Free Markets, Free People


Salon v McKeon: When is an investigative reporter not an investigative reporter

When most people think of an investigative reporter, they think of someone who pursues a story in depth, gathers all the facts and then, using those facts, connects the dots to a then fairly obvious conclusion.   Of course that means that ethically, the same reporter would be required to write an objective investigative article or series based on those facts even if the conclusion is contrary to what was expected.  That is, the target of the story could possibly be exonerated rather than condemned based on the reporters work.

What most people don’t consider investigative reporting is the use of selective facts that support an ideology and agenda in an attack on someone to reach a preordained conclusion.  An example of that sort of reporting was recently found in a Rolling Stone hit piece on LTG William Caldwell.  The author had enjoyed success in being instrumental in the removal of another general (Gen. Stanley McChrystal) based on an article he’d written.  His later piece on LTG William Caldwell, however, was a classic example of the genre of “investigative reporting” that is becoming more and more common – selective facts, poor research, an agenda all working toward a particular conclusion. 

The article was roundly panned as atrocious work as the blogosphere took it apart piece by piece and trashed it.

Another example of that genre has popped up on the radar screen in a Salon hit piece on Rep. Buck McKeon.  Why a hit piece and not, as Salon tries to characterize it, an investigative report?  Several reasons.   First, the “investigative reporter” is hardly someone who fits the definition of an objective reporter as outlined above. 

When you read the Salon article here, you’ll see the author of the article’s bio at the bottom. 

Lee Fang is an investigative journalist in the Bay Area.

Is he? Again, the implication of the short bio is he’s an objective reporter who has pursued a story lead and what you read in the article above is an objective assessment of the gathered facts leading in connect the dot fashion to a logical conclusion.

But as it turns out that’s not at all who Lee Fang is.

However, unfortunately, you have to leave Salon and go elsewhere to make that determination.  Salon certainly isn’t forthcoming with the details. 

We find the truth in an interview with a Santa Clarita CA radio station, KHTS, where the host introduces Fang thusly:

Lee Fang (pronounced Fong, pictured at left) is a freelance journalist and the senior investigator for United Republic, a nonpartisan group dedicated to ending the corrupting influence of special interest money in American politics.

Nonpartisan?

United Republic?

While you may sympathize and even agree with the premise of the group, calling something founded by MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan, Huffingto Post’s Paul Blumenthal and former Free Press founder Josh Silver a nonparitsan group is like calling James Carville an independent.  There is a definite ideological agenda at work there and in essence, Lee Fang is the opposition research guy.  And this isn’t his first stop on the "advocacy journalism" side of things.

That’s not quite a “freelance journalism” is it?

Another tidbit from the radio interview:

 Lee Fang: Right now we’re just looking at Chairmen of important committees in Congress so we’ve looked at Armed Services, we’ve looked at Energy and Commerce and on the Senate side we’ve looked at Banking and Finance.

Really?  Just the “Chairmen”?  The ranking members on the House committees, who are essentially the opposition co-chairs and still wield enormous power on  the committees, don’t merit a look?  Of course, in the House, those ranking members are all Democrats.  Only on the Senate side have has he claimed to have looked at a Democrat. 

As to the facts, here’s the basic claim of the article:

Recent disclosures reveal that a federal lobbyist with ties to Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the senior member of the committee overseeing the Pentagon, provided financial support to McKeon’s wife, who is seeking a seat in the California Assembly this year. As defense industry lobbyists scramble to head off looming cuts in the Pentagon budget, they are looking for new ways to ingratiate themselves with McKeon.

The contribution, reported here for the first time, appears to be an effort to circumvent federal campaign limits. Federal campaign disclosures show that Valente has already maxed out in donations to Rep. McKeon this cycle, having given $2,500 to his campaign for Congress. And the contribution came within a day of Valente’s donation to Patricia’s campaign for the California Assembly.

Valente’s lobbying firm, Valente and Associates, reported over $1.4 million in fees last year. The firm represented at least one company, 3Leaf Group, a government contractor specializing in human resources, that sought help from Valente on issues relating to the Defense Authorization bill. McKeon, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was the principal author of that legislation.

Valente did not respond to a request for comment. But his so-called 527 campaign entity, the Fund for American Opportunity, gave only one contribution to a state politician in all of 2011: Patricia McKeon.

Craig Holman, a lobbying expert with Public Citizen, says that the donation to McKeon is part of a larger pattern of influence peddling in Washington: “The objective is to throw as much money as possible at the feet of the lawmaker; that includes at the feet of his family as well.”

McKeon’s staff, specifically Alissa McCurley, responded to a request for comment from KHTS:

First, contrary to Mr. Fang’s inaccurate assertion, Patricia was not the only state candidate to receive a donation from the Fund for American Opportunity. If you click on the link in the article, you will see several state candidates listed on the group’s 6-month contribution report. Secondly, again contrary to Fang’s false assertion, Mr. Valente has not maxed out to Congressman McKeon. In fact, Mr. Valente has not contributed to Congressman McKeon’s “McKeon for Congress” campaign committee at all."

“Investigative reporter?”  Two of the most basic and supposedly damning “facts” are incorrect? Those two “facts” are the main support for Fang’s implication that McKeon is rotten.  McCurley correctly labels the piece as more one of “opinion” than fact.  And given the above, it certainly seems to be assertion masquerading as factual reporting.  If the author can’t get those two basic facts correct, then why should anyone believe anything else written?

The attempt to smear is clear.  In fact, again in the radio interview, Fang has to admit that there’s nothing illegal in any of McKeon’s activity:

KHTS: I’m reading the article and I’m saying to myself is there anything illegal or just inappropriate?

LF: I talked to some McCain-Feingold experts, that’s the campaign finance law on the books, and they said in this case there’s no evidence of illegal conduct.

