The Lost Art Of Muckraking

Journalists expose corruption on a regular basis. Often those exposés cause a ripple or even a tidal wave of reaction, but most often those responsible for the corruption return to business or government as usual.

However, quite a few of those exposés actually lead to permanent change -- such as the numerous reported cases of innocent individuals who are freed from prison after the investigations of intrepid reporters. In some cases the corrupt officials who put the individuals behind bars lost their jobs, and authorities implemented changes to avoid similar future injustice.

Investigative journalists are also often the ones who expose corporate fraud -- such as the exposé on Standard Oil Company trust by McClure magazine journalist Ida Tarbell some 100 years ago. Tarbell's articles described the company's agreement with suppliers to fix prices in order to drive competitors out of business. As a result of the ensuing scandal, the chief executive officer was fired, and the board of directors instituted internal controls. The government also issued new guidelines on the relationship between companies in oligopolistic industries and their suppliers.

Unfortunately, journalists too rarely write about the long-term impact of their investigations. As a result, most people have no idea how frequently "the system works," not because those inside the system responded adequately, but because talented, dedicated journalists forced the issue.

Two new books -- one by former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Robert Frump, and one -- an anthology edited by journalists Judith Serrin and William Serrin -- detail important examples of investigative reporters serving as catalysts for reform.

For years Frump, who has left journalism to work for a financial services firm, wanted to tell the world about how he and others at the Inquirer played an important role in making U.S. commercial ships safer after a string of fatal sinkings killed thousands of merchant marines. But despite the Inquirer's long-running exposé in the mid-1980s, Frump and book publishers never reached agreement. Years later, unable to get the story out of his head, Frump re-entered the book contract market, and finally signed with Doubleday.

His just published book, "Until the Sea Shall Free Them," is a first-rate account of the sinking of the Marine Electric in February 1983, just 30 miles off the east coast of the United States. Of the 34 merchant marines on board, only three survived. Most news organizations reported on the tragedy briefly, and then moved on.

But not the Philadelphia Inquirer. Why? According to Frump, the Inquirer stayed on the story because of the top editor at the time, Gene Roberts. In the first of his interspersed chapters on why the Inquirer conducted its investigation, how the staff functioned and the newspaper's role in righting a wrong, Frump starts with Roberts. The date is Feb. 13, 1983:

By 10:30 on the Sunday morning after the sinking of the Marine Electric ... Roberts ... was calling editors and reporters at their homes. There seemed no plausible explanation for why he was doing this. Roberts was not a morning man, for one thing. He preferred working late into the evening as the newspaper drove toward its first edition deadline. Moreover, few Marine Electric crew members were from his circulation area, and Philadelphia was 102 nautical miles up the Delaware River from the sea. So there was no strong local angle to mobilize his news staff...[Yet Roberts] was about to set a team of investigative reporters upon a world that was rarely covered by the American media.

Initially there wasn't tremendous public interest in the event. But Roberts, who had covered the waterfront as a Virginia newspaper reporter, suspected that there was a bigger story behind the sinking of one commercial vessel. He wanted his reporters and editors to go deep, to figure out why so many ships were sinking.

So Frump started digging through government documents, court records and other repositories on the paper trail. Along the way he talked to the ignored seamen, the usually ignored sources at the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the corporations that owned the ships and the unions that supplied the labor to operate them.

As hardworking journalists often do, Frump had a eureka moment: He and his colleagues discovered that the Marine Electric's class of ship was structurally unsound, and always had been.

"The T-2 tankers, built during World War II, were serial sinkers. Some even sank at dockside. They were built of dirty steel. They contained tired iron. By one count, more than 500 men had died on old ships in accidents that never should have happened. The Marine Electric may finally have sunk on Feb. 12, 1983. But it had begun slipping beneath the waves four decades earlier."

The Inquirer's first investigative stories appeared in May 1983. Congress held hearings, and numerous politicians promised reform. Then, as often happens after investigative reports are forgotten, nothing changed. But the Inquirer team did not give up. They published articles about delays in the Marine Electric investigation and the larger reform measures needed to halt the sinkings.

The stories embarrassed the corporations that owned the ships, the unions staffing the ships, the government agencies inspecting the ships, and even the legislature. Eventually, the Inquirer's unrelenting initiative forced the authorities to pinpoint blame, take responsibility and become involved in altering a fatal system.

Frump's is just one story of the power of journalism at its best. Husband and wife team Judith and William Serrin bring together many more similar tales in their anthology. The anthology compiles some 300 years of reportage, highlighting investigative reports that were successful in bringing about institutional change. Both Serrins have extensive reporting experience. William also edited a previous book about the corporatization of news.

The Serrins said they chose to assemble journalism that "contribute[d] to change…" One of those cases was an exposé on pedophile priests done, not in 2002 during the recent spate of reporting on the issue, but 17 years ago, by Arthur Jones of the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. Jones wrote about a priest who abused boys in Louisiana.

Between 1972 and 1983, Father Gilbert Gauthe committed hundreds of sexual acts with dozens of boys in four south Louisiana Catholic parishes. He also took hundreds of pornographic photographs, which have disappeared. The priest, suspended by the Lafayette diocese in 1983, is now in a Connecticut mental facility. The situation has no real precedent in American case law. The criminal trial expected this fall is thought to be one of the largest single cases of pedophilia on record. A Lafayette diocese defense attorney has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Millions of dollars in damage claims are at stake, and millions have already been paid.

In his article, Jones detailed the cases of additional priests caught molesting young people, and of church officials who tried to cover up the scandals. For about two years, the National Catholic Reporter broke story after story with almost no follow-up from journalists elsewhere. But as a result of his reporting, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops established policies to deal with sexual abuse. The stories also warned the laity about specific priests and about church leaders who participated in cover-ups.

Often journalists have been at the forefront of breaking public taboos or pushing topics like suffrage for women, racial equality, environmental pollution, or wartime misconduct. The Serrins' said they pondered writings such as these that pressured national and regional political bosses to abolish slavery, such as the writings of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Elijah Lovejoy. They also reflected on historical journalism, selecting writings that helped create the United States, such as the newsletters of Samuel Adams and the essays of Tom Paine, which inspired colonists to fight British rule.

Over the decades reporters have uncovered so many important stories by looking again and again "in the same places -- mental hospitals, programs for the poor, prisons," to name a few, the Serrins wrote.

Journalists must persevere with independent investigations rather than depend on officials to reveal the truth. Journalists must take the initiative to penetrate closed or official circles of those who "find privacy a convenient shield," the editors wrote.

"Not everyone has an advocacy group or a lawyer," the Serrins wrote. "Even for those that do, their complaints and their legal work mean nothing unless someone verifies their work and spreads the word. Those someones are journalists."

Steve Weinberg served as executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international organization working to improve the craft, from 1983 to 1990. He is a freelance writer in Columbia, Mo.

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