Episode 156: How the “Investigative Journalism” Aesthetic Can Be Used to Launder Power-Serving Narratives
Citations Needed | March 2, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded.
Adam: Yes, we can’t stress that enough. So if you’ve listened to the show and you like the show, we do ask that you please go to Patreon and sign up, it really helps keep the episodes themselves free and keep the show sustainable. There are special little goodies for patrons little mini episodes we do now and then, over 100 so far in the backlog you can listen to, as well as newsletters, AMAs, and other little special goodies we try to do to reward our patrons, because again, they do make it possible for us to do this show.
Nima: “Investigative journalism.” It’s a term that conjures imagery of committed, industrious newsrooms like those in the Oscar-winning films All the President’s Men or Spotlight, filled with intrepid reporters dutifully scouring documents, scrutinizing photographs and taking secretive yet explosive phone calls at all hours of the night. It’s a rallying cry for TED Talkers and Brookings Institute essayists, many of whom extol the virtues of scrappy and scrupulous reportage that succeeds in taking down a crooked politician, exposing a company’s abusive policy, or otherwise changing the course of history.
Nima: It’s common to think of investigative journalism as an honorable line of work, after all, investigative reports have exposed powerful misdeeds, labor abuses, air and water pollution, and racism in healthcare. But this isn’t the only form of investigative reporting in the United States. Too often, stories characterized as well-meaning investigative reports — local-news pieces alerting viewers to the “dangers” of bail reform, or The New York Times scoops on government “leaks” demanding billions more for military spending — end up reinforcing the very power structures they’re supposedly supposed to be challenging.
Nima: While the title of “investigative journalist” is so often used as a catch-all term for a noble tireless, truth-seeking, deep-digging reporter who, like a determined fictional detective, follows a twisted trail of breadcrumbs to their blockbuster end, why should we assign valor to what can often merely be the lazy practice of government and corporate stenography or laundering intelligence or pro-police propaganda?
Adam: On today’s show, we’ll discuss the ways in which investigative journalism is portrayed as an inherent good even when it serves powerful interests, how professional norms in the journalism industry seek to remove power dynamics in deciding what leaks are important and who makes the leaks, and why investigative reporting without politics isn’t an inherently subversive or even particularly moral enterprise.
Nima: Later on the episode, we’ll be joined by Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Jim is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine.
Jim Naureckas: Corporate journalism has this definition of news that is very convenient for the powerful people who own corporate media, which is that news is defined as what the powerful say and do, and therefore to be practicing journalism, you have to be in a position to be told what the powerful are saying, you have to have your ear to the lips of the people in power and if you don’t have that, then you’re not an insider, and you’re not producing what is defined as the gold standard of news, and so you have to make sure that your reporting, the kind of journalism that you produce, is the kind that encourages the powerful to keep telling you things. That is the symbiosis between corporate journalists and powerful people that is at the heart of the corporate media enterprise.
Adam: So this is our obligatory and very common qualifier here: we are not against investigative journalism as such. Obviously, investigative journalism can be very important, very valuable, provide a lot of insight into how power works, again, expose wrongdoings, it can lead to meaningful or useful policy changes, investigative journalism that uncovers new information and exposes corruption in high places can and very often is a good thing. That is what we want to promote on the show. So we are not attacking.
Nima: It’s kind of why we do the show.
Adam: We want more of that. We are not anti-journalists in that sense. One thing we did notice and one thing we’ll go over in the show, is that many forms of laundering of state police, powerful interests, increasingly, we realize had sort of taken on the aesthetics of investigative journalism to lend it gravitas and to limit some sense that something secret has been revealed through hard work and diligence as opposed to what is effectively just doing PR for those in power. Now in many cases, there is some gray area. The general adage of journalism is like that of comedy, you want to punch up, right, that’s the idea, never punch down, punch up, sometimes it can be a little bit ambiguous as to whether or not you’re punching up or punching down, and we’ll discuss some of those edge cases. But in many cases, many of which will go over, things which have the aesthetic of investigative journalism, the kind of trappings, the long form, the keyhole satellites, the Excel spreadsheets, the FOIA requests, are really just stenography for power with a different aesthetic label.
Nima: Yes, it’s become for corporate media, almost a branding convention, right? If you promote your investigative journalism vertical, or certain investigative journalists, you’re doing so to lend an element of integrity, of seriousness of gravitas, as you said Adam, to what you’re doing, as opposed to maybe what you’re then describing as the other kind of journalism that you do. There’s a differentiator when you say, ‘Well, this is the regular journalism, and this is the investigative journalism,’ and so we wanted to tease that out, the aesthetics of what that means, not the actual act necessarily of what journalists do all the time to get that moniker of investigative journalism, although we will go into that, but it really is this aesthetic, it’s this brand. What does that descriptor mean?
Adam: Yeah, because journalism without politics is like running for office without politics. Running for office is not inherently good, it can be, but that is your politics is an essential part of that question, without an understanding of what the politics are, what the power dynamics are, and calibrating for those power dynamics, then it’s not inherently good or bad, it is value neutral.
Nima: So to start, we’re going to talk about some of the history of the term investigative journalism. Now investigative reporting as we know it in the United States is widely thought to have surfaced first in the 17th century, with British colonial America’s first newspapers. University of Maryland Journalism professor Mark Feldstein traces its origins to the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, and you know it is old timey because “publick” is spelled with a “ck” on the end, as is “domestick.” Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, the very first colonial newspaper in North America whose revelations were so bombastic they prompted swift rebuke from the powers that be. Feldstein writes that the paper’s very first issue, published on September 25, 1690, quote:
…exposed allegedly ‘barbarous’ human rights abuses of French prisoners of war and a supposed sex scandal in which the king of France ‘used to lie with’ his ‘Sons Wife.’ Four days later, British authorities shut down the newspaper; its first issue was also its last.
Investigative reports would continue to fill broadsheets and tabloids alike through the 18th century and after the Revolutionary War. At that time, newspapers were chiefly funded by political parties, and any exposés they published focused on corruption among political rivals; in one case, The National Gazette, the paper of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, exposed several aids of Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton for insider trading of government bonds. By the 19th century, abolitionists, early union organizers, and other activists were founding their own newspapers, with reportage of far greater moral heft, but far smaller circulation.
Adam: Things began to change toward the end of the 19th century, as newspapers moved away from a partisan-funding model and toward a more commercial one. At the time, populations were becoming concentrated in urban areas, and newspaper production technologies were growing cheaper and more efficient, allowing for greater circulation in metropolitan areas.
In the early 20th century, from roughly 1900 to 1912, investigative journalism interrogating abuses of corporations and government alike accelerated. Respected reporters of the time like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair famously exposed municipal and corporate crimes. But this genre wasn’t without limitations. As Feldstein explains, quote:
In general, the muckrakers targeted corporate wrongdoing, government misbehavior, and social injustice; they viewed all three as interconnected to each other and to systemic problems spawned by the U.S. Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless, they were for the most part reformers, not radicals. Tarbell’s exposé, for example, focused on how Standard Oil’s ruthless tactics against competitors led to higher prices for the consumer, not the corporation’s exploitation of workers or proposals to nationalize it. Although some of the muckrakers became socialists — most famously, Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens — most of them believed in reforming capitalism, which they realized had not only spawned the many injustices that they decried but also the reform journalism that made it profitable to document these abuses in the first place.
Decades later, investigative journalism would be cemented as an institution, a distinct and distinguished subset of the occupation of reporter. The 1970s saw the founding of IRE, which stands for Investigative Reporters & Editors, a nonprofit founded by journalists that holds training and annual conferences for investigative journalists.
Nima: IRE spearheaded the Arizona Project, a collaborative investigative report developed to continue the work of one of IRE’s founders, Don Bolles, after his 1976 death. Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, had been investigating land fraud involving politicians and possibly the mafia, and was presumed to have been killed in association with his story. By many accounts, the Arizona Project, which continued Bolles’s work, exposed “corruption,” including mob ties, among the highest ranks of Arizona politics, garnering publication in newspapers across the country, but the usefulness and effects of the report are dubious. A 2016 article in Arizona newspaper AZCentral notes, quote:
According to the IRE, the team’s efforts prompted legislation to pump more money into a narcotics enforcement effort. The state House of Representatives proposed more — and tougher — laws regarding land fraud. Local businesses pooled their money and vowed to study and repair Arizona’s flawed governmental structure that allowed for corruption. The project also raised awareness — locally and nationally — as to the mafia’s presence in Arizona.
End quote. The article continues, quote:
Looking back on the project 30 years later, journalists tend to agree that the work was flawed — too broad, too accepting of authorities’ version of events, too speculative.
Now IRE was founded during the same decade the Watergate scandal was unveiled — an event that’s commonly upheld as one of the most important investigations in the history of US journalism. The Watergate investigation is also popularly thought to have reinvigorated the genre of investigative reporting after a dormant period during the two World Wars and the McCarthy era. But, like the Arizona Project, the Watergate investigations exemplified the blind spots of investigative reporting as it’s commonly understood.
Adam: It’s useful to consider the context in which FBI Deputy Associate Director W. Mark Felt, AKA Deep Throat, leaked the information that provoked the investigative work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. After former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 after five decades of running the FBI, the Nixon administration sought to appoint someone from the outside, Nixon loyalist Patrick Gray, in order to maintain its control. The FBI harbored a grudge against Nixon, viewing him as attempting to wrest power from the organization, while Felt, often described as a Hoover sycophant, resented Nixon for not appointing him to be Hoover’s successor. Thus, one of the prime animating forces of the scandal was an internal power struggle between the FBI and Nixon, which again, doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t useful public information and good reporting, but key context about why we knew this information and not other information.
Nima: Right. Why did the leaks happen? Why was the leaker the leaker?
Adam: Right, that context at least gives a sense that this was in many ways a DC power struggle between two competing pillars of the federal government, and yet our collective memory is that these two reporters sort of heroically exposed Nixon absent these other power considerations. Ironically enough, to this day, Woodward and Bernstein, are credited with bringing down Nixon, which is something they themselves actually deny they were really a part of. This was brought about by, of course, in 1976 film All the President’s Men, they have, again, perhaps due to humility, they’ve denied that they’ve actually done that, not to sort of trivialize that accomplishment, because obviously, the Washington Post reporting the Watergate exposed a lot of misdeeds Nixon did and did contribute to the environment that brought down his presidency. But again, it was an internal power play from Mark Felt, which is context that we didn’t really know until several decades later.
Nima: So this is actually a really good place to stop for a second and talk about how vague the definition of what we understand as investigative journalism really is. Definitions of this term vary widely, there is no one authoritative explanation of what constitutes investigative journalism, what distinguishes it from other journalism, or exactly what type of ideology grounds the abuses and secrets that investigative journalists should be opposing and exposing. Instead, it seems, most institutionally backed journalistic organizations can agree on a definitive process of investigative journalism. According to the Global Investigative Journalism Network, a US-based, big philanthropy-funded nonprofit, quote, “there is broad agreement of its major components: systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, often involving the unearthing of secrets,” end quote. Now, this vagueness, and concentration on defining process rather than moral position, exposes the discipline to forces that can weaken its power and render it an ultimately power-serving entity. For example, in 1991, former Northwestern journalism professor David Protess wrote in his book The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America this, quote:
Investigative journalists are reformers not revolutionaries. They seek to improve the American system by pointing out its shortcomings rather than advocating its overthrow. By spotlighting specific abuses of particular policies or programs,the investigative reporter provides policy makers with the opportunity to take corrective actions without changing the distribution of power.
Now all of this said, it is certainly possible, as we well know, to do inspiring, important and powerful investigative journalism, it has been done many, many times throughout history, and this episode — I think we can’t stress enough Adam — is certainly not meant to trivialize or ignore that. But we do want to dig into how this term and the notion of a specifically trustworthy, truth-revealing field of journalism is often used to bolster those with power rather than blow the whistle on them.
Adam: So let’s give some examples of how the aesthetics of investigative reporting can be misused, that punch down targeting incarcerated people, immigrants, workers, poor Black and brown people. So we’re going to go over some of those examples. We’ll start off with bail reform. This is actually what sort of sparked this episode was that if one looks at a lot of the anti-bail reform coverage from local media, both print and TV news, over the past year and a half, two years, a lot of it is put into this kind of investigative journalism aesthetic. So, a February 2020 piece in the Chicago Tribune had all the tropes, it had the sort of picture inserts of women looking out of a window — I don’t know why they always have that — the pull quotes are very long.
Nima: Because there’s gravitas, pathos.
