30 May 2016

50 years of great Investigative Journalism,
from 'This Hour' to Amy Goodman

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear some of North America's top investigative journalists speak.

One recent evening it was Amy Goodman, the amazing do-it-all journalist with Democracy Now, the independent U.S. radio and TV program. She gave an uplifting (for any journalist or would-be journalist) talk – ironically from the bowels of the CBC, where a lot of great journalism has been dying in recent years.

(Note: The hour-long Democracy Now radio program is available on some university or community-oriented stations in Canada. I highly recommend it. )

The evening was sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, which was created to boost corporate journalism in the country. Asking the questions was Globe and Mail Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley.

When it was announced Goodman was coming to Toronto, I was surprised and disappointed that her journalistic integrity might rub off on the Globe and Mail, which, among other things, fired all of its progressive columnists over a period of time.

From Left: Amy Goodman | Michael Maclear | Walter Stewart 
Goodman, a tiny, engaging woman, has certainly been one of America's top journalists over the past 20 years. She emphasized the importance of journalists giving voice to the voiceless – going to the places where (in terms of media) there is silence.

Goodman described how she and fellow investigative journalist Allan Nairn came close to being shot at point blank range while trying to stop the military from massacring dozens of people in East Timor in the early 1990s. Goodman and Nairn were spared, possibly because they made it clear they were Americans and the weapons used by the soldiers were made in the U.S.

In those days, I knew Allan Nairn as a sometimes nervous and distant voice over the telephone. I was a producer with the CBC Radio Sunday Morning program, and we took in Allan's dramatic stories over the phone about the atrocities in East Timor, as well as his stories from other hot spots.

I never got to meet Allan Nairn, but over the years I learned a lot by listening to speeches by some of North America's top journalists.

Several of them came to speak at the conferences of the original Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ)  (now the Canadian Association of Journalists), an organization I helped set up in 1978.

Several of them are/were Canadians: Walter Stewart, as good an investigative reporter and author as you'll find anywhere. When he passed away, The Globe and Mail headed his obituary with: "He was Canada's Conscience."

The little-known Ron Haggart, a bit of a grump who didn't like speaking publicly, was one of Canada's greats as the guts and backbone of the fifth estate for many years. A prolific author of letters to newspapers, Haggart never suffered fools gladly.

We also heard from Linden MacIntyre, recently retired from the more recent era of the fifth estate. MacIntyre, now an author, has great journalistic instincts, and is a wonderful story teller. He also was probably the most trusted journalist in Canada over the last 20 years.

British-born Michael Maclear became a legend among Canadian journalists who idolized the man for his independent-minded coverage of the Vietnam War. He worked for both CBC and CTV. Maclear strongly believed that documentaries needed to reflect a point of view. He was most proud of his independent film, Vietnam Goes to War.

This Hour Has Seven Days was probably Canada's best-ever current affairs show. Its' confrontational methods were used so effectively to hammer unsuspecting politicians that the CBC took it off the air. It ran for less than two years in the 1960s. Over the years, the CIJ showed many of the program's amazing episodes, and heard from its hosts, including the cool Patrick Watson.

On the U.S. side, I got to hear and know Seymour Hersh, perhaps America’s most outstanding modern-day journalist. Hersh reminded me of Walter Stewart because they both had a nose and determination to uncover a big story. Hersh is the guy who broke the story about the Vietnam My Lai massacre and cover-up . His Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation helped turn Americans against their futile and insane war in Southeast Asia.

Noam Chomsky, perhaps America's most important progressive/anarchist thinker, to my knowledge, has never been a journalist.  But several of his many books have set high standards for investigative journalism. He can talk about any topic under the sun for at least three hours non-stop. When Chomsky spoke, we needed a heavy-handed moderator to try to keep him on the topic he was supposed to speak about.

I'll briefly mention two other greats of a bygone era I've heard speak: Jessica Mitford exposed the corruption in the U.S. funeral business; and Morton Mintz  investigated corporate misconduct in the tobacco, automotive and pharmaceutical industries for The Washington Post during the days when it was a great paper. In 1971, he co-wrote America, Inc.: Who Owns and Operates the United States

Over all those years, I heard only one famous journalist give a laughable speech. Dan Rather  was once Mr. All-American Journalist. He built a bit of a reputation working in small cities in Texas, rose to the face of CBC Nightly News, and went on to be a star with 60 Minutes.

By the way, I’ve always felt that 60 Minutes aired a lot of “pretend investigative journalism.” The show almost always sought out and exposed “bad guys” on the fringes of corporate America. Easy pickins. They never took on the systematic problems of any aspect of capitalism. The public though the program was great. The on-air presenters were pretty much all millionaires.

I also had no respect for the 60 Minutes staff because of its unethical behaviour in some situations. Producers monitored other media across the U.S. for little-known but excellent investigative pieces. The pieces were often written by low-paid journalists at small papers. Then 60 Minutes would swoop in with a TV crew for perhaps four days and do up the story. What bugged me was that 60 Minutes broadcast its phoney scoop, usually with no credit given to the local journalist and certainly no compensation. 

Back to my story: In the 1980s, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). I'm not sure what year it was, but we were excited that Dan Rather was coming to deliver the keynote address.

The first part of the speech was okay, though I can't remember what he said. The room was full of many of America's top investigative journalists. So what was the message of this icon of journalism: He explained over and over again that good journalism had to be: "Deep and down the middle."

What? That's it? While there was no laughter in the room, there was a lot of snickering. Maybe Rather though he was addressing a first-year journalism school class.

Following Amy Goodman's speech on Thursday there was a tense moment. Earlier, she made it clear that she has no time for corporate journalism. This caused the Globe's Walmsley to squirm a little in his chair. During the question period, someone in the audience asked Goodman what she thought about the fact that the Globe had endorsed the Harper government.

Avoiding a possible dust-up with the Globe, Goodman politely said she didn't know the situation well enough to respond.

During the question, the Globe Editor-in-Chief squirmed even more than before, and I seemed to detect his face turned a little red. He nervously leaned forward and said to the effect: "Wow I dodged that one."

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  1. I expect you know Michael Harris; he digs deep and puts a spell over the audience when he speaks.

    1. Yes, he sure does. But I've never heard him speak at any event. It wasn't a list of All investigative journalists.

  2. Thanks, Nick. This is a useful list, a enlivening read, and it's history relevant to today's journalism