“Investigative journalism is not a thing of the past. It continues every day. It’s happening in the community where you live. … It’s just a matter of seeking it out.”
Nick Hirshon is emphatic about the importance not just of investigative journalism but for people to understand its long history in the United States. As a former reporter for the New York Daily News and a current journalism professor at WIlliam Paterson University in New Jersey, he lives in the intersection of inspiring young reporters to follow in the footsteps of legends in a world of social media and distrust of the news.
He’s also the editor of a new issue of the academic journal American Journalism focused on the two most famous investigative reporters in American history, looking at the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in and the role the Washington Post and its reporters played in that moment.
But it’s important for young students and young reporters to understand that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not the first investigative reporters, nor were they the last.
“We want to show that Watergate was not the first investigation in journalism history in the United States,” Hirshon says. “We have research on the history of investigative journalism in the United States going back to the colonies. The first newspaper in 1690 talking about the Indian allies torturing French prisoners. We have examples of partisan journalism when there were first rumors of Thomas Jefferson having an affair with Sally Hemmings. It goes very far back and sometimes it was done with a partisan cause.”
The journal article includes interviews with some of the other key members of the Watergate saga, including John Dean, the former White House counsel for then-President Richard Nixon, who went to jail for his role in the scandal, and Connie Chung, who was reporting on the incident for CBS News at the time but whose name is not as widely connected with Watergate.
“If we position this as Woodward and Bernstein being solely responsible (for reporting on the break-in that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation for his misdeeds), it could have a dangerous impact,” Hirshon says. It could give the impression that any journalist working for a mainstream publication could use their position to help bring down someone in power just because the reporter disagreed with that elected official’s policies or practices.
“What Nixon did was wrong, and they covered him accurately, but there is a problem that people could think any journalist might decide I could force my opinions on other people and make history.”
Hishon, in his classroom and through publication of this special issue of American Journalism, wants to make sure young reporters understand that investigative work is just as important as ever and is still happening.
“Journalists are living in a society that is imperfect and they are just as frustrated by what’s happening as their readers. There’s nothing wrong with channeling that frustration into dogged reporting. We see that in ‘All The President’s Men’ and ‘Spotlight’ all of that is being willing to put yourself out there a little bit and say I’m going to do some challenging things. People might not like it, the public might not like it, they might hate me at times. That’s why I think it’s important right now, in 2022, to do this issue and to show what investigative journalism has done.”
Nick Hirshon, a journalism professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey talks to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about a special issue of the academic journal American Journalism on the history of investigative reporting.