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October 28, 2012
Tips on Investigative Journalism From the Most Honored US Journalists-- Barlett and Steele
By Rob Kall
interview with Donald Barlett and James Steele, the nation's most honored investigative reporting team, discussing tips for bloggers and writers on doing investigative journalism.
INTERVIEW with: Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele are the nation's most honored investigative reporting team, and authors of the New York Times bestseller America: What Went Wrong ?
This is part two of a two part interview. The First half of the interview is here.
thanks to Don Caldarazzo for help with transcript checking.
The audio for this podcast is here.
speaker 1 Rob Kall, Interviewer
Speaker 2/ Donald L. Barlett, Interviewee
Speaker 3/ James B. Steele, Interviewee
Rob Kall: My guests tonight are Donald Barlett. And James Steele.
They're the authors of "Betrayal of the American Dream", a new book that is just... really kicks butt. Donald Barlett and James Steele are the nation's most honored investigative reporting team, and they're authors of the New York Times bestseller "America: What Went Wrong?" They've worked together for more than forty years, first at the Philadelphia Inquirer (1971--1997), then at Time magazine (1997--2006), and now Vanity Fair.
Rob Kall: All right, let's talk about the media. I want to talk about your experience. Now you are highly honored and celebrated journalists. I'd like to get some advice from you for writers nowadays. There are a lot of bloggers, there are a lot of amateur writers out there. How can people, who have a lot of time because they're out of work, or because they're passionately caring and interested in this" how can they learn from your experience? What advice would you give them as writers and journalists?
Barlett and Steele, image from their website, barlettandsteele.com
James Steele: [Jim Steele here] We have always, and this hasn't really changed" we've always suggested that unfortunately people have to kind of connect the dots. There's no one place that you're going to see everything. But you just [have] to be informed, because information comes in so many different directions, you really have to try to pull some of that together. And you know, that's what our business ought to do more of. That's what Don and I tried to do over the years. We've tried to connect those dots on a lot of these big issues. But more of it needs to be done. And the problem now in some ways, it's almost a blizzard of information that people half the time don't know what to go to, what to look at, what to believe. And the internet is both a marvellous creature, but also the purveyor of a lot of nonsense. So it's in some ways harder then ever to connect the dots than the old days. But it's still what has to be done to know what's happened.
Donald Barlett: And one good sign out there is the investigative reporting today, some of it is the best it's ever been. And contrary to what people like to think. There's always been investigative reporting, but it was very little of it for, you know, most of the life of journalism. It's really only come of age since the "70s, and as bad as things are in journalism right now, there's some remarkable investigative reporting going on. And somehow this has got to be further expanded, you know, that's for, you know, people to figure out how to do. But what it does show you, is that the potential is there. We just have to find a way to get people to do it.
James Steele: The way we did this project is a perfect example of how things are changing. Years ago it would be your newspaper and maybe a couple of other people on the paper, but Don and I partnered with a non-profit Foundation, based in an American university in Washington D.C. They provided some of the research help. And also as a vehicle to start posting some of the researchers, we went along, which then led us to some of the people whose interviews are in the book. That's the kind of collaborative thing that would have been unheard of, really ten years ago, twenty years ago.
Rob Kall: Can you describe that in more detail. That's very interesting!
James Steele: Well, what's happened with the shrinkage of a lot of newspapers and magazines, is that many non-profit entities have grown up around the country. An old friend of ours, by the name of Chuck [Charles] Lewis founded one twenty-seven  years ago, called the "Centre for Public Integrity' in Washington. Chuck later went on to take a sabbatical of his own, and end up teaching in an American university. And then there founded another entity there called the "Investigative Reporting Workshop'. And that's the one we partnered with on this project. But in addition to that, those there are four to five dozen of these non-profits around the country now. Some of them are on a State-wide basis" former reporters for newspapers who've gotten enough foundation money that they're providing this. "ProPublica' in New York is an example of a national one, that actually won a Pulitzer Prize this year with another entity which I can't remember. So, the idea, you know there's a lot going on, and a lot of it is just going to take a different shape than it did in the past. And nobody knows how this whole non-profit will eventually shape out. Which ones will survive, which ones won't. What kind of a business model is ever going to be there that will support them. The field remains in tremendous turmoil in that sense. But we feel, and as Don said, that there's a lot of great reporting going on, and the public wants this, the public needs it, and we're hopeful that this will continue in one form or another, just not the way we've seen it in the past.
