Tightened Belts Could Put Press In a Pinch

The Associated Press outed Sen. Harry Reid (shown in January as he called for ethics reform) on his undisclosed land-sale profits.
The Associated Press outed Sen. Harry Reid (shown in January as he called for ethics reform) on his undisclosed land-sale profits. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

When FBI agents conducted raids last week while investigating whether Rep. Curt Weldon improperly tried to help his daughter win lobbying work, the Pennsylvania Republican blamed prominent Democrats and a watchdog group for what he called a politically motivated probe.

But it was actually three Los Angeles Times reporters, in a 2004 exposé, who disclosed how Weldon repeatedly intervened for two Russian companies and a wealthy Serbian family that were paying nearly $1 million a year to the firm of his daughter, then an inexperienced, 29-year-old lobbyist.

It's striking how many of the major probes involving members of Congress were launched because of news accounts, which have become the first line of defense against public corruption. While journalists may lack subpoena power and eavesdropping authority, they often crack these cases ahead of the cops.

But will that change? Times Publisher Jeffrey Johnson was ousted this month when he refused demands by the paper's parent, Tribune Co., to cut the newsroom staff from 940 to about 800. Five years ago, the staff numbered 1,200. And anyone who thinks investigative projects are unaffected by such corporate slashing doesn't understand the business.

ABC's Brian Ross broke the news last month that Rep. Mark Foley was sending sexually graphic messages to former House pages, prompting the Florida Republican to resign. But the networks, too, are under financial pressure to trim their sails, as underscored by NBC's announcement last week that it is cutting 5 percent of its workforce. Although NBC's major news programs are in first place, a weak prime-time schedule means that the news operation, as well as MSNBC and CNBC, will bear some of the brunt.

Real investigative reporting, as opposed to the what-happened-yesterday stuff, is time-consuming, risky and expensive. And as one news organization after another sheds staff in this tough financial climate, it's worth considering what aggressive journalism has produced lately.

The Associated Press broke the story 10 days ago that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had collected $1.1 million on a Las Vegas land sale, even though he had transferred the property three years earlier to a corporation he partially owned, and failed to fully disclose the transactions on federal forms. The Nevada Democrat has agreed to revise his disclosure statements.

The San Diego Union-Tribune disclosed last year that a defense contractor had bought the home of Rep. Randy Cunningham for $700,000 more than its market value after the California Republican supported him in seeking Pentagon contracts. The congressman pleaded guilty in March to accepting $2.5 million in bribes and is now in prison.

The Washington Post, beginning in 2004, broke news of questionable lobbying by Jack Abramoff and his links to two House Republicans, Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, along with various staffers. Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery. DeLay, the former majority leader, resigned in June after being indicted in a Texas fundraising case. Ney pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy and making false statements.

But with newspaper circulation and network news viewership declining, how long can such organizations sustain this level of investigative reporting?

In recent months, executives have announced staff cutbacks of 19 percent at the Dallas Morning News and 17 percent at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The new owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer -- which cut its newsroom by 15 percent last year -- told his staff Friday that further layoffs are "unavoidable" because of plunging revenues. At The Washington Post, 8 percent of the newsroom staff recently took early retirement offers. All of which means fewer bodies to pore over records at City Hall, the statehouse or federal agencies.

Newspapers and networks face the same dilemma: too many people doing other things with their time, from Web-surfing to podcast listening, or simply losing interest in news altogether. Some of these customers are consuming the companies' wares online, which is great for exposure but doesn't produce the revenue needed to support long-form reporting. If this erosion continues, it would be bad news for serious journalism, and good news for corrupt politicians.

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