Has investigative reporting gone too far?

The feeling at the Shoreham Hotel this weekend was in the negative, predictably but resoundingly. If the public thinks journalists are always out to discredit the official line, said David Halberstam, it's mostly because of the hostile tone-- or "Sam Donaldsonism," as he termed it--of White House press conferences. Good reporting involves more than putting tough questions to high officials, Halberstam told the opening-night audience at Ralph Nader's Second Annual Conference on Investigative Reporting. "Those who swagger the most often hit the smallest people on the block."

"If there were one thing I could teach a young journalist working a major story," said Halberstam, an ex-New York Times reporter and author of "The Best and the Brightest" and "The Breaks of the Game," "it's what I would call 'the sequence of interviews' . . . how each interview sets up the next interview. You don't go the very first day to the central person because you won't be prepared and he will be prepared."

It was the promise of such advice as much as the presence of recognized names like Halberstam, Jack Anderson and Bob Woodward that lured 400 beginning and aspiring journalists to the Shoreham. "Everybody wants to be a reporter and nobody wants to cover a sewer hearing," said Ronald Brownstein, coordinator of the conference and coauthor with Nader of a forthcoming book on the leading members of the Reagan administration. "The Watergate baby boom of student journalists may have peaked," Brownstein said. But the popularity of the Nader conference--with its workshops on "How to Research a Corporation," "How to Use the Freedom of Information Act" and "How to Investigate Your Campus Administration"--suggests that the boom has some life in it still.

A free-lance journalist from Montgomery County wanted to know how to sell a story about a dangerous landfill. A student reporter at the University of North Carolina wanted to know how to investigate alleged mismanagement in his school's food-services operation when all the key meetings were closed to the press. A student from Upstate New York wanted advice for a story about his local nuclear-weapons stockpile.

"You've got to get your hands dirty," Jeff Gerth of The New York Times told a roomful of would-be corporate muckrakers. Corporations are naturally secretive, said Gerth, so reporters have to look for information in strange places. By way of illustration, Gerth said that he had found out much about the General Tire and Rubber Co. from the files of the Federal Communications Commission--because General Tire owns RKO, a broadcasting company.

Eighty percent of the conference participants were student journalists, and many came in quest of tools to help them probe their own universities. Nader said this was commendable work, because "there's a pattern of desperate reliance on more and more corporate largesse and corporate involvement by universities . . ." Corporations are the "aggressor institutions" in the competition to influence the values of the young, said Nader.

Objectivity and the relative merits of "mainstream" versus "advocacy" journalism were hot topics throughout the weekend. Eileen Shanahan, assistant managing editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, said journalists have been guilty of investigating only the things they dislike. Hence conservative columnist William Safire led the way in breaking the Bert Lance scandal, she said, while the majority of the Washington press corps didn't have the "killer instinct" where the Carter Cabinet was concerned. Similarly, Shanahan said liberal journalists had failed to take a hard enough look at labor unions in the 1950s and '60s, or at government social programs in the '60s and '70s. If the press had exposed more waste and fraud in social programs, she said, the current "turning against" those programs might not have occurred.

"We have to investigate the things we think we believe in as well as the things we don't," said Shanahan. "We have more credibility if we are perceived to be fair."

But how can a journalist be objective about an issue like nuclear war, a member of the audience demanded to know. "Are you all going to be at your typewriters, tapping away, when the world is destroyed?"

Brownstein said he detected more interest in advocacy journalism at this year's conference than at last year's, "and I suspect it has something to do with Reagan. If nothing else, he clarifies the issues." But the ever-smaller number of daily newspapers and a generally bleak job market made some of these questions of preference academic. Brownstein suggested that young journalists should consider working for public-interest periodicals like Critical Mass and Public Citizen, both published by the Nader organization itself.

"I think the problem with so-called 'objective journalism' is that too often the journalist becomes a stenographer being dictated to by people in positions of power," said Joe Conason of The Village Voice. Halberstam made the same point in response to a Feb. 10 Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing news coverage of El Salvador for "a style of reporting that grew out of Vietnam--in which Communist sources were given greater credence than either the U.S. government or the government it was supporting." The Journal named Halberstam as one of the journalists who had "played a key role in ridding Vietnam of the supposedly repressive Diem regime, only to help usher in an even bloodier future."

Halberstam countered that the bad news in Vietnam did not come from communist sources, but from American soldiers in the field who refused to support an official line originating in Washington and Saigon. "I don't mind them attacking the reporters in El Salvador," Halberstam said jocularly, "but they took my name in vain."

Bob Woodward, coauthor of "All the President's Men," "The Final Days" and "The Brethren," disputed the charge that reporters are "used" by leakers in government. Woodward said the good stories come from the "piecing together" of "little nuggets." "This term of art--'investigative reporting'--is unfortunate," he said, "but there's not enough good, thorough reporting on any subject."

Media conglomeration--or "Gannettization," as Halberstam termed it--was also widely discussed and deplored. "Henry Kissinger's memoirs and interpretations of history are published by Little, Brown book publishers, a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Inc.," said Ben H. Bagdikian, professor of journalism at Berkeley and a former editor at The Washington Post, among other papers. "They are massively excerpted in Time magazine, a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Inc. They are the selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Inc."

"The question for working journalists, it seems to me, is whether they will take responsibility for the news they themselves produce," said Bagdikian. ". . . Are we, in the end, just obedient technicians who make the stories run on time?" He proposed that journalists "work actively toward agreements with their publications' managements to give working journalists a voice in professional news policies: to elect their own editors for stated periods of time, to have their own representatives at allocations of news budgets and to have their own representatives on the board of directors of journalistic corporations."