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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 11/07/2011

The crisis in investigative journalism: Reading it.

Investigative journalism and fluid writing don’t mix too often, according to nearly 50 sources, court documents and e-mails supplied by people familiar with the matter. The constraints are many, according to these sources: Long and deeply reported stories often yield narrow and difficult-to-articulate conclusions, and not the broad tableaus that lend themselves to elegant writing. The sources contacted for this paragraph requested anonymity for fear of angering investigative journalists.

The Politico investigation of Herman Cain, according to 40 sources familiar with the story, reflect these literary difficulties. Here’s a passage from the story, according to a URL at Politico.com:

Peter Kilgore, who was the association’s general counsel in the 1990s, and remains in that position today, has declined to comment to POLITICO on whether any settlements existed, saying he cannot discuss personnel matters.
But one source closely familiar with Cain’s tenure in Washington confirmed that the claims related to allegations of sexual harassment — behavior that disturbed members of the board who became aware of it, as well as the source, who otherwise liked Cain.

A week of reading such prose sent the Erik Wemple Blogger in search of something a little looser over the weekend. Relief came in the form of Max Frankel’s 1999 memoir, “The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times.” The early parts of the book recount how Frankel’s family escaped Hitler’s Germany, though not together. The chaos split young Max and his mother from his father, a German merchant who would catch up with them years later in New York.

The escape route of Frankel’s “Pop” would take him through a Russian labor camp. Take it away, Max Frankel:

Socialists, capitalists, communists, peasants, kulaks, criminals, Jews, Latvians, Estonians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians: workers of the world united, in two-story barracks from which they marched each dawn to the kitchen for bread, potatoes, and hot water, then for an hour to the forest to chop trees, trim branches, and load logs onto lumber rails until dark. As Comrade Stalin had written in the 1936 Soviet Constitution, he who does not work does not eat. By extension, whoever worked less, ate less. After just a few weeks, each morning found two or three of the prisoners collapsing by the side of the road. No one knew precisely how many died and how many were restored to a questionable existence.

A lot to like here. The riff off of the Communist Manifesto is a dangerous one, given how cliche it has become. Frankel makes it work via irony. He also wisely uses a long sentence in describing the prisoners’ long days of labor and deprivation. Plus, no anonymous sources.

By  |  10:38 AM ET, 11/07/2011

 
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