The journalist and teacher on a century of muckrakers, the pleasures and perils of reporting, and the golden age of investigative journalism.
When we hear “muckraking,” we might think of Ida Tarbell, the pioneering investigative journalist who exposed the corruption of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil through serialized articles in McClure’s Magazine beginning in 1902. Or perhaps Upton Sinclair, whose undercover investigations of the rotten conditions of American meat-packing facilities led to an expository novel, The Jungle, in 1906. With her latest book, Anya Schiffrin, director of International Media, Advocacy and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, wants to broaden our focus. Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism From Around the World calls attention to muckrakers from every continent, with an emphasis on seemingly distant times and places, including US-occupied Philippines, nineteenth-century India, and 1980s Brazil. The collection includes forty-seven investigative works selected and introduced by respected international historians and journalists, including Hong Kong-based journalist Ying Chan and award-winning investigative reporter Sheila Coronel.
From 1985 to 1999, Schiffrin reported from Europe and Asia for publications including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal Asia, and was editor-in-chief of The Turkish Times in Istanbul. She followed a pregnant Benazir Bhutto from Pakistan to London for a profile in Vogue (“Although [she] was charming to me, she was ambitious and intolerant of her political enemies”), wrote a guidebook of Acapulco, and was kicked out of Diyarbakir, Turkey, with fellow journalist Nicole Pope for their coverage of a Kurdish hunger strike. As the Dow Jones bureau chief in Hanoi in the late 1990s, she covered the beginning of the Asian financial crisis and learned first hand when and why the watchdog media does or doesn’t bark. Schiffrin’s 2011 book Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century turns a lens on journalists and publishers in the US, who, she contends, failed to hold the financial industry accountable and diluted coverage of the Great Recession because they feared undermining confidence in an already declining economy. Bad News features contributions from notable scholars and journalists, including Schiffrin’s husband, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dean Starkman.
These days, when national media fails to capture economic and political frustrations, social media can do so on a global scale. In 2011, after speaking with Arab Spring activists in Egypt and indignados in Spain, Schiffrin visited Wall Street during the Occupy movement. Noting the similarities of these worldwide demonstrations, she called on activists such as Jawad Nabulsi—who had organized protests on and offline to topple former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt—to write about their experience, and compiled these pieces in her 2012 book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, co-edited with Eamon Kircher-Allen and published by the New Press.
I met Schiffrin at a corner café in New York City’s West Village. She told me that the germination of Global Muckraking occurred while she was reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost in preparation for a class and learned of E. D. Morel’s 1900 journalism campaign against Congo slave labor. She began to wonder what other investigative reporting had taken place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and started to research. What she found often surprised her—for instance, that a series of condemning reports by the British press in 1906 compelled Cadbury to boycott Portuguese suppliers of slave-grown cocoa. But mostly, Schiffrin was inspired by the sheer courage of journalists worldwide who had risked not only their reputations but also their safety just to tell the truth.
—Rebecca Chao for Guernica
Guernica: Can you tell me about the process of compiling Global Muckraking? How did the book get started?
Anya Schiffrin: The book research unfolded in many ways. It began with reading. I hired several researchers and read lots of books about history, journalism history, and the lives of different journalists. Each one led me to another. Reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild inspired me to read Jordan Goodman’s book about Roger Casement and the conditions of the rubber workers in the Amazon. After that I went on to read books by Lowell Satre and Catherine Higgs about the boycott of Cadbury chocolate because of labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Once I had decided on key subjects and stories I wanted to include, it was a matter of finding the right people to write introductions or suggest excerpts. Above all, I wanted the book to be interesting and readable. I wanted our readers to have the same feelings of excitement and surprise that I had. This is a compendium, not a heavy-duty textbook. It’s for people who love journalism to keep on their shelf or bedside table and dip into from time to time and say, “Wow, I had no idea.”
The exploitation of workers is a subject that does not go away.
Guernica: What were some of your considerations when selecting the pieces?
