The late Peter Kihss was one of the greatest American reporters of the 20th Century. Year after year, on a huge variety of subjects, he produced spot news and investigative articles of extraordinary quality—tough, smart, fair and meticulous. But Peter also had a traditional, even conservative, sense of the news. I remember an occasion in the late 60's, for example, when Peter in his always courteous manner complained to me that he had a problem with some of the investigative reports that The New York Times had just begun to run. As I recall it, he worried that these longer pieces were squeezing out important information such as the arrival and departure times of the ocean liners that still served the city. The listing had been a fixture in the paper since its earliest days.
Joyce Purnick's explanation for why newspapers pay insufficient attention to investigative reporting suffers from the same logical fallacy as Peter's lament. No newspaper ever has enough resources to cover everything that should be covered. No newspaper ever has enough space to print all the stories that should be told. This means editors must make hard choices. Rather than dreaming about a larger staff or more column inches, they must decide that the shipping news is no longer relevant.
Curiously, Purnick herself acknowledges that the lack of resources argument she advances is not the core problem. "Right or wrong," she says, "the conventions of journalism are such that our top priority has to be covering the news—what happened today."
What is required, and what her Nieman paper fails to accomplish, is to devise a definition of news that is not confined to the events of the last few hours. It, of course, is much easier to question Purnick's theory than to propose a substitute one that will withstand thoughtful criticism. But let me try.
First, let it be acknowledged that certain events that happened today indeed must be covered by any news organization. To take this to an admitted extreme, the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 obviously was a story that demanded the diversion of a substantial chunk of available news gathering resources. But even on that ghastly day The New York Times contained a good deal of unnecessary stuff—the 1996 equivalent of shipping news—that had been produced for the paper without any real justification.
Unfortunately, even the editors in the better news organizations allow their colleagues in the two-bit operations to set their agendas. "Oh God, what if The Daily News fronts something from a self-serving and easy-to-cover news conference staged by the mayor that we don't have?"
This kind of thinking avoids hard decision-making, but does it produce news?
I believe the problem is fixable. All that is required is a slight modification in how we define news. Yes, news organizations must cover TWA Flight 800 and the break in a massive 5th Avenue water main and maybe even most of Bill Clinton's news conferences. But let's add one additional element to the definition of news implicit in those three choices. Serious news organizations like The Times also must devote a fixed portion of resources to the full-time examination of the performance of large bureaucracies like the police department, the schools, Consolidated Edison, the hospitals and the tax collectors.
Why is this genuine news? The steady growth in large public and private organizations means that, for good or ill, all of us are more and more dependent upon them. In a city like New York, a handful of large bureaucracies each day have a direct impact on the lives of millions of people. Articles about the problems of these organizations thus can have a far-reaching impact. They also will attract more engaged readers than most of the stories describing the staged events that "happened today."
About six months ago, a talented young Washington Post reporter named Michael Powell had a wonderful front-page article about his discovery that District of Columbia Water and Sewer workers were doing almost no work for the city while receiving millions of dollars a year to do illegal private work for citizens who were willing to bribe them.
This powerful article about the corruption of an essential city service was partly based on Powell's actual observations of selected work crews. It was a good yarn. But it also was ground-breaking in the sense that The Post, like virtually all American papers, rarely seems to have "the resources" to cover the actual operations of government. Scores of reporters for covering the news conferences and self-serving leaks that "happened today;" virtually none for investigating the actual performance of government.
During my years at The New York Times, I developed a personal statement defining the goal of my reporting about government: "My job is to describe the habits or procedures or other forces that prevent the agencies I am covering from achieving their stated goals." Hold the agencies up to their own rhetoric.
It worked in New York City and it works in Washington. Sleeping cops don't patrol the streets, corrupt ones don't enforce the law. IRS agents, goaded by mindless quotas, don't treat citizens equitably. The disclosure of such problems is genuine news.
A side benefit of my formulation is that it is politically neutral. Who can seriously argue that the mission statement of the IRS is a radical manifesto? Some have contended my statement is unfairly negative, even cynical. But I believe that very few individuals or organizations ever achieve their stated goals and that the fair-minded investigation of organizations that serve the public is always warranted.
So please don't talk to me about inadequate resources. Just go make the decision that the true definition of news requires all respectable newsrooms, even small ones, to assign some reporters to the full-time investigation of the powerful bureaucracies that dominate our lives.
David Burnham, an investigative reporter and writer, has specialized in examining large powerful bureaucracies such as the New York Police Department, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department for the last three decades. A reporter with The New York Times from 1968 to 1986, Burnham since then has written several books and numerous magazine articles. Beginning in 1989, he also has been the Washington-based Co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-gathering, research and data-distribution organization associated with Syracuse University.