Rob Kall: Who do you see as doing some of that great investigative reporting now? What are the names, and organizations or publishers?
Donald Barlett: I think Jim mentioned one of the more prominent ones is "ProPublica'. And he just retired, I think, but the man running it was" he had come over from the Wall Street Journal. So there are people in each of these organizations, with, you know, real journalism credentials.
James Steele: [interjecting] I mean the biggest surprise of all in some ways is the New York Times. The New York Times a few years ago didn't even use the word investigation, but the New York Times today and for several years now, has done more investigative reporting than any time in their history. Walt Bogdanich is a friend of ours, he's done a lot of the great pharmaceutical reporting for the Times, on the bad drugs coming out of China. Walt did an outstanding piece on railroad crossings, and how railroads cover up the mistakes they'd made because they don't properly have the signals at these crossings and people die. I mean there's a dozen people at the Times, and there's some really good people at the Washington Post as well. So I mean there's a lot of good folks around. The reason really" I'll tell you where we see this as much as anything. One of us judges a journalism contest and the interests comes in, and it's amazing what's going on out there.
Rob Kall: What's the journalism contest?
James Steele: I've judged one called "Investigative Reporters and Editors'. But then Don and I, Arizona State University, named an award for us for in-depth journalism called "The Barlett & Steele Award'. We don't judge it, but every year we see what the entries are. And every year there's four to five dozen entries of some really sophisticated, amazing reporting across a whole range of different topics from abuses by State agencies taking care of the elderly to" one of the pieces that won a few years ago was out of Florida, where the Miami Herald had taken databases for real estate.. licensed real estate" I'm sorry they were mortgage brokers in Florida, they took that database and then they took the State criminal database, and they ran the two together and they found out thousands of people selling mortgages, peddling mortgages in Florida were actually ex-cons. [laughing] Is that amazing? Yeah, I mean that's the kind of story you would never have, you wouldn't have even heard about a few years ago, because of part of the technology makes it possible. Very ambitious!
Rob Kall: Whoah! Could you let me ask you this, that you are the judge on one contest, the Investigative Reporters and Editorial" Editors journalism contest?
James Steele: And we've judged others.
Rob Kall: What is that? And, others? Okay. So what is some of the criteria that you look for, in identifying excellence and winners?
James Steele: Clarity. The way the story is put forth.
Donald Barlett: [interjecting] And obstacles that had to be overcome in getting it.
James Steele: And was the energy worth being expended for this topic? And I'll tell, you some of these things are really hard to judge because boy, the really good stuff is, it's a tough issue because a lot of good stuff is being done. Most of it is at the local and what we call the regional. There's not as much at the national level that we would like to see. But in a lot of regional things it's fine. I mean the Philadelphia Enquirer's series last year on violence in schools was an exceptional piece of work, and it was a combination of interviews, human stories backed up by raw data about what was really going on. So, there's a lot of good work going on now. And a lot of committed people in journalism. Journalism's has always been a calling, that's never changed, and that never will change. I don't think anybody knows just all the ways it's going to be a showcased in the future.
Rob Kall: What do you mean, it's a "calling'?
James Steele: Well, it's hard work, and it's always long hours"
Donald Barlett: Let me put it this way"
James Steele: " the actual rewards, and now you have a situation where salaries for so many people have been rolled back from what they were just a few years ago. So the ones in journalism now are a testament in a way, that those of us maybe twenty years ago weren't. We weren't having our salaries rolled back. Maybe they weren't increasing at the rate we wanted, but it's a totally different ballgame out there right now.
Rob Kall: I think I totally agree with you. I mean for a lot of people, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, who are blogging who are not getting paid anything. Now"
James Steele: Exactly.
Rob Kall: " part of the reason I'm asking you on this, is I publish OpEdNews.com. If you Google "liberal news', then search for that, it comes up first. And we just past our hundred and fifty thousand [150,000 ] items published mark.