Anya Schiffrin: Many of the pieces in Global Muckraking were historically significant or had some kind of an impact. I gave priority to journalists from developing countries because those are the voices we don’t hear enough—so if there were the same articles from a journalist in the West and one from a developing country, I went with the journalist from the developing country.
One thing about the book is that the sum is greater than the parts. I chose pieces that would fit together. I wanted to make the point that many stories keep reappearing, so I included Kathie Lee Gifford’s [inadvertent use of El Salvadorian sweatshops for her clothing line] near an excerpt from an Indonesian trade-union newsletter about conditions at the Nike factories and something on the grueling conditions at Apple’s Chinese supplier, Foxconn. As the 2013 building collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh and Cam Simpson’s pieces from the same year for Bloomberg Businessweek about Nepali laborers at iPhone factories in Malaysia show, the exploitation of workers is a subject that does not go away.
Corruption pieces were harder to include because they unfold in increments and are often very technical. When I was emailing and asking about good ideas for stories, everybody from everywhere in the world sent me a piece that said the president’s brother is corrupt and has offshore bank accounts and is meddling with the granting of licenses. But even though these stories are important, if you aren’t from that country and haven’t been following the story from the beginning, one small installment of this larger story may not be terribly meaningful.
Guernica: What was your strategy for arranging pieces that span 100 years?
Anya Schiffrin: The articles are unevenly dispersed across different time periods. There is more anticolonial writing, for example, and less investigative journalism from the 1930s and 1940s. I think there are periods in history that are conducive to investigative journalism. The late nineteenth century was this remarkable period where the legacy of the abolitionist movement had produced a lot of advocacy. In the 1920s and 1930s, the anticolonialism movement also led to a lot of writing and campaigning.
[Columbia journalism professor] Michael Schudson has noted that the American muckrakers of the early twentieth century published their work in just a few magazines. Investigative reporting in the US became well established in the late 1960s, which is also the time that the Associated Press and US newspapers established reporting teams that were dedicated to carrying out investigations.
During transitions to democracy and post-colonial moments, for example, there are flowerings [of the media]. Look at the Arab Spring countries. Obviously they are in terrible trouble right now, but there was a moment when the controls on the media got lifted, and all of a sudden many media outlets were born. There are other examples: Ghana after [former President Jerry] Rawlings, France after World War II, Spain after Franco, Argentina after the dictatorships. These moments of political transition produced a sudden and enormous flowering in journalism.
A lot of people have asked me if the book was depressing. I felt the opposite. I felt inspired by these brave journalists who took such risks.
Guernica: Based on the stories in your book, the prospects for investigative journalists seem dire: Khadija Ismayilova was publicly humiliated after she exposed graft in Azerbaijan; the Nigerian government arrested and killed Ken Saro-Wiwa after he reported on the harm the government had caused to the Niger Delta and the Ogoni minority community that lived there. Imprisonment, intimidation, even death. Are these the risks and realities for investigative journalists today?
Anya Schiffrin: When I speak about the book, the first question people ask is how many people in the book were killed and how many were jailed. That we know of, four were killed and eight were imprisoned, but that may well understate the real numbers. One of them just got arrested last month and was then released. So a lot of people have asked me if the book was depressing. I felt the opposite. I felt inspired by these brave journalists who took such risks.
Khadija Ismayilova is in jail again and has been since December 2014. Azerbaijan has earned massive amounts of money from oil and Ismayilova has reported for years on how it has benefited the ruling family. The government has retaliated in all kinds of nasty and creative ways, including secretly taping Ismayilova having sex with her boyfriend and putting it online. It was used as a blackmail attempt to get her to stop her reporting. She said no way.
