Commentary: World's journalists should collaborate in age of globalization

Prepared remarks at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark

Thank you. It is a great pleasure to be here. Congratulations to Brant Houston of Investigative Reporters and Editors and all of the individuals and organizations in Denmark and Europe responsible for this terrific conference.

It is my honor to speak to you about “Globalization and the Challenge to Investigative Reporting.” Somehow I will try to do this in 10 minutes.

Nation-state borders aren’t quite what they used to be. From the European Union to the World Trade Organization, national sovereignty is not quite the same as it was. With 3 million corporations and $3 trillion in assets offshore in which ownership is unclear, nations today can’t collect taxes as easily as in the past. With criminal elements laundering money everywhere, creating banks on their personal computers and using sophisticated encryption technologies to hide their tracks, nation-to-nation law enforcement is substantially outmoded. Political campaign cash from controversial governments, companies and individuals is washing all over the world, barely detected, if at all.

For some international corporations, more than ever before, the world is their candy store- cheap labor, low taxes, weak environmental standards. Just pick a country. Dramatic, almost incomprehensible new technologies are making borders irrelevant and regulation by governments almost impossible. Phenomena such as human cloning, genetic modification, robotics, nanotechnology and deadly lethal viruses obviously transcend geography.

One-country perspective

Conventional journalism simply cannot investigate or explain these and other complex, global subjects adequately. The typical one-country perspective is too narrow and misleading, and frankly, a disservice to the public.

The word “globalization” means different things to different people, of course. But globalization is, among other things, about fundamental economic change for millions no, billions of people in the world. We are talking realignments, restructuring, dislocation, and, yes, corporate profits. How can journalists cover this phenomenon at the very same time it also is happening to them?

The profit motive and the insatiable demand for larger profit margins are journalism’s worst enemies today. As media corporations gobble each other up, the bottom line is increasingly paramount. Older, experienced, more expensive reporters are tossed out like yesterdays garbage. Media conglomerates are, of course, global phenomena. So, too, is the drive for higher ratings and greater monopoly concentration. In the U.S., national news shows plan specific stories to appeal to specific age and demographic groups, to impress and attract advertisers. The line between business considerations and journalism is frequently blurred. Too often now, news organizations are unwilling to alienate advertisers or to undertake expensive investigative reporting.

In Russia, we’ve seen the raw political and financial pressures on journalism. Now there is no independent national television outlet. And some women TV anchors deliver the news while undressing.

Whether topless or gutless, news today is more and more commercial, titillating, celebrity-driven and profitable. Serious issues are seldom investigated or discussed, even on public radio and television. Pandering to the lowest common denominator has caused an overall dumbing down effect on societies throughout the world.

Most Americans now get their news from late night talk show hosts. Forty percent of the American people today cannot name the vice president of the United States.

In the U.S., the average national TV news “soundbite” today lasts about 6 seconds, down from 19 seconds 20 years ago. How can anyone seriously discuss biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry price gouging or utility deregulation in 6 seconds? Political news coverage by leading newspapers and broadcasters is decreasing dramatically every election cycle, while ad revenue paid to broadcasters by politicians and special interests has skyrocketed from $80 million in 1980 to $1 billion in last years election.

Meanwhile, media corporations in the U.S. have spent roughly $200 million in recent years to politically influence the very same Congress and president they cover as journalists, with campaign contributions to individuals and both major parties, and lobbying fees to dozens of the most-connected, high-priced Washington firms. These media corporations have taken members of Congress on 315 all-expense-paid trips around the world, taking Federal Communications Commission regulators on 1,400 all-expenses-paid trips. Why? Media corporations want more power, more TV stations, the digital spectrum, less regulation, tax breaks, and yes, enormous profits.

No one in the major U.S. media closely covered these efforts to manipulate the political process. And similar media corporate power grabs around the world are seldom investigated or covered.

We are living in the New Gilded Age. Or put differently, in the complicated, occasionally corrupt coexistence between democracy and capitalism, lately capitalism has been winning, big time. And too often, instead of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, media corporations and their journalists have been comforting the comfortable.

Impediments to reporting

All of us in this room are accustomed to power and questioning authority. We know that international reporting and investigative journalism around the world are dangerous. Last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 44 reporters were killed and 81 were imprisoned. Besides physical intimidation, there are many other impediments to investigative reporting, such as abject poverty, the lack of training and access to the basic information technologies of the 21st century, and the very real threat of litigation.

