University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Talking Shop

Eric Lipton and Robert Rosenthal

 

When New York Times reporter Eric Lipton ’87 won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting this spring (the second Pulitzer of his career), we saw it as an opportunity to initiate a discussion between Lipton and a fellow distinguished journalism alumnus of an earlier era, Robert Rosenthal ’71, executive director of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Rosenthal’s career includes reporting as a war correspondent in Africa and top editorial posts at the Philadelphia Inquirer and San Francisco Chronicle. His first newspaper job was as a humble New York Times copy boy charged with a big job, the safekeeping of the documents behind the Pentagon Papers exposé. 

Lipton’s first Pulitzer came in 1992 when he was honored for explanatory journalism in a Hartford Courant series on flaws in the Hubble Telescope. The latest prize recognizes Lipton’s series on aggressive efforts by lobbyists and lawyers to push state attorneys general to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements, or pressure federal regulators to benefit their clients.

Lipton in London on assignment, Rosenthal in the Berkeley, California, CIR offices, and Vermont Quarterly editor Tom Weaver midway between, connected for a conference call to discuss Lipton’s recent Pulitzer-winning work and the state of investigative journalism in a quicksilver media age. 

 

Rosenthal: Eric, how did you get started on the attorney general story?

Lipton: It began with a lobbyist who came to us. She was appalled by the solicitations that she was getting from both the Republican and Democratic attorneys general associations in order to get private access to state attorneys general on behalf of her clients. This was a lobbyist who deals with all of the game-playing in D.C. and, even so, was appalled by the fact that state attorneys general, people with subpoena power, were expecting her to make $125,000 contributions to get one-on-one access to the top state law enforcement officials. 

To think that a U.S. attorney would do such a thing, it is just impossible to contemplate. The fact that their equivalents on a state level were playing that sort of cash for access game was astounding. 

VQ: As you pursued it, was there a particular point when you realized you really had the story? 

Lipton: Yeah, there were many points like that along the way when I was so excited I found myself walking around the office sharing with other people the amazing sort of stuff that I had found. 

For example, I got copies of correspondence between an energy company and a state attorney general, and he had stripped out all of the attachments, which had the letters that he was sending to Washington. Only after I got the attachments could I see that the letters he had sent were replicas of the ones the energy company had given him to write, and he had essentially just put his signature on them. That was the moment that I realized that I had the kind of information I needed to deliver the story. 

VQ: A story like this must require considerable doggedness. I read about the thousands of emails you sorted through. 

Lipton: There are a lot of lonely moments where you’re just in a room with stacks and stacks of papers, going through them and trying to figure out what is significant and what is insignificant. You’re pushing through and trying to get some sense of what the narrative is and what the documents are showing you. 

Rosenthal: Eric, when you just talked about walking around the office it really resonated for me. I can remember jumping out of my chair realizing that I’d gotten a piece that confirmed this elaborate puzzle. 

It’s not only the documents. It is getting an interview where somebody confirms or starts telling you things. Or you get someone to talk who you’ve been trying to get to talk, especially on the record, for months. You just keep knocking on the door.

But I think a key thing to remember is that investigative reporting is very difficult. It’s complicated. It can be risky in a lot of different ways. It really always starts with a hunch or some lead or something that you’re trying to figure out. The other thing that happens is that once someone like Eric has the credibility within journalism, then people start coming to you. 

There are amazing stories we both could tell. I remember when I was statehouse reporter at the Boston Globe I literally got a phone call in which the guy said, “Meet me on the corner of Tremont and Beacon at 3 o’clock and I’ll be driving a gray Chevy.” And you go, “What?!” Then he repeats it and says, “I’m serious,” and you do it. 

That was a case where a guy literally handed me a box of documents that led to a complete disembowlment of the Massachusetts legislature. That was totally good luck. I’d done some good reporting, and it turned out the guy had an amazing stack of documents. 

VQ: How did your perspective change after you became an editor working with investigative reporters?

Rosenthal: One of the things I always mention to reporters when when they get sources rather than a document or data search, is think about motivation and understand motivation. The reality, as factual and non-judgmental as you want to be, human nature comes into any kind of story. An editor really needs to be there to ask questions and to push back. I think one of the most difficult things in any newsroom and for any editor is when a very good reporter really believes they have something. When you push back and really question the story, it raises doubts about your credibility. But you really have to stick to the facts. 

Some of the most difficult things I’ve been involved in, honestly, were killing a story. It wasn’t there. When you get down to the end game, you couldn’t prove it. I’ve been on both ends of that, circumstances as a reporter when an editor told me, this isn’t going to work unless you get this, this, and this, and you just don’t have it. 

Lipton: Both of the Pulitzer stories I’ve worked on involved editors who were really great partners in terms of making choices in the whole process. And I think Bob’s point is really well taken that understanding the motives of your sources is critical. You can get so convinced of your facts sometimes that you can start to ignore contrary information, and that’s dangerous. I think a good editor recognizes when he or she needs to pull in the reins a bit and force you to second guess your own evidence. 

VQ: For both of you, I’d like to hear about the point when you transition from investigating a story to writing it. 

Lipton: For me, writing is the hardest part of what I do. I tend to have collected so much information and even so many lines of potential narrative characters that I could sketch, it is really a very hard process. I’ve got all kinds of tricks of working on a park bench in Farragut Square or going to a coffee shop to try to force myself to just get something down. I find it easy to write a straight news story—the thing happened today, you just kind of put the facts in order, and then you send it along, leave the office and go home for the day.

But a large investigative story is a different matter. But, you know, writing has always been hard for me even back to high school and in college. Still today, having been a writer now for twenty-five years (laughs), it’s still hard.

Rosenthal: I think what Eric is brilliant at and, obviously, very successful at, is the storytelling. You have to have the facts in terms of investigative reporting and the data and documents and, hopefully, on-the-record sources, but the ability to tell a complicated story in a narrative form and make it accessible and make it flow is a great skill. It broadens the audience and the impact of an important story like that.

Personally, writing is always