Adam: And this quote-unquote “investigative report” entitled, “Bail reform analysis by Cook County chief judge based on flawed data, undercounts new murder charges.” This was put under its investigation section. The article argues that Cook County Judge Timothy Evans issued a report in defense of bail reform that undercounted murders and other violent crimes allegedly committed by people out on bail. According to the article, Evans’ report stated that there was no increase in violent crime after judges began reducing or eliminating bail for pretrial defendants. One example of the investigation’s quote-unquote “findings” was that, quote:
Evans’ analysis included only those defendants whose initial charge was a felony; it excluded those charged with a misdemeanor, which is far more common. Five of the murder defendants found by the Tribune had bonded out of jail on misdemeanor charges. Four of them had past felony convictions from attempted murder to armed robbery, and three had served prison time.
The article cites Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Sheriff Tom Dart, and “other law enforcement officials” to fearmonger about releasing, quote “people with violent charges and backgrounds” back into their neighborhoods. The article is also loaded with mugshots and photos of grieving parents.
Nima: So the investigation is basically asking the Chicago mayor, sheriff and other cops to lock more people up. That’s what the investigation found.
Adam: Yeah, because there is supposedly some liberal conspiracy that really just wants to keep people out on the streets for some bizarre reason. Even though these bail reforms were hard fought over years, and of course, there’s always, always, always going to be a risk that if you get rid of imprisoning people, that those people when they leave, some percent will commit some crime. Again, the only way you can avoid this eventuality is to lock up everyone in jail. It’s just something that is a really easy thing to demagogue about, because it seems bad. You let out these violent offenders. Well, they’re not in for something that’s violent, that’s why they’re out.
Adam: These are misdemeanor charges.
Nima: But the patina of an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune here, really casts the Cook County Judge, Timothy Evans, who made the, you know, argument, made the recommendation in defense of bail reform, it casts him as the villain for having hidden things, right, that the investigation by the Tribune revealed and exposed.
Adam: Right and this happens time and again, oftentimes with sourcing from pro police organizations, the police themselves or police unions. There was a Chicago Tribune article two months later with the headline, “Two charities have bailed scores of felony defendants out of Cook County Jail. Some were soon charged with new crimes.” This was also put in the investigation section. CBS 6 Albany, September 24, 2020, “CBS 6 Investigates: Flaws in bail reform laws pointed to as root cause for spike in crime.” All the sources were sheriffs except two, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s senior advisor and Albany County DA’s office, which are themselves very anti-bail reform.
Nima: Very deep investigative probing there.
Adam: There’s one throw away paragraph where they say activists, you know, oppose this blah, blah, blah, but mostly it’s just a police reprint.
Nima: Now local news, in addition to being very pro police, are obsessed with health code violations and exposing them through what they call “investigations.” Across the country, from the “7 On Your Side Investigates” series from New York City’s ABC 7 Eyewitness News to NBC4 in Los Angeles’ “I-Team,” local media issue multiple recurring forms of so-called “investigative reports” that overwhelmingly punish poor and disenfranchised people. And one of the most common tropes here is the exposé of health code violations at often immigrant-owned restaurants, and overtures to populism that advance a right-wing agenda.
Adam: Yeah, so anyone who grew up in the Houston area in the ’80s and ’90s knows about Marvin Zindler, who was the face of the “slime and mold,” “rats and roaches,” “slime in the icebox” reports for KTRK, Houston, Texas, the ABC affiliate in Houston. He pretty much pioneered this genre of investigative reporting where he would basically go to some poor schmuck’s restaurant, there was no real investigation, but it sort of felt like it was, you know, they call it the ABC News Investigation Team, but basically what they did is the health code would just publicly publish something and they would look it up in the morning and then they would look at who the baddies were and they would go to those restaurants and they would, you know, with a camera and talk about all the other gross stuff they would have.
Dave Ward: Several restaurants near downtown Houston and a fortune cookie company are on the health department’s list of places that voluntarily closed to clean up and Action 13’s Marvin Zindler is here to tell all, Marvin.
Marvin Zindler: Well, Dave, roaches, rodents and filthy equipment were among the reasons why health inspectors asked these places to voluntarily close to shape up. Leo’s popular coffee shop downtown on Fenton was infested with mice and roaches.
Nima: Now, we also encourage you not just to listen to some of these Marvin Zindler reports which we’re playing today, but do look them up on YouTube. These were TV reports, and Zindler himself has an amazing shock of white hair and just fantastic, fantastic early ’80s aesthetic, so encourage you to actually watch the videos. They’re a treat.
Adam: Yeah, and it’s not as if health code violations are not bad. Obviously they are, although anyone who’s worked in the restaurant business knows they can be a little bit capricious. At best, it’s punching sideways, right? Is it the best use of news resources to go name and shame random, small immigrant owned restaurants? I don’t know, probably not. There’s probably more, more urgent and important acts of corruption in government and corporate malpractice. But of course that is just laid to him every morning on a conveyor belt by the health department because the health department effectively will just tell you who the violators are. John Stossel emerged from a similar brand of journalism, you know, initially he was someone who supposedly looked at bad products, and he would do product reviews on local news and then later on ABC, and then eventually after you start watching it, you’re like, ‘Well, okay,’ and then when he did it, he would insert a lot of libertarian schlock and then eventually you’re like, ‘Well, who is he really going after?’ Because there’s this whole assumption that the consumer is the most important constituent, the consumer has rights, and ‘I’m defending the consumer.’ So it still operates within a very heavily consumerist framework about who the most important moral constituent is. There was never a Marv Zindler report about wage theft, about corporations abusing their workers or preventing them from unionizing, it was only the perspective of the consumer who was sort of seen as the only relevant constituent.
Nima: Now of course, this kind of health code investigation genre, pioneered by Marvin Zindler in the early ’80s, has continued endlessly. You can find it anywhere: “Restaurant Report Card: Roaches, slime found by health department inspectors,” this is all over the place. But we also want to talk about how local news stations also like to warn about issues like “unemployment” fraud under the guise of, again, protecting working Americans, protecting the all-important consumer, particularly during the pandemic.
Adam: The taxpayer.
Nima: Yeah, under the guise of protecting working Americans. This ultimately places the blame on imagined cadres of so-called criminals rather than on government’s deputized to disburse payments, and not examining why people might need more money than they’re even promised in these subsidies, while implicitly making the case for unemployment crackdowns. We see this all over, especially in the early days of the pandemic in 2020. There was a June 19, 2020 investigation by CBS 58 Milwaukee, it warns that the state of Wisconsin has been too slow to quote, “move forward with unemployment fraud cases against three men,” end quote. It also fearmongers that Wisconsin paid out an excess of $13.3 million in unemployment benefits in 2019, and reports that quote, “$4.7 million of that was fraud, the other $8.6 million was money that went to people who got more than they should have,” end quote.
