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Reporter's Notebook: Investigative journalism's last gasp?

Opinion

Reporter's Notebook: Investigative journalism's last gasp?

The reporter wanted to know how Mark Benjamin persuaded the mother of slain Pfc. Albert Nelson to talk.

Within seconds, Benjamin, a writer for Salon.com, is borrowing a pen. He snatches a handout from the May 1 investigative reporting conference in Boston. He scribbles a crude map of the 2006 U.S. Army operation in Ramadi, Iraq, that resulted in the death of Nelson and another American soldier.

Benjamin races through the details of the battle. He knows them all. He uses military jargon – "SAW," "Dog 5," "AIF Dismounts" – all while demonstrating a serviceman's affinity for profanity. His digital watch is set to military time.

He's vested.

"Man, I've been living, breathing and sleeping this damn story," he says. "It's all I ever talk about. I probably drive people crazy talking about it."

Benjamin has been investigating the 2006 battle for more than a year. A source told him that the two American soldiers were killed by friendly fire, not by insurgents. Benjamin interviewed soldiers who were there and family members. Using a Freedom of Information request, he obtained a shortened version of the Army's investigation and he's still in pursuit of the full report. He discovered a helmet-cam video of the battle shot by Nelson's platoon leader.

The graphic video shows Nelson dying. It also shows the platoon leader ordering his men to lie about what happened.

When news of the Army's alleged cover-up spread, Benjamin listened to the Army's call to Nelson's mother. They asked her what it would take to get her to stop talking. She told them she wanted the full report, the truth. The Army said it was on the way, right now. 

That was more than three months ago. 

Benjamin's piece was published last October. It presents seemingly irrefutable evidence of a cover-up. The Army is sticking to its story, which along with indifference on Capitol Hill, clearly enrages Benjamin ("Washington doesn't give a $#!^," he says).

Benjamin tells the reporter how he plans to blow the story wide open. He circles a position on the map and stabs it with the pen. He needs to talk to them.

It's likely he will.

Reporters like Benjamin are guided missiles, single-minded, relentless.  

Benjamin's complete immersion in his subject and his uncompromising determination are not unique, particularly among his peers at the height of the profession. Still, the fantastic nature of his story underscored how easily the work put into doing great journalism is obscured by the finished product. 

Readers probably don't know that Benjamin spent weeks trying to convince family members to talk. They likely don't know about his FOI request, an exhausting and sometimes expensive game played between the press and public officials. And readers probably don't know how he managed to get a hold of the incriminating video from a soldier's family member.

But maybe they should.

You may have heard that journalism is dying and journalists' numbers are dwindling. Newspapers are slashing staff and closing. Even organizations that have completely abandoned print are struggling to find a profitable business model that will allow them to give away content that is costly to produce (Salon.com is trading at 20 cents a share).

Reader reaction has been frighteningly cavalier. In a recent blog post, San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein described it as being "marched to the gallows by an unappreciative and uncaring public."

The May 1 conference  in Boston certainly had its share of gallows humor. It was hard to miss the irony of attending an investigative reporting conference when investigative reporting is perhaps the most costly – and therefore most easily slashed – budget line in a newsroom (assuming there's a budget line at all).

There was also the conference's location: The Boston Globe, which on Friday was on the verge of being shuttered by its parent organization, The New York Times Co.

One of my best friends works at the Globe. When I told him that I'd be there Friday, he e-mailed saying I should swipe "a stapler or something as a memento." He didn't say anything about his dream job hanging on the precipice. He didn't have to.

The plight of major papers like the Globe has rippled throughout the industry. For those with aspirations beyond their current employment, the next step seemingly leads toward oblivion. Better to stay at the small paper, where many have been ordered to do more with less, and in many cases for much less than an administrative assistant (which isn't much).

Friday's conference seemed to target these journalists. Several speakers hammered home the importance of checking government, of pursuing public records, of accountability, of skepticism, of working for readers and not the people you cover – of becoming guided missiles.

The message felt urgent, even for those already sold on its virtues. It was like a family member's advice from the deathbed.

Fortunately, skepticism isn't just a journalistic principle.

As it turns out, Pfc. Albert Nelson's mother was a former Philadelphia cop. That, Benjamin told the reporter, was why Jean Feggins talked. 

"She always had a feeling the Army was lying," Benjamin said. "But she could never prove it."

Today she can.

But if investigative journalism dies, what about tomorrow?

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