Walt Bogdanich, New York Times investigative reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, gave a thought-provoking talk on the future of investigative reporting as part of the Friends of the Library 40th anniversary celebration. Photo courtesy of Martin Vogel
Walt Bogdanich, Port resident, New York Times reporter and editor, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, gave a riveting talk on the subject of the future of investigative reporting. His presentation was part of the Friends of the Library 40th anniversary celebration.
Robert Drew, FOL board member, gave a warm tribute to Bogdanich in his introduction, praising him as neighbor, friend, reporter and writer. Drew said, "You have changed my reading habits. I now immediately scan the front page looking for your byline, then I turn to the financial section." [Bogdanich is investigations editor of the Times' Business and Finance section.] Drew added, "I clip and save your articles and discuss them with my friends. The reporting that you do about the economy and the financial world is about issues that affect all of us."
Bogdanich began his remarks by saying, "There has never been a more important reason than now for investigative reporting with the way the government is operating." Bogdanich, who has worked for major TV networks, was not sanguine about network news's commitment to important investigative reporting. He described "the moment I could no longer do investigative reporting for network news." It was when he was assigned to a story that the network described as "a very important project with a lot of money." He learned that what they were going to do with all that money was to fund a story about whether when you go into a restaurant, when you order decaf coffee, do you really get it? As another example, a network he worked for was enthusiastic about who is more likely to get help when his or her car breaks down: an attractive woman or an old, overweight guy. Bogdanich commented, "Entertaining? Sure. Investigative reporting? Absolutely not."
Bogdanich explained that investigative reporting is original work. He said, "It comes from the reporter. You define the problem and investigate it and let the government follow. It involves taking the initiative to explore a subject of some importance that people in power don't want you to know about." He asked, "What kind of person wants to do this?" His response: "You've got to be a bit of an odd person. What we have in common is that we have a low threshold of indignation. We are passionate. We didn't like bullies pushing kids around on the playground and we don't like it now when the government and corporations do it." He added, "We look at a certain set of facts that other people would find perfectly fine, and see something out." As an example, he told of walking by a bank branch in the lobby of a hospital that dozens of other reporters walked past every day. Bogdanich felt in his gut that something was wrong, and it led to the uncovering of a scandal involving the board of the bank and the hospital. In summary, Bogdanich said, "It's not all like Woodward and Bernstein meeting someone in a parking lot at three in the morning." He added, "It's not for the faint of heart. People don't like you. You don't get invited to the best parties."
Bogdanich reminisced about his work as an investigative producer at 60 Minutes, CBS's popular, long-running investigative news program, which he described as "a fascinating place." "It was great to work with these brilliant people. Bogdanich showed clips of editorial meetings, including one that showed Executive Producer Don Hewitt and reporter Mike Wallace "duking it out" (figuratively) over a story. Bogdanich said, "These are the kind of crazy guys I worked with. I actually liked being able to get things off your chest. You'd yell and curse, and then it's over." As an example of the kinds of stories he did at 60 Minutes, Bogdanich mentioned a feature about poisoned cough syrup from China ending up in babies in Haiti. It contained a solvent similar to car antifreeze, and hundreds died." He said, "Nobody knew and nobody cared." In answer to the Port News' question as to the reason he left 60 Minutes, a job he clearly loved, he said that in part it was because the travel opportunities diminished and because print media offered more opportunities for in-depth research.
Bogdanich talked about what he considered to be one of his most important stories. Done for ABC News, it exposed how the tobacco industry manipulated nicotine to ensure addiction to their product: He said, "I was the first guy to really investigate the tobacco industry. This story rocked the industry and changed the laws around the world." As a result, he told us, "Lawsuits were filed. Imagine going into work one day and finding you've been sued for 10 billion dollars. The saliva glands stop working; you can hardly breathe." The result: "There was a tremendous legal battle and in the end tobacco industry ended up paying billions. In sum, Bogdanich said, "I will never do a story that is more important."
As to the future of investigative reporting, Bogdanich was not optimistic. He said, "The future of investigative reporting is very worrisome. The Times is worried about how it will fund serious reporting. Money from advertising is not coming in the way it used to." He added, "So far the Times is buying into the proposition that hard-hitting, in-depth reporting is how it distinguishes itself." In a subsequent interview, he told the Port News that he predicts that the Times will continue to do such reporting. If there is a bright spot in the future, he believes that it is most likely on the World Wide Web. He said, "Right now a lot of web sites are doing original investigative reporting and posting documents." As one example, he pointed to www.thesmokinggun.com, which actually posts original documents. He said, "It [original investigative reporting] has never been more needed. It serves democracy. The media generally has not done as good a job of it as they could." In response to the Port News' question, he said that the one subject he believes is not getting sufficient attention is the environment--global warming and so forth. During the question-and-answer period that followed the library talk, he also mentioned his concern about the lack of faith of the American people in our government and their ignorance of our history. He told another questioner who asked about uncovering Wall Street fraud, which affects millions of people, Bogdanich said, "The media doesn't do enough. They fall in love with the people they cover. They hang out with people who have hundreds of millions of dollars, and they want to be friends with them. That is the main problem in financial reporting."
Bogdanich, who received his master's in journalism from Ohio State University in 1976, received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his series, "Death on the Tracks," about fatal accidents at railway crossings. It was the second Pulitzer for Bogdanich, who won in 1988 for articles he wrote for The Wall Street Journal on substandard medical laboratories. He has also won four George Polk Awards, an IRE Award, and an Overseas Press Club award.
Walt Bogdanich is married to Stephanie Saul, also a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist (1995), formerly at Newsday and currently working at The New York Times. They have lived in Port Washington since 1993, when they moved here from Washington, DC. In response to Drew's introductory description of them as "the ultimate power couple," Bogdanich clarified, "It's the Denny's and Starbucks circuit, not the cocktail one." Bogdanich and Saul have two children: Peter, at Schreiber, and Nick, now at Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. He quipped, "Can you imagine our poor children having two parents as investigative reporters? There is nothing they can hide." Bogdanich still enjoys traveling all over the world to get his stories; when we spoke to him he was just back from a remote part of the world which had to remain unnamed for the moment.