individuals, families, as a people. ProPublica makes this work available, usually at no cost, to the giants in the business of journalism. They even pull a fairy godmother from time to time and pick up investigative work dropped by other journalists who found themselves in a time or money pinch.
Bottom line: ProPublica is important.
A scan of ProPublica’s front page today and we learn actual facts on what we know about torture’s role in finding Bin Laden, that eliminating Big Oil subsidies won’t change gas prices, that the NRC is waiving fire safety rules at nuclear power plants. They do important work like explaining the forces behind the Wall Street meltdown.
We’ve had a good test run lately of where civic decision-making goes when people don’t pay much attention to what is factually true. But what if it the sources of verifiable objective truth were just gone?
Very smart people – among them the The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation which has provided us major funding these past two years – have spent vast resources making sure investigative journalism survives journalism’s current asteroid hit. But efforts like ProPublica still rely heavily on major support of such foundation and philanthropic donors and are looking to diversify their funding.
Ultimately, it will be about what we value as a society. We clearly have public relations campaigns out the yin yang. We’ve got press releases and image consultants and 24 hour talk, talk, talk, talk. The cockroaches tend to naturally survive a catastrophic climate change. But where are we going to get the good information, part of what has been the concrete foundation of our American tradition?
A democracy has to know things.