By: M.L. Stein
Los Angeles Times columnist says reporters seem afraid
of being seen as crusaders or are leery of taking risks sp.
OLD-TIME MUCKRAKING seems in short supply as journalists become fearful of being perceived as crusaders or are unwilling to take risks, a Los Angeles Times reporter/columnist told a media gathering.
There also is a “retreat into the trivia ? a People’s magazine phenomenon” added Patt Morrison, who spoke at the recent Selden Ring Award dinner in Los Angeles.
Morrison, a member of the Times reporting team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, opined that the press is so fearful of losing credibility “that we sometimes feel we should be perfectly scripted like movie reporters and, thus, retreat from saying what we know.”
She mentioned the Orange County, Calif., financial debacle as a case in point, asserting that reporters had advance warnings that it was coming and let them pass.
In lamenting the media’s fascination with trivial information, Morrison cited President Bill Clinton as an example.
“We know how much his haircut costs, his putative girlfriend, what he eats at McDonald’s, his weight and the name of his hometown, but where has he stood lately on the Brady [gun control] bill, the funding of abortions for government employees, or the side agreements of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], she asked.
“Any one of those things is critical to our lives ? what Bill Clinton eats is only critical to him. Most people in this country could not tell you what Bill Clinton stands for.”
The media, the speaker contended, are burdened with a Watergate complex.
“We call everything ‘gate,’ ” she elaborated. “Iraqgate, Irangate or Heidigate [after convicted Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss]. It’s as if Watergate set a standard, a high-water mark. It’s almost like we expect every story to be a Watergate, and if it isn’t, it doesn’t merit our attention, time or work.”
Morrison, who also cohosts a current affairs program on public television, described what she said is a media appetite for the trivial, which treats news figures as heroes and villains and often follows the trend of the personality-oriented magazines and supermarket tabloids.
Calling for more substantive reporting, Morrison noted that with the virtual elimination of civics courses in schools, the media “are the civics classroom for many people in this country
. . . . We need to keep in mind that we’re trying to reach the citizen instead of writing for sources.”
By relying on “personality-based journalism,” she continued, “we ultimately neglect stories that take the greatest human toll.”
The press is likely to closely scrutinize a problem only when there is a tragedy, like a burst dam or airplane crash, Morrison said.
“Editors need to trust reporters who deserve to be trusted,” she went on. “Honest analysis has to be allowed to point out whose ox is being gored, whose agenda furthered.”
The $25,000 Selden Ring prize for investigative reporting, which is administered by the University of Southern California School of Journalism, went to five New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters whose efforts and results were judged as being very substantial. Their series, “Stacking the Deck,” about the corruption of Louisiana gambling, involved an eight-month investigation, in which 150,000 pages of documents were reviewed and more than 200 people interviewed.
The five are Susan Finch, Mike Hughlett, Peter Nicholas, James O’Byrne and Mark Schlefstein.
In a speech following the award ceremony, Schlefstein related that the pursuit of the story involved a “Deep Throat” counterpart, a key insider from whom they had been trying to pry documents for weeks. The source suddenly called Nicholas in the dead of night and arranged to hand over the papers at midnight in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge apartment complex.
In the three months following the appearance of the series, Schlefstein said, the Times-Picayune has run an offshoot story every day.
“The lessons we learned in our investigation are worth listening to by any community the gambling industry sets its sights on,” he declared. “Beyond the debates about jobs vs. gambling’s social costs, what the gambling industry clearly brings to a community is an extraordinary pot of money. And it is this money that creeps into every crack and crevice of a community’s and a state’s political system. Where it does not corrupt, it does compromise.”
?(“We call everything ‘gate.’ Iraqgqte, Irangate or Heidigate. It’s as far as if Watergate set a standard, a high-water mark. It’s almost like we expect every story to be a Watergate, and if it isn’t, it doesn’t merit our attention, time or work.” ) [Cpation]
?(Patt Morrison, reporter/columnist, Los Angeles Times) [Photo & Caption]