Adam: Oh, no. Stealing from taxpayers. KATV Little Rock August 2020 headlined, “Fraudulent unemployment claims continue; local police department inundated with calls.” Which had the whole investigative reporting aesthetic. The Detroit News the same month, the headline read, quote, “Feds: State worker helped steal $1M in pandemic aid.” Quote:
A state of Michigan employee teamed with his barber’s wife to steal more than $1 million in unemployment money meant to help people endure the COVID-19 pandemic, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
So you have this idea that the crime is always a sort of misallocation of resources. You see welfare fraud, unemployment fraud. Whereas, in September of 2021, all these programs were just quietly sunsetted, the child tax credit December 31, of 2021 quietly sunsetted. Child poverty, new numbers show, has since increased by 41 percent, roughly 3.7 million children reentered poverty after the child tax credit was abandoned. No investigative report into how that happened really, you don’t really see that, there’s not a lot of headlines about the sort of corrupt system that makes that happen, right? So children going into poverty —
Nima: But the barber’s wife —
Adam: Right, is the greatest scandal ever. Because again, there’s this idea that the taxpayer and the consumer are the relevant parties here, and that letting the tens of thousands of people freezing to death who are homeless, are not really seen as being a scandal. And of course, the problem historically with unemployment is very rarely missed payments or overpayments, it’s underpayments. It’s how difficult it is, how opaque it is, especially during the early days of the pandemic, it took people months to get paid. This is not viewed as a scandal in urgent need of investigation, and so this kind of good government veneer is really just the way of nickel and diming social programs meant to help the poor.
Nima: One of the other underlying themes of investigative reporting, particularly in media coded as prestigious is, well to put it charitably, politically dubious sourcing, an over reliance on US military and intelligence departments without the counterweight of activists or people who are in vulnerable positions, and a deference to corporate interests without any consideration of why that might be. Calling something investigative journalism, immediately garners prestige, right? So The New York Times published a series of “investigative reports” on ISIS starting back in 2014 by a star reporter marketed as a leading expert on the Islamic State, Rukmini Callimachi. Callimachi’s reports cautioned that ISIS was surreptitiously recruiting America’s sons and daughters, but really her only sources were intelligence officials and their sympathizers.
For instance, in June 2015, Callimachi wrote in the piece, ISIS and the Lonely Young American” a story of a nice white Sunday school teacher in rural Washington who fell prey to online circles that converted her to Islam and recruited her into ISIS. Sources in the investigation include a host of unidentified “analysts,” a Western-friendly, quote, “Middle East expert,” and a, quote, “former member and recruiter for an extremist Islamist group” end quote, who went on to become — what else? — a counterterrorism operative eventually.
Almost two years later, in February 2017, Callimachi wrote the article, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar,” in which Callimachi quote-unquote “exposes” ISIS “cyberplanners” who coached recruits to embrace violence and carry out attacks. The article uncritically cites the neocon think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as an authoritative source on these quote-unquote “virtual plotters.” Other sources in the piece include a quote-unquote “threat analyst” at the “counterterrorism” watchdog group Valens Global, the Department of Defense, and throughout law enforcement. The article also mentions Emmanuel Lutchman as an ISIS recruit coached to attack a Rochester bar on New Year’s Eve 2015; Lutchman was an homeless Rochester resident who became a victim of — what else, Adam? — an FBI entrapment plot.
Adam: Yeah, so I have a personal story with Callimachi. When the Garland attacks happened in May of 2015, she was online saying how she had found evidence, online evidence that ISIS had been directing the Garland plots, which would have been I think, at that time, the first time ISIS had actually directed or ran an actual terror plot on US soil versus what they usually do, which is where an FBI persona or FBI undercover or informant runs it in, it ends up being kind of fake. So I thought this was quite extraordinary, and then I asked her for her evidence — this is back when I worked at Alternet, so I don’t actually have the email, but I remember distinctly — I said, ‘Can you send me the social media conversations?’ And she sent me, she just forwarded me a bunch of emails from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the pro Israel, very right-wing, basically wants to bomb Iran, just some hazy screencaps they sent her. I don’t know if they’re true, they may have made it up. FDD has lied a lot. FDD basically ran a lot of ant- terrorist stuff under Trump. They’re obviously someone we’ve talked about a lot in the show, very hardcore pro Israel, it seemed rather dubious. And then later, a couple years later, it was revealed that the Garland, Texas Mohammed cartoon that I initially asked for evidence on, that Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, the perpetrators the attack, were in heavy conversations with the FBI, an FBI informant the night before the attacks told him to tear up Texas, and an FBI agent was actually present at the scene.
Man #1: Another batch of documents by the government revealing the biggest surprise of all, the undercover agent was in a car directly behind Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi when they started shooting. This cell phone photo of school security guard Bruce Joyner and police officer Greg Stevens was taken by the undercover agent seconds before the attack.
Man #2: The idea that he’s taking a photograph of the two people who happen to be attacked moments before they’re attacked.
Man #1: Is stunning.
Man #2: I mean, talk about being in the right or the wrong place at the right or the wrong time.
Man #3: The idea that he’s right there 30 seconds before the attack happens is just incredible to me.
Man #1: What would you want to ask the undercover agent?
Man #2: I would love to ask the undercover agent: Are these the only communications that you had with Simpson? Did you have more communications with Simpson? How is it that you ended up coming to Garland, Texas? Why are you even there?
Adam: Right, so there was an FBI person present, at no point was Callimachi at all interested in any potential FBI involvement in real time when the news was being submitted because it veered off of her beat, which was to treat ISIS as this kind of discreet, fully independent organization, the perceptions of which were not informed by many of the very evident at that time, and we now know much more evident later looking back, were not inflated by these kinds of FBI or sans FBI plots or entrapment plots. So even a quote-unquote “ISIS attack” that was successful, and by the way, later, the official story now is that ISIS had no direct communication at all with him. In fact, there was an online ISIS persona run by Joshua Ryan Goldberg, who was an internet troll, and his persona was retweeted by one of the attackers that was supposedly the connection between ISIS — oh, no, no, that’s bullshit, it’s just some weirdo troll online — and that this was very much curated by the FBI. And no point in her “investigations,” quote-unquote, into ISIS recruiting, because I asked her this all the time, I was like, we have several reports of all these, you know, we discussed this in Episode 31, all these fake ISIS plots, we know that the FBI runs Twitter accounts, and we know that they run Facebook and websites, this stuff is publicly known, ‘How do you as a reporter distinguish between what’s real ISIS content and what’s inflated by, again, either an internet troll or the FBI themselves? Or any other intelligence service? Like how can you make that distinction?’ She showed absolutely zero interest in asking that question. None. The thought had not even occurred to her. ISIS was this thing far away, and it was recruiting our white daughters and kids, and we all had to hide under the bed, and the idea that the threat could have maybe been somewhat inflated by intelligence services for maybe cynical ends or maybe because these entrapment schemes oftentimes, this one in particular, of course, got out of hand, never even occurred to her because, again, she had this beat, she had this aesthetic, and then it turned out, of course, later Nima, that her Peabody award winning podcast was based on similar amounts of bullshit.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. So her podcast Caliphate, which was produced by The New York Times, award winning, she herself, Callimachi, is a multi-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, but Caliphate, her podcast, purported to chronicle the rise and fall of ISIS, revolving around an alleged ISIS member named Abu Huzayfah. Now Callimachi was not sure, at least in the first few episodes, which was routinely one of the most listened to and popular podcasts when it was on early in its run, she even admitted she wasn’t sure if his story was true. But nevertheless, the podcast proceeded. In September of 2020, it was finally revealed that Huzayfah had lied about being an ISIS member, undermining literally the entire podcast and more broadly The New York Times’s approach to what they were touting as this bold investigative reporting.
