“It’s overblown,” says CNN Special Investigations Unit correspondent Drew Griffin, responding to those who forecast doom and gloom for investigative TV journalism. “I think the appetite for investigative news will always be there.”
But can the nets and cablers afford to keep up the digging?
The work is expensive and time-consuming. And money is hardly flowing like it used to.
“For years, people have been talking about how it was in the ‘good old days,'” says former NBC investigative unit producer Aram Roston. “Obviously, [investigative TV reporting is] maybe not where it was, but there are very powerful [network] units, and they’re doing really good work.”
“The commitment is there,” Griffin says of CNN senior management, who have “never said no to a story, based on budget.”
And quality work requires a budget.
“[NBC] had lawyers, they had standards and practices people,” Roston says of his time at the network. “They made sure you dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s, but they also had your back. They held you to a high standard.”
Roston, an author, is now a freelance writer for publications including GQ. After nearly six years with NBC, he took a buyout last December, one of three investigative producers to leave the network at that time.
Some in the industry have wondered about that development. Griffin calls it “disappointing.” But according to Roston, there still is solid investigative work being done at NBC, especially at Dateline.
And who’s doing solid work among the competition? Both Roston and Griffin first mention ABC’s Brian Ross. They also cite CBS News, with Griffin singling out 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft.
On the flip side, Griffin and Roston say there’s plenty of room for improvement in the field.
“Our attention spans are so short,” laments Griffin, noting that the promise of great investigative work can quickly be forgotten in a 24-hour, breaking news world. Take, for example, the subject of government stimulus funds. “Everybody in the business,” he says, was going to “find out where every damn dime was going to go.”
“The moment has passed, so people aren’t, so to speak, ‘interested’ in it anymore,” he says.
Roston would like to see more “strategic leadership” from news executives, so investigative units can “own” a topic. “Task your people,” he advises, “to give them a sense of mission.”
“Mission” seems to be an operative word for investigators. “It really is about truth,” Roston says about the work. “Quite often, good stories have nobody else to find them. Nobody will ever find that truth if you don’t do it.”
“I cherish that [investigative] role,” Griffin says, “and I try to live up to that responsibility everyday. I know that may sound cheesy, but that’s really the way I feel and have felt since I first got into this business 25 years ago.”
(Roston photo by Robert Clark)