With the struggles of many old-line news media, it’s easy to forget how important real reporting is to informing citizens and defeating the forces of secrecy and propaganda.
Hard-hitting reporting that delivers facts and context is still vital, whatever the medium – print, radio, TV, cable access programming, websites, YouTube documentaries, and nonprofit news organizations such as my employer, the Center for Public Integrity.
With this in mind, I want to share some of my favorite books about investigative journalism – not so much how-to books as how-they-did-it books.
In no particular order:
- Once Upon a Distant War (1995) by William Prochnau. Epic tale of the young war correspondents – including David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Peter Arnett – who fought to tell the truth about the early days of America’s involvement in Vietnam. They faced hostility from U.S. officials as well as wiretapping and assassination threats from South Vietnamese intelligence agents. These reporters went to great lengths to beat military censors and other communications obstacles. Sheehan once sent out a 25-word coded message that his editors at UPI were able to translate into a 600-word scoop. In another instance, Arnett clamped a story between his teeth and swam across the Mekong River to find a place where he could transmit the news back home.
- Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (2008) by Steve Weinberg. More than a century ago, Tarbell set the standard for financial journalism, digging into the dirty deals and economic blackmail practiced by the nation’s oil monopoly.
- Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter (1982) by James Phelan. Page-turning memoir of one of the great magazine reporters of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Phelan was adept at unmasking manipulators and charlatans. He connected to dots on how Howard Hughes secretly funneled cash to Nixon’s ne’re-do-well brother Donald (who dreamed of starting a “Nixonburgers” fast-food chain). He also exposed a California con artist who’d hung out a shingle as a chiropractor and ripped off thousands of people, addressing heart problems, chest pains and other ailments with a simple cure-all: enemas. Phelan went undercover on the chiropractor story, by the way, posing as a patient and getting the full treatment. “It was a weird story, but I knew it was true,” Phelan’s editor on the piece later joked. “When he came in with the manuscript, he gurgled when he walked.” One of Phelan’s most important stories was his 1967 take-down of Jim Garrison, the erratic New Orleans district attorney who claimed – based on his own half-baked conspiracy theories – that he had “solved” the Kennedy assassination case. I can’t imagine, if Oliver Stone had read Phelan’s work, that he would have made JFK, the blockbuster film that portrayed Garrison in a (mostly) heroic light.
- Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979) by Jessica Mitford. Collection of articles by the writer/activist who, through her exposes of the funeral industry, correspondence schools and other corners of American life, became known as the “Queen of the Muckrakers.” See especially the chapter titled “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers.”
- 24 Days: How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered the Lies that Destroyed Faith in Corporate America (2003) by Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller. Fast-paced account of how the duo unearthed evidence of Enron’s far-ranging accounting dodges.
- I.F. Stone: A Portrait (1988) by Andrew Patner. Beautifully crafted life story of an American iconoclast. In the early 1950s, Stone’s lefty politics made him unemployable in the mainstream media, so he started his own newspaper, called it I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and proceeded to spend more than two decades writing what he wanted how he wanted.
- All the President’s Men (1974) by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In their later years, Woodward and Bernstein became celebrity journalists. Woodward, in particular, has become an “access journalist” who, some critics say, gets too close to his highly-placed sources (George W. Bush among them). But back when they were doing their reporting on Nixon and Watergate, the two young newspapermen were outsiders, shoe-leather reporters who talked to folks high and low, including secretaries and bookkeepers. Even as the president’s men used threats and hush money to try to silence everyone who had knowledge of the scandal, Woodward and Bernstein kept knocking on doors, piecing together threads of information into a portrait of a White House that thought it was above the law.
- The Investigative Journalist: Folk Heroes of a New Era (1976) by James Dygert. Fascinating bios of dozens of investigative reporters. Among my favorites: Jack White, a construction worker and tugboat captain turned Providence Journal reporter. His sleuthing forced a Congressional investigation of dubious income tax deductions claimed by President Nixon.
Another standout: Miriam Ottenberg, the Washington Star reporter who went undercover in the late 1950s to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Used Car Buyer Beware.” She followed with a string of copy-cat investigations — “Homeowner Beware,” “Investor Beware” and “Debtor Beware” — earning a name for herself around the nation’s capital as the “Beware Girl.” As a result of her reporting, she noted, “a bunch of new laws and new regulations passed, and a lot of bad guys have left town.”
- The Powers That Be (1979) by David Halberstam. Century-spanning tale of how media giants such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and CBS News rose to power and established their bona fides as news reporting organizations. Especially fascinating is the story of how the LA Times was transformed from a Fox News-like arm of the California Republican Party in the 1950s to become, by the ’70s, one of the nation’s great newspapers.
- Investigative Reporting: From Courthouse to White House (1981) by Clark R. Mollenhoff. Professional autobiography of a bulldog reporter who combined old-style muckraking with the expertise of a lawyer (which he was; he earned his law degree while working moonlighting as a cub reporter at the Des Moines Register). I first read this book in the early 1980s when Mollenhoff was a professor of mine at Washington and Lee University. I still return to it often for insights and inspiration. The prose isn’t scintillating, but the stories behind his stories are fascinating — including his brief kidnapping by small-time mobsters in Iowa and his press conference showdowns with President Eisenhower in Washington.
Jimmy Hoffa tried to get Mollenhoff to stop investigating Teamster frauds with a straight-forward offer of a bribe: “Now look here, Clark. They don’t pay newspaper reporters enough to be giving me the bad time you’re giving me. Everyone has his price. What’s yours?”
“Jimmy, you don’t have enough money,” Mollenhoff replied. “Let’s get on with the interview.”
New York-based Michael Hudson covers business and finance for ICIJ’s parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity. He is author of a new book, THE MONSTER: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America – and Spawned a Global Crisis (Times Books, October 2010). Noah Beigelmacher, a writing student at the New School University, provided assistance on this article.