Back in 2018, writer Rafia Zakaria wrote a prescient criticism of the Caliphate podcast saying this, quote:
Billed as an unraveling of the mystery that is the Islamic State, Caliphate features Callimachi as star and narrator, an intrepid journalist who is human enough to be paranoid and yet journalist enough to be daring. Caliphate is also a new model of Western journalism, where the journalist is the moral hero, simultaneously a reporter and a protector of Western (read “good”) values. If she hunts and preys on her subject, takes liberties with journalistic ethics and likely even in assurances she makes to her subjects, the sum of it is all forgiven, given the larger noble purpose of fighting terror.
Adam: Yeah, and so again, you have this, because it fits within this aesthetic of this intrepid investigative journalism. The fact that Callimachi was just regurgitating pro war propaganda, because again at the time, you know, US was bombing Iraq, it was bombing Syria, it was having dozens of these FBI entrapment schemes, there was a real threat inflation, there’s a real kind of pretext for the US to be quote-unquote “reengaging” back in Iraq, and then engaging for the first time in Syria — land, by the way, they still occupy in northeastern Syria — that there were real stakes here, that there was a war being pitched to us in a sense, and that to make it feel at home, to make it feel visceral for people that really care, because at this point, people were very fatigued by the war on terror, you had to have the stories of the scary white daughter being sent off to ISIS. Some of that was probably true. Again, I don’t doubt that maybe, I know that at one point, they said 150 Americans went to fight with ISIS, and then, immediately after the US started bombing Syria, literally the next day, the AP quoted the FBI and quietly reduced it to a dozen, which is a big difference.
So there was an effort to really drive home this idea that Americans were going off in droves to fight with ISIS and Callimachi was a huge part of that. So it makes sense that a lot of her sources would be bullshit, or she would have missed major stories like the FBI involvement in the Garland attack, because that didn’t fit in that narrative, because she wasn’t investigating power, she wasn’t using The New York Times’s tremendous resources to investigate the extent to which the FBI was recruiting and entrapping these mentally unwell Muslims, which would have been a real challenge to power, it was just this schlocky liberal “Oh, dearest” reporting about how horrible ISIS was. Now ISIS obviously was very horrible, especially to the people in the territories it controlled, but it was never really a risk to these kinds of American sons and daughters they tried to paint it as because otherwise people wouldn’t have given a shit, right? It had to have this kind of homefront mentality to justify all this constant surveillance and entrapping, and so because it fit into this investigative journalism, this power-serving and I think — as this writer makes very prescient predictions — is a pro war narrative. It isn’t really possible without the trappings of the intrepid investigative reporter.
Nima: Those trappings of the investigative report, I think, are seen throughout what Vice magazine often produces, right Adam? So whether it’s Vice investigations that are published on their website, or in the Vice News series. So there was one episode from April 2021, called “How Children in Yemen Became Collateral Damage,” that incidentally, despite being a Vice News investigative report that you’re supposed to watch, omits any mention of the Saudi blockade.
Adam: Yeah, so it was retweeted by the Saudi backed Yemeni government enthusiastically. It is basically a commercial for the Saudi government. But it had all the tropes, the caravans, the ridealongs, the flak jackets, the sort of new information exposed where they basically spent half an hour talking about Houthi war crimes, an effort by anti-war activists to get the US to lift the blockade on Yemen, whereas this video basically made the argument for blockade. Now, two months prior to the publication of this, Vice opened an office in Saudi Arabia and took a contract with Saudi Research & Marketing Group, a soft-power arm of the Saudi regime. It was 2018 when Vice had a contract with the Saudi soft power arm for several million dollars and after the Khashoggi murder in 2018 Vice said it was reexamining its relationship. But then it kind of blew over and then in 2020, this was revealed by the Guardian on February 1 of this year, that Vice was paid $20 million to secretly produce and provide content for a music festival in Saudi Arabia, was paid directly by the Saudi government. And so while Vice is doing this kind of flak jacket, investigative reporters and the people, you know, the reporters, these are respectable reporters, who were just told, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this thing on Houthi war crimes,’ and probably didn’t think about the context, they were receiving millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia.
Adam: And so it has this kind of aesthetic of investigative journalism, we’re going to go, we’re going to expose the Houthi war crimes. But obviously, it’s just a commercial for a corrupt regime that’s killed over 100,000 Yemeni, so this is sort of an example of how this aesthetic launders the real power dynamics here, because otherwise, it would just read like a PR commercial. But if you have the flak jacket, and ‘the new documents reveal,’ and all the kind of tropes, it doesn’t necessarily read as a commercial for the Saudi government, which is ultimately what it was. We know this because they gave them millions of dollars, which they wouldn’t have done if they had exposed Saudi war crimes, and I actually wrote about this for my Substack and did an exhaustive research of Vice News since they started taking money from Saudi Arabia and found zero critical coverage since their arrangement began in spring of 2021, and so again, I don’t think this is possible without the kind of investigative aesthetic.
Nima: Because it lends the credibility for what you are either watching or reading or hearing, that there has been care taken, right? That there’s resources and time behind this. I think that’s what the investigative reporting aesthetic really shorthands, that it’s not just a bunch of folks sitting in front of their laptops who are expected to post 15 different listicles a day or kind of launder police reports through blotter type stories. Investigative reporting has this idea, this aesthetic to it, as we’ve been talking, of taking your time, doing the work, doing the hard, grueling work of what journalism should be, and so because of that, it has that kind of credibility, it has an authenticity to it. And so then when it all falls apart, whether it’s the Callamachi Caliphate story or Vice News saying that they’re talking about how Yemeni children are collateral damage but barely mentioning Saudi Arabia’s violence, it really does harm the notion of what investigative journalism is purported to be.
