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50 Years Of Great Investigative Journalism, From 'This Hour" To Amy Goodman

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear some of North America's top investigative journalists speak at conventions and other venues. The men and women I've met and heard speak have made an amazing contribution to society, protecting democracy and uncovering corruption.
Politician talking into reporters' microphones
Politician talking into reporters' microphones

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to hear some of North America's top investigative journalists speak at conventions and other venues. The men and women I've met and heard speak have made an amazing contribution to society, protecting democracy and uncovering corruption.

One recent evening it was Amy Goodman, the amazing do-it-all journalist with Democracy Now, the independent U.S. radio and TV program. She was in Toronto and gave an uplifting talk.

The evening was sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, and asking the questions was David Walmsley, the Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief.

Goodman, a tiny, engaging woman, has certainly been one of America's top journalists over the past 20 years. At one point during the interview she emphasized the importance of giving voice to the voiceless -- going to the places where (in terms of media) there is silence.

Goodman described how she and fellow investigative journalist Allan Nairn came close to being shot at point blank range while trying to stop the military from massacring dozens of people in East Timor in the early 1990s. Goodman and Nairn were spared, possibly because they made it clear they were Americans and the weapons used by the soldiers were made in the U.S.

Many outstanding journalists came to Canada to speak at the conferences of the original Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) (now the Canadian Association of Journalists), an organization I helped set up in 1978.

Several of them are/were Canadians: Walter Stewart was, as good an investigative reporter and author as you'll find anywhere. Stewart's book, Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay: The Canadian Banks, was a massive success, staying on Canadian bestseller lists for more than a year. When he passed away, The Globe and Mail headed his obituary with: "He was Canada's Conscience."

The little-known Ron Haggart , a bit of a grump who didn't like speaking publicly, was one of Canada's greats as the guts and backbone of the CBC-TV's investigative program The Fifth Estate for many years. A prolific author of letters to newspapers, Haggart never suffered fools gladly.

We also heard from Linden MacIntyre, recently retired from the more recent era of The Fifth Estate. MacIntyre, now an author, has great journalistic instincts, and is a wonderful story teller. MacIntyre was part of The Fifth Estate team that uncovered information proving that Steven Truscott had not murdered a young girl, in what was one of Canada's most controversial crime investigations.

British-born Michael Maclear became a legend among Canadian journalists who idolized the man for his independent-minded coverage of the Vietnam War. He worked for both CBC and CTV. Maclear strongly believed that documentaries needed to reflect a point of view. He was most proud of his independent film, Vietnam Goes to War.

This Hour Has Seven Days was probably Canada's best-ever current affairs show. Its confrontational methods were used so effectively to hammer unsuspecting politicians that the CBC took it off the air. It ran for less than two years in the 1960s. Over the years, the CIJ showed many of the program's amazing episodes and heard from its hosts, including the cool Patrick Watson.

On the U.S. side, I got to hear and know Seymour Hersh, perhaps America's most outstanding modern-day journalist. Hersh reminded me of Walter Stewart because they both had a nose and determination to uncover a big story. Hersh is the guy who broke the story about the Vietnam My Lai massacre and cover-up. His Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation helped turn Americans against their futile and insane war in Southeast Asia.

Noam Chomsky, perhaps America's most important progressive/anarchist thinker, has never been a journalist. But several of his many books have set high standards for investigative journalism. He can talk about any topic under the sun for at least three hours, non-stop. When Chomsky spoke, we needed a heavy-handed moderator to try to keep him on the topic he was supposed to speak about.

I'll briefly mention two other greats of a bygone era I've heard speak: Jessica Mitford, who exposed the corruption in the U.S. funeral business, and Morton Mintz, who investigated corporate misconduct in the tobacco, automotive and pharmaceutical industries for the Washington Post back when it was a great paper. In 1971, he co-wrote America, Inc.: Who Owns and Operates the United States.

Over all those years, I heard only one famous journalist give a laughable speech. Dan Rather was once Mr. All-American Journalist. He built a bit of a reputation working in small cities in Texas, rose to the face of CBC Nightly News, and went on to be a star with 60 Minutes.

In the 1980s, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). I'm not sure what year it was, but we were excited that Dan Rather was coming to deliver the keynote address.

The first part of the speech was OK, though I can't remember what he said. The room was full of many of America's top investigative journalists. So what was the message of this icon of journalism: He explained over and over again that good journalism had to be: "Deep and down the middle."

What? That's it? While there was no laughter in the room, there was a lot of snickering. Maybe Rather thought he was addressing a first-year journalism school class.

Interestingly, following Amy Goodman's speech in Toronto there was a tense moment. Earlier, she made it clear that she has no time for corporate journalism. This caused the Globe's Walmsley to squirm a little in his chair. During the question period, someone in the audience asked Goodman what she thought about the fact that the Globe had endorsed the Harper government.

Avoiding a possible dust-up with the Globe, Goodman politely said she didn't know the situation well enough to respond.

During the question, the Globe editor-in-chief squirmed even more than before, and I seemed to detect his face turned a little red. He nervously leaned forward and said to the effect: "Wow, I dodged that one."

(Note: The hour-long Democracy Now radio program is available on some university or community-oriented stations in Canada. I highly recommend it. )

Read more of Nick's posts on his blog A Different Point of View

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