Covering corruption is dangerous. Carlos Cardoso, who had sided with the revolutionary FRELIMO—the group that fought for the liberation of Mozambique during the struggle against the Portuguese colonialists in that country—was rewarded with a senior position working for state-run media. He became so disillusioned with the degradation of revolutionary ideals that he left his job and started a faxed newsletter to expose government wrongdoing. Cardoso’s death was linked to an investigation into corruption at the state-owned bank which threatened to expose major business and government figures. In southern Africa he is remembered as great hero of investigative journalism, and Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg has an annual lecture named after him. I attended this year and was moved when Rafael Marques de Morais, a brave journalist from Angola who has also been imprisoned for his reporting, described a beautiful letter Cardoso had sent him letting him know that he was not alone, that the world outside the jail was on his side.
Like Ismayilova, Morais reported on the Angolan ruling family’s gains from oil, including a blockbuster piece on the riches of Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s president. Human Rights Watch has taken a great interest in Morais and Ismailoyva, so Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at HRW at the time, wrote the introductions to their pieces in Global Muckraking. She writes beautifully and didn’t need any editing.
Even when a piece doesn’t have an impact, it provides a testimony, sets the record right for history.
Guernica: Does investigative journalism have to involve risk on the part of the journalist to have an impact?
Anya Schiffrin: For me, the lesson is that you don’t know when you will have an impact and how. It can take a long time, though in some cases there is impact quite quickly, like with the New Zealand fishing story [which immediately led to legislation to protect migrant crew members]. Even when a piece doesn’t have an impact, it provides a testimony, sets the record right for history, like with [Chilean reporter] Patricia Verdugo [whose piece on military abuses under Pinochet was used a decade later as evidence during Pinochet’s trial].
Guernica: You wrote in your introduction that the world of good causes is crowded. I wonder if this might impel a journalist to employ sensationalist tactics to make their stories stand out. Do you think the journalists you selected manage to avoid this in their reporting?
Anya Schiffrin: I think it’s very hard to generalize. The piece on Kathie Lee Gifford was very sensationalistic but it had an impact. But certainly the pieces that veer more on the campaigning side are often advocacy journalism. One of the things that I really tried to stay true to was the standard of the times and countries where the journalism was printed. So pieces like a 1940s newsletter might seem biased and overexcited, but by [1940s] standards, that was journalism. The piece written in 1895 on foot-binding in China wasn’t really a classic piece of journalism. It was a pamphlet, essentially. But I wanted to give a flavor of what people were publishing and reading at the time, even if by today’s standards it wouldn’t necessarily fall into the typical category of investigative journalism.
Guernica: One of the stories in the book, about a sex-trafficking victim in Australia, ran into some trouble when it was later found to contain a bit of flawed reporting. The piece recounted the story of Puongtong Simaplee, a Thai trafficking victim who had died under mysterious circumstances in a Sydney detention center. The factual error—that she hadn’t been kidnapped at the age of twelve—was a small one. But reporters subsequently lost interest in the story, even though the larger claims of Australian smugglers forcing Thai trafficking victims into prostitution were true. Can you speak to this problem of relatively small inaccuracies in expository work?
Anya Schiffrin: That’s an extremely interesting question. I tried where possible to verify the stories in the book. And sometimes I would leave them out [if I could not verify claims]. There was one piece that was quite extraordinary: we asked for nominations for entries for the book and got a series by a terrific, highly respected Nigerian journalist named Musikilu Mojeed saying that a government official, Alison Madueke, was corrupt. I Googled [Madueke] and found an article by a British journalist saying that she was working to clean up corruption. So I contacted him and asked, “Do you realize that this extremely well-respected Nigerian journalist said [Madueke] is corrupt?” The British journalist was not at all defensive and said, “I’ll get back to you.”
In the meantime, I began asking people I knew in Nigeria. I started getting these very guarded and cryptic emails and messages. I think no one wanted to commit themselves in writing, but they said things like, “[Mojeed] is really reliable.” They didn’t say, “That woman is corrupt,” but rather, “The newspaper is reliable.” Someone I knew also contacted Madueke’s office. But the next thing that happens is I get a letter from her lawyer [asking not to publish these stories] because they are libelous. Meanwhile, the British journalist got back to me and said he did not stand by his original story anymore.
