Scoops and Other Revelations
The freedom to break “news” energizes journalism and democracy. But breaking new ideas often matters even more. Without ideas that are more flexible and dynamic than the dominant ideologies and conventional wisdom of the day, the deluge of new information and data points scrambles old ways of thinking but doesn’t produce any real public “intelligence;” it just overwhelms the interpretations of unfolding events that effective public decision-making requires.
For most journalists, breaking new ideas is a daunting challenge that they’d rather not meet. Writing on tight deadlines about situations they’re thrown into without much preparation, they have to rely on whatever story lines are already in their heads — in other words, on the conventional wisdom or, depending on the news outlet, a dominant ideology). Such familiar story lines can make the reporting seem sensible enough to readers or viewers who are busy and/or who want their preconceptions confirmed or at least accommodated. But recycling or dramatizing the dominant story lines doesn’t strengthen public give-and-take or, with it, democracy.
Often these days, the events being reported upset the conventional wisdom, as the attacks of 9/11 surely did in the United States and as the near-meltdown of the U.S. economy did during the 2008 presidential campaign, and as did the Tea Party and Republican capture of the debt-ceiling process after 2010. At such times, the best lose all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, as W.B. Yeats put it, and serious journalists — if there are any — have no choice but to try to lead, not just follow. That’s when journalism really does become “the first rough draft of history:” Writers like Orwell, in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, look not just for “news” but for better interpretive lenses or story lines that help them to notice, alert others to, and explain developments that the old wisdom would have missed or denied.
To make sound judgments about what really matters, reporters need to be able to draw on historical memory and some philosophical dispositions. They need to have a sense of context that‘s rich as well as clear. That’s why the best preparation for journalism is a strong liberal education.
Here are some of my experiences of situations in which historical memory and informed judgment benefited me as a reporter or commentator and, I’d like to think, members of the public who encountered my work.
1. Exposing Election Fraud in an Historic Black Congressional Race.
The first instance is the most conventional. It was the first time I understood how to break news. It came one Saturday morning in 1982, when I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a Village Voice writer. There I found supporters of Brooklyn State Senator Vander Beatty “checking” voter registration cards in a Democratic primary election for the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm‘s historic Bedford Stuyvesant congressional seat — a crucial primary election which Beatty had just lost to a far more worthy State Senate colleague, Major R. Owens. Beatty, a classic “povertycrat” whose anti-racist rhetoric had secured him some protection by the corrupt, mostly white Democratic Party machine and by a timid white liberal elite, had been endorsed in the primary by the New York Times.
What the Beatty assistants whom I saw at the Board of Education were really doing was forging signatures on the voter-registration cards they were supposedly checking. Beatty‘s lawyers would then submit these Saturday morning forgeries to a judge as evidence that Owens had rigged the votes on Election Day. Beatty would sue to invalidate Owens’ victory.
I hadn‘t just stumbled upon these shenanigans that Saturday morning at the Board of Elections by accident. A political operative who knew people on both sides, and with whom I’d had many conversations about the election, called to tip me off. He didn‘t need to explain much on the phone: A Voice cover story of mine on Beatty‘s long record of corruption had been published before the primary and had played some role in Owens‘ victory. All he had to say was, “Get your ass down to the Board of Elections and see what the Beatty people are doing.”
I’d already had to defend my blockbuster Voice expose of Beatty on the local NPR station just before the election. (One vehement Beatty supporter who called in to argue that my story was an example of white manipulation of the election was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who I’d later get to know very well.) But if I hadn‘t rushed down to the Board that Saturday and known what to expect when I arrived, Beatty would have won his suit in Brooklyn‘s compliant (indeed, complicit), machine-dominated judiciary. And black politics in Shirley Chisholm‘s district would have taken an emblematically disastrous turn.
So a lot was at stake in my new Voice story about what I’d found. “Look at it this way,” said my tipster; “[Beatty] is either going to jail or he‘s going to Congress.”
The party machine‘s hack judges did rule for Beatty at first, anyway, in the local and appellate courts. But my reporting stoked a controversy about that. The Times’ Sydney Schanberg read it and alerted the rest of the world in his op-ed page column. That did it: The Democratic Party and the courts began to bend. They started to do what they’d supposedly had been established to do in the first place. New York‘s highest court overturned the rulings. Owens, who said that throughout his months-long post-election ordeal he’d felt as if he‘d been in Mississippi.
Owens went to Congress, served honorably, and retired in 2006. Beatty was convicted in federal court a few years later of corruption unrelated to his election scheme. In 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. It‘s all in four stories linked here.
