Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, published by Benjamin Harris in 1690, was the first newspaper published in the English-American colonies and lasted for only one issue. Four days after it appeared, the governor and council of Massachusetts—distressed about its content—issued a broadside order forbidding the publication of the paper without legal authority. Pictured here is the first of the three-page issue. Photo courtesy of The National Archives of The United Kingdom.

Since spring of last year, Nieman Reports has focused on 21st Century Muckrakers, a collection of articles about investigative reporting. What have we learned to take with us as we move forward?

For starters, watchdog reporting faces extraordinary challenges:

Profits in news organizations are plummeting as advertisers abandon newspapers and magazines, destroying the economic foundation on which print journalism has depended for the past century and a half. In turn, beleaguered news outlets, including television and radio, slash budgets, close bureaus, and lay off employees—especially expensive investigative reporters whose time-consuming work requires high-priced legal vetting and often antagonizes advertisers and government authorities.

Legal protections for anonymous sources have eroded in the wake of the Valerie Plame case, when reporters were driven to betray their vows of confidentiality. Worse, the government’s skillful use of source waivers now threatens to become a routine tactic to chill future whistleblowing.

The federal government has erected a wall of secrecy since 9/11, classifying documents that should be public and withholding information that once was routinely provided to the press. While the Obama administration appears to be loosening this stranglehold, transparency seems destined to give way to secrecy in the future whenever the government invokes national security.

Authorities around the world are covertly monitoring journalists and their sources with satellites, spyware and other technology. In turns, dozens of investigative reporters across the globe are censored, harassed, jailed, beaten up, and even murdered every year.

Pushback by multinational corporations, now more powerful than many governments, obstructs reporters by employing batteries of lawyers to scare off potential sources and media executives. Even at the local level, a proliferation of public relations spin doctors makes it harder for journalists to get access to information.

Finally, a cacophony of tabloid infotainment masquerading as journalism routinely drowns out whatever high-quality watchdog reporting is able to survive these other obstacles.

Still, despite these economic, political, legal and cultural threats, embattled muckrakers also have important new weapons at their disposal:

Computer-assisted reporting offers sophisticated methods of social scientists to unearth information from databases and enable reporters to find misconduct that otherwise remains hidden. Google, online chat rooms, and other emerging tools of social media—not to mention lowly e-mail—also make it easier for investigative reporters to track down and interview hard-to-reach victims and whistleblowers.

Citizen journalism, while imperfect, helps the public expose misconduct that otherwise might not come to light. Likewise, online crowdsourcing lets reporters canvass citizens for assistance on investigative stories. In addition, inexpensive video technology now helps journalists and the public collect visual evidence of wrongdoing.


“Filling a Local Void: J-School Students Tackle Watchdog Reporting”

– Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino

“When Fierce Competitors Join the Same Team”

– Gary Schwab (Fall 2008)

“Global Efforts at Investigative Reporting”

– Fernando Rodrigues (Spring 2008)
Nonprofit investigative reporting is on the rise, producing important
exposés by The Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, Talking Points Memo, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and other noncommercial outlets. The Huffington Post recently launched a project to fund investigative reporting, and online sites focusing on local watchdog journalism have sprouted in San Diego, Minneapolis and other cities. Meanwhile, a nonprofit infrastructure to train investigative reporters has taken root, and philanthropic foundations are increasingly underwriting freelance writers to take on challenging muckraking projects. Leading universities, too, are joining in and guiding eager students through the rigors of investigative projects that often produce tangible results.

Cooperative investigative ventures among news organizations are expanding. The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” have pooled resources to boost exposure for their projects; other journalistic outlets are doing the same. Perhaps the most ambitious such enterprise is the online global muckraking of The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, whose 100 participating reporters in 50 countries collaborate on exposés that cross national boundaries.

Among the more active university-based investigative projects are those at American University, University of California, Berkeley, Boston University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Northeastern University, Northwestern University, and Southern Methodist University. See Spring 2008 and Winter 2008 issues of Nieman Reports for articles about some of these projects.
Web sites such as “WikiLeaks” make it easier for whistleblowers to anonymously disseminate once-secret paperwork documenting wrongdoing. In theory, the Internet could even eliminate government censorship altogether. For example, a contemporary equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg could post today’s version of the Pentagon Papers online, and they could be downloaded instantaneously in millions of computer terminals before prosecutors had a chance to impose prior restraint.

Global Web-based glasnost also enables reporters to evade government censorship by using foreign ISP addresses to disseminate their exposés. In poor countries, this digital muckraking is accessible mostly to the wealthy elite who have access to Web portals; but as the cost of computer technology falls—with the proliferation of Internet cafés and mobile devices—the unharnessed investigative potential in developing countries could literally be revolutionary.

