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In Praise of Reporters Who Stir the Pot

Media critic Jesse Brown is making waves -- and a few enemies -- in journalism circles.

The Tyee
Shannon Rupp

I burst out laughing when I saw this predictable Globe and Mail headline: "Jesse Brown is quick to expose the failures of Canadian media. But what about his own?" 

Contrary to what you may have heard, nobody in the trade likes investigative reporters much, and most hacks are openly hostile to the ones who start covering other media.

Brown, who has been subjected to finger wagging and called a muckraker, is the independent podcaster who broke the story about CBC's Amanda Lang and her conflicts-of-interest. (The Globe and Mail has been running her self-serving op-eds related to the story).

Before that, Brown and the Toronto Star led the investigation into Jian Ghomeshi's antics.

But it appears he's offending many of his fellow journalists who are bleating about his supposed lack of "ethics" and "professionalism." One called his investigation of Lang "sexist."

Personally, I have no opinion about the kerfuffle beyond this: When it comes to the history of muckraking, 'twas ever thus. No one likes a boat-rocker. No one other than readers, that is.

The brouhaha over Brown reminded me of the attacks on one of my favourite investigative journalists, Jessica Mitford, who was christened "Queen of the Muckrakers" by Time Magazine in 1970. Being a transplanted British aristocrat, she had to look up the American term.

"I discovered that 'muckraker' was originally a pejorative coined by President Theodore Roosevelt to describe journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, who in his view had gone too far in exposing corruption in government and corporate enterprise," Mitford writes in the introduction to a collection of her articles, Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking. "Thus the Oxford English Dictionary says, 'muckrake... is often made to refer generally... to a depraved interest in what is morally unsavoury or scandalous."

"I fear that does rather describe me," Mitford adds.

And a good thing too. If you've buried a loved one at a reasonable price any time since the early 1960s it's likely you have Ms. Mitford to thank for it. Her investigation into the sleazy practices of the funeral trade led to a series of articles and a legendary book, The American Way of Death, which in turn led to legislation all over North America that put some constraints on those wily undertakers.

Mitford was revered by the next generation of journalists for her wildly entertaining exposés that lived up to that hoary old "watchdog of society" cliché. But her contemporaries weren't so impressed. Among Mitford's failings was that she was a card-carrying communist for most of her life, although it's hard to imagine how someone with such a wicked sense of humour could have been pro-Stalin. So congressmen, academics, and other journalists denounced Mitford when she turned her gimlet eye on American institutions.

'The American Way of Death'

One of Mitford's most popular investigations was her 1970 expose of the Famous Writers School, an obscenely overpriced correspondence course featuring a "guiding faculty" of high profile writers. The only names today's audience is likely to recognize are Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) and Bennett Cerf, who was chairman of Random House, a newspaper columnist and a TV personality, who appeared on a hit game show What's My Line.

"Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers" first ran in the Atlantic magazine, and it's a laugh-out-loud compendium of marketing skullduggery. Hundreds of high-pressure salesmen were strong-arming functionally illiterate old ladies into this course, which carried an outrageous price of as much as $900 for what amounted to some stylish binders and random writing tips. At the time, university correspondence courses that actually delivered education were charging around $55. The FWS "instructors" were clerks who skimmed the assignments and coded them with flattering prewritten comments, typed by a computer.

Delighted with these discoveries, Mitford was terribly rude and interviewed Cerf and other "guiding faculty" about the cynical enterprise. They volunteered some howlers about how they knew nothing about the business side, but were endorsing it for big bucks.

"But [the school] is being run extremely cleanly. I mean that from my heart, Jessica," Cerf assured her. "I think mail order selling has some built-in deficiencies. The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible."

Noticing that Mitford was writing this down, he said in alarm, "For God's sake don't quote me on that 'gullible' business -- you'll have all the mail order houses in the country down my neck."

There's more and it's equally hilarious. But at the time, institutional journalists often sided with Cerf, debating whether it was "ethical" of Mitford to quote the pompous powerhouse begging her not quote him.

