The right (and wrong) way to do investigative journalism

THE RIGHT (AND WRONG) WAY TO DO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM…. In most instances, institutional investigative journalism has come from mainstream news outlets and left-leaning outlets like The Nation and Mother Jones. The right, historically, has avoided this kind of work, preferring to create outlets like Fox News, National Review, and the Weekly Standard.

Whether you find those conservative outlets valuable or not, it’s fair to say investigative journalism isn’t part of their m.o. When was the last time you saw one of these Republican-friendly outlets “break” a major news story, thanks to some in-depth, shoe-leather journalism? It just doesn’t happen.

There are, however, some conservatives who want to change this, and are beginning to take investigative journalism seriously, especially at the state level. What’s wrong with this? In theory, nothing. Investigative journalism can play a valuable role in holding officials accountable and ensuring transparency. If journalists on the right want to do some digging and turn up public malfeasance, more power to them.

The problem isn’t that conservatives are doing investigative journalism. The problem is that conservatives haven’t figured out how to do investigative journalism especially well.

Laura McGann has an interesting piece in the new issue of the Monthly.

When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told an audience at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that conservative publications should aspire to create right-leaning equivalents of the New York Times and “put accuracy first,” he was booed by the crowd.

But with Democrats back in power and the fourth estate in shambles, conservatives are starting to discover the virtues of shoe-leather reporting, and are throwing their organizational savvy and financial clout behind sustained investigative ventures. The Franklin Center, which is run by a Republican political consultant with no journalism background, supports ten state-level investigative news sites under the moniker Watchdog.org. Meanwhile, free-market state-based think tanks have begun hiring reporters to work in-house, focusing on local and state spending — in the last six months alone, they have brought at least eighteen reporters on board.

More established conservative brands have also jumped into the fray.

So far, so good. The more investigative journalism, the better.

But there are some problems that are quickly becoming apparent.

The first is that conservative investigative journalism tends to produce reports that are wrong. The feather in their cap tends to be the Breitbart/O’Keefe ACORN sting, which produced a heavily-edited, misleading video. Another conservative outlet had a “scoop” last fall about federal stimulus aid going to zip codes that don’t exist, but the story turned out to be nothing — some local agencies had simply mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database. The big conservative investigative breakthrough was a story about some typos. The researchers failed to do the necessary follow-up.

If investigative journalism is producing reports that aren’t true, it’s less than useless.

The second is that conservative investigative journalism, while ostensibly about improving transparency, is surrounded by secrecy.

Franklin hosts strategy calls, and an e-mail listserv for conservative reporting organizations, and hosts investigative journalism training sessions for reporters at free-market think tanks and Web sites — at least fifty of them have been invited to attend a training session in June, according to an internal e-mail—but instructs participants not to discuss the event with outsiders. For a little over a year, the group has also been giving grants to state-based conservative think tanks with a free-market bent to hire in-house reporters. But don’t bother asking who’s getting the money. Jason Stverak, the former political operative who runs Franklin, won’t disclose anything about the independent projects his organization is bankrolling (though he’ll have to on his 2009 tax returns). Nor will the directors of the state-based groups that have brought journalists on board say where they got the money to do so.

The Franklin Center and the Sam Adams Alliance, the free-market group that gave Franklin its initial start-up money, are also mum about where their funding comes from — which is more than a little ironic given Franklin’s obsession with transparency in government. When I asked Stverak to explain the reasons for the secrecy, he argued that how the money flowed was irrelevant since Franklin’s credibility hangs on the quality of the journalism it produces, not its funding sources. “We are trusted sources of real information,” he maintained. “Fox News, ABC, CBS, CNN — these guys wouldn’t wager their reputation on content they didn’t find credible.”

But in reality, Stverak appears to be banking on exactly the opposite being true — that in the age of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, cash-strapped news outlets will eagerly latch on to the scoops his team delivers and won’t spend too much time questioning the underlying reporting or the bona fides of his organization, which looks more like a political attack machine than a traditional news operation. That kind of ideologically motivated, willfully misleading muckraking may be a well-worn strategy among partisan operatives. But it isn’t journalism.