The experience of trying for months to alert others to Beatty‘s malfeasance taught me something important about journalistic storytelling: Even bona-fide scoops may not interest most news media if a story comes from the wrong side of the tracks and its larger implications aren‘t made bluntly clear.
A would-be truth-teller has to persist against conventional wisdom and indifference. Sometimes only an advocacy journalist will keep at it, inflamed by commitment to get the truth out against others’ indifference, self-interest, or prejudice. Even a highly professional journalist may not have the motivation, or be given adequate resources, unless he or she makes a strenuous effort to summon them.
I learned, too, that even persistence can fail if a writer hasn‘t enough historical memory and sound judgment to find the “story” in a deluge of impressions. People will resist facing even incontrovertible evidence if its implications are counter-intuitive and therefore seem to them to “make no sense”. That‘s what happens when readers lack an interpretive story line that explains why the facts matter. They have to trust the journalist to “break” sound new ideas as well as news itself. In the Beatty case, selling the story meant shattering white indulgence of black corruption by persuading readers of the need for reformers like Owens.
Could a Twitter strategy by the Owens camp have accomplished what only an investigative reporter like me was able to accomplish in 1982? Only if the Owens volunteers were trained and organized to do more than just swoop down on the Board of Elections and get into fights with the Beatty operatives who were forging signatures. There would still have been a need for well-informed reporting and for a communications strategy to sort out the mess and make it clear to the larger society that, wittingly or not, had a stake in the outcome.
2. Blocking a dubious indictment of a future national leader.
News of serious flaws in the preparation of a pending indictment of New York Congressman (now Senator) Charles Schumer in 1982 fell into my lap wholly through a conflict of interest of my own. That made the story very hard for me to report. Indeed, I wound up having to report it not as a journalist but as a lonely citizen, writing unpaid guest columns for a small Brooklyn weekly, The Prospect Press.
The problem was that no other journalist seemed engaged or motivated enough to report the story at all, partly because it involved malfeasance by other journalists: The reason I couldn‘t tell the story in the Village Voice — where I’d been freelancing regularly, as in the Beatty-Owens election recounted above — was that Voice writers there were involved in trying to gin up an indictment of Schumer, whom they disliked intensely for not being “progressive” enough. It was they who’d urged his prosecution upon an ambitious and receptive young U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, Edward Korman, who’d recently brought down Congressman Fred Richmond, as described in one of the Voice essays linked in “A Sleeper Sampler” and elsewhere on this site.
My Voice colleagues and the prosecutor were pursuing the case for moralistic and personal reasons with scant legal justification. I knew this only for a reason that undermined my own credibility, though: My girlfriend was working in Schumer‘s office and was giving me the other side of the story.
Not surprisingly, the only people inclined to believe my account were those who had reasons of their own to distrust the Voice muckrakers and/or the U.S. Attorney. To grasp the injustice of the case, one had to shed the righteousness of “white hat” muckrakers. You had to know that the criminal justice system itself is highly susceptible to abuse if its skeleton of laws lacks a “cartilage” of extra-legal trust and integrity among prosecutors.
My columns in The Prospect Press, the small neighborhood weekly, were handed around and played a role in alerting people in the Justice Department and the courts to the flaws in the indictment. It was dropped before being formally brought, but only after a lot of publicity and controversy.
Ironically, the probe had been instigated not only by partisan Republicans but also by leftist muckrakers, and it was closed down by senior Reagan Justice Department officials after Schumer’s attorney, Arthur Liman (later the Democratic counsel to the congressional Iran-Contra commission) went to Washington and confronted them with the bizarre truth about the inquiry.
Twenty five years later, in 2007, I had a reason to tell the whole story of the Schumer case again as Schumer, by then on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was investigating the Bush Administration‘s efforts to politicize U.S. Attorneys‘ prosecutions of Democrats. Again, the “cartilage” of trust and professionalism had worn thin, but by 2007 I must have been the only reporter to recall that Schumer had been the victim of a politicized, prosecutorial investigation.
Schumer has many faults, and he can certainly be criticized robustly by people to his left as well as his right. But trying to “nail” him — as the Voice reporters crowed to one another that they were doing — through selective prosecution for a minor indiscretion that many of their’ own heroes were also committing, was a miscarriage of journalism.
3. Exposing a pundit’s primary colors
In 1996, as people puzzled over the identity of the anonymous author of a political sizzler of a novel Primary Colors, which was scathing in its revelations about a fictional president who was obviously meant to represent Bill Clinton, I had an intensely strong hunch that the author was Joe Klein, then a prominent Newsweek columnist and television commentator.
