Hired News

Will P.R. pros take the baton of investigative journalism?

Who will do investigative reporting once the daily newspapers go out of business? This seems like a rhetorical question. Without a large journalistic institution paying the substantial costs, how could anybody out there have the guts, the moxie, the chutzpah to wear out the shoe leather, ask the hard questions, chase the story wherever it leads, and expose the skullduggery of the powerful in an exclusive article for the bulldog edition?

The prospect of a world without snooping reporters should be troubling even if you’re not the type who can say “Fourth Estate” with a straight face. Sure, reporters on lengthy investigative junkets produce their share of multi-part snoozers that wouldn’t see print if not for the sunk costs of the investigations— Pulitzer bait informing the reader, for example, that U-Haul trailers may flip if you turn your car too sharply. But the daily newspaper, specifically the daily newspaper with a full or near monopoly in its local market, can still afford to concentrate reporting resources with a degree of intelligence that blogs and news aggregators have not yet matched.

Like many self-evident truths of the media collapse, however, this one has a rubber/road challenge. The experience of the average news consumer is vastly richer than it was 10 years ago. (And considering that whole new categories of news consumers—such as the 23 million Americans who now receive their journalism via mobile phone—have been created in just the last few years, we should use the term average with caution.) News sources, documentation, and opinion have never been more abundant or more easily accessible. If you want to learn about the scandal- laced competition between Boeing and EADS/Northrop Grumman for the next Air Force tanker contract, or the collapse of the Schenectady, New York, police department, you’ve never been in a better position to do so.

How is this possible? Everybody you talk to says there are fewer investigative reporters out there. Everybody you talk to who is honest admits that bloggers and other holy fools have failed to fill the gaps on a sustained basis. “The amount of investigative reporting going on in Sacramento has definitely declined over the last decade,” says Jon Fleischman, whose California politics roundup flashreport.org itself offers the kind of inventive, idea-driven, aggressively researched journalism you would normally associate with traditional investigative reporting.

Here’s one hypothesis. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in the decade from 1998 through 2007, another field was outgrowing, and perhaps growing at the expense of, traditional journalism. The number of people working as “reporters and correspondents” declined slightly in that period, from 52,380 in 1998 to 51,620 in 2007. But the number of public relations specialists more than doubled, from 98,240 to 225,880. (Because job types and nomenclature change substantially, I have used only directly comparable jobs. The U.S. economy was still supporting 7,360 paste-up workers in 1998, for example, while in 2007 some 29,320 Americans were working under the already antique title “desktop publishers.”)

So are flacks the future, or even the present, of investigative journalism? This interpretation makes intuitive sense. Important data points by which we continue to live our lives— the number of jobs that were created or destroyed by NAFTA, the villainy of the Serbs in the Yugoslav breakup, all sorts of projected benefits or disasters in President Obama’s budget plans— are largely the inventions of P.R. workers.

And though it’s considered wise to believe the contrary, these communications types are not constructing all these news items entirely (or even mostly) by lying. Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. Nor is the teaching value that flackery provides entirely different from that of journalism: Most of the content you hear senators and congressmen reading on C-SPAN is stuff flacks provided to staffers.

For some, this development may seem appalling, even threatening. “Without Woodwards and Bernsteins, there will be even more Nixons and Madoffs raining mayhem and destruction,” Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres wrote in a February U.K. Guardian plea for a public journalism endowment. Addressing a February 28 Microsoft panel in Silicon Valley, the Stanford political scientist Joshua Cohen warned, “It would really be a disaster if this investigative profession went out of business, a disaster for democracy.”

But the idea of public relations (and its many fancy permutations, from “image management” to “oppo research” to “crisis”) replacing objective journalism becomes less scary when you reflect that, pace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the cast of High School Musical 3, we are not all in this together. Communications is a highly competitive environment, and it is becoming more competitive. Frequently the most valuable information comes out just because somebody wants to make somebody else look bad.

It’s an odd hero-to-zero reversal: from the most sainted of journalistic types, the in-depth reporter, to one of society’s most despised bottom feeders, the publicity hound. During a recent P.R. job I found it jarring to work with a Pulitzer winner now doing the kind of work that, in better days, we both would have considered akin to defrauding widows and orphans. But that’s the real value of the industry, and why it should be considered, along with blogging and social-networking media, as an important step in the democratization of journalism. Even the Octomom can hire representation.

