One evening in 1971, New York Times copy boy Robert Rosenthal received a call from his editor.
“Come to Room 1111 at the Hilton Hotel tomorrow,” his editor said. “Don’t tell anyone you’re coming, even your parents, and bring about enough clothes for a month.”
The call was a turning point in Rosenthal’s life, who had started his job at the Times only a few months before. He spent the next several weeks working with the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that would publicize the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Department of Defense document that chronicled a secret history of the United States’ political and military involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945-1967. Rosenthal was 22 years old at the time.
“It showed how Republicans [and] Democrats had really lied to the American people about the genesis of the war and a lot of the pretext for why we got involved,” Rosenthal recounted in an Oct. 13 talk at Pomona. “It was a hugely important story. It led to the creation of the [White House] Plumbers that led to Watergate, and as a young man it taught me about values and the importance of free press in democracy.”
This vital quality of journalism, as well as its current challenges, was the topic of Rosenthal’s talk in the Ena Thompson Reading Room of Crookshank Hall. The event, entitled “Informing Californians: New Journalism Models,” was sponsored by the Ena Thompson Fund.
“Old media and new media are in a ferment in many ways,” said assistant professor of history Victor Silverman, who organized the talk. “I invited Robert to come because I had hoped to start a discussion on [how] this change in media [will] affect our politics.”
After his stint at the Times, Rosenthal worked at The Boston Globe for six years before moving to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979, where he became a foreign correspondent in 1982.
“I was in Africa for two weeks before I was taken prisoner and [held as] a hostage in Uganda,” Rosenthal said. “The whole time I was there, I told myself, ‘If I get out of here alive, I’m going to write about this.’” Rosenthal was eventually released and went on to write a 50-page narrative about his time as a hostage that ran in several publications.
Rosenthal became the editor of the Inquirer in 1998, “right around the time the whole business model for journalism began to fall apart,” he said. He pointed to the Internet and “changes in how people get information” as causes of the decline in traditional journalism.
Rosenthal left the Inquirer in 2001, and after short stints at the Columbia School of Journalism and The San Francisco Chronicle, he found his way to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a non-profit investigative news organization founded in 1977. According to its website, “CIR is working to ensure that high-quality, credible, unique journalism does not die, but flourishes.”
Rosenthal joined CIR in Jan. 2008 as its executive director.
“I wanted to be a part of the solution [to the problems facing traditional journalism], so I came to CIR,” Rosenthal said. “I wanted to build a new model, and I thought there were solutions that weren’t being [considered] in the corporate environment, when the first value was profit.”
In the non-profit environment of CIR and its subsidiary, California Watch, Rosenthal has been able to test his new model without the pressures of a profit-driven hierarchy.
“I wanted to take a journalist, the information-gatherer, at the center, and have them teamed up with people who knew how to produce content for radio, the Internet, multimedia, video, print,” Rosenthal said. “In other words, [we need] to think about how the audience receives information, and to be able to tell a story on multiple platforms.”
“We’re really pioneering the concept of a reporter pushing out a story like the spokes of a wheel to all these audiences,” he said.
Under Rosenthal’s leadership, CIR has been successful in raising funds and has increased its staff from seven to 28. It now manages a yearly budget of nearly $4 million, up from under $1 million just a few years ago.
“Part of the confusion, the discomfort that the whole society feels right now is because we’re also in the midst of a technological revolution,” Rosenthal said. “Now everyone’s a publisher.”
“Citizen journalism, or the ability of all of us to be sources, is something the best news organizations are going to figure out,” he added.
Rosenthal pointed out that his organization’s strategy is not to produce bare-bones information, as WikiLeaks and some other online news organizations do, but to verify this information and make it accessible to its audience.
“The most important thing a journalist can do is tell a good story, because we all love good stories,” Rosenthal said. “In the long run, our most valuable asset will be our credibility. There’s so much information, so much clutter now, how can you get information that you can trust?”
CIR recently produced a film entitled “Dirty Business: ‘Clean Coal’ and the Battle for our Energy Future.” The organization is now working on a film about sex trafficking, a story on immigration, and a story about Internet censorship in China.
California Watch, which focuses on California and boasts the largest investigative reporting team in the state, recently published a story investigating a higher rate of Caesarean section births at for-profit hospitals than at non-profit hospitals in the same communities, suggesting that for-profit hospitals are pressuring women into having C-sections. Rosenthal said a story about earthquake safety codes and how some schools are shirking their responsibilities is in the works.
“I think there’s bits of information we all get, constant information, and then there’s longer, more important things that tend to make a difference,” Rosenthal said. “This is a big challenge in this world of instant gratification.”
When asked about the possibility that objective, thorough journalism could become a largely non-profit institution, Rosenthal said that this might not be so bad an outcome.
“It could be something that’s highly respected,” he said. “It was built into our constitution, our government. It’s a service.”