I called Washington Post media columnist William Powers with my claim that Klein was “Anonymous”. Powers‘ column published the charge, which I kept reaffirming even after Klein’s vehement denials had convinced most people in the news media that he hadn’t written the book. (“It wasn‘t me; I didn‘t do it,” he told CBS News flatly. For the same broadcast, CBS had taped me insisting it was Klein, but his denial was so firm that CBS didn’t run my part of its footage.)
So I wrote a column that began, “May I remind Joe ‘I didn‘t do it‘ Klein of O.J. Simpson‘s vow that he will ‘leave no stone unturned‘ until he finds Nicole Brown Simpson‘s killer?…. If Klein didn‘t write Primary Colors, let him devote his far-more-considerable investigative skills to finding the author.”
No one would publish that column; I was only freelancing at the time, and this was well before blogging, so I had literally no recourse, no way to make my argument in public unless I could persuade someone else in the media to run with it. Had I been able to post my column in TPM, as I would now, it might have generated some open debate and collaborative investigation, but because I wasn’t able to do that, and my arguments lost traction. Only months later, when a reporter discovered the novel’s original paper manuscript with Klein‘s handwriting on it, did he confess that, yes, he’d written the novel and had lied about it.
What had made me so sure of his authorship all along? Again, memory and judgment played an important part. I’d read Klein‘s columns in New York magazine in the late 1980s, and I remembered his characteristic locutions and obsessions about liberals and race – tropes that popped up in the novel.
So when I saw an op-ed column in the Baltimore Sun by David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, voicing a suspicion similar to mine about Klein, I read the novel closely, and Klein just leapt off the page: At one point, when the novel recounts the maunderings of a feckless, aging hippie-cum-leftie holdover from the 1960s, Klein’s narrator can’t help thinking, “Yikes.” The minute I saw the word in that context, I said, “That’s Joe!” and called Bill Powers, whose Post column introduced the “Kusnet/Sleeper theory” that Klein was the author. (Klein, still in public denial, left me an exasperated voice-mail message: “Jim, I don‘t have a patent on the word ̳Yikes‘!”)
Again, though, as in the Beatty case recounted above, most journalists, having accepted KIein‘s denials, weren‘t as open as Powers to a literary cross-examination like mine. I had ventured into a gray area, after all, in which I “knew” the truth thanks to memory, some literary acumen, and political judgment, but couldn’t actually prove that someone hadn’t done a brilliant job of copying Klein’s style. Only months later, when the discovery of Klein’s notes on his own manuscript forced him to confess his authorship at a press conference with Random House‘s Harry Evans, did I have the satisfaction of being there and watching him look away. In a Wall Street Journal column published soon after that (It’s on the pdf with the Powers column that’s linked above,) I offered my interpretation of why he‘d lied so vigorously and what I thought was at stake for journalism and politics in the lie.
4. Somewhere over the Rainbow
A lot of my work involves not breaking news but trying to scope out societal learning curves, a little ahead of their time. The matter of how our interpretive frames rise and fall is as interesting to me as the facts we weave into those frames. As a Daily News columnist in the summer of 1993, I ―knew,” not from polls but from years of immersion in black and white-ethnic neighborhoods in the city’s outer boroughs, that Rudolph Giuliani would defeat New York‘s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, in that fall‘s election.
The Daily News columns I wrote about the mayoral campaigns became pretty insistent and combative, cutting against the conventional grain, as in the Schumer and Klein stories.
Shortly before Giuliani won, I enlarged my frame of reference and analysis by comparing New York‘s electoral upheavals with those in other cities. A cover story in The New Republic was the first time that my “breaking” a new idea and a new interpretation, instead of just news, became national news in itself.
That set off a long train of columns, reviews, and appearances in which I challenged liberal as well as conservative racial thinking. Some of that thinking was racialist in an obsessive, piously doting way that reinforces racism itself; some of it was ideologically leftist and reductionist in assigning blacks revolutionary roles that very few of them sought or fulfilled.
Almost all such bad thinking presumed that having a skin color automatically means having a “culture.” In 1997 I wrote Liberal Racism against that assumption. The book prompted interviews on NPR and with The Atlantic and many debates, plunging me deeper into arguments and acrimony, sometimes on Charlie Rose and in NPR commentaries, sometimes in the columns, essays, and reviews filed on this site in the section on race, with additional reflections on the subject.