James Steele: Excellent!
Rob Kall: And so I have a thousand"
Donald Barlett: That's pretty impressive.
Rob Kall: It blows my mind! [James laughing in background] But I have thousands of writers who care a lot. So what I'm trying to get from you as well, is advice to them... Let's say they care about an issue. Let's say they see that there's something that just doesn't look right. We publish a lot by whistleblowers, for example. As an investigative journalist, what advice would you give them on how to address attacking this story from the beginning?
James Steele: Well it'd would be a couple of different things, but I suppose the first one, try and put yourself in that story. Now I don't mean person, but try to imagine if you were reading this story what you would want to know, and what you would want to find. And the basic model Don and I have from Day One, is just tell the reader or viewer, whatever it happened to be, something they don't know. I mean there's such widespread dodge on so many things done now. What can you tell them that's new? And keep concentrating on that. Sometimes it's just a matter of your view of it, it may be slightly different based on your analysis of the facts. But that's the heart of it. We also, in our case we've been very interested in issues of economic fairness. I mean how does this play out to the average person? And what can you can do" what we do to shed a little light on something that up to that point has been in some kind of darkness.
Rob Kall: It seems to me"
Donald Barlett: [interjecting] And what are corporations' executives saying! What are public officials saying! What are those people telling the population at large, and how does that square with what's really taking place? You can never go wrong doing that. We seem to be in a period of unprecedented hypocrisy. Elections have always been" had their critical moment. But anymore, it's like, candidates are just outdoing each other to see how hypocritical they can become.
Rob Kall: It seems like one of the things that you do routinely in your writing, in your book, is you weave together statistics and the kind of facts that you get from government reporting agencies and polls, and then tie that in with anecdotal interviews with real people.
Donald Barlett: Exactly.
James Steele: We've always tried to do this. I mean some stories haven't leant themselves to that, but most of them about the economy always do, because this is the life people are leading and what's happening to them just goes to the heart of all of these broad topics. And it also makes the story real in the way that nothing in our own language can make so real. So we always strive for that, and a big part of the work and everything we've done, is finding the people. For every name you see in a book, there's probably about ten others that have been interviewed, and for various reasons weren't in there. But that's also"
Rob Kall: How do you find them?
James Steele: Random ways.
Donald Barlett: There's no single way.
James Steele: No. We found some peoples' names, we found some names in bankruptcy court claims. People whose health care had been taken away. And a lot of the people, the names for this book, showed up in Labor Department filings. They'd lost their jobs because of imports or various trade issues. It's a very cumbersome process to get those petitions, and they're called "trade adjustment assistance petition'. And we've gotten many of those over the years. That's when other litigation, here and there, shows up beyond. And then one thing helped us this time, because of the collaboration with American University, the workshop down there. When we posted these things online, we urged people to contact us, and we heard from a lot of people that way. People who turned out to be very good interviews in some cases. So it's just like Don said, it's a range of things and it's quite often very hard to find folks. But they're the heart of every one of these stories.
Rob Kall: Right last question, and then we've got to wrap up. 'Occupy Wall Street'. Where do you see that figuring into the picture that you've painted?
James Steele: Well, their issues are really a lot of the issues of the book. I mean in terms of the one percent, and you know Don and I actually wrote about the one-percenters back in the mid "90s, before this thing got really popular. So we understand who those folks are. We tend not to go along with the bottom 99, we don't do the one percent versus the 99 percent. We've always talked about the bottom 90 percent. And it's the only reason for that is the folks between 90 percent and 99 percent are still, they're not doing too badly. It's really the bottom 90 percent at this point that we're most worried about. So, I mean it's a slight distinction, that's the reason we make it so. You know, a lot of the issues they've highlighted have been very, very real issues, and it's hard to tell what it has done for the consciousness of the country other than just make people aware of them. And where that we go from here we don't know, but certainly on the concentration of wealth, and what's happening to just average people, we're very, very sympathetic to what they've talked about.
Rob Kall: And what's your website?
James Steele: It's just www.barlettandsteele.com
Rob Kall: Okay. Thank you so much.
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