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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 7, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Q&A: Documentary highlights investigative reporting

Over the course of several months, Jeff Cohen, associate professor and director of the Park Center for Independent Media, worked as executive producer for the documentary film “All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, And the Spirit of I.F. Stone.” This month, the film premiered at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.

Directed by Fred Peabody, the film discusses current independent journalists, such as Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi, and their work to produce adversarial journalism that exposes government corruption.

Opinion Editor Celisa Calacal spoke with Cohen about the importance of investigative journalism, the legacy of I.F. Stone and the effect of media conglomerates on journalistic independence.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

Celisa Calacal: Though investigative journalism has been declining in recent years, why do you think it’s still important to pursue investigative reporting?

Jeff Cohen: Without independent, adversarial or investigative reporting, big institutions — whether they’re government or corporate — can engage in wrongdoing. And one of the great checks on power is independent, aggressive journalism. So in the mainstream, investigative journalism has been greatly diminished and reduced. Many newspapers no longer have investigative journalists; part of the reason is investigative journalism can cost a lot of money and can sometimes not produce a lot of results. Sometimes you’ll spend months on a story, and you realize there’s no story. Well, in today’s mainstreammedia environment, they don’t have that luxury. … So in the vacuum of mainstream media becoming less independent, less adversarial, closer to corporate and government institutions, independent media have blossomed. And that’s what the movie focuses on, is these aggressive journalists who work for largely independent outlets. They’re not working for the giant mainstreammedia conglomerates.

CC: What is it about independent media that allows adversarial journalism to blossom?

JC: The reason it blossoms in independent media is there’s freedom. You don’t have management telling you to tone it down, don’t be so critical. … Independent media allows their journalists to go after the powers that be. Mainstream media are owned by giant corporations that are very close with the government and are very interlocked with other corporations, their advertisers or sponsors. So there’s an institutional obstacle in the mainstream to doing tough, independent journalism. That’s why our movie focuses largely on people that are independent, like Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh of Democracy Now!”; Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept; Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone; John Carlos Frey, who won the Izzy Award. … It’s sort of a golden age for aggressive, independent journalism in the independent sector, in part because the internet allows nearly free distribution of content. It used to cost a lot of money to … say 20 years ago … start a news outlet and compete with NBC news and The New York Times. … Now, distribution of content is free on the internet.

CC: Your movie talks a lot about I.F. Stone and how he influenced those journalists. What is it about I.F. Stone that makes him such a hallmark for investigative journalism?

JC: The title of the movie comes from a phrase that I.F. Stone made famous: “All governments lie.” And Izzy Stone wasn’t saying all governments lie all the time. But he was saying that anything the government says, you should begin with skepticism and perhaps the assumption that they’re not telling the whole truth. So I.F. Stone was this heroic figure in the 1950s and ’60s and early ’70s who was exposing government lies as soon as they were being uttered. And so the Amy Goodmans and Glenn Greenwalds of today look back on Izzy’s work and say that they’re trying to follow in those footsteps — that you don’t wait months or years later to expose the government — you’re skeptical from day one. … The independent journalists that you’re asking me about that are following in the footsteps of I.F. Stone they’re trying to expose government deception as soon as the deception is uttered.

CC: Why do you think investigative journalism is important in a democracy?

JC: Unless you do in-depth investigative journalism, there’s no way exposing systemic misconduct or abuse on the part of the government institution. If you’re a daily beat reporter and you’re covering the state department, and you go to the news conference, the briefing every day … you simply don’t have the time to pull back and develop sources usually in the middle level of an institution who will tell you about the wrongdoing. And so investigative reporting involves a lot of document research. It involves a lot of digging up of informed sources who can tell you what’s really going on inside this powerful institution. …  It takes time. It takes skepticism. It takes willing to make enemies of powerful individuals and institutions. And unfortunately, many in the elite media are too cozy with elite institutions that prevents them from exposing wrongdoing within those institutions.

CC: What is it about powerful media conglomerates that makes it so they kind of stifle investigative reporting?

JC: Well, powerful conglomerates usually want something from government. …  Media conglomerates are webbed up with the U.S. power structure, and journalism is supposed to expose wrongdoing within those power structures. And you know you can’t stick it to the man if you’re working for the man. I learned that when I worked for MSNBC during the runup to the invasion of Iraq.

CC: How do you think journalism programs can help instill this sense of skepticism and this drive to produce adversarial journalism?

JC: I think there needs to be more courses in independent media. Ithaca College is one of the only places that has such a course. I think there needs to be more questioning of concepts that have, in my view, plagued mainstream media like neutrality and objectivity. I’m all for being objective, but the way mainstream media practices objectivity is to just be gullible …  because if you’re too aggressive, you’ll be seen as biased. … Journalism programs, I think, need to teach independence and the importance of being independent and skeptical instead of the primacy of being, quote, neutral.