I gave a presentation on “Judaism and Investigative Journalism” at Friday evening services last week at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York. For 50 years I’ve practiced this specific branch of journalism and have taught it for the past 35 years as a professor at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.
It’s a form of journalism, called muckraking a century ago in the United States, that goes beyond answering the basic questions reporters are supposed to ask—who, what, when, where, why and how. It’s digging deep.
A definition and I think a good one for investigative reporting comes from Paul Williams, author of Investigative Reporting and Editing, a basic book on the subject, and a founder of the organization Investigative Reporters & Editors. He wrote it is “to tell how things really work.” Not how some government official or corporate executive might claim but what you, the journalist, uncovers through intensive investigation. Truth with a capital T. You then write or air an expose. This sometimes takes the form of a journalistic crusade.
It’s a form of journalism, I said, highly compatible with Judaism. As Isaiah said: “Seek justice, defend the oppressed.” Further, investigative reporting fits perfectly with the Jewish tradition of always questioning…and of challenging authority.
It’s a branch of journalism, I noted, loaded with Jews.
It wasn’t happenstance, I said, that Joseph Pulitzer, a Jew from Hungary, was one of the two major publishers in the mainstream press whose papers engaged in muckraking in what was called the Muckraking Era in the U.S. between 1900 and 1914.
George Seldes, from a Jewish utopian agricultural community in New Jersey, who lived through most of the 20th century passing away at 104, is regarded as the father of contemporary independent investigative journalism.
And Seymour Hersh; I.F. Stone; Carl Bernstein; David Halberstam; Fred Friendly, Don Hewitt, creator of 60 Minutes, long the leading investigative TV program in America; Mike Wallace; Daniel Schorr—Schorr wrote, “We Jews are searchers for truth, sometimes called investigative reporting”— Gloria Steinem; Lowell Bergman; Eric Nadler; Bob Simon…
The list goes on.
It’s interesting today, how Jill Abramson, with a background in investigative reporting and now the top editor at The New York Times, the first woman to hold that post, is directing The Times to do more investigative reporting. Still not enough, but more.
Arguably, I said, the most important work of Theodor Herzl could be considered investigative journalism. Writing about the Dreyfus affair in France and virulent anti-Semitism there and elsewhere in Europe, the truth became clear to him as a journalist about how things really worked for Jews in Europe. He concluded that Jews must remove themselves from Europe. And his mighty crusade was for Jews to create their own state.
I spoke about how I got into investigative reporting, in college doing an internship at the Cleveland Press. It was the first newspaper started by E.W. Scripps, the other major mainstream press figure highly active during the Muckraking Era. The culture Scripps created was still very much present at the Cleveland Press in 1960. Every few days it ran an expose. Scripps wasn’t Jewish but in his views could have been. As he declared: “Whatever is—is wrong.” And must be changed. The title of his autobiography: I Protest. Above the entrance to the paper, etched in stone, were a lighthouse and the words: “Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way.”
And every day I saw this happening. The term investigative reporting wasn’t yet used. It came a few years later. But there was a group of reporters at the Cleveland Press who did this. I was a copyboy and working at night, nearly alone in the city room, when there was a phone call advising the paper about some event in Shaker Heights, for example, you passed on a note to the suburban desk. A call about something happening in the city—the note went to the city desk. But if someone called with a horror story, a tale of injustice, inequity, danger—you gave it to this group of investigative reporters.
And the amazing thing to me, an 18-year-old from New York City, was seeing how when the information was documented by one of these investigative reporters and published—half the time the situation was resolved. This was just the neatest thing, I thought, so I headed back east to become an investigative reporter.
My first big story was as a reporter for the Babylon Town Leader and involved New York public works czar Robert Moses’ plan for a four-lane highway on Fire Island. I wrote about how the Moses road would devastate the human and natural communities on the fragile 32-mile long barrier beach. The paper crusaded for a Fire Island National Seashore as a way to stop Moses,. The highway was stopped and the seashore created.
I went to the daily Long Island Press, got promoted to doing investigative reporting there and, over the years, investigated corruption involving public officials, exposed a huge Long Island sand-mining operation in the guise of construction of a deepwater port, broke the story of the oil industry seeking to drill in the Atlantic and probed the consequences of spillage.
After The Press ceased publication, I accepted an offer from the College at Old Westbury to be a professor. I’ve taught investigative reporting there every semester, and I’ve continued to do.it. A major story has involved the use of nuclear power in space. This started with my learning that the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle involved lofting a space probe containing plutonium fuel. My book on this: The Wrong Stuff. This led me to investigate Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program which, I found, was predicated on orbiting battle platforms with onboard nuclear power systems providing the energy for hypervelocity guns and laser and particle beam weapons. My book on this: Weapons in Space.
As to terrestrial nuclear power, my first book was Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. Regarding Long Island, for years I investigated the Shoreham nuclear power plant which was to be the first of seven to 11 nuclear plants on Long Island. My book on this: Power Crazy. Many others were involved—pressing politically, utilizing civil disobedience, among other strategies, but I did much investigative journalism on the scheme, and Shoreham was stopped from operating and the plan for many nuclear plants on Long Island ended.
I’ve done, too, much investigative reporting on TV. For nearly 25 years I’ve hosted the TV program Enviro Close-Up aired through the U.S. I’m the chief investigative reporter for WVVH-TV on Long Island. And in recent years, with the arrival of the Internet, I’ve done extensive investigative reporting on the Web.
At the synagogue Friday evening, I spoke of how I’m still amazed about how the process of investigative reporting works—how the exposure of injustice, inequity and danger works to resolves the situation about half the time. And if there is no immediate resolution, you keep at it. I noted the Talmudic injunction that “it is not incumbent on thee to complete the task” but “thou must not…cease from pursuing it.”
The big problem has been getting air or ink considering the dysfunction of much of media. A course I developed at SUNY Old Westbury is Politics of Media. But the Internet has made a great contribution to investigative reporting—suddenly there is this enormously powerful instrument to, so far freely, communicate information globally.
As to deciding on what I investigate and report on, there are so many horror stories out there, I said, that I need to handle what I select through a kind of journalistic triage. I focus on stories involving life-threatening issues. That’s also, I said, about what Jews hold dearest: l’chayim—to life.