“Before Geraldine Ferraro, a spouse’s business dealings were given passing notice.”—Lipinski. Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.
[This article originall appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Nieman Reports.]
A year before the 1988 election, Wall Street Journal reporter David Shribman delivered a detailed and delicately written profile of TV minister Pat Robertson, one of a series on presidential candidates that appeared on the Journal’s back page. About a third of the way into the piece— “Robertson’s Conversion From Rakishness to Faith Culminates in His Crusade for the White House,” it was headlined—Shribman quietly corrected some of the dates in the Virginia Republican’s biography.
“While in law school, Mr. Robertson attended a party and saw a young woman lean over some candles, catching her hair on fire. He put the fire out, winning his introduction to Adelia ‘Dede’ Elmer,” Shribman wrote. “They were married secretly on Aug. 27, 1954, in Elkton, Md., known as a venue for quick marriages. Their son was born 10 weeks later.”
Two days after that story appeared, The Washington Post reprised the Journal’s revelations and put them on page one. The story, written by T.R. Reid, pointedly detailed “a number of exaggerations and misleading statements” about Robertson’s life that the Southern Baptist minister had been forced to correct, “that most painful” stemming from the Journal’s discovery.
The Post went on to catalog several inconsistencies in Robertson’s statements about his education and business experience, all of them under the dramatic headline: “Painfully, Robertson Corrects Record; Marriage Date, 10 Weeks Before Birth of Son, Is Acknowledged.”
The two stories provide fitting bookends for the library of investigative campaign reporting, a collection whose curators and contributors have yet to settle on a definition of their pursuit, let alone a style.
As the investigative discipline evolves from a tradition of spectacular revelations of corruption to explorations of complex systems and personalities, journalists competing on the campaign trail are faced with important decisions. Do we cast our net for personal wrongdoing and corruption or pursue the broader profile? Do we investigate character as vigorously as campaign finances? Does evidence of a moralizing minister’s premarital relations merit bold page one treatment or make more sense as a detail in a reflective assessment of “a modern-day Elmer Gantry,” as Shribman wrote?
While many of the central questions are similar to those posed in most newsrooms considering any investigative pursuit, they are exaggerated during campaigns by the highly competitive nature of the story.
Some of the quandaries were neatly summarized in a lecture at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1987 by Gaylord Shaw, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Shaw, now Newsday’s Washington Bureau Chief, was explaining that in preparation for the 1988 election, Times’ reporters were traveling around the country interviewing presidential scholars about their studies of former Presidents, looking for guideposts to help prepare profiles of the candidates.
“The scholars said that the first thing you should do is find everything that they’ve ever written and see how that has changed,” Shaw recalled for Missouri’s students and faculty. “So we looked up a lot of what Gary Hart had ever written. Two reporters found that Gary Hart had written that once he had been stranded in the woods out on the prairie somewhere—in Kansas, I think—and he was confronted by timber wolves a few feet away from him. He stared down the timber wolves and he survived.
“Well, you take that and you talk to some biologists and wildlife experts and you find that timber wolves have been extinct in that area for a hundred years…. So this is where we were on the story. But our problem was, looking back on it, we were in the library looking up things about timber wolves and stuff like that, and The Miami Herald was in the bushes. They got the story and we didn’t, although we quickly recouped.”
Each campaign, it seems, adds a new item to the investigative reporter’s checklist. Before Hart, questions of marital infidelity were rare. Before Geraldine Ferraro, a spouse’s business dealings were given passing notice. Reporting on plagiarism, military service, drug use and psychiatric health— each traces its lineage to a specific candidate or campaign before which it seemed improper or irrelevant to raise the question.
Brooks Jackson, a correspondent for Cable News Network’s Special Assignment staff and a former investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, recalls a time not long ago when reporters neglected the most basic public records checks of candidates—the kind of research that today is integrated into even routine investigative reporting. Jackson cites the stories that followed Richard Nixon’s 1970 Supreme Court nomination of G. Harrold Carswell.
The Carswell Story
A reporter checking the courthouse, in Wilkinson, Georgia, turned up a copy of a 1948 Irwington Bulletin and the text of a campaign speech in which Carswell said, “segregation of the races is proper.” Moreover, Carswell edited the Bulletin at the time the speech was published on page one. Following the disclosure, the Senate rejected Carswell’s nomination.
“For whatever reason, a reporter went down and looked up that speech,” said Jackson. “At the time, that kind of research wasn’t really on the reporter checklist. But today, partly as a result of that story, the first thing you do [in investigating a candidate] is run a Nexis search. That’s an example of the kind of thing that we sort of learn as we go along.”
Two decades after the Carswell stories, Christopher Drew, an investigative reporter in the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau, follows the example of Supreme Court nominees to illustrate how far beyond checking old newspaper clips we’ve come in investigative pursuit of candidates.
“When I went up to background [Douglas] Ginsburg when he came up for the Supreme Court I raced all around Boston, making the important checks, looking through courthouse records, finding his ex-wife. I was thinking mainly of money corruption and legal ethics. It never occurred to me in 1987 that I should be asking his colleagues at the Harvard Law School if they’d ever seen him take a puff off a marijuana cigarette,” Drew said.
