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Seven Counts for Stevens and One Win for Muckrakers Everywhere

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who was just indicted by a grand jury, listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill.

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Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) was indicted today by a federal grand jury on seven counts of making false statements for failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts he received from a company called Veco over a seven-year period. This is a slow-motion scandal that’s been going on for years, and its exposure is due in large part to aggressive reporting—both online, and in the local papers in Alaska.

Below is a column we wrote last November on the hopeful lessons for journalism that were seen as Stevens was exposed by old-fashioned muckraking.

Think Again: Exposing Stevens: Journalism Happens Here

Any enterprising reporters on the Ted Stevens beat might want to consider double locking the doors at night. Last week, in a one of a series bizarre interviews, the octogenarian Republican senator from Alaska told the editorial board of the Anchorage Daily News that he has some plans for the scribes who have been writing about the criminal investigation into his wheeling and dealing.

“I don’t see any reason why we should have had this massive press interest in what’s going on,” Stevens said. “It’s just an investigation of a federal agency. They go on all the time.” Nope, no story there, guys.

But just in case that wasn’t enough to throw journalists off the scent, Sen. Stevens continued: “Because when it’s all over, some people are going to have to account for what they’ve said and what they’ve charged us with.” He was pressed on whether he meant libel charges, and the senator, sounding a little like Al Pacino/Michael Corleone, explained, “No. I’m just saying there are ways to account for this in the future … I think the people out there ought to worry about that the way I worry about the investigation. There are myriad things you can do. Just a myriad of things.” When pressed, he wouldn’t elaborate further: “I’ve said it,” Stevens said.

What prompted the threat was years of damned good journalism of the kind that has been all too rare of late in George W. Bush’s Washington, and unfortunately, in much of America. The Stevens scandal shows some promising signs of how local newspapers—seen by many as a dying breed—can still serve an invaluable public function. It also shows how local newspapers are using the Internet and other new media formats, along with good, old-fashioned reporting, to remain relevant.

The Stevens scandal also proves the power of the new net-based reporting that blogosphere pioneers like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall have been at the forefront of inventing. Marshall’s bloggers have taken these local stories, expanded upon them, and made them accessible across the country.

The story began back in 2003, when the Los Angeles Times undertook a series on congressional offspring who became lobbyists. The reporters—Chuck Neubauer, Judy Pasternak, and Richard T. Cooper—applied the old-fashioned “shoe-leather” thing and examined the financial disclosure forms of Ben Stevens, a lobbyist, state senator, and son of Sen. Ted Stevens. They then examined Sen. Ted Stevens’ voting record. Lo and behold, the reporters found no fewer than 10 instances where Ted’s actions in Congress directly benefited Ben’s clients. One of these clients, a company called VECO, was apparently so grateful that they managed a construction project that doubled the size of Stevens’ Alaska home, which is currently being investigated by federal authorities for a series of bribery-related scandals.

Reporters attempting to get to the bottom of what actually took place face two obvious obstacles: the sheer complexity of the mind-bending maze of charges and counter-charges and the necessary secrecy of the federal investigation. Even the existence of the investigation was not revealed until two years after it began.

Much to its credit, the Anchorage Daily News has doggedly attacked the story, churning out reams of information about the investigation and keeping it in front of Alaskan audiences. The paper has also used the Internet to its advantage by offering its audience audio clips of interviews with key players, and even video of FBI stings. They set up a separate page exclusively for stories about the ongoing investigations, and also an overview of key figures and events during the course of the multi-year investigation.

In so doing, the paper made sure Alaskans remained well-aware of the possibly criminal shenanigans of arguably the most powerful man in the state, and ensured that Alaskans could access the complicated information easily. It exemplifies why newspapers—particularly local newspapers with a sense of responsibility to their communities—remain so vital to the conduct of democracy. And Marshall’s TPM family of blogs have helped by synthesizing the avalanche of information and adding their own independent reporting to move the story along, with video posted as well.

In an environment where so much of the media are obsessed with tabloid trash, the reporting work done by the Anchorage Daily News, TPM, and other local and new media outlets offers a reminder of why journalism continues to inspire so many people to want to join this much beleaguered profession in the first place, as it slowly and fitfully reinvents itself for the 21st century.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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