In short, there is reason for hope as well as concern. Or to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of muckraking’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In 1892, Edward Bok, editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, made his magazine the first to ban medical advertising. His target: patent medicine vendors selling dubious cures and treatments using false information. By 1904, as the sales of patent medicines continued strong, Bok began to publish what was actually in patent medicines and hired a lawyer and journalist, Mark Sullivan, to verify the facts and do research. On this page, above, Bok assembled a visual display of hoaxes as a way of trying to deter gullible consumers from purchasing these products. For example, Sullivan took a photograph of Lydia Pinkham’s gravestone to show she had been dead for 20 years even though ads for her patent medicine for women invited them to write to her for advice. By 1906, the Food and Drugs Act was passed by Congress to protect the public’s health through the control of advertising and claims of medical benefit. The Ladies’ Home Journal. September 1905. Photo courtesy of The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

The Past as Prologue

A look at the history of investigative journalism offers a window on what its future may hold. As its best-known practitioner of the time, Lincoln Steffens, righteously declared nearly a century ago: “I was not the original muckraker. The prophets of the Old Testament were ahead of me.”

In fact, the earliest known muckraking on American soil can be traced to 1690, when Publick Occurrences, the first English newspaper in the colonies, exposed “barbarous” human rights abuses as well as a sex scandal in which the king of France was alleged “to lie with” his “Sons Wife.” The British crown was not amused and shut down the paper four days later—a foreshadowing of the difficulties adversarial journalism would face in the future from government authorities, as well as a harbinger of the contradictory mix of noble and lowbrow coverage that would characterize exposé reporting in the New World.

More than three centuries later, investigative journalism has evolved greatly in scope, style and technique. But its core remains the same: fact-gathering to challenge authority and oppose entrenched power—political, governmental, corporate or religious—on behalf of ordinary citizens. While America’s earliest journalistic crusaders were partisan advocates, financed by political parties or ideological movements such as abolition or women’s suffrage, most investigative reporters in the past century have been employed by nonpartisan commercial news outlets and have practiced a more objective style of storytelling.

The articles about public health, safety and trust in this issue of Nieman Reports are a reminder of the essential role that watchdog reporting plays in our lives. Contemporary exposés of tainted overseas drugs and toys, like recent reports about contaminated meat and produce at domestic grocery chains and fast-food restaurants, trace their origins to America’s early muckrakers. More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair worked undercover to produce his epic investigation of meatpacking plants, “The Jungle,” while Collier’s and The Ladies’ Home Journal documented dangerous “patent” medicines. These reports led to the kind of reforms that are once again being demanded in the wake of current food and drug scandals.

Read “A Muckraking Model: Investigative Reporting Cycles in American History,” by Feldstein, which appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics (PDF) »
Many investigative reporters also described challenges they confronted in the Summer 2006 issue of Nieman Reports, “Journalists: On the Subject of Courage.”
Throughout it all, this kind of muckraking has been cyclical, waxing and waning over time. It tends to increase in periods of turmoil, such as the American Revolution or industrialization or the political and social upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Similarly, new media technologies and journalistic competition have also spurred muckraking, from the first mass-market national magazines of the early 1900’s to the rise of broadcasting and digital media a century later.

My interest in this subject is more than purely academic. Although I now teach college students investigative journalism, I first practiced it for 20 years. As a newsman, I was beaten up and sued in the United States, detained by police in Honduras, censored by authorities in Egypt, and escorted out of the country under armed guard in Haiti. But like so many of the writers who have recounted their stories in Nieman Reports, the obstacles I faced as a reporter paled in comparison to the satisfaction of seeing hard-nosed journalism lead to prison terms, forced resignations, and multimillion dollar fines for those who abused the public trust.

So what does muckraking’s past tell us about its future? That the challenges of today are not new; that these difficulties will inevitably lead to tomorrow’s opportunities, and that investigative reporters are a hardy breed who will tenaciously uphold their watchdog mission in bad times as well as good.

In truth, the woes now besetting investigative journalism should not be surprising. After all, powerful individuals and institutions rarely make it easy to uncover their transgressions. Muckraking has never been for the faint of heart. Every generation of journalists faces its unique challenges, of course, but the cycles of investigative reporting are eternal: corruption, then exposure, then reform—followed by more corruption, more exposure, and more reform—in an endless loop of societal self-cleansing.

If history is any guide, no matter what form it takes, muckraking has a bright future. Just like the venality it exposes, it will outlast us all.

Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University, was an award-winning investigative reporter at CNN, ABC News, NBC News, and various local television stations. His book, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture,” is scheduled to be published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment