The Re-Emergence of American Investigative Journalism 1960-1975

By Aucoin, James L. | Journalism History, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Re-Emergence of American Investigative Journalism 1960-1975


Aucoin, James L., Journalism History


Investigative journalism burst upon America's collective consciousness with the publication in 1974 of All the President's Men and the book's production into a popular 1976 movie.(1) The book and movie chronicle the exploits of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose persistent digging into what has become known as the Watergate scandal helped keep public pressure on Congress and other Washington institutions that eventually resulted in driving Richard Nixon from the White House.(2) While the book and movie overemphasize the role of the press in the resolution of Watergate and the forcing of Nixon's resignation, they nevertheless helped foster an appreciation for investigative journalists as new American heroes.(3)

The sensation of Watergate, in fact, is often cited as the reason investigative journalism re-emerged and became institutionalized in the American press during the latter half of the twentieth century.(4) But this explanation is inadequate. Ample evidence exists that investigative journalism re-surfaced as a strong alternative to traditional journalism two decades before Watergate.(5) By 1962 there already was a recognizable pattern of renewed interest in investigative journalism.(6)

Although this renewed attention to investigative journalism represents a significant development in American journalism history, there has been little attempt to comprehensively explain why it re-emerged in the mainstream media during this time period. James Baughman and Richard Clurman argue the emergence of television contributed to the rise of investigative journalism in the print media--an explanation that does not explain its rise in the electronic media.(7) Michael Schudson and James Boylan provide the added explanation of the press's break with government, particularly over perceptions of the Vietnam War.(8) Journalist Anthony Lewis concludes that the Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan had something to do with it.(9) Muckraking editor Carey McWilliams suggested that two factors spur a popularity in investigative journalism--the introduction of new technology and the presence of an audience receptive to such reporting because of tensions in society.(10) But these are isolated explanations given with little evidence or analysis and based on narrow interpretations.

According to moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, to understand the progression of a social practice, one must look at not only the development of technical skills, but also the ways in which practitioners conceptualize the goals and internal values of the practice.(11) To understand the emergence of a particular news form, one must look at the social/cultural milieu surrounding its development.

This article argues social and cultural developments outside of journalism, coupled with changes within journalism, refined the role of journalism in the United States, or at least one aspect of it, leading to new standards for journalists and, consequently, the institutionalization of investigative journalism into the mainstream media.

Research literature on journalism and anecdotal evidence gleaned from journalist biographies, autobiographies, speeches, published interviews, and commentary are analyzed to examine three broad, parallel developments that contributed to the emergence of modern investigative reporting in the United States during the decades after World War II:

* Social and cultural developments that led the American public in general, and journalists in particular, to distrust traditional institutions and government and demand more from the media.

* Developments in First Amendment theory and favorable U.S. Supreme Court rulings that supported the media's becoming more of a watchdog toward government.

* New tools, including new technologies, particularly television, and new statutes passed in response to the freedom of information movement.

After these developments have been examined, an argument is made from a cultural studies position that the first of these factors--the socio-cultural developments--best explains the re-emergence of investigative journalism. …

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