Investigative reporters in 2017 exposed accusations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and many others, documented what appears to be an appalling undercount of the hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico, and caught Michael Flynn in a lie that cost him his job as national security adviser and ultimately led to his criminal conviction and cooperation with a law enforcement investigation of Donald Trump's campaign.
Yet conservative commentator Gayle Trotter said Sunday on Fox News that “when you think about independent, investigative journalism, we have seen kind of the death of that this past year.”
“The death of it?” asked host Howard Kurtz, seemingly surprised by such a strong assertion.
“The death of it,” Trotter repeated.
Trotter's declaration stands out, but it's her rationale that is worth dissecting. When Kurtz said, “There have been a lot of stories labeled investigative reporting,” Trotter replied that such stories were “labeled that way, but do they have the evidence, and are they all leaning in one particular way?”
A report that lacks evidence is problematic, but so is the notion that “leaning in one particular way” somehow invalidates investigative journalism.
Consider a recent example: BuzzFeed's November report on a sexual harassment allegation against Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) had a deeply partisan origin. Conservative activist and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich got the scoop first and passed the tip to BuzzFeed.
Cernovich has a clear agenda and is an unreliable source of information. In this case, however, he reported something true and important: Conyers in 2015 settled a complaint brought by a former aide who claimed she was fired for rebuffing the congressman's sexual advances.
Cernovich's “leaning in one particular way” (to the right) did not render meaningless the report on Conyers. After more women leveled additional accusations of harassment, Conyers resigned.
The risk of reasoning such as Trotter's is that true, important information gets dismissed because the source is viewed as biased. In Alabama's recent U.S. Senate race, Moore's boosters at Breitbart urged voters to wave off women's claims that the candidate had pursued them as teenagers, simply because the claims were published in “the left-wing Washington Post,” as Breitbart calls the newspaper.
The truth of the claims became secondary in Breitbart's coverage. In fact, Breitbart editor in chief Alex Marlow conceded in a post-election interview with CNN that he believed Leigh Corfman's account of being touched sexually by Moore when she was just 14. Breitbart's message to Alabamians was that it would be better to vote for a man who preyed on teenage girls than to vote against such a man because of something reported in The Post.
Moore lost. That neither he nor Conyers is in Congress serves as evidence that investigative journalism is not dead. True, important information — wherever it comes from — still matters.