“In the past several years, the requirements for checks on candidates has increased exponentially, all in the direction of personal behavior.…”
Jackson adds: “With each political campaign we find something we should have had on our checklist and didn’t. The reporter who figures out what that is first, gets the story.”
In recent conversations about preparing for the 1992 presidential election with about a dozen editors and investigative reporters, “checklist” is the word that surfaced most often. The word, it seems, defines the gap between the event-driven inclinations of most political reporters and the methodical, often tedious, requirement of investigative work. It also hints at the bias that several editors revealed for divorcing political reporters from background probes of the candidates. “The investigative types don’t fall prey to the kinds of claims about which political reporters are much more naive,” said James O’Shea, the Tribune’s Assistant Managing Editor.
Reporter Steve Weinberg, Editor of The Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, said he is often called by campaign reporters looking for the “magic bullet” to pierce a presidential candidate. “It’s never that simple,” Weinberg explains. “These kinds of stories are a long process. There are lucky reporters but no lazy lucky reporters.”
Weinberg said that after President George Bush named Dan Quayle as his running mate he got “about 30 calls an hour from journalists wondering what they should do and where they should go for background.” Many of them wanted to know the “trick” to obtaining college transcripts and were disappointed to learn from Weinberg that he had never obtained such records without careful cultivation of a source.
“Journalists in general fail to practice anticipatory journalism,” Weinberg said. “Sometimes that’s difficult but in presidential campaigns it’s a little easier. You almost always know with some advance notice who the main candidates or even nominees will be. To wait until the night before the convention to start checking out candidates is inexcusable, especially for the major papers…. I would make sure I had done at least the superficial investigative checks on everyone ahead of time.”
Weinberg lists voting records, campaign donors, financial and ethics disclosures of the candidates and their staffs, special interest group ratings, and speaking fees and honoraria as the first level of checks, followed by research of court records, real estate and business ties, education, health, birth and marriage records, and a thorough exploration of background, friends, family and character.
Tempted by the sensational impact of the Hart sex scandal or the leak that led to the Joseph Biden plagiarism flap, some reporters forget that most worthy investigative stories are much harder earned.
William Alfred, a playwright and Harvard professor, tells the students in his dramatic writing class about the importance of building what he calls “police files”—dossiers he keeps on each of the characters as he’s writing a play. The files contain detailed information on their childhoods, families, friends, habits and (a particular of Alfred’s) their first memories. Most of what he collects in the police files does not appear in any literal sense in his plays. “But you need to know the character so well that you can hear the way he speaks,” Alfred says. “When he does something, you need to understand why, given his background, that was the only way for him to act.”
I kept thinking of Alfred as Weinberg talked and, oddly, how suited the playwright’s advice is to the reporter investigating a candidate. Newsday’s Shaw…cautions that “you can’t spend all your time looking up what kind of grades these folks made in junior high school and not be turned on to more current, potentially explosive stories.” But, like Alfred, Shaw says it is that kind of background information that often leads to or explains a larger truth. “Those kind of details tell you a lot about a person and set the foundation for more specific instances, like the one that did Gary Hart in.”
Adds Weinberg: “You do a mini- Robert Caro, that’s the ideal. And almost always along the way, those checks yield specific stories. But even if they don’t you’re hopefully ready to explain why a certain contribution has come in or why a certain person has been added to the campaign or why a candidate is voting a certain way. Build files on these people and have them ready when the time comes to spin off a story along the way.”
Daniel Biddle, who won a Pultitzer Prize in investigative reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1987 and was part of that paper’s massive and controversial investigation of Ferraro and her husband (what Biddle calls “the journalistic equivalent of the American buildup in Saudi Arabia”) said he thinks that one of the problems in subjecting candidates to truth squad inspection is that we never tell readers when they come up clean.
If Candidates Are Clean?
“It would be great if every single campaign claim, promise and statement about one’s experience and what one has accomplished could be put to the test,” said Biddle, explaining how he would direct an investigative reporting team during the campaign. “But what if we find out good things? What if we subject these people to unbelievably rigorous standards and they come up clean? Given the historic lack of super-straight, super-clean, public-interest- minded leadership, a presidential candidate who withstands a scrupulous background check is a good story. That’s real news…. But we usually don’t print a story if they come up clean. I’ve got to think that one through.”
As the election year approaches, the recession may limit the investigative work envisioned by some journalists. Financial cutbacks at many news organizations, especially after high outlays for coverage of the Persian Gulf War, are threatening to limit the pursuit of such labor-intensive work. Small or medium sized news organizations, where the breadth of research proposed by journalists like Weinberg is rarely tolerated, are unlikely to undertake any such projects.…
“Public attitudes notwithstanding, this is our job,” said Shaw, speaking of the value of investigative campaign reporting in an election year. “If the media don’t do it, who’s going to? If we don’t do it, voters are left with the candidates presenting their own picture of things, colored and flavored the way they want it. This independent look at the people who want to be President gets to the very heart of what we’re about. Talk about public service— this is it.”
Ann Marie Lipinski directs the Chicago- based investigative reporting team at the Chicago Tribune. Lipinski was one of a group of three Tribune reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1988 for a series of stories on corruption in the Chicago City Council. She is a member of the Nieman Fellows class of 1990.