Tricks of the Trade
There are many valuable lessons to be learned from journalists' books about how they got the story.
By Steve Weinberg
Steve Weinberg is writing a biography of investigative reporter Ida Tarbell for W.W. Norton. The author of six previous books, Weinberg also teaches part time at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
T WENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein pretty much invented a new book genre when they wrote ³All the President's Men.² Sure, investigative journalists had recounted their exposés before, but usually as a small part of mostly inconsequential full-life memoirs--inconsequential because journalists are, after all, outsiders who rarely know anything firsthand and are often misled by their sources.
Now here was the Washington Post duo putting themselves immodestly at the center of a political corruption tale reaching into the Richard Nixon White House. Not a full-life memoir, this. Woodward and Bernstein were so young in 1974 that neither could have sustained a pre-Watergate memoir for more than 50 pages.
No, "All the President's Men" is a narrative account of one investigation as it unfolds in unexpected directions, an account that transmits journalists' reporting techniques, thought processes and even ethical lapses to a general audience. The book turned journalists from easy-to-dismiss outsiders to heroic players in the game of governing. It inspired, among others, an even younger man named Michael Isikoff.
Last year, the same Michael Isikoff, a Washington Post alumnus turned Newsweek reporter, brought the Woodward-Bernstein genre full circle with his first-person account of another investigation that reached into the White House. The official subject of Isikoff's book "Uncovering Clinton" (it could have been aptly titled "All the President's Women") is presidential character, or the lack of it. But the book is very much about the same subject as "All the President's Men"--an investigative project, as it unfolds in unexpected directions, with the investigative journalist at center stage. The subtitle, "A Reporter's Story," is not ambiguous.
In between Woodward/Bernstein and Isikoff, there have been dozens of books by journalists who have adopted the technique to tell the stories of their own newsroom adventures. Enough books fall into the category by now to constitute a genre.
The growing genre raises questions: Is it a sound way to convey the unfolding of a story? Is it defensible for journalists to place themselves on center stage when they are by definition outsiders dependent on insider sources? What lessons can be learned about the craft of journalism from an examination of these books?
Based on careful readings of Isikoff, Woodward/ Bernstein and the rest, the last of those questions can be answered definitively: A lot can be learned by journalists about the practice of journalism from these accounts. That conclusion is equally true for nonjournalist readers who want to know how investigative reporters operate. "Uncovering Clinton," "All the President's Men" and the lesser-known tales of this ilk are unintentional textbooks.
Lessons about journalists' relationships with their sources are especially noteworthy in the Isikoff and Woodward/Bernstein books because of the high stakes. There are 25 years between the two accounts, but the lessons on cultivating sources, following paper trails and wrestling with ethical dilemmas are timeless.
During that 25-year interval, Janet Malcolm thrust the journalist-source relationship into a controversial context. In "The Journalist and the Murderer" (Knopf, 1990), Malcolm opens with this now-notorious passage:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.... On reading the article or book in question, [the subject] has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on this story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.
Valuable lessons derived from "Uncovering Clinton" and "All the President's Men"--not to mention "The Journalist and the Murderer"--could continue for many pages. No other books from this genre are as well-known, and few if any combine such a significant topic with so much instructional material. But many of the books are worth reading.
What follows are the most significant and/or interesting contributions to the genre since it became self-conscious. Excluded are most full-life or full-career memoirs, in which the journalist/author is by definition the focus. Also excluded are most books about historical rather than contemporary events, most books about the media, most textbooks meant primarily for college classrooms and most books published originally outside the United States.
"Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter"
(Random House, 1982)
James Phelan recounts 10 of his magazine investigations in detail, chronicling his mistakes as well as his successes. Here are a few of the lessons he teaches: 1.) "If the whorehouses and gambling joints operate in the open, the law is corrupt. Both of those vices depend on public access to keep going, and if the cab drivers and bartenders can tell you where the joints are open, the police have to know. And if the police know and hold off, the fix is in." 2.) Sometimes, apparently reliable public records are unreliable, and not all of the story is necessarily in the public domain. 3.) Never dismiss apparent crackpots without some checking. From decades of experience, Phelan learned that "now and then amid the fevered paranoia and fantasies, there is someone out there, desperate and sane, with an authentic story. I have learned to listen quietly, to be skeptical but not cynical, to say Hmmmm' a lot--and not to accept collect calls from far places."
"The Corpse Had a Familiar Face: Covering Miami, America's Hottest Beat"
(Random House, 1987)
Like Jessica Mitford (see "The Early Works," p. 44), Edna Buchanan manages to inject humor into the grimmest of topics--in her case, homicide, and the police work connected to it. Because of Buchanan, what had been the least desirable beat in many newsrooms became coveted. The Miami Herald reporter demonstrates that memorable crime stories are often grounded in details, which many other reporters fail to gather because they don't ask enough questions of police officers who have no intention of volunteering the information.
"Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987"
(Simon & Schuster, 1987)
After "All the President's Men," Bob Woodward pretty much stopped using himself as a character in his books. A notable exception is "Veil," with the most memorable scene occurring in a Georgetown Hospital room between Woodward and an extremely ill William Casey, who had recently resigned as Central Intelligence Agency director. Woodward's critics say there is no way he entered that secured room, no way he carried on a dramatic conversation with Casey. Woodward's response is that we should trust him, it happened just as he wrote it. Thirteen years later, my inclination still is to believe Woodward, but he has provided no evidence to rebut the critics.
Mike Taibbi and Anna Sims-Phillips
"Unholy Alliances: Working
the Tawana Brawley Story"
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989)
Tawana Brawley was 15 when she claimed to have been kidnapped, raped and smeared with excrement 70 miles from New York City. Brawley, an African American, accused six Caucasian men. The allegations became a racial cause célèbre. Mike Taibbi, who is white, and Anna Sims-Phillips, who is black, teamed up for WCBS-TV to dig for the truth. They proved that Brawley was a liar. They also proved that many journalists bought into the lie, perhaps because they feared being called racist. This book is instructive when it comes to investigative techniques, thoughtful when it comes to pack journalism.
Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz
"Capitol Games: Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Story of a Supreme Court Nomination"
Timothy Phelps, covering the Supreme Court from Newsday's Washington Bureau, found himself in the center of the Thomas confirmation controversy, being reported about instead of doing the reporting. A 19-page chapter in the middle of this book explains how he first learned of Anita Hill's allegations, why he sat on them for two months before publishing, and why he decided to move the story when he did. One of his insightful paragraphs:
In the case of Anita Hill, I was slowed by several things. I knew that she was unwilling to come forward and publicly discuss what had happened to her, and that my newspaper was unlikely to run the story without her name and cooperation. I had also made a promise to a person whom I agreed to protect with anonymity. The promise to the source who had first given me Hill's name was that I would not attempt to telephone her and get her to talk about sexual harassment. I could certainly call, since she was one of many past and present Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employees who were being interviewed by the media about their former boss, but I had to talk about other issues. In the meantime, I kept informed about the progress others were having with Hill. My source feared that a call from a reporter, particularly a male reporter, asking questions about this sensitive matter, might drive the hesitant Hill underground.
Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne
"The Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride Into the Secret Heart of BCCI"
(Random House, 1993)
Except for "All the President's Men," this might be the highest-octane book within the genre. The far-flung scandal involving the Bank of Commerce and Credit International did not bring down a U.S. president, but the extent of the financial conspiracy was disturbing. Like Woodward and Bernstein, these two Time magazine correspondents write about themselves in the third person, seem congenitally mismatched, rely heavily on a confidential source (Condor rather than Deep Throat), are frequently self-deprecating and concede their ethical lapses. Their rationale for placing themselves at the heart of their story?
We have used this technique because we felt it would be easier to communicate the meaning of BCCI through our personal experiences. We also felt that the story of our own odyssey reveals some of the tension that gripped governments and regulators as BCCI's empire began to unravel and threatened to expose the dirty secrets of those who used the bank.... Another reason to tell our own story is that we were part of a relatively small group of people who actively pursued BCCI prior to the bank's seizure in July 1991. In the vacuum created by the absence of federal law enforcement, and against the activist role played by BCCI and its agents to cover up the story, a handful of reporters and a handful of congressional and state-level investigators were left to uncover the scandal.
David Protess and Rob Warden
"Gone in the Night: The Dowaliby Family's Encounter With Murder and the Law"
From time to time, journalists help free an innocent person convicted of a crime. After a conviction, prosecutors and judges are frequently loath to admit their mistakes, even when there is overwhelming evidence of innocence. This is the first of two books by the Chicago-area journalists about cases in which they turned out to be the true court of last resort. Their books can serve as primers for journalists who cover police and the courts and do not want to be captives of the versions put forth by the cops and the prosecutors.
"No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court"
(Simon & Schuster, 1996)
Edward Humes is a practitioner of immersion journalism. He visits juvenile court day after day, week after week, month after month. He tutors the accused and convicted during their incarceration, helping them so that perhaps he can understand them better. Much of the book's fascination centers on whether Humes can win the trust of those in a normally closed system so he can explain the system more accurately and compellingly than journalists who lacked his access.
"Citizen K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett Kimberlin"
New Yorker magazine writer Mark Singer describes a petty criminal who claimed he sold marijuana to Dan Quayle, future U.S. senator and vice president. The book is simultaneously about Singer's journey from willful ignorance to epiphany. As a document about how a normally skeptical journalist can be taken in, the book is a revelation. It is peppered with paragraphs like this:
As Kimberlin narrated [his] vignettes...I was more intent upon getting him to talk than upon listening carefully. I certainly wasn't inclined to find these stories literally incredible, because at the time I had yet to encounter anyone who was in a position to set forth a version of reality that diverged sharply from Kimberlin's.