You may not share my skepticism that newspapers were ever in the objectivity business, or my enthusiasm to see them replaced by openly interested parties. But it’s a good bet you always liked the idea of investigative journalism more than the reality. “The public appetite for that kind of serious, probing journalism has always been extremely limited,” says Allan Mayer, a journalist turned partner at the communications firm 42West. “My feeling is that the era of high-minded journalism lasted roughly from the ’60s to the mid-’80s. For most of its history journalism was a pretty low-minded occupation. The people decrying the loss of investigative journalism are largely people of my generation, who grew up with this anomalous situation."

An earlier version of this article included the wrong URL for the Flash Report. The correct URL is flashreport.org.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • roy||

    Haven't you read snowcrash?
    Freelancers, paid by the exclusivity and accuracy of their info. will take over.

    That, or God help us, twitter...

  • VM||

    I blame Fletch.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    Twitter would work for me. I wonder if DC will adapt Clark and Lois for this?

    Oh and you have a repeated paragraph in the article. The one where you mention the news consumer being vastly richer now than 10 years ago, mang.

  • ||

    Who in their right mind would have ever considered newspapers to be in the objectivity business? Who in their right mind would have ever considered an assertion of fact found in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to be the truth just because the aforementioned rags said so?

  • ||

    Kyle,

    Clark works for Google News. Lois runs a website about the IllegalImmigration threat from KryptonianGreenBacks. Jimmy Olsen is a paparazzo who specializes in super-villainess up-skirts. Cat Grant runs an Egotastic clone. Perry White was forced into retirement by affirmative action lawsuits.

    Supergirl was caught up in a sexting scandal, put on a bunch of weight, had a couple of kids with a wigger and is desperate to make a comeback.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    Tim,

    A paragraph got double posted in the article.

  • Bruce Majors||

    PR may pay more. MSNBC Demwit whore Hillary Rosen has a new lobby, "Business Forward," that charges businesses $75,000 a pop for Obama papal indulgences.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    "Supergirl was caught up in a sexting scandal, put on a bunch of weight, had a couple of kids with a wigger and is desperate to make a comeback."

    Nah. It was the Martian Manhunter in disguise. J'onn was hot for some of that Krypto-pussy and sleazed his way in.

    And I like the Lois idea. Same situation as the white suburban housewives who sleep with the illegal help but support anti-immigration causes. She is fucking the OG Kyrpto-immigrant after all.

  • ¢||

    I take it that reporters doing "investigative journalism" would be doing something like finding stuff out and telling us about it, as opposed to their usual job of repeating things they've been told (and verifying some tiny fraction of those things by being told them twice).

    Is there any example of it? Nothing's coming to mind.

  • ||

    One could summarize this article thusly:

    WHO NEEDS NEWSPAPERS? WE'VE GOT LONEWACKO!

  • ||

    LONEWACKO will ask the hard questions.
    LONEWACKO will post them on youtube.
    LONEWACKO will expose [himself] the Truth!

  • ||

    I'm sorry, did Radley retire and I missed it?

  • SxCx||

    Oh totally. Journalism and PR, Jedi and Sith. Everyone I know in PR's a journalist who got sick of being broke.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    "I'm sorry, did Radley retire and I missed it?"

    No but if law enforcement agencies the nation wide were intelligent, they'd hire him as their PR guy and follow his suggestions.

    He's make more money than God can count.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    Actually, upon further thought I'm probably wrong about that. Most people are too stupid to see police abuses so they don't need a good PR guy.

  • Xeones||

    I don't know about stupid, Kyle. Yeah, there's lots of stupid, but even a lot of smart people just don't want to believe in police abuses, because that calls into question the whole of their faith in society.

    Anyway, i'm with roy. I'm gonna sign up as a stringer for the Central Intelligence Corporation, what what.

  • Ignu||

    Who does investigative reporting now, even with the newspapers still in business?

    Today's newspapers wouldn't know investigation if it smacked them on the end of their distended noses.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    I see what you're saying X but I don't know. Self-delusion strikes me as a form of stupidity too.