By that time we had decided for space reasons not to include the series. It was a tough call but the book had grown too much. I had originally thought it would have about fifteen essays and in the end it grew to forty-seven short excerpts plus introductions. Once I got the lawyer’s letter, of course, I regretted the decision not to include the series even more.
Guernica: What are the qualities of a good piece of investigative journalism?
Anya Schiffrin: Among other publications, I look at SCOOP, the Overseas Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Pro Publica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, at some of the translations coming out of China, and pieces by South Africa’s M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, as well as at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, Vice, Bloomberg Businessweek, Thomson Reuters, and sometimes NPR. I help judge one of the Overseas Press Club’s annual awards, and that means I hunker down each spring to read and watch dozens of pieces of superb reporting.
Good investigative journalism is about subjects that matter and there are some that stay with me long after I have read them. A couple of series that came out last fall which I thought were excellent include the New York Times’s exposé of the appalling conditions at Rikers Island and the Center for Public Integrity’s reports on how Luxembourg helped many major US companies avoid taxes.
I love pieces of journalism that highlight a problem or a solution or explain some thorny and complicated question in a detailed way, or that expose some wrongdoing. Naturally, I believe in the importance of hearing from academics and experts without an agenda. A strong piece of investigative journalism draws on a broad range of sources: not just documents but people with different views of the subject or who are involved in many aspects of the story. Part of what has been so effective about Ben Skinner’s reporting on labor conditions is that he spoke to the companies as well as the workers. Patrick Radden Keefe’s reporting on bribery in the mining sector in Guinea was another remarkable piece because it was about a subject that was important and he was given enough space by The New Yorker to do it justice.
Journalists who can go through huge amounts of data and documents and make sense of them provide an enormous public service. But I also loved Jessica Bruder’s piece in Harper’s about the elderly in the US who can’t afford to retire and so travel around the country living in trailer parks and doing backbreaking work at places like the Amazon fulfillment centers.
Guernica: There are stories, like the Apple-Foxconn labor abuses, that newspapers picked up incrementally, amplifying the issue and making it global. Which stories in Global Muckraking tended to generate that megaphone effect and why?
Anya Schiffrin: The labor stories. But the other thing to remember is that reporters toil away on a story before it all of sudden takes off. That leads to the question of why, at certain times and certain places, people suddenly start paying attention to a story even if the subject had been written about for a really long time. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Honor Code talks about the fact that people had been writing about how bad foot-binding was for hundreds of years when, all of a sudden, in 1898, the Chinese government acted. Same with female genital mutilation. It was a standard subject. But there are moments when the government will act. Often it is because there’s an elite willing to make the change or there’s a government or company that can be embarrassed and that cares about their reputation. In those cases, the journalism will hit on a point of vulnerability. But it can take a long time.
Guernica: Photography is mentioned in your introduction as a powerful tool for investigative journalism. What impact do you think contemporary technologies like social media are having on investigative journalism?
Anya Schiffrin: I think for a lot of the pieces, photography was really important. I was sorry [the photography] wasn’t reproduced. Certainly, with Morel, who published photographs of [Congolese slave laborers] who had lost their limbs, photos made a significant impact. I think that is also true today. There is nothing like an image to shock people. We know that images have an effect on how people respond, whether they take action or they give money.
Today, it’s harder to keep things hidden than before. So many more people are able to take pictures, though they can be doctored. It’s almost unthinkable how slowly information came out in the past. The people who suspected that there were atrocities occurring in the Congo or mistreatment of workers on Cadbury plantations spent a significant amount of time figuring out how to find out what happened. They could ask missionaries working in the country or send someone to go and verify. It took Cadbury eight years to be convinced that his factories were actually supporting child labor. It was a huge dilemma for the Cadburys because they had to figure out first who they were going to send, and before that, they had to be persuaded that they should send someone. I think when Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt, he had to learn Portuguese for seven months before he went to São Tomé and Príncipe. [In his introduction to a piece about labor abuses in the Amazon in 1907] Jordan Goodman explains that it was by luck that an engineer who was stationed there found out what was going on and took the news with him to London.
