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Closing in On Campaign Finance Stories With a Human Touch
By Lori Prichard
IRE Staff
  • Click here to link to the original story
  • Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000

    If you thought being a top-notch investigative journalist stops when you leave the office after a long, hard day at work, you're wrong. That's according to the preeminent investigative team, Donald Barlett and James B. Steele.

    "Jim and I, for our leisure time, read legislation," Barlett says. "You never know what you're going to find in legislation. There's no shortage of material."

    Laying within the stacks of bureaucratic red tape oftentimes is a human story that will not only catch the eye of the reader, it will keep him reading. According to Barlett, whether you're working on a story dealing with campaign finance or a governmental program, the trick is to uncover those who are hurt by the policies the politicians create. "The idea is to hook a reader by laying out something that is so outrageous that the reader is saying, 'What is going on here? How is that possible?'" This is just one piece of advice from the reporting pair offered to journalists at IRE's 2000 New York National Conference.

    Barlett and Steele, who are currently working on a money and politics series for Time Magazine, constructed a nuts and bolts blueprint for other journalists wanting to investigate the ever-increasing pay-off between politicians and special interests.

    As with any story, "try to blend hard data about the issues with human issues," Steele says. "We try to put a face on these big public issue debates because that's what people respond to."

    "When [Barlett and I] began the Time series, we specifically tried to look to see exactly what the consequences are. Does someone get hurt? Is this huge amount of money being tossed around given in a vacuum or does someone pay the price? People do get hurt," Steele says.

    Looking back at "How to Become a Top Banana" (February 7, 2000, Time), Barlett remembers every major news network and newspaper showed up in Washington during the U.S. Trade Representative hearing where trade associations, Washington lobbyists, and interest groups spoke out against tariff's being imposed on various goods.

    "[They] showed up to do the cute story on how yuppies will have to pay more for the products they like," Barlett chuckles. "Everyone missed the story. The major companies went behind the scenes and got their product taken off the list. No one went back and looked."

    Digging beneath the surface is what this business is all about. Barlett adds, it's also about "giving a voice to people who have no voice."

    However, Barlett accuses some, specifically editors, of being more concerned with the performance of their 401(k) as opposed to what journalists should be about in this business.

    Humanize. Humanize. Humanize. Steele suggests digging through paper as one source for finding the human interest stories. "Some of the most compelling profiles of the whole series ["Soaked by Congress," May 15, 2000, Time] came from bankruptcy court," Steele says. "Buried in the papers, we found amazing stories."

    Steele cautions reporters on relying too heavily on FOIA to undercover the "smoking gun". Although a must-have in any journalist's toolbox, he warns of the broad-brush fishing expeditions. Otherwise, he says, "you dry up the stream."

    Steele does admit that FOIAed documents were instrumental in the Chiquita story. Rather than a smoking gun per se, Barlett and Steele uncovered a remarkable series of coincidence and confluence of events that, pooled together, formed a chronology that pointed to big-business pressure and politicians on the take.

    Steele also suggests tapping into "one of the great resources in Washington."

    Mail.

    "Go to an agency and read the mail," Steele says. "You['ll] see these handwritten, sometimes scrawled letters from people around the country, basically saying 'What's going on here?'"

    That's how the pair found Rick Reinert, a man whose business was affected by the USTR's ruling. Steele says they simply went to USTR and asked to read the mail.

    "That's how you find the Rick Reinert's of the world. Then, you put a list together and do it the old fashioned way," Steele says. "You go door to door and knock and interview people."

    In this case, those who were reluctant to talk were either doing business illegally or feared government retaliation.

    Reluctant or not, Barlett and Steele found the central characters of the story who were deeply affected by the money trail that began with a fruit baron and ended in a ruling by U.S.T.R that favored the top bidder, in this case, Charles Lindner.

    By creating a sympathetic character, Barlett argues reporters can "hook the reader into the story. But, it doesn't mean you ignore the central thesis of the story. And that's campaign finance."

    And while campaign finance was the central theme of "How to Become a Top Banana," Barlett and Steele were 200 words deep into the article before the issue ever came up.