Dec 3, 2009

Embrace your inner Dumpster diver

Joe Mathews of the New America Foundation argues that journalists could learn a thing or two from the methods employed by anti-ACORN activists to dig up dirt on the organization:
The best thing about the anti-ACORN reporting is that it may revive two journalistic methods that have long been dismissed as sleazy: surreptitious taping and dumpster diving on journalistic subjects.

In a skeptical age, there is no substitute for getting the goods: the video that shows the subject damning herself with her own words, the documents that demonstrate malfeasance. As institutions become more sophisticated about dodging journalistic inquiry, journalists need every investigative tool to hold institutions accountable.

But mainstream news organizations have shied away from these tactics, in large part because of terrible state laws and precedent that, in the name of privacy, protect powerful people and institutions against investigation.

Before investigative reporters run out and buy pimp and hooker gear, it's important to remember that the real differences between journalists and the anti-ACORN crowd is motive.

Yes, journalists should be more persistent and push more envelopes, tough to do in this age 24/7 deadlines, distractions and shrinking staffs. But the anti-ACORN folks resorted to unusual tactics because they were fixated on finding dirt, and because they have a political agenda. Is that really the role of the press? Should reporters learn to hack email chains, given the revelations discovered in what's now known as Climategate?

That being said, I don't know how many important stories lie at the bottom of a Dumpster. I'm sure there's a time when you have to jump in. Changing the law will be difficult because mostly because the trash rats are likely to be paparazzi sifting through celebrity garbage. Still, one can see the benefit of grabbing documents from, say, Countrywide's trash pile.

Secret phone calls seem less important to me, but maybe I'm not thinking creatively.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Joe Matthews obviously has forgotten the Food Lion scandal when ABC-TV was sued after it went undercover to investigate the supermarket. Food Lion sued ABC and I remember how everyone castigated the network. So now he wants the media to return to that kind of investigation after what happened to ABC?