Sunday, July 5, 2009

Will the last investigative journalist out please turn off the light?

Last night I read Tim Connor's really fascinating interview with the last investigative reporter the Spokesman-Review had: Karen Dorn Steele, who took an early retirement in March, as did her cohort Bill Morlin.

I read Karen Dorn Steele's newspaper stories on Hanford radiation experiments when I was in college. I have a thyroid disorder, and Spokane is in the shadow of the giant cloud(s) of radioactive iodine purposely released there. She made that story public in spite of, as she details, an unsupportive editor, a visit from the FBI, and an atmosphere of mandatory support for government operations at Hanford.

We were just trying to find out what the history of accidents was and the history of environmental pollution had been at Hanford. And so, I’m a stubborn Norwegian. I just kind of got my back up really. First of all I didn’t think an FBI agent should be sauntering into a newsroom. That’s not proper. It sends a chilling message. And secondly, it made me angry.
The interview is also a window into the experience of working inside a newspaper that's been owned by the most powerful family in Spokane for over 100 years.
I guess from my experiences with the family so far I don’t think that they are visionaries and great creative people. I think they really do care about the bottom line as the main thing. When Stacey’s father died suddenly he came in as the new publisher and when he addressed the newsroom, he kept using this term KRA, ‘our KRA for this year,’ and we’re all looking at each other, ‘what’s a KRA?’ Well, it’s a Yale MBA term that means key result area. So he tends to think in the world of the MBAs, at bottom line issues, and very little in the world of journalism, in my opinion.

And she gives her perspective on the current state of media and investigative reporting:

Well, unfortunately in the blogosphere there’s been a kind of contempt for the so-called MSM, you know, the mainstream media, which I haven’t quite figured out because I always thought the two things could be complementary. Like when we did the stories on Mitchell and Jessen and the stories broken by the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and several others. The fact that they [Mitchell & Jessen] are here, and the torture policy was being played out right here on Riverside Avenue in Spokane. There were lots of on-line sites that picked up on our stories, that disseminated them, commented upon them, added new information on occasion, although often it tends not to be very reliable. But I thought that that synergy is a good thing and what it means for us in the mainstream media is that our work gets out much more widely than it used to, where the AP used to be the gatekeeper for any of these stories coming out of Spokane.
I think the decline in newspapers is likely to lead to a further decline in journalism. I think the two things are definitely linked. Now, at the Spokesman-Review, I couldn’t do the kind of reporting I did on Hanford back in the eighties. There’s just not time. And there’s not, frankly, the will. All publishers are looking at their bottom lines and the economic survival of their papers and that’s not a time when you’re paying lawyers large retainers to keep you out of trouble or even having an investigative team. We had a small investigative team and now there is absolutely no investigative team.
I have a little hope I may be able to meet and talk to Karen Dorn Steele, and I am crossing my fingers and trying to think of intelligent, relevant questions.

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