Adam: Yeah, independent of politics and power analysis these concepts don’t really have any value. In fact, they can be sinister.
Nima: To talk more about this, we’re now going to be joined by Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Jim is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine. Jim will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jim Naureckas, a favored guest on Citations Needed. Thank you so much for joining us, again.
Jim Naureckas: My pleasure to be here.
Adam: So yeah, when we were developing this episode, it occurred to me that this was kind of a pure media criticism theme, and as such, we needed a seasoned media critic such as yourself to come on to help us thread the needle, because of course, we don’t want to be anti journalist. I know, again, we’ve been accused of that, I know you have too, and I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think what is interesting, at least from our perspective, which is worth interrogating, is these professional norms, these tropes that I think develop into an aesthetic, that I think independent of political considerations are a real kind of thorough understanding of power dynamics, can begin to be co opted or descend into power serving aesthetic choices, and so we’ve been talking about that for the better part of 45 minutes now, and I kind of want to begin by asking you to find terms here to set the table. How do you, in your view, define investigative journalism in a normative sense, when is it a good thing, and what primary features must it entail for it to be considered real investigative journalism?
Jim Naureckas: I think it was John Hess, who’s a veteran of The New York Times, who wrote a lot for FAIR, sort of our old school journalist mentor, who said that all journalism is supposed to be investigative journalism.
Jim Naureckas: Because journalism is not reprinting press releases, it is finding out things that people don’t want found out and exposing them, and when you are doing the most routine, mundane journalism, it’s your job to make sure that the information that you are being handed is in fact true, you should be investigating whether the school boards report on school lunches is actually accurate or are they trying to fool you about what they’re feeding your kids. So investigation is something that all journalism should involve and I think journalists have that understanding somewhere in the back of their mind that that is what they’re supposed to be doing. The problem is that corporate journalism has this definition of news that is very convenient for the powerful people who own corporate media, which is that news is defined as what the powerful say and do and therefore, to be practicing journalism, you have to be in a position to be told what the powerful are saying, you have to have your ear to the lips of the people in power, and if you don’t have that, then you’re not an insider, and you’re not producing what is defined as the gold standard of news, and so you have to make sure that you’re reporting, the kind of journalism you produce is the kind that encourages the powerful to keep telling you things. That is the symbiosis between corporate journalists and powerful people that is at the heart of the corporate media enterprise.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, it’s amazing how some of the so-called “top” journalists are the ones that the CIA has on speed dial and vice versa.
Jim Naureckas: Exactly.
Nima: That Ken Dilanian, and is like, ‘Oh, well, I have a lot of sources in the intelligence industry,’ and that somehow makes him a better journalist? As opposed to a launderer of CIA PR. I don’t know. It’s kind of a curious relationship there.
Jim Naureckas: And that is, incidentally, why insider journalists tend to be so resentful of people like Edward Snowden, because by grabbing secrets wholesale and distributing them, they’re undercutting the whole enterprise, which is based on the doling out of secrets on a retail basis.
Nima: Yeah, I think we’re talking here about that kind of prestige level journalism, what is now part of the Woodward/Bernstein style, but I’d like to take us in a completely different direction, Jim, if you don’t mind. One of the goofier manifestations of this is the use of local news tropes, News 4 Investigates or 7 On Your Side, that kind of convention from your nightly news that is so often used not to do deep investigations of things that can improve people’s material lives, but rather to target things like bail reform or people who are unhoused or other vulnerable populations, usually around urban areas, although not exclusively, as we have seen, you know, God forbid someone is a squeegee guy under a highway overpass in rural Florida, that’s going to make the news too. The New York Post does this all the time, it investigates voter fraud, right, or welfare abuse or some other kind of right-wing boogeyman? How, Jim, does employing the quote-unquote “investigation” framework immediately recast power serving hit jobs as scrappy detective sagas?
Jim Naureckas: People have grown up in our culture, they’re familiar with the fact that powerful people often lied to them, you know, the idea that you should be skeptical of pronouncements of things said directly by the powerful, I think is a pretty widespread feeling in our culture, because people have have brains and notice what’s going on. And so a good way to disarm people and make them trust what they would otherwise not trust is to present, rather than presenting this as, ‘Here’s what the powerful people want you to believe,’ they say, ‘Here’s something that we found out through diligent investigation, they didn’t want you to know that the squeegee man under the bridge is really a millionaire.’
Jim Naureckas: People have various, you know, rubrics that they use to figure out what is true, what is not, you know, it’s very complicated, it’s a difficult process trying to sort through what is true and what is not. I would say that, that is why we have a special professional called journalists, because they’re supposed to do that. But they don’t do that generally, that is not what they are in fact employed to do by the people who sign their checks, and so we don’t have an easy way of turning to trusted professionals who can assure you that something is either true or false. So we have these rules of thumb about how we gauge whether something is true or not. I don’t want to get into a long tangent, but I think that is at root what a lot of vaccine skepticism is about is people applying rubrics about what you should believe and what you shouldn’t believe.
Adam: You know, it’s funny, I was actually going to bring that up, because I think that’s sort of a good example of what the basic foundations of quote-unquote “right-wing populism” are, which is to take this kind of vague cultural skepticism or sense that power is lying to you, which I think everyone kind of agrees with, right? Which is why you can make these sort of fatuous statements like ‘Oh, the powerful line,’ like 99 percent of people agree with that, right? And you channel it into something that’s faux subversive, like people generally hate Big Pharma, right? People know that their diabetes pen costs $1,000. They know they’re gouged every time to go to the emergency room, there’s an intuitive sense. So it would logically follow that we’d be skeptical of vaccines. But of course, that’s totally misdirecting where the skepticism lies, which is to say, if Eli Lilly makes $1,000 diabetes pen, and price gouges people, the solution is not to not take diabetes medicine, it is to nationalize and to distribute it for free.