So why all the innuendo, inaccuracies and implications?  Because there’s an agenda at play here and this is how ideological advocacy works. Spin something to appear in the best light which advances your cause, whether the facts supporting it are there or not.  But this is certainly not “investigative reporting”.

Again, you may agree with the United Republic goal, but when a major publication hides the fact that someone it bills as an “investigative reporter” works for an ideologically driven activist group and that the article is an extension of that group’s activist focus, then you are doing your readers a disservice.   This isn’t “investigative reporting”.  This is advocacy “journalism” in its purist form.  You’d think the editors of Salon would have known that and put a disclaimer in Fang’s bio.

Instead, they either chose to deceive by omission even while questioning the ethics of others or they didn’t do their job.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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17 Responses to Salon v McKeon: When is an investigative reporter not an investigative reporter

  • Lee-lee is a HUGE joke among bloggers.

    A Thunk Progress boi, his stuff has been the object of many surgical sessions by grown-ups.

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/04/028825.php

    • @Ragspierre Not that I disagree, but when I made the same point of one of your “sources”, you called it an ad-hominem attack. A bit inconsistent.

      • @CaptinSarcastic Really? You can’t discern any distinction, huh? Figures.

        • @Ragspierre You used an AEI (right win think tank) member as a source, I pointed this out, you called in “ad-hominem”, then you point out a “reporter” who is a member of a left wing think tank should not be trusted. Yes, I see the distinction, you support dismissing an inviduals credibility if they have left win associations, but gladly use individuals with right wing associations a credible source.

        • @CaptinSarcastic I’ll just point out that is a lie, and you are a liar. But we all know that.

        • @Ragspierre When I assert that you are inaccurate or inconsistent, I explain why, because I can. You just shout insults without back-up because you can’t back it up.

  • Lee Fang is a propaganda-pusher for Think Progress who is regularly debunked. No surprise it’s happened again here.

  • This whole sounds sounds so much like the recent story about Forecastthefacts.org
    Forecastthefacts.org had come up with a program quite similar to the infamous ATTACKWATCH.com, except this was to gather information on meteorologists who don’t tow the AGW line.
    Well, Forecastthefacts.org was the product of Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL), ”a non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses digital media and technology to amplify the voices of underrepresented constituencies. We seek to empower individuals to take collective action on the issues that concern them, promoting a world of greater equality and justice in the process.” at the David Brower Center at 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA. The David Brower Center describes CEL as “The Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) uses digital media and technology to organize issue and identity-based communities, with a focus on amplifying the voices of ethnic and racial minorities and young people. Our mission is to create a network of overlapping constituencies that serve as distribution channels for calls-to-action and key progressive messages.”

  • Definition of PARTISAN
    1
    : a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance

  • This whole thing sounds sounds so much like the recent story about Forecastthefacts.org
    Forecastthefacts.org had come up with a program quite similar to the infamous ATTACKWATCH.com, except this was to gather information on meteorologists who don’t tow the AGW line.
    Well, Forecastthefacts.org was the product of Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL), ”a non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses digital media and technology to amplify the voices of underrepresented constituencies. We seek to empower individuals to take collective action on the issues that concern them, promoting a world of greater equality and justice in the process.” at the David Brower Center at 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.
    The David Brower Center describes CEL as “The Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) uses digital media and technology to organize issue and identity-based communities, with a focus on amplifying the voices of ethnic and racial minorities and young people. Our mission is to create a network of overlapping constituencies that serve as distribution channels for calls-to-action and key progressive messages.”

  • When no news organization is committed to offering full and unadluterated facts, and any that try this model fail financially, it becomes clear that honest journalism is a failed financial model, and since the monetization of news and every second of TV time, real news has long taken a back seat to sensationalism over jounralism, while at the same time slashing the budgets for actual jounralism. There are no real investigative jounralists because there is no profit in it. Now, activists have taken up the slack, and occasionally they uncover genuine issues, which the for profit media will gladly glom onto. Along with the shrinking number of reporters, there is also a growing number of PR professionals, and PR professionals also take up the slack, giving low new budget organizations free stories. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed. So when you get your news, the people that actually provided the stories are more likely to be activist reporters or agenda driven PR professionals than from an objective reporter who just went out and dug up facts and reported them objectively.

    • @CaptinSarcastic “There are no real investigative jounralists because there is no profit in it.”

      Yeah…bullshit. In the Houston media market alone, there are MANY. I expect you’ll find the same in every major media market in the U.S.

    • @CaptinSarcastic They are failing because they don’t use facts, they are hacks who attempt to appear objective.

  • When no news organization is committed to offering full and unadluterated facts, and any that try this model fail financially, it becomes clear that honest journalism is a failed financial model, and since the monetization of news and every second of TV time, real news has long taken a back seat to sensationalism over jounralism, while at the same time slashing the budgets for actual jounralism. There are no real investigative jounralists because there is no profit in it. Now, activists have taken up the slack, and occasionally they uncover genuine issues, which the for profit media will gladly glom onto. Along with the shrinking number of reporters, there is also a growing number of PR professionals, and PR professionals also take up the slack, giving low new budget organizations free stories. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed. So when you get your news, the people that actually provided the stories are more likely to be activist reporters or agenda driven PR professionals than from an objective reporter who just went out and dug up facts and reported them objectively.

  • Well, my understanding is that the Pentagon Papers which were released to discredit the LBJ administration war effort were in fact edited by the “reporters” who released them. The raw information in the Papers was not sufficient for the “reporters’” goals.

    Oh, and recall Walter Cronkite and Tet. In one interview with a USMC officer, they dubed in the sound of heavy fighting for the broadcast. The officer sounded like an idiot when he stated the fighting was almost over and only minor mopping up was going on.