As Mitford notes drily in the book, had Cerf been one of the semi-literate naïfs whom the FWS was bullying into overpriced correspondence courses, she might have granted his request. "But Bennett Cerf, at the top of the heap in publishing, television star performer, founder of FWS, who was cynically extracting tuition payments from the 'gullible' for the augmentation of his already vast fortune? This hard heart feels not the slightest compunction for having recorded his words as spoken."

So Cerf attempted to suppress the article and other journalists went along with him.

Magazine killed piece

Originally, the Atlantic commissioned the piece as a brief commentary, but killed it when they realized how much advertising FWS bought. The editor argued it would be "unethical" to run a critical article of an advertiser. So Mitford took it to McCall's magazine, which saw the potential for a good investigative story. They commissioned a 6,000-word piece and gave her a fat expense account to go visit the school.

When she filed the article, McCall's editor-in-chief killed it. Mitford, suspecting Cerf's heavy hand in this, asked why: "Well -- I don't think it's very good," she replied. And what can any writer say to that? Later the editor confessed that she didn't dare offend Cerf.

Meanwhile, photocopies of the article were bouncing around the magazine industry, gaining underground notoriety. And fans. Life magazine wanted to publish it, briefly. Then the editor learned that FWS had contracted a half million dollars of advertising over six months, and the article was dropped again. Then Harper's magazine called Mitford, but by then, the Atlantic's editor had reconsidered his position. Rather than bow to Cerf, they cancelled the FWS's ad contract.

As it turned out, journalistic virtue had financial rewards. It gave the Atlantic its best newsstand sales to date, not to mention a boost in subscribers and bragging rights as other media picked up the story. In a clear triumph for the muckraker, it was a case of comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. Those "gullible" students were advised they could get away with not paying for the substandard course and FSW went bankrupt after becoming a punch line on late night TV.

Readers loved the piece. But purse-lipped journalists quibbled about professional niceties when what they really meant was "don't piss off our powerful bosses and put us in a career-limiting position."

And so it goes with many of the formerly scurrilous reporters we now admire. Hunter S. Thompson and his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is still on creative non-fiction reading lists. His competitors called him out for lacking "objectivity" and inserting himself into his stories, not to mention making things up. (Given his legendary substance abuse I'm sure he did imagine things). But reporters at the time also said that he caught the flavour of that 1972 presidential election and the media's role in it.

And yet prim writers are still badmouthing him. In 2007, a book reviewer in the Guardian wondered why there was so much respect for a "burnt out, homophobic misogynist."

"Gonzo journalism is an embarrassing relic of a time that taste forgot," sniffs John Keenan.

As we all know that's just what citizens crave in news: bourgeois good taste.

Timothy Crouse, who wrote The Boys on the Bus, a sharp investigation into White House political reporters covering the 1972 presidential campaign, came to similar conclusions as Thompson about the cosy relationships between politicians and media. And he was treated with similar hostility by his subjects and their pals.

I reread the 1973 book a few years ago and was struck by how astute the young Rolling Stone reporter was. Long before the internet, one observation made Crouse sound downright prescient: "Journalism is probably the slowest-moving, most tradition-bound profession in America, refusing to budge until it is shoved into the future by some irresistible external force."

So you'll forgive me if I don't join the hacks complaining about the muckraking Brown's lack of "ethics" and his "sloppy" reporting and his "brash" manner. They might be right. But historically, those kinds of complaints about a muckraker's lack of professionalism tend to be a sort of codespeak among media insiders who resent an outsider investigating them. And I care even less about the other frequent accusation from staff reporters at huge corporate content factories: that Brown is a self-promoter. Which, I grant you, is in terribly bad taste. But it is also something of necessity when one is crowdfunding an indie news outlet like Canadaland.

As a citizen, what matters to me is that because of Brown's work I now know about CBC's disgraceful management (much to their chagrin). As the saying goes: news is what they don't want you to know; all the rest is publicity. By that measure, Brown is a good reporter.

Then again, who knows what he'll get up to next? As this little reminiscence on muckrakers suggests, they're an eccentric bunch and rarely welcome in polite company. But at least they're not dull and predictable.  [Tyee]

29 Jan 2015