One scoop in this vein required visiting the Rockefeller Foundation archives in Tarrytown, NY to look into the background of Prof. Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York, whose diatribes about Jewish complicity in the slave trade had been fanning a spark of truth into a political conflagration. I read letters and memos written by Jeffries’ early funders and enablers and wrote a not-wholly unsympathetic column in the Race Doctors at City College, Daily News, in 1993, but in The Nation I admonished some on the left for indulging him.
5. Another side of September 11, 2001 – and of November, 1948.
Bringing memory and judgment to bear on news sometimes yields small discoveries that others persist in ignoring. Shortly after the ordeal of New York firefighters on 9/11, I noticed that their department emblem, the Maltese Cross, is a relic of medieval battles between the Knights of Malta, who were Christian Crusaders, and Muslim Saracens trying to block their way to the Holy Land. That seemed a haunting precedent given George W. Bush‘s brief characterization of the confrontation with Islamicist terrorists as a “crusade.” But, perhaps because he hastily dropped the term and the implicit analogy, no one ever mentioned the fire-fighters’ Maltese Cross. To read about it, scroll down to the third column on this link, from The New York Observer.
Similarly, Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott‘s fateful praise in 2002 of Strom Thurmond‘s racist, Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948 against Harry Truman unleashed a deluge of commentary about the implications of that campaign, which had nearly cost Truman the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. But no 2002 news analysis or commentary about the 1948 election mentioned an important “fourth party” in the 1948 election, this one on the left, that had also endangered Truman by drawing away liberal Democrats just as Thurmond was drawing away conservatives.
When the History News Network published my account of the Communist-backed presidential bid of Henry Wallace, who had been FDR‘s vice-president for a term, nothing happened. No news analyst or columnist who‘d written about the 1948 campaign made a correction. The silence seemed a result of sheer dissonance, given the eagerness to nail the racists Thurmond and Lott, but also perhaps a touch of professional embarrassment at having missed the full story of Truman‘s near-defeat.
6. Forebodings about the New York Times
I found myself writing about journalism itself in a Daily News column in 1994 that explained why the New York Times’ then-editorial-page editor Howell Raines was bad for the paper and for journalism. Raines is a talented man with large flaws, including a penitential Southern anti-racism that gets tangled up in its own moralism, as I’d argued in 1994.
I said it again at length in 1997 in Liberal Racism, in a chapter called “Media Myopia.” But my intuitions about him were confirmed only 10 years after the News column, when Raines was consumed by the scandalously false reporting of Jayson Blair on his watch as executive editor, were my intuitions confirmed.
By the time of his editorial demise in the Blair affair I was no longer at the News, but I did write an ―I told you so‖ in the Hartford Courant (it follows the Daily News column in the link here) that was linked at sites such as Slate and reprinted, even in the Jerusalem Post, which had its own, neo-connish reasons for highlighting a crisis at a liberal newspaper.
7. The cheapest kind of flattery.
The Raines flap had an ironic twist that prompts a final observation: Interpretive scoops that break new ideas as well as facts are very easily stolen. When 18 paragraphs of a Washington Post review I’d written of Marshall Frady‘s biography of Jesse Jackson wound up under someone else‘s byline a few weeks later in the San Francisco Chronicle, the reasons were instructive, if depressing.
Here is my review, with accounts (by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and by Dwight Garner, now himself a book reviewer for the New York Times) of how the review was plagiarized. Some years later, in a Hartford Courant column that’s the second of the pdf’s here, I had occasion to recount a bit of what was at stake in this sad experience.
8. Early warnings about Rupert Murdoch’s assault on the American Republic
Long before the recent scandals involving phone-hacking by Murdoch reporters in Britain, I showed, in a series of widely noted pieces, that Rupert Murdoch’s journalism poisons every body politic it touches. In 2007, when he was about to acquire The Wall Street Journal, I wrote two scathing posts in TPM and one in The Guardian, the British paper that would break a key story in the phone hacking scandal in 2011. In one TPM post, “Rupert vs. the Republic,” I cited a warning by a brave Wall Street Journal reporter. In another, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” I took apart a fawning profile of Murdoch by a reporter for TIME magazine.
After the scandals of 2011 broke, I showed again — this time in Dissent and TPM — why Murdoch’s journalism would still be a danger even if his reporters had never broken a single law, paid a single police officer, or corrupted a single politician, as they have done so often. It’s important to understand this distinction, because too much of what Murdoch outlets to do legally is also done by other media companies. As the title of the Dissent essay reads: It’s not a scandal, but a syndrome. At TPM, I expanded on what the British bombshells about Murdoch’s operations really reveal, and what’s at stake in the scandals. And I excoriated and rewarded some of Murdoch’s apologists and critics at the New York Times.