"Bitter Pills: Inside the Hazardous World of Legal Drugs"
A freelance writer for national magazines, editor of Philadelphia magazine and author of a previous book, Stephen Fried had no intention of putting himself at the core of the second book. But fate intervened. When his normally healthy wife nearly died after taking a pill recommended by her gynecologist for a urinary tract infection, Fried started his quest to discover what had gone wrong and why. That quest became a book. "An investigative journalist and exasperated husband," he tells readers, "I am trying to find out if my wife was the victim of a pharmacological foul-up or just a statistically acceptable casualty of friendly fire' in the war on disease. I am also trying to find meaning in our experience, a married couple searching for each other through a medical emergency that never seems to end." Like any top-notch investigative reporter, Fried casts a wide net. As he puts it:
I have met the people behind the studies, the statistics, the press releases and the lawsuits: heroes, scoundrels, geniuses and idiots, victims and victimizers, the amorphous 'less than one percent' of the population who have the adverse reactions you read about in the fine print on your drug labels and even the people who massage the numbers to get them under one percent. I have seen close up what happens at that moment when science officially becomes commerce, when exciting new drugs are handed over from the lab nerds to the marketing types. I have watched everyone in the pharmaceutical food chain describe everyone but themselves as unhealthily arrogant. I have seen the world's top drug cop, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, excoriated as a 'thug,' a 'bully' and even a 'killer' by an industry-friendly legislator. And I have listened to the head of one of America's largest drugstore chains turn to me and growl, 'These drug companies always hide under the cloak of "We're these great research and development houses and without us there would be no medications." I think they're full of shit.'
Like most of the other books forming the genre, it is professionally instructive. Unlike many of the others, it is emotionally powerful.
David Protess and Rob Warden
"A Promise of Justice: The 18-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men"
Besides their superb account of how to detect a potential wrongful conviction, the authors are unqualified heroes in this book. Not only does their reporting free four innocent men, it also identifies the actual rapists/murderers.
"Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion"
(Seven Stories Press, 1998)
Many journalists and others consider former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb discredited because government agencies denied his central findings about the role of intelligence agencies. Other news organizations found apparently contradictory evidence, and some of Webb's own editors backed off from the newspaper's revelations. This book is Webb's attempt to find vindication. Most of it is a traditional exposé of drug running. Parts of it, though, chronicle the ultimate messiness of investigative reporting in the field and the sometimes unexpected repercussions in the newsroom. Webb explains how his original tip came: A woman had read a previous Mercury News article about a drug trafficker frustrating the government's asset forfeiture program. The tipster told Webb she had been impressed that he explained the accused's side as fully as the government's side; most such pieces relied too heavily on the government's version. After digging deep, Webb decided he might get further by telling those in power the details of his reporting, rather than acting coy. When a federal prosecutor asked Webb why he was hanging around the courtroom to hear a seemingly non-newsworthy case, Webb hit the prosecutor with it head-on to see what kind of reaction it brought. It probably would be the last thing the prosecutor expected to hear. What the prosecutor said in response to Webb's candor, and how he said it, told Webb plenty.
Jack Anderson with Daryl Gibson###
"Peace, War, and Politics: An Eyewitness Account"
Jack Anderson is no shrinking violet. This is his third memoir, following "The Anderson Papers: From the Files of America's Most Famous Investigative Reporter" (with George Clifford, Random House, 1973) and "Confessions of a Muckraker: The Inside Story of Life in Washington During the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Years" (with James Boyd, Random House, 1979). He places himself at the center of controversial stories in all three books. "The Anderson Papers" provides in-depth accounts of how he exposed U.S. foreign policy tilts in the India-Pakistan rivalry, which won him a Pulitzer Prize; how he documented questionable links between the Republican Party and a multinational corporation; and, refreshingly, given the defensiveness of most memoirs, how he mistakenly reported problems in the past of U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, at that point a Democratic vice presidential hopeful. "Confessions of a Muckraker," the second book, moves backward in time, as Anderson talks not only about his role in major exposés but also the role of his boss, Drew Pearson, who died in 1969. It is under Pearson's tutelage that Anderson learns to take the initiative, rather than waiting for sources to arrive. For example, Anderson recounts how he and Pearson decided to do what they could to sabotage the nomination of U.S. Rep. Robert Jones to the Federal Communications Commission: Pearson sends Anderson to Ohio to find witnesses who could cast doubt on Jones' integrity. Anderson brings the witnesses to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate confirmation committee. In fact, Anderson himself testifies against Jones. The Jones investigation is in the new book, too. But Anderson tries to cram so much into what is almost certainly his final memoir (born in 1922, Anderson has been in ill health) that almost every episode receives short shrift. That said, this memoir covers so much ground and places Anderson in so many professional situations that it is bound to hold lessons for any thoughtful journalist.