Adam: So this is, without a power analysis, none of this fucking means anything. This is where I think we get into the idea of professional norms and I find so many of these professional norms, these kind of 10,000 word investigations into the evil crimes of some foreign state — which will be my next question — and people share it, it’s got 15,000 words, and it sort of has the aesthetic and I’m like, okay, but the CIA could have just published that, you know, why introduce a third party at all, and this kind of goes into one of the other tropes, you know, domestically, we have police that do this, obviously, bail reform, public housing abuse, whatever sort of thing that the police or the right-wing forces in Albany or wherever Sacramento want to leak. But of course, this kind of investigative aesthetic also works with reports on foreign enemies. Certainly, to some extent there can be news value to that. I don’t want to diminish it. I’m not saying that American publications should never do investigations into enemy states, because I do think for some of the domestic population those things can be useful, but in the aggregate, I think it’s fair to say that we hear about the enemy crimes of other states, I don’t know 10 to one? 100 to one? Iran, China, Russia, name it, Venezuela, and that this kind of outsized focus, on average, gives people an impression that — this is not a terribly original point, Noam Chomsky made it 30 years ago — that we don’t really sort of calibrate where these leaks are coming from, that there’s a reason why they’re given certain information, there’s a lot of parallel construction, there’s a lot of selective leaking going on, and that happens with enemy states against our government as well, which we can get into later, but I want to sort of talk about how the average media consumer kind of calibrates for that. We obviously saw a lot of this during Russiagate where, you know, Russia would fart and it was front page news on CNN, and it’s sort of, at a certain point, you got numb to it. It’s like, yeah, okay, Russia is a baddie, we get it, and they kept leaking all these different, you know, disinformation stories for a two-year period, and it’s very obvious what the source of all those stories were, it was the CIA or FBI or NSA, because that’s the only people who could have that information.
Jim Naureckas: I think from a media consumer point of view, one thing that is very important is when you see an anonymous source, you should ask yourself, why is the source anonymous? And it’s generally for one of two reasons. One is that they’re saying something that is contrary to the interests of their employer and they are anonymous because if it was known who was saying it, they would be fired, and that is, in our view, the legitimate use of anonymity is to allow truths that would otherwise not get out to be released. The much more common use of anonymity is to have something that an organization wants to get out, is hoping that as part of their institutional agenda, people will believe it, and they want it to be done anonymously to make it impossible to hold them accountable when it turns out that these things are not true.
Adam: Or they’re true in a very selective way.
Nima: Or they’re true and that’s just really fucked up.
Adam: Well, right. I mean, because this is, yeah, that’s the thing that I keep coming across when we’re, that there’s this kind of professional norm. I’ll give you an example. I remember, when all the DNC hacks came out in 2016, on the eve of the election, I recited the sort of simple trope of like, ‘Oh, well, it’s public information, we should all know it,’ and to some extent I still believe that’s true, but then someone said to me, well, if on the eve of the election Bernie Sanders had won the nomination and Mossad hacked all the Bernie Sanders emails and selectively leaked things to make him look bad, would you be okay with that? And I was like, well, no, I wouldn’t be okay with that, because the source does matter, and to that extent, I do think that maybe some of that stuff was maybe mishandled. Now, of course, no one ever sheds a tear for the other side of the equation where we do nothing but vomit out CIA and NSA propaganda all day, but I was sort of sympathetic to that argument, because the source does matter, the geopolitical context matters a lot, and I guess what I’m asking you is, to what extent can we even begin to sort of interrogate that? Because I know even The Intercept, the whole investigation about the Iran files, and the whole time I’m reading and I’m like, okay, I guess that’s newsworthy, but clearly this was leaked by the CIA or Mossad, clearly. That’s the only people who could have gotten their hands on this, right? And there’s a reason why I’m reading this and not reading about, you know, the deep state of the United States or whatever.
Nima: Or reading about Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like, we’re supposed to just be fucking dopes who don’t care about the origins of things, and I find that kind of doesn’t pass the bullshit test to me.
Jim Naureckas: Yeah, you know, I mean, there are nearly 8 billion people in the world, and every person has a story, a lot of people have a heart-wrenching story, but optimistically, let’s say one in a hundred, people have a heart wrenching story about their life, that’s 80 million stories, which is way too many for anyone to ever process. So you have to figure out which heart wrenching story you’re going to learn about.
Jim Naureckas: And that decision is not usually made by you. It’s made for you. So you do have to be thinking, why am I learning this? Why is this the story that I’m hearing?
Adam: Why am I hearing about human rights abuses in this country and not the other 194 countries? And yeah, right. It’s like the line they tell you one in seder, right? What makes this night different from all other nights? It’s like, well, because they’re the baddies.
Jim Naureckas: That is the lesson you’re supposed to get, and that other countries are closed, and therefore everything they should say should be disbelieved, as opposed to the United States, which is completely open and aboveboard, and you know, everything about us, right? And so there’s no reason to suspect that there’s anything wrong going on behind the scenes, which is obviously absurd. The notion that your homeland are the good guys, and are fighting for truth and justice is kind of a childhood fantasy, you really should be prepared to believe bad things about your own country as well as other countries because hierarchical systems are generally run for the benefit of the people at the top of the hierarchy, and your government is no exception.
Jim Naureckas: And what’s more, you should be more interested in the bad things that your country does, than you are in the bad things that other countries do.
Adam: Because presumably you have some control or effect on that. Whereas you don’t really have control —
Nima: Right, your stake is different, you might be able to actually affect that.
Jim Naureckas: Some kind of moral responsibility.
Jim Naureckas: Whereas the bad things that you learn about, particularly, the enemies of your country, are often being told to you in order to facilitate your country doing more bad things.
Jim Naureckas: So you learn about abuses by Venezuelan security forces, in order to justify the fact that the United States is imposing really just draconian starvation level sanctions on this country that are killing people by the tens of thousands, which is something that very rarely comes up, you know, when people discuss the Venezuelan situation, the fact that the United States is engaged in mass death there, very seldom mentioned, strangely, you know, given that the audience for these articles are the citizens of a country that is imposing mass starvation, you’d think that you’d want to know. But the point is not to inform people so they can be active moral citizens in the world, the point is to guide people to the choices that their government wants them to make, which, you know, it goes back to what I was saying before about the definition of news is what the powerful say and do.
Adam: Well, yeah, and you see increasingly, the US State Department, USAID funneling money into these so-called journalism projects. $500 million was set aside to counter Chinese propaganda, and a lot of it is supposedly going to journalists, both domestically and overseas, and so it’s like, well, okay, so if you’re determining what the political utility of the journalism is, I mean, very openly, right? This isn’t even, this is an Operation Mockingbird shit, this is pretty out in the open, and you see a lot of it, the State Department funds a lot of these journalism projects to, you know, fight corruption in Russia and China, and it’s like, well, okay, I mean, it’s true enough, but there’s a reason why you’re getting money to do that, and not try to connect dots about what the US is up to, and it seems like it’s becoming even more overtly weaponized because of this kind of sanctimonious taking for granted US State Department view that US are the arbiters of good in the world, and naturally, if you’re into freedom, democracy, human rights, and all that kind of fanciful stuff, that you will align, you will take money from those institutions, again, not even wandered through a Ford Foundation, but actually just directly from these State Department and parallel NGOs, and I find that even more troubling, because now it’s just sort of more baked into the ideological cake.