The police very quickly ejected us from the town. They were perfectly nice about the whole thing but we had to leave before we had done as much reporting as we wanted.
Guernica: I’m curious to hear a bit more about your previous work. You’ve reported extensively from overseas and worked as editor-in-chief of The Turkish Times. What was that experience like?
Anya Schiffrin: The Turkish Times was your classic shoestring English-language paper, founded in the hope of appealing to expats in Istanbul and earning ad revenues. They made me editor-in-chief when I was about twenty-six years old, so I knew they weren’t serious. Sure enough, the owners—the Sabah newspaper group—pulled the financing as soon as they saw it was never going to be profitable. But it was a fascinating time. I learned about the soft pressures on the press and political sensitivities. Everything we published was scrutinized and all kinds of topics, including Kurds and Masons, were a no-go. Many of the Turkish journalists at the office had been involved in protests before the previous coup in 1981, and so had been in jail and tortured.
After I got laid off, I stayed and freelanced. We spent time exploring Istanbul, visiting tiny mosques with beautiful blue tiles and Greek churches and old synagogues, Ottoman cemeteries, archeological sites, jazz clubs, Turkish music halls, arty cinemas, little antiquarian bookshops, old-fashioned cafés that served medieval puddings and sticky pastries, as well as the working-class neighborhoods and the vast parks. Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and I am lucky I knew it before it got huge and the international chain stores arrived. Also, the Turks are hospitable and warm and it was an easy place to live.
Compared to Pakistan, where I had to cover my head, Turkey felt very relaxed. I had traveled alone to Somalia and around a bit of northern Sudan before moving to Istanbul, and the people in Somalia and Sudan were very protective. Strangers invited me home and fed me everywhere I went. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Guernica: I understand you were expelled from Diyarbakir, Turkey, for covering Kurdish hunger strikes. How did this happen? Was the government courteous about it, or more aggressive?
Anya Schiffrin: Nicole Pope was writing for Le Monde and we went on a reporting trip to the southeast of Turkey, which was meant to last a few days. We began by visiting the hunger-strikers in Diyarbakir and the police very quickly ejected us from the town. They were perfectly nice about the whole thing but we had to leave before we had done as much reporting as we wanted. My story ran in one of the major Barcelona papers. In those days, journalists got very long jail sentences for writing about the Kurds. Kurdish culture was completely suppressed, though not as many people had died in the fighting as would later—I think the figure was about 2,500 when I was there. I felt Turkey should have learned from the peaceful way Spain integrated Catalunya after the end of the Franco dictatorship. The government subsidized Catalan-language television and education and arts and publishing, and letting people have their own cultural identity helped national unity. Today, of course, with the economic crisis, there is again a lot of anger at Madrid. And the situation for journalists is bad now in Turkey. Fewer are being killed but the pressure is tremendous. One of the contributors to Global Muckraking, Andy Finkel, has founded an NGO, P24, to help promote free expression in Turkey.
Guernica: You have an optimistic view on journalism: that it’s currently in its golden age. How did you come to this?
Anya Schiffrin: Having spent a couple of years reading the stories in the book, there is no question in my mind that things are better now than they ever were in terms of the amount of information that is available. Technology makes information accessible where it wasn’t before. Journalists who can’t get to the countryside or don’t have a budget can now look online and get the information they need. They can also conduct joint investigations and reach sources and leakers more easily as well. Certainly the sort of transitions to democracy from military rule in many parts of the world really helped the media and it will have a knock-on effect, like with the Arab Spring. I also think there is so much more philanthropy. We can certainly argue about whether it will last and about motives, but philanthropy has clearly been influential. There are also so many smart journalists who are mentoring the next generation. Finally, there are now more investigative journalism organizations that offer all these trainings.
In that sense, it’s remarkable, even if everyone has the same problem—that there is so much more to read now. But suffering from information overload is a recurring theme. Tocqueville also wrote about attention spans being fragmented. He said, “Even when one has won the confidence of a democratic nation, it is a hard matter to attract its attention.”
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