Mar
01
2005

The Return of Deep Throat

Now he's a mainstream journalist, leaking stories to the alternative press

I remember the excitement I felt some years ago, working in Los Angeles at the L.A. Daily News or at TV station KCET, as I’d pursue a hot story—the corruption of a blatantly racist school board member, say, or the shooting of unarmed people by the LAPD. There was always the story itself, of course, but there was also the sense that if you didn’t get it in and get it right, you’d be beaten by the competition—usually the L.A. Times, in my case, or one of the local TV stations, which back in the 1970s still did a little investigative reporting of their own.

Those days are pretty much gone. TV stations in most cities don’t do much enterprise reporting, preferring to go with whatever the police have on the blotter. And newspaper competition in most communities is a thing of the past.

Ironically, though bad for the public, the loss of an aggressive media has been my gain as a freelance journalist.

A tip about TIPS

Over the past three years or so, most of my best investigative stories have come to me courtesy of a frustrated editor at a major metropolitan daily—a principled and well-informed guy who has tried repeatedly to interest the paper’s higher-ups in big stories, only to have them ignored. That’s when he calls me with his tips.

The first time this happened was back in 2002, when my old friend sent an email with a link to a Justice Department website inviting American citizens to sign up as volunteer spies in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s “Operation TIPS.” “I think you should look into this,” my friend wrote.

Ashcroft, I learned, hoped these volunteers would become an army of 20 million citizen-spies, keeping track of and reporting on their neighbors. I signed up as a volunteer, and began investigating the program from the inside. When I experimentally tried to call in some bogus reports on neighbors, I discovered that the Justice Department was having its TIPS volunteer spies turn their raw reports on suspicious neighbors over, not to the FBI, but to the Fox network’s crime-stopper show, America’s Most Wanted!

It was a shocking exposé, which turned into a major story in Salon (8/7/02), the online magazine. CBS News (8/8/02) picked up my Salon piece and did a story based on an interview with me. People in Congress, particularly Republicans led by Rep. Dick Armey (R.-Texas), went ballistic and killed all funding for the program.

A little later, my friend was back, this time with a tip that a couple of anti-war activists had been barred from getting on a plane after the check-in clerk told them they were on a “no-fly” list. “You should look into this,” he wrote again.

I did—and found someone at the new Transportation Security Administration who admitted not only that there was a list of 1,000 or so people barred from planes as “threats to aviation,” but that there was another list, of undetermined length, of people who would be allowed to fly, but who would be harassed mercilessly each time they did so. As I looked further into this, it became apparent that the people on the second list were mostly peace activists—students, lawyers, nuns, etc.—not threats to aviation, just to administration war policy. The story, like the earlier one, ran in Salon (11/15/02) and also In These Times (11/27/02), after which it was picked up by the national and international media.

My friend’s newspaper, which could have had both these scoops, lost out for lack of interest.

Too-hot scoops

Over the subsequent two years, my source has repeatedly tried and failed to sell his fellow editors on stories ranging from secret Pentagon efforts to resurrect the draft (Salon, 11/3/03) to the Secret Service’s efforts to bar protesters from presidential appearances (Salon, 10/16/03). In each case, after failing to elicit any interest from his publication, my source has graciously passed his information on to me, and I’ve been able to run with it.

The message is clear. The mainstream media are deluged with tips about important stories that the public needs to know about, but timid, lazy and budget-conscious editors simply let them pass, perhaps unwilling to incur the wrath of the administration or its allied media pressure groups. Reporters at most media corporations quickly learn that they don’t get raises or promotions for pushing these kinds of edgy pieces.

Such stories are left, instead, to the alternative media, where I and many of my more dogged colleagues end up running most of our work. It represents a remarkable reversal of the days when reporters dreamed of finding their own Deep Throat whose leaks would enable them to break big stories. Now it seems like mainstream journalists are forced to turn themselves into Deep Throat—leaking hot stories to the alternative press that their own outlets have no interest in covering.