Jim Naureckas: I was reading a letter, I believe, from the Committee to Protect Journalists today, that was counseling the State Department to be not so quick to use the Foreign Agent Registration Act to label state-funded journalists as foreign agents, which they have been increasingly doing because, as they pointed out, it could be done to US journalists in other countries and is being done, and it’s less the people who write for The New York Times can probably take care of themselves. It’s the people who are inside other countries, who are the recipients of these supposed projects to promote journalism and freedom, they are being branded as foreign agents, which in a sense they are, they’re being given money by the United States, in some cases, in hopes that they will carry out regime change, in other cases just to sort of screw with the official enemy that you think is too powerful to overthrow.
Adam: Well, yeah, to keep the background white noise going at all times.
Jim Naureckas: And you could see the Committee to Protect Journalists was kind of spelling this out for the State Department who is envisioned as being kind of too blinkered to understand that the same rule can be applied to their friends.
Nima: Yeah. It’s super incredulous.
Adam: Well, they, what they’ll always say is, ‘Oh, there’s a firewall here,’ and that’s bullshit. Just before we jumped on this call, I read an article about the Afghanistan, Biden taking up $7 billion from the Afghanistan fund on Voice of America, and it could have been a press release. They didn’t put it in the context of US sanctions, they didn’t put it in the context of US stealing funds. They bragged about how they were going to take $3.5 billion and put it into these alleged humanitarian groups, which is something roundly criticized by even normie mainline groups like New York Times. I mean, it was a press release from the State Department, and for the most part, that’s what VOA does, but I’m supposed to treat that like it’s somehow separate than what, you know, on Twitter they don’t have the designated little scary thing saying state affiliated media, even though they are, so I mean, obviously, this is just a fucking racket. I mean, it’s a way of stacking the deck in favor of US and geopolitical interests.
Jim Naureckas: That reminds me of whenever you complain to PBS or NPR about the fact that they run commercials on what is supposed to be non-commercial, radio or television, and are taking funds from people who are directly interested in the content of the news, and in fact, you know, you can predict that the companies that are going to be advertising on PBS or NPR, are companies that it’s important for them to have good government policies favoring them.
Nima: Right. It’s not just the Helena Rubinstein Foundation anymore.
Jim Naureckas: And when you make this point to someone who works in public broadcasting, they say, ‘Oh, well, we have strict rules that these things don’t affect our coverage.’ Which, if you believe that, then what is the whole justification for Public Broadcasting? Because, you know, The New York Times and CBS and Fox News also have those rules, you know, so if those rules work, well then why do we have public broadcasting?
Adam: Right. Well, I guess they would say it’s less money.
Jim Naureckas: They’re easier to buy.
Adam: Well, no, I meant percentage wise. It’s more spread out. Think tanks make this argument. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we take Saudi money but it’s only 10 percent of our money,’ and it’s like, well, okay.
Jim Naureckas: ‘We can easily do without 10 percent of our money, no problem.’
Nima: ‘But why would we bother?’
Jim Naureckas: Actually in public broadcasting, it’s often a single corporation will have much more power over a program than, you know, you have one company being the main sponsor of a program, which in modern day commercial television is rarely the case, so that one company actually has more power than they do on the commercial side of the media spectrum.
Nima: Well, Jim, before we let you go, tell us a little bit about what FAIR is up to these days — you are now a repeat guest on Citations Needed so I’m sure we need to send over a plaque or a box of Cuban cigars or something — but what are you guys up to these days? What can folks look out for? And, you know, of course, we encourage everyone to read FAIR on a regular basis, but what do you have going on?
Jim Naureckas: I feel like our big focus this year is going to be the new Cold Wars. It seems like the propaganda knob has been really yanked the hell up and you’re seeing just raw propaganda.
Nima: Well, this has been great. As always, always such a pleasure to talk to you. Of course, we’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Jim is the editor of FAIR.org and, since 1990, has edited Extra!, FAIR’s monthly magazine. Jim Naureckas, thank you again and again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jim Naureckas: Thank you. It has been great.
Adam: The thing that really kind of annoys me a lot is these professional norms, and the idea that being a journalist is like being, you know, an electrician or an engineer, that it’s like this value neutral thing, although, of course, you could also argue those have politics in them as well. But this idea that it’s just this trade, and you’re just punching the clock.
Adam: Oftentimes, I’ll criticize New York Post reporters and I remember Ben Smith once sort of did this lofty ‘Don’t criticize the reporters.’ So CBS News in New York, did some story about how a homeless man with AIDS spit on police officers in their mouth, and this justified the police harassment and abuse and the reporters were roundly criticized for spreading anti-AIDS, homophobic propaganda that has no scientific basis and there’s no evidence that even happened, it was just something that cop said, and Ben Smith did this whole thing like, ‘Well, you can’t criticize these journalists, they’re just doing their job, criticize the editors,’ and I’m like, no, I’m going to criticize the journalists. You always have to calibrate power dynamics, it’s not always easy, but there’s a class war that goes on, people pick sides in that war, and if they’re doing reporting that is designed to punch down and incite violence against the homeless or people with AIDS or the vulnerable or criminalized populations, right? Then I’m sorry they picked a side, they’re getting paid a check to do a job to carry out a social function, and that social function is incitement and demagoguery, and this idea that somehow these professional norms kind of protect journalists and reporters from these political questions I find very unsatisfying and, of course, it’s a fundamentally conservative idea, and then I remember because, you know, around George Floyd, there was some pushback, people sort of saying, ‘Well, maybe objectivity can be a way of reproducing white supremacist institutions around, you know, just repeating what police say,’ and then that kind of went away. But there was some idea that ‘Well, we can’t be neutral on a moving train,’ and part of that kind of view-from-nowhere mentality is this idea that investigative journalism is inherently good, because it has this idea of gumshoeness and hard work and elbow grease and FOIAs and that’s just not true. It still has to target and calibrate for power. Otherwise, it’s just another branding exercise that reproduces systems that oppress and starve the vulnerable and the poor.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone, again, for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And an extra special shout out, as always, goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.