Jason Riley is a young reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Along with a fellow reporter, R.G. Dunlop, he won a Polk award this year for a series on dysfunction in the county courts, in which hundreds of felony cases dating back to 1983 were lost and never resolved. Riley and Dunlop’s series was a classic example of enterprise reporting: poking around the courthouse, Riley came across one felony case that had been open for several years. That led to more cases, then to a drawer full of open cases. No one was complaining, at least publicly, about this problem. In a first draft, Riley wrote that the system was flawed because it let cases fall off the docket and just disappear for years. “I didn’t think it needed attribution because it was the conclusion I had drawn after six months of investigation,” he writes in an e-mail. But his editor sent it back with a note: “Says who?”
In a follow-up profile of the county’s lead prosecutor, a man Riley has covered for three years, many sources would not criticize the prosecutor on the record. He “knew what people thought of him, knew what his strengths and weaknesses were,” Riley says. “Since no one was openly discussing issues surrounding him, I raised many in my profile without attribution.” Again his editors hesitated. There were discussions about the need to remain objective. “Some of my conclusions and questions were left out because no one else brought them up on the record,” he says.
Riley discovered a problem on his own, reported the hell out of it, developed an understanding of the situation, and reached some conclusions based on that. No official sources were speaking out about it, so he felt obliged to fill that void. Is that bias? Good reporters do it, or attempt to do it, all the time. The strictures of objectivity can make it difficult. “I think most journalists will admit to feeding sources the information we want to hear, for quotes or attribution, just so we can make the crucial point we are not allowed to make ourselves,” Riley says. “But why not? As society’s watchdogs, I think we should be asking questions, we should be bringing up problems, possible solutions … writing what we know to be true.”
Last fall, when America and the world were debating whether to go to war in Iraq, no one in the Washington establishment wanted to talk much about the aftermath of such a war. For the Bush administration, attempting to rally support for a preemptive war, messy discussions about all that could go wrong in the aftermath were unhelpful. Anything is better than Saddam, the argument went. The Democrats, already wary of being labeled unpatriotic, spoke their piece in October when they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, essentially putting the country on a war footing. Without the force of a “she said” on the aftermath story, it was largely driven by the administration, which is to say stories were typically framed by what the administration said it planned to do: work with other nations to build democracy. Strike a blow to terrorists. Stay as long as we need to and not a minute longer. Pay for it all with Iraqi oil revenue. There were some notable exceptions — a piece by Anthony Shadid in the October 20 Boston Globe, for instance, and another on September 22 by James Dao in The New York Times, pushed beyond the administration’s broad assumptions about what would happen when Saddam was gone — but most of the coverage included only boilerplate reminders that Iraq is a fractious country and bloody reprisals are likely, that tension between the Kurds and Turks might be a problem, and that Iran has designs on the Shiite region of southern Iraq. David House, the reader advocate for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a piece on March 23 that got at the press’s limitations in setting the agenda. “Curiously, for all the technology the news media have, for all the gifted minds that make it all work … it’s a simple thing to stop the media cold. Say nothing, hide documents.”