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Investigative journalism

04/27/06 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Given recent headlines, commentator Jay Craven has been thinking a lot lately about leaks, evesdropping and access to information in a democratic society.

(CRAVEN) I recently showed my students Erroll Morris's stylish investigative documentary, "The Thin Blue Line." In it, Morris conducts probing interviews and shows how Randall Adams, sitting for eleven years on Texas' death row for killing a Dallas police officer, was actually innocent. The film helped set Adams free.

Illinois Republican governor George Ryan, stunned the nation in January 2000 when he suspended that state's executions after Northwestern University journalism students helped prove the innocence of thirteen Illinois death row inmates. "There is a flaw in the system," Ryan told CNN, "and it needs to be studied."

Investigative journalism enjoys a proud tradition but it requires access to information, especially when government works behind closed doors. Today, evidence mounts that officials spin and leak classified reports for political gain while they restrict information and punish whistleblowers who reveal questionable operations. Indeed, the CIA just dismissed the senior officer suspected of exposing secret overseas prisons and they're looking for the person behind news of warrantless domestic eavesdropping. Those stories won this year's Pulitzer Prizes for the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively.

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jack Anderson died last December but he re-surfaced in the news recently with reports that the FBI wants to go through one hundred eighty-eight boxes of his papers to look for classified information, some of it fifty years old. Anderson family members oppose the search and say they'll go to jail to protect the collection.

"The government has always abused the secrecy stamp," said Anderson's son, Kevin, to the New York Times. "My father's view was that the public was the employer of these government employees and has the right to know what they're up to."

Jack Anderson's columns included disclosures on the release of The Pentagon Papers, the Iran Contra scandal, Watergate, and CIA plans to kill Fidel Castro.

President Nixon put Anderson on his "enemies list." White House tapes now at the National Archives show how Anderson was targeted in an aborted assassination plot by Watergate principals E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

In a 1980 NPR interview, Anderson said that politicians, "distort information that comes to them from career people." So, he established his own links to them. "I should see what they tell the president," he said. "So I can better gauge what he tells us."

Anderson wrote for one thousand papers reaching sixty million people. Today, investigative ace Seymour Hersh's stories play to The New Yorker's base of 800,000. Still, Hersh's reports on torture at Iraq's Abu Gharib prison generated a ripple effect and new disclosures on U.S. war contingencies against Iran, including possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, have provoked national debate.

A democratic nation depends on independent investigation and access to information. Surely, there are legitimate state secrets but no government is above the law or beyond the necessary scrutiny it takes to fully understand and debate policies and practices that may mean the difference between life and death.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.
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