    I mean, I just showed the MHD thing to a coworker and as he was reading it, he was trying his damnedest to say the cops were in the right. I know he's working up some type of "rebuttal" right now.

  • stuartl||

    Talkin' 'bout my generation: "My feeling is that the era of high-minded journalism lasted roughly from the '60s to the mid-'80s. For most of its history journalism was a pretty low-minded occupation. The people decrying the loss of investigative journalism are largely people of my generation, who grew up with this anomalous situation."

    Nope, sorry, your generation and mine are not any more high minded than others. Like any other occupation, the vast majority of journalists are average. A few are very good. We are a nosy species, and we like scandals, so no matter what the delivery mechanism is, the demand for news will fund the good ones.

  • ||

    My feeling is that the era of high-minded journalism lasted roughly from the '60s to the mid-'80s.

    Yeah, and they had to walk uphill through the snow to get to newspaper office.

  • ||

    The idea of reporters being high minded is really a post world war II outgrowth. Before that, journalists were shameless self promoters who wrote whatever sold. At some point after world war II, the media decided it was better than that and that it could decide what was news and what people should find interesting. The media went from Hearst to Edward R. Morrow. This kind of stiff upper lip stuff worked for a while. But in the end, the tabloids were going to win. And they were gaurenteed to win once the mainstream media sold its soul to the leftist agenda and started burying interesting stories that didn't fit the leftist narative. It just took them a while to find a new medium; cable news and the internet.

    If you look at media organizations that actually make money, they tend to be called conservative but in reality they are just tabloid. Fox News and the NYPost are tabloid rags in the great tradition of Fleet Street and Yellow Journalism. But, they know what sells and what is interesting. Meanwhile, the "mainstream media" refuses to print one interesting story after another whenever it cuts against the prevailing leftist narative. For example, the John Edwards love child story is the kind of thing that sells papers. But publications like Newsweek and the NYT wouldn't touch it even though they are both going broke. Last weekend, the NYT put the Nancy Pelosi story on page 18. The Speaker of the House is currently in open public warfare with the CIA and the NYT sees it as a page 18 story. Is it any surprise no one reads the rag anymore?

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Tim "proves" that PR can and will replace investigative journalism by quoting a guy who's moved from journalism to PR. No loss of objectivity there!

    At the present time, a lot of investigative journalism is done by ax-grinding non-profits. Most of the exposure of the Bush Administration's torture obsession came, not from the NYT or the Washington Post, but rather the ACLU, which, unlike those two institutions, was not afraid to take on the Bush-Cheney machine.

    But the question raised by people like David Simon--how can government activities be closely monitored without reporters with official press privileges remains unanswered. The issue isn't whether investigative journalism was that great in the past; it's whether it won't be even worse in the future.

  • ||

    "Most of the exposure of the Bush Administration's torture obsession came, not from the NYT or the Washington Post, but rather the ACLU, which, unlike those two institutions, was not afraid to take on the Bush-Cheney machine."

    You are kidding right? Vannemen do you really think people are dumb enough to beleive that journalists were afraid to take on Bush? What the fuck version of reality do you live in? Name one reporter who ever suffered for negative reporting about Bush during the last 8 years? Good God Vannemen, did you get a labotomy over the weekend?

  • ||

    These pieces are like inoperable brain cancer. They make me very sad, but there's nothing to be done.

    Of course, journalism (isn't all real journalism really investigative by its nature?) never had a patent on truth. I never wanted to do more than get the important facts right.

    But, gosh, isn't WANTING to tell the truth as best you can still worth anything? We weren't trying to do much more than that, and perhaps save a defenseless person from getting hammered every once in a while. Or was putting together coherent sentences in search of honest understanding just a shell game for suckers? Wait. That last one was a rhetorical question.

    I am still waitng to hear what the new generation cares about. Really. What it would walk out the door rather than be ordered to do. What would you not do as a matter of principle, even if someone would pay a lot for it.

    I got paid a long time to be a journalist. Not every much, but just enough. Mostly, I got it right and sometimes very right. As for Truth? I'll leave that for someone else to judge. But I never felt like I was a hooker. In the current intellectual atmosphere, that seems like a worthy achievement.

