After substantial historic research I began assembling an initial list of some of the most notable, living national reporters and editors since 1950. And in 2007 and 2008, after raising approximately $300,000 from foundations and individuals, I began conducting high definition, two-camera audio and video recorded interviews with some of them. Time moves rapidly, and this gave me a sense of urgency. David Halberstam, for example, told me he’d be delighted to participate, but just a few days later he was tragically killed in an automobile accident. Finally, after accumulating 100 hours of video, my team and I began screening and editing the interviews in early 2010, and compiling biographical profile and historic “moment of truth” timelines.
The result is an online, multimedia presentation called Investigating Power, Twenty-six men and women—including the late Halberstam, Rachel Carson, and I.F. Stone—are profiled in it. They are journalists who have asked difficult, inconvenient questions and helped expose some of the most significant abuses of power of our time. It is a work-in-progress that will become more thorough and inclusive over the next decade, as more journalist oral history interviews are conducted.
It is my hope that Investigating Power reminds us of the fundamental necessity of original reporting. Facts are the coin of the realm in a democracy. As Walter Lippmann put it, “A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society. Without criticism and reliable and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern.”
It is worth noting that all of the great “truth to power” moments in contemporary US history required reporters working a single subject for months and sometimes years, the kind of protracted, in-depth coverage of a single subject, and dedication of financial resources by a news organization, that can be hard to find now.
For example, one of those interviewed, Murrey Marder of The Washington Post, chronicled and scrutinized Joseph McCarthy’s every utterance and official action for four solid years, performing in-depth daily journalism. His stories were “detailed and precise and events were all in context,” as Edwin Bayley noted in Joe McCarthy and the Press. Marder’s reporting helped to set up the dramatic Army-McCarthy hearings, the first “live” nationally televised Congressional hearings in history, in which Army counsel Joseph Welch famously said, “Let us not assassinate this lad any further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Months earlier, Marder had broken a “dramatic story” in the Post about McCarthy’s reckless charge portraying the Army Signal Corps Center in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, “as a hotbed of Communism and espionage.” According to David Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, Marder reported: “Nothing that can be independently ascertained from information available here or in Washington indicates that there is any known evidence to support such a conclusion.”
And of course four decades ago, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began reporting the Watergate scandal, and continued on that story for more than two and a half years. A special Watergate editor, Barry Sussman, oversaw every word of every story on that complex subject published by The Washington Post for 17 months.
With sufficient additional funding, I plan to continue interviewing historically significant journalists, and, by 2015 to expand the number of profiles and “moment of truth” timelines and video interviews on this site to include more than 40 important journalists active since 1950, and to develop a documentary and a book using this material. The project has evolved into a public way to honor these important truth-tellers and the legions of other hearty, less heralded souls like them, and to educate current and future generations about the importance of this kind of fearless, original, independent reporting. Reporters are the canaries in the mineshaft of our democracy. We lose them at our collective peril.