What's This Stuff about Success, Then?

By Dettmer, Jamie | Insight on the News, February 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

What's This Stuff about Success, Then?


Dettmer, Jamie, Insight on the News


My father, a proud and brave veteran of the Second World War, was highly upset on the night a British submarine sunk the Argentine little cruiser Belgrano. I wasn't at home--I suspect he would have repressed his agitation if I'd been sitting around the television with him watching the British Broadcasting Corp. News.

My mother told me of my father s reaction the following day when we discussed on the phone the British press coverage of the sinking. She was appalled--as was my father--by the jingoistic Sun newspaper, which positively gloated at the naval engagement. Splashed across the tabloid's front page was the single, hard, celebratory word: "Gotcha!"

My "old man"--he was a commando in World War II--certainly wasn't rooting for the Argentines during the Falklands War. His distress over the incident came because he couldn't help but dwell, as an old soldier, on the loss of life, even when the casualties were the enemy. "Those poor young men." he kept muttering.

When I hear the term "gotcha journalism," I often think of my father and the Belgrano.

The expression "gotcha journalism" first started to be used widely in Britain following the Sun's headline. As in the United States it was trotted out whenever anyone wanted to slam aggressive reporting. Slowly but surely it came to be attached almost exclusively to investigative writing of the "naming-names variety.

I suppose for much of my writing career I've been what could be called a gotcha journalist. While I haven't blown any warships out the water, thank God. I have been instrumental in sinking careers. getting people arrested, embarrassing the great and irritating the hell out of the powerful. I am drawn to details and see no point in shying away from naming the guilty. I always am intrigued by the story behind the story.

Sometimes at the end of a tricky or arduous investigation, I've caught myself punching the air and crying "gotcha!" Invariably my joy at the arrival of that final piece of clinching information is cut short as an abrupt flash comes to mind: I see that Belgrano headline and my father's face.

Much has been written recently about gotcha journalism. Investigative reporting is coming under assault, both from inside and outside the media industry, and the press is being urged to back off its mean habit of digging up dirt.

"Civic journalism" now is the fad, just as "civility" and "bipartisanship" are in lip-service vogue in the political realm. Newspapers and magazines should connect more closely with readers' concerns, celebrate success and find solutions rather than focus on just the problems, according to the new school of thought. …

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