This gathering of hearty souls here in Copenhagen is so important because whether in our actual work, or in defiant spirit and aspirations — WE are the exception to these patterns. It is we who stand at the barricades, along with hundreds of our friends and colleagues around the world deeply worried about the profession of journalism today. This conference and others like it acknowledges the significant challenges that globalization presents today to investigative journalism.

And, despite the indigestion my comments may have caused you this morning, I am here to tell you that there is hope.

The number of journalists around the world, committed to public service, watchdog journalism, is increasing. The number of nonprofit organizations committed to investigative journalism is increasing. And the number of ways journalists can exploit the new technologies and gather information beyond nation-state borders is substantially increasing. We can use computers, the Internet, encryption, wireless and other technologies to make the world much, much smaller. And we can network with each other like never before.

My excellent adventure

For the past 11 years, I have been on an excellent adventure. Can a group of expatriate investigative journalists do pure, quality reporting, without fear or favor, without the slightest commercial considerations or the normal time or space limitations? Can those reporters earn respectable salaries and benefits, comparable to the corporate print media world? I am here to tell you the answer is “yes.”

I quit the popular CBS News program 60 Minutes, where I was a producer, and started the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization based in Washington D.C.

Since 1990, we have produced more than 100 investigative reports, including eight commercial published books, roughly 2 million words altogether. Our website, our online investigative publication The Public i, and our books have been honored for excellence by Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. Today, we have 35 full-time employees, at least 15 paid interns a year and an annual budget of roughly $3.5 million.

In 1997, the Center created its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists of 76 reporters in 41 countries, and we are now doing international investigative projects. Veteran foreign correspondent Maud Beelman runs the Consortium and will be speaking here later on. We give out the only annual award in the world for outstanding international investigative reporting, a $20,000 prize, and last year, there were 67 entries from 38 countries. We utilize the Internet, encryption, computer databases and other new technologies in our investigations. Center findings or perspective have been reported in more than 5,000 news articles in the U.S. alone.

We don’t take money from corporations, labor unions, governments or advertising, but we nonetheless have raised and spent $18 million through this year, from foundations, individuals and earned revenue from our publications. We list our major donors on our Web site.

Other nonprofit groups generating original, investigative reporting “content” or data include the Better Government Association in Chicago, the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila, and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. Unless I am mistaken, the Center for Public Integrity may be the largest nonprofit organization in the world dedicated to producing “public service” or “watchdog” investigative journalism.

Opportunities for innovation

Not everyone wants to start a nonprofit company, of course. The point is that, with the new technologies and this thing called globalization, there are new possibilities and opportunities for innovation. All of us here today find ourselves at the dawn of an exciting new age of international investigative reporting. Now, the most talented journalists around the world can simultaneously investigate the most important global issues of our time, collaborating across borders, transcending the traditional geographical, cultural, language and other traditional barriers to journalistic partnerships. The new editorial challenges to provide readers, viewers and browsers with an international perspective on practically every major subject today mean that news organizations will find ways, must find ways to get over their normal, competitive obsessions.

Let’s face it, investigative reporters and I count myself in this group — are not normal. It is not normal to investigate a difficult subject for months or years, to investigate people or organizations that operate illegally, secretly and kill for a living, to face personal rejection literally on a daily basis. Investigative reporters are, by nature, suspicious and even somewhat paranoid.

But in this new age, at this conference and beyond, we must learn to drop our inhibitions and our usual competitive resistance to collaboration with our journalistic colleagues. We must build up trust and rapport with like-minded professionals elsewhere in the world.

The first international investigative reporting conference I attended was back in Moscow in 1992. And the great journalist Phillip Knightley who has been a working reporter for more than 50 years told how he had tackled a tough investigative assignment by calling up reporters in different cities around the world. Together, they traded and stitched together information across borders, and all of them broadened their range of knowledge and context. You can do the same thing, starting here in Copenhagen. It could be just one journalist you meet, from another country, who perhaps shares your insight, interest or expertise about a certain subject. That could be the beginning of across border investigative reporting.

I will close with the timeless words of Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

The truth and the “real facts” have no neat boundaries today. As investigative reporters, we must better adapt to the new challenges of globalization and the new technologies. And that is why we are here in Copenhagen.

Thank you.

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