Posted: March 22, 2016 | Tags: journalism
Photo by Greg Tinius
Walcott led the team looking into WMDs.
This is Hollywood’s golden age for investigative journalism. On the heels of “Spotlight’s” Oscar triumphs, “Shock and Awe,” a similarly themed movie to be directed by Rob Reiner, is scheduled to go into production later this year.
The film, written by Joey Hartstone, who is also the screenwriter for Reiner’s upcoming film “LBJ,” tells the tale of the Knight Ridder team that got the story of Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction right in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when just about everyone else got it wrong.
Those fictional weapons, the major rationale for the war, resulted in a conflict whose price tag Brown University’s Watson Institute estimates is now more than $2 trillion, almost 200,000 deaths, many more wounded, and ongoing regional instability.
I have a personal interest in this story. John Walcott, who led Knight Ridder’s coverage, (Knight-Ridder is now part of the McClatchy newspaper chain) was my editor at U.S. News and World Report when I was a diplomatic correspondent there. Joe Galloway, who along with journalists Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay formed part of the Knight-Ridder national security team, was one of my colleagues.
News of the film has become an occasion for me reflect on what goes into the “secret sauce” of a great investigative editor, and how the lessons I learned under Walcott, that I continue to see here at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, have influenced my approach to journalism.
At U.S. News, much of the reporting I did involved Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Under Walcott’s guidance, that coverage became an award-winning cover story put together with a diverse team of reporters warning of the growing threat Saddam Hussein posed to the region. U.S. News published the story two months before Saddam invaded Kuwait.
The lesson was that investigative reporters learn how to notice things that fly under the radar, and then piece bits of information together like a jigsaw puzzle. An official’s throwaway remark, inconsistencies in an argument, an odd pattern of behavior, can become a major story.
“Why would a secular guy like Saddam align himself with Osama bin Laden, who was trying to overthrow secular leaders and establish an Islamic state?”
— John Walcott
It can be an expensive, risky, and time-consuming process. But when it works, it produces outcomes that both serve the public and strengthen the bonds between news organizations and the communities, demonstrating journalism’s value.
Walcott, who now is the foreign affairs and national security editor in Reuters' Washington Bureau and also teaches at Georgetown University, says he was skeptical of the Bush Administration’s argument about Iraq’s alliance with al-Qaida because it simply didn’t make sense. “Why would a secular guy like Saddam align himself with Osama bin Laden, who was trying to overthrow secular leaders and establish an Islamic state?”
So when, shortly after 9/11, his journalists reported that government officials were talking more about Iraq than bin Laden, his antenna went up. “The more we examined it,” he told The Los Angeles Times much later, “the more it stank.”
Walcott cheerfully became what Neiman Watchdog founder Murrey Marder called “the skunk at the garden party.” His team doggedly reported on doubts and misgivings within the government about the Bush administration’s rationale for war, and questioned the credibility of many of the sources senior officials were relying on to make their case. Knight-Ridder became a lonely, persistent, cautionary voice in the media, out of step with the general drumbeat for war.
Which brings us to another trait of investigative editors. They’re fearless, and love taking on big challenges. Former Boston Globe editor Martin Baron, now editor of The Washington Post, spoke recently at American University about the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cover-up that became the subject of Spotlight. “When someone says to me ‘the truth will never be known,” he told a rapt audience, “it’s like chum.”
“Somehow, the idea has taken hold in Washington journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience, the relationship is more often inverse.”
— John Walcott
Another lesson I learned from Walcott was to pay attention not only to senior policymakers but also to mid-level officials working the issue. In a 2008 speech he gave accepting the inaugural I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence for Knight-Ridder’s Iraq coverage he said, “Somehow, the idea has taken hold in Washington journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience, the relationship is more often inverse.”
A good editor guides, questions and prods reporters. He or she spots possible gaps or inconsistencies in the evidence and helps reporters plug the holes. “One of the riskiest things in journalism,” said Baron, “is what you don’t know. What you don’t ask. It’s important we ask ourselves the hardest questions.”
Then there is the fight to publish. There’s a common misperception that once someone has spoken to a journalist, a news report happens. It doesn’t work that way. The reporter has to convince an editor of the story’s value. That editor, in turn, must convince the higher ups to run it. If a story bucks conventional wisdom or airs inconvenient truths, as the Knight-Ridder coverage did, it can be a tough sell. An editor also needs to fight for the space and the high-profile placement that translates into impact, and deal with the lawyers.
Walcott excelled at all of this. Reporters working with him knew he had their backs and would fight for them. He got the pages and dealt with the blowback.
But perhaps the most important lesson I learned came from observing Walcott’s ability, as the late New York Times media critic David Carr put it, “to bring excellence out of the people around you.” Carr told his journalism students that each of them had unique experiences they should channel to create their own distinctive voices.
I saw this at work at U.S. News. When Walcott became foreign editor, Joe Galloway was on the edit desk. Walcott saw in him a reporter with a deep understanding of the military and a searing firsthand knowledge of the early battles and assumptions in Vietnam that led to an escalation of the war. He sent Galloway back to Vietnam to do a story. The resulting article won a National Magazine Award and then became a book and a film. Galloway also joined the Knight Ridder team. He’s now consulting on Ken Burns’ forthcoming PBS series on the Vietnam War.
I often ask the students here at the Workshop why they want to be investigative journalists. I’m genuinely curious. Why choose this difficult path? Goodness knows, it isn’t for the money.
One student who had experimented with other careers said, “It feels more authentic.”
What a wonderful thing to feel!
Today, many young journalists who aspire to do this kind of work are left to muddle through without guidance or feedback. Some make serious, career-killing mistakes because no editor is watching out for them, ready to yank them back from the precipice. They need seasoned professionals like Walcott, Baron, and Chuck Lewis and Lynne Perri here at the Workshop, to ask the hard questions and provide a safety net for the hazards that lie ahead.
And if Hollywood can help people discover the essence of the people who do this work and the value it brings, that’s great.
The Knight-Ridder team never won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. No matter. Prizes are nice. History’s vindication is even better.
I look forward to seeing the film.