Monday, February 18, 2002

In a longwinded, snide diatribe against Bill Moyers, The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes both misses and demonstrates the damning case against his target. Hayes, like a good investigative reporter, "follows the money", and demonstrates that--well, Moyers makes a lot of it, and runs a foundation that gives a lot of it out. Hayes never really explains why anybody should complain about that (although he does note the irony of Moyers screaming about obscene profiteers from the horror of September 11th, while himself refusing to specify just how much he's made off his television series and related materials on the subject). Moyers' reply also takes it as a given that Hayes' characterization is (unfairly) damning, without explaining what about it, exactly, is so objectionable.

But one small incident in Hayes' article is much more telling than all his casting of aspersions about Moyers' tycoonhood: asked about his 2001 PBS documentary on the chemical industry in which no voices from said industry were heard for the first ninety minutes of the broadcast, Moyers defended his decision, saying, "This is an investigative documentary, not a debate,,,,We wanted to make sure of our reporting and make sure we had our facts laid down and then we wanted the industry to have the chance to respond to our reporting."

Now, I have no fundamental objections to open, earnest advocacy in journalism; some of journalism's great masterpieces, after all, have taken that form. And of course I also heartily applaud the efforts of those journalists who strive to make their reporting a dispassionately objective account of the facts--or, better still, to present the various sides of a conflict with careful neutrality. The hybrid known as "investigative journalism", however, falls into neither of these categories. (The term itself is suspiciously redundant, since the vast majority of journalistic work obviously includes at least some component of investigation.) In practice, it actually combines the worst of both worlds: open advocacy unscrupulously disguised as dispassionate reporting.

The form is founded on a simple underlying narrative: an intrepid, crusading journalist "uncovers" the alleged evil activities of some respected person or group. The reportorial details are actually secondary to the moral and dramatic thrust of the story, in which a previously unblemished pillar of society is gradually revealed to be a perpetrator of monstrous malfeasance. The supposed zenith of investigative journalism was the Watergate scandal; since then, most journalists believe, it has suffered a steady decline that reached its nadir with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the two stories (and that's what they were, first and foremost--stories) both stuck resolutely to the investigative script. Indeed, the political survival of President Clinton stemmed directly from his success at peddling an alternative "investigative" story--the alleged perfidy of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

It is this manichaean worldview--not the source or the management of his funds--that is the greatest flaw in Bill Moyers' journalistic output, whether his topic is the chemical industry, campaign finance reform, or anything else. And Stephen Hayes would have been well-advised to address it head-on, either objectively or as an open partisan, instead of launching his own little attempt at muckraking. Sadly, it seems that straying from the "investigative" formula is too much to ask of a journalist these days. Luckily for readers of this blog, I'm not a journalist.

No comments: