Some of the Best Reporting Is Found on the Op/ed Page

Article excerpt

Somewhere between the news media's fascination with celebrity, the "dramatic footage" provided by the pompom-waving embedded journalists in Iraq, and the dramatic events surrounding the Jayson Blair fabrications and subsequent "resignations" at The New York Times, I began to realize that the best reporting is coming not from the news sections but from columnists on op-ed pages.

I'm not thinking of ideologues who make one telephone call to a supporting source and then embark on a partisan rant or a moralistic scold. I certainly am not thinking of those who write "open letters" to the president, governor, or mayor. Nor was I thinking of those interminable and cliched Christmas wish lists or New Year's resolutions.

When I was an editor at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution some 15 years ago, we had 35 columnists at the two papers, including sports, op-ed, local section, features, suburban, Sunday magazine, etc. One holiday season, 34 of the 35 wrote columns listing New Year's resolutions--for themselves or a coach, a politician, or other celebrity/ public figure. The ultimate thumb sucking.

That's to say nothing of those columnists who think they are being creative with the imaginary confrontational conversation with a fictional (you choose) reader, friend, spouse, politician, activist, fishing buddy, whatever.

On the other hand, there are, in fact, editorial writers and op-ed columnists who do original reporting, who travel outside their offices and beyond their navels to observe conditions first-hand, conduct their own interviews in person, take their own notes, produce research.

Obviously I have not read all reporting columnists, but some that come to mind are Phil Gailey, editor of The St. Petersburg Times; Eileen McNamara, columnist at The Boston Globe, Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman of The New York Times, and often Donna Britt of The Washington Post.

But chief among those in recent months is Bob Herbert of The New York Times.

Anyone who has followed his writing from around America can attest to the quality of his reporting. He is a shining example for any columnist.

He went to tiny Tulia, Texas, after testimony from a self-styled "deep undercover" white policeman led to the 1999 arrest and subsequent imprisonment of more than three dozen people, almost all black, on charges of major drug dealing.

The first few defendants, including a 64-year-old pig farmer, were convicted only on the uncorroborated word of the officer, who produced no confiscated drugs, acknowledged that he had written important investigative information on his arms and legs, and routinely referred to blacks as "niggers." One target of the charges was not even in the state when the alleged crime was committed.

The first sentences were extraordinarily harsh, one exceeding 300 years in prison and several between 50 and 90 years. That led other defendants to plead guilty for leniency rather than take a chance on a long prison sentence in a racially charged case and community.

With Texas newspapers apparently too wrapped up in their sycophantic coverage of their governor's campaign for the presidency, hardly anyone heard of this case until Herbert started reporting on it. He discovered that the cases were largely a fabrication by a rogue cop who had been fired from other law enforcement jobs, had been in trouble with the law himself, had blown out the windshield of a patrol car with a shotgun, and had built a reputation among other law enforcement officials as unreliable and untrustworthy.

After a few columns (over two years), the case against the Tulia defendants began to unravel. Today, the "undercover" policeman has been indicted for perjury by a grand jury, and the prosecutors have admitted that they made a mistake. They have asked the court to overturn all the convictions. Nevertheless, at this writing, 13 people remained in jail awaiting the final say of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. …