Isikoff details challenges of investigative reporting
Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter for Newsweek, discussed the secrecy of the current White House administration and the state of investigative journalism in front of a nearly full Dodds Auditorium yesterday.
Isikoff, who authored “Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story,” is known for his investigation of the Monica Lewinski story and his coverage of the war on terror.
He spoke extensively on the problem of the secrecy surrounding the current Bush administration and actions he believes are unconstitutional.
“This is an extremely secretive administration,” Isikoff said. “Every single administration has had things they wanted to cover up: some criminal, some politically embarrassing. ... This one takes the cake.”
A memo authored two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001 by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo was not obtained by Newsweek until three years later, in December 2004, Isikoff said. The memo was titled “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them.”
“If you follow through the logic, it concludes with what I found to be rather chilling language. ‘These decisions are for our president alone to make and unreviewable,’ ” Isikoff said, as he read selections from the memo.
The memo, Isikoff said, supported the president’s right to interrogate and incarcerate enemy suspects and take any other preemptive “military action” against foreign states or people if the president suspected they were aiding terrorists, without requiring authorization by Congress.
Isikoff also said that while the media was partially at fault for not adequately doing its job, many reporters, including him, had done what they could given the circumstances.
“We’ve been far too compliant in challenging those in power,” Isikoff said. “As a result, there have been significant consequences for the country because the press did not step up, because the press was far too much of a cheerleader.”
“For all this flack we’re taking, we do still make a difference,” he added. “[We’re] shining a light on governmental action that you wouldn’t otherwise know [about].”
Because information has been hard to come by during the Bush administration, reporters have had to depend on anonymous sources, Isikoff said. These stories were often counteracted by “propaganda” from the administration, Isikoff said, calling this period a “black mark” in the history of journalism. “Clearly the [propaganda] is going to get more attention.”
Isikoff said that many problems face journalism today, such as the size of reporting staff, foreign bureaus and shrinking investigative staff numbers.
“I speak at a time that our profession is bleaker. News organizations are having a difficult time,” Isikoff explained. “Circulation numbers are dropping for obvious reasons. If you give your product away for free on the internet, why should anyone continue to pay for it?”
Isikoff began with remarks on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) ’81’s recent involvement in a prostitution scandal, joking that his lecture should have covered sex scandals.
Isikoff said that sex scandals, because of their shock value, are popular investigative journalism.
“I figure, what the hell, let’s just talk about sex scandals,” Isikoff said. “As stories go, the Spitzer one’s hard to beat.”
Journalism professor and Newsweek editor-at-large Evan Thomas humorously described Isikoff as a “pain in the ass to work with” in his introduction, but noted that Isikoff stands tall in the field of investigative reporting.
“Mike is, I would say, the premiere investigative day-to-day reporter in the Washington press,” Thomas said. “Isikoff is a pretty legendary name in investigative journalism. Isikoff really has no peer. ... He has made mistakes, but Mike’s batting average is extraordinarily high.”
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