It was hard-hitting, it graphically showed a stone-walling, cover-your-ass bureaucracy and it shone a light on a group of traditionally voiceless people.
The piece carefully showed how law enforcement, native and government, seriously botched investigations of a serial rape case and then sloppily handled the reinvestigation. To make matters worse the Bureau of Indian Affairs did everything it could to stop the Republic from bringing the case to public attention.
Wagner’s story is detailed and damning, yet tightly written. It is long, but there are no wasted paragraphs. Wagner’s descriptions give a reader little choice but to conclude law enforcement really didn’t care about this investigation much. I don’t think it is stretch to conclude the investigators held the Native community of Whiteriver and the victims in the same disregard.
One should not praise Wagner without praising editorial leadership, Randy Lovely and Nicole Carroll and publisher John Zidich along with the premier Arizona media law attorney David Bodney. In some ways, the most damning story in Wagner’s package is the story that describes the Republic’s two-year fight to get the BIA investigative records revealed. It is a scary, depressing harrowing tale and the Republic leadership and Bodney displayed, courage, determination and obviously put their money where their First Amendment mouth is.
So why I am I so nervous about “Failure of Justice?” It’s because I keep wondering when such a great effort will be the last.
Sure, I am a newspaper romantic who spent most his life from the age of 17 to 53 putting out news on dead trees, but my anxiousness goes beyond that. There are some textbook issues raised by “Failure of Justice.”
Central to this story is cover-up. No matter who the President is, bureaucrats’ first blush reaction is usually to protect their own asses. Despite Justice Department guidelines and administration desires, Wagner reveals how the Bureau of Indian Affairs repeatedly tried to block his effort to get the documents which would show just how badly they messed up this case.
I have no empirical evidence, but I increasingly get the feeling from students and citizens that for many of them their first blush reaction is to accept the government’s stonewalling. Dennis Wagner was a cantankerous bleep and the readers were well served. How much longer does the public tolerate the rebellious determination of a tough reporter like Wagner? Especially when publishers like Richard Connor give readers the sense they control our publications by folding like a cheap suit when they object to a perfectly acceptable, if controversial story.
The next big issue that makes me nervous is that Wagner spent two years on this story. Sure he worked on other stories, but I genuinely worry that bloggers or small start-up news site are not going to have the wherewithal to stay with ANY story for that long.
And then there are the legal actions. I know from personal experience that David Bodney has a deep, abiding concern for the First Amendment and all related issues. I also know he can’t work for free. Already, there is anecdotal evidence that the Republic’s willingness to keep a lawyer on this case for so long and so doggedly is becoming entirely too rare. Newspapers do not get the credit for openness and freedom issues they deserve from all the press critics who rub their hands in glee at the demise of newspapers. That’s fine, but I really don’t see the replacement for that vigilance. That is scary.
I know some people are excited about Pro Publica, The Center for Investigative Reporting and other foundation -inspired investigative efforts. I do not denigrate their work in any way, but I am convinced there is not enough foundation money in the well to fund investigative reporting at the level our society needs.
So, while I celebrate Dennis Wagner and the Republic and their fine investigative piece, pardon an old man’s fears that the days of such fine investigative work may be disappearing unless we can figure out a business model for investigative reporting pretty damn quick.