Thirty-two years ago, Don Bolles, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, was mortally wounded in Phoenix when a bomb destroyed his car. His murder sparked the Arizona Project, an unprecedented gathering of investigative journalists from around America who traveled to Arizona to investigate the corruption that, everyone understood, had led to Bolles’ killing.
The project had its flaws. Critics called the entire idea was a mistake. But the “Desert Rats” — the reporters and editors who did the work — and the news organizations that supported and published the long series did, in the end, have an impact both on Arizona’s power structure and the investigative-journalism field.
Above all, they tried to send a message to those who would silence journalists: It won’t work.
This month, Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, a small African-American paper, was gunned down on the street. He was investigating a neighborhood business, Your Black Muslim Bakery. An employee was arrested and, according to the police, confessed to the murder (the man has denied it).
Bailey wasn’t the first American journalist killed on the job since Bolles’ death. We have it relatively “easy” here, however; journalists around the world are frequently killed in wars and in efforts to silence their vital voices.
Bailey’s murder was an especially brazen and cowardly act, a demonstration of sheer contempt for justice and honor. Yet from his media colleagues there was, in these days when traditional journalism is under another kind of gun, little response except well-intended hand-wringing.
The Arizona Project was, clearly, one of a kind. But the financial pressures on media organizations mean that even if people wanted to do another Arizona Project they probably couldn’t, at least not the way they did in the 1970s. As traditional media organizations whack away at their staffs and play to Wall Street’s unceasing demands, many are all but abandoning serious investigative work, too.
Yes, we have some replacements for what’s being lost, from superb newer organizations like the Center for Public Integrity and even in the work of a few NGOs that are doing great reporting if only partially-baked journalism (more on that soon). Crowdsourcing also can and will be a valuable investigative technique, no doubt.
The crumbling of traditional media’s business model may well be unstoppable. And there’s no question that we’re seeing superb kinds of new journalism emerge from the turmoil.
But we will lose something in this period of evolutionary messiness. And we must find a way to replace it. The alternative is to give new freedoms to the malignant forces of power and corruption that a free press is, in part, designed to hold to account.