The Question Investigative Reporters Fail to Ask

Morton MintzMorton Mintz wasn’t a cloak and dagger kind of reporter. His muckraking stories on public health dangers and corporate misconduct rarely relied on secret, Deep Throat-style informants. Instead he produced three decades’ worth of Page One stories for the Washington Post by mining documents and testimony that piled up via court battles, Congressional hearings and regulatory investigations. 

A story might start with a tip from an informant, but Mintz wouldn’t hang the piece on the insider’s account. He’d go to the public record, squinting over thousands of pages of trial transcripts, court exhibits and the like to nail down stories of national and international significance.

“I like documents,” Mintz, who celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, liked to say.

When Mintz retired from the paper in 1988, Post columnist Colman McCarthy wrote: “Were he less a shelf rat and more a show horse, Mintz might be better known. But not better respected.”

Along the way, Mintz produced a body of work that still stands as a model for anyone who wants to do investigative reporting on public health and corporate crime.

Financial editor and writer Martha Hamilton, who worked with Mintz at the Post in the ‘70s and ’80s, wrote me recently: 
 

Mort had an incredibly disciplined approach to research, carrying paper clips and folders with him into the archives to organize what he found . . . as we went through rolls of microfiche and stacks of filings. 

He was also relentless. Once he sensed something was wrong, he went after it with a vengeance. He didn't let himself get distracted by newsroom chatter or politics or by the obstacles he encountered in the newsroom, including skepticism that what he sensed was really true. 

I think that sometimes journalists who are initially skeptical of the motives of those in power often completely shed any doubts when they meet powerful people who are also smart and charming and disarming. Ken Lay of Enron totally charmed lots of reporters and editors, who, for a long time, took what he was saying on faith. I think there were journalists, particularly in the 1980s, who thought it was smarter to be distrustful of would-be do-gooders and less distrustful of corporate executives and politicians. Mort's instinct, faced with an imbalance of power between two sides in a dispute, was to give the benefit of doubt to the less powerful side and to dig down into what they were saying until he could deliver the goods. 

 

Two of Mintz’s most memorable stories had global reach. Both involved health risks to pregnant women and their babies.

In 1962, he broke the story of a strong-willed government physician who “prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy, the birth of hundreds or indeed thousands of armless and legless children.” Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration medical officer, had refused to cave to pressure to give FDA approval to thalidomide, a sedative and tranquilizer that caused thousands of birth defects in other countries.

The tip about the story had come from a Congressional staffer, relayed from Post reporter Bernard Nossiter to Assistant City Editor Sy Fishbein, who passed it to Mintz. But not right away. As Mintz recalls it, Fishbein worried the Post’s medical-beat writer might not have enough outrage to do the story the way it needed to be done. So he waited until the medical reporter was on vacation, then assigned the story to Mintz.

Mintz had no expertise in medicine or the FDA. But what he did have, he recalled in a telephone interview last week, was “the proper outrage.” 

The story launched him in new direction. He burrowed into the world of the FDA, cigarettes, the birth control pill and prescription medicines, writing hundreds of stories for the Washington Post and publishing a succession of books, starting in 1965 with The Therapeutic Nightmare: A report on prescription drugs, the men who make them, and the agency that controls them.

In 1985, he wrote a five-part series of stories documenting that the A.H. Robins Company, a Richmond, Va., based pharmaceutical firm, had sold millions of intrauterine birth control devices even though company officials had ample warning that they were untested and dangerous

The company’s IUD – known as the Dalkon Shield – was implanted in an estimated 3 million women in the U.S. and 79 other countries.  Tens of thousands, Mintz reported, were seriously injured. Many suffered life-threatening infections. In the U.S. alone, at least 18 women who had been wearing Dalkon Shields died from pelvic inflammatory disease.  

The company agreed to stop selling the device in the U.S. in 1974, but continued to distribute it in other countries for months and didn’t conduct a recall for another decade. In El Salvador, some clinics continued implanting Dalkon Shields until 1980.

Many journalists covered the story episodically, following lawsuit filings and judges’ rulings but making little sense of the big picture. Mintz, in contrast, mined the mountainous court record to piece together narrative of what he termed “a disaster of global proportions.” 

After he left the Post, Mintz wrote freelance articles for magazines and online outlets. Many of these pieces cast a discerning eye on major media organization’s failures to ask tough questions of politicians and business leaders. Too often, Mintz said in a 1991 article in The Progressive (“A Reporter Looks Back in Anger”), business journalism had been undermined by boosterism, careerism, cowardice, libel fears, laziness and chumminess with sources.

He often wondered aloud why big news organizations invest vast resources in covering political horse races and producing personality profiles of corporation titans while ignoring stories that matter to real people – dangers and injustices that affect their families, their bank accounts, their health and safety.

Mintz wrote me last week:

It's long seemed to me that, in my experience, too many reporters, too much of the time, failed to ask themselves a simple two-word question: “What's important?”

 An example from my experience:

It’s the core responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration to assure the safety and effectiveness of our medicines. While I was a Washington Post reporter, the House Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee, led by Rep. L.H. Fountain and then Ted Weiss, held hearings on how well the FDA was carrying out this responsibility. For these hearings the Subcommittee staff obtained illuminating FDA internal documents that reporters could not get. 

Yet the only reporters reliably covering these hearings were James Risser of the Des Moines Register and myself. It reached a point where a Subcommittee staffer would ask me about my availability so he could schedule hearings on days when I could attend. 

Surely if more reporters had asked themselves “What's important?” this would not have been the case.
 

Michael Hudson, a staff writer at ICIJ, is author of the book, THE MONSTER: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America—and Spawned a Global Crisis.

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