  • ||

    Very things are as overblown as "Investigative Journalism"
    The two supposed examples are Watergate and the Pentagon papers.
    Duh.
    Both are due to government investigations - the pentagon papers simply the governments own assessment of its own ineptness in presecuting the war. And watergate would have been a 3rd rate burglary with the House investigations committee and the power of supoena.
    Investigations since than...O yeah, Monica gate. That was a good one (seriously - it was so tedious hearing about Clinton working his tail off. Nice to have it debunked by the fact that he had time for office blowjobs, and apparently took the "red" phone off the hook. JUST KIDDING, I'm sure he could deal with two big warheads going off simultaneously)

  • ||

    The reason that PR grew during this time is because companies figured out that advertising (talking at people) was not as effective as PR (listening to people's needs and addressing them through a variety of communications outreach).

    - Beth (A PR "flack" who doesn't understand why the journalism world thinks all PR professionals are political spinmeisters)

  • Invisible Finger||

    At the present time, a lot of investigative journalism is done by ax-grinding non-profits.

    Ax-grinding always means money-seeking or favor-seeking. In that, I agree with your point. The same point you said Tim didn't make. Good God Vannemen, did you get a labotomy over the weekend?

  • Invisible Finger||

    Perhaps that 60's to 80's time frame was mostly just 1960's 18-year olds with IQ's in the low 100's going to college to avoid the draft.

  • the innominate one||

    Yeah, Vanneman, did you have your lab surgically removed over the weekend?

  • the innominate one||

    VM | May 19, 2009, 7:39am | #

    I blame Fletch.


    You dare?! By the Urkobold(TM) I denounce you! May your taint wither!

  • ||

    It has long been my opinion that the vast majority of what is reported by a newspaper or TV Station requires absolutely no reporter involvement. To find out what the football score was, or what the president said in his address today, all you need is an email or clip from the guys putting on the event and one editor who checks the spelling on the things.

    IMO, that would free up so many resources to pay a few highly trained real *journalists* to do actually meaningful investigations all of the time, instead of having people on staff to handle every idiotic event that happens in a city. I'd imagine that 3 investigative reporters each covering business, crime, and politics plus an army of bloggers and PR firms could produce just as good of a newspaper as most full shops.

  • Aisha||

    David -

    I think the "next" generation would care a lot more if journalism actually did anything.

    See, the problem isn't that we aren't doing investigative journalism, it's that we're leaving people powerless. How many times do we have to hear about someone getting kidnapped from Aruba or that apartment fire two blocks down the street before we shut it off or throw it out because there simply isn't anything for us to do about it?

    People have long put their blind trust in journalism and the "powers that be" to rectify whatever wrong they report. It's simply no longer enough.

    This is what social media is aiming to do - put people in touch with public institutions. And THAT is the real job description of a PR person - they are the gateway between the institution/business/organization and the public. Some are better at it than others, but it's something hopefully more and more people will get clued in to and bring to another level.

    I am a j-school masters student (go ahead and laugh, but I bet none of ya'll created a kickass Flash game for any of your classes) and these are the kinds of conversations permeating the halls these days. It's not something the "next generation" takes lightly either. Some are even more hard-nosed than traditional journalists and others want to take investigative journalism beyond just printed word (see Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo - e.g. Trent Lott, Attorney General firings).

    All this internal bickering between newspapers and PR firms is completely ignoring what in the world their purpose is - giving people power by informing them. It's about the kind of information you give, not that you simply give it.

  • Mickie Kennedy||

    With all the complaints among businesses that it's harder to get media coverage, PR professionals know it's now easier than ever to get media attention: spoon feed a story or even a nearly finished article to overworked, underpaid journalists -- and a growing number will run with it. If that story has legs, such as one that includes analytical and investigative research, it follows that more journalists will bite.

  • SxCx||

    Question: why does the journalism world think all PR professionals are political spinmeisters?

    Answer: "listening to people's needs and addressing them through a variety of communications outreach"

  • ||

    I guess anyone in the PR or journalism business is going to have to learn how to do it all. The future of journalism is heading in the direction of the all in one person who can report/write/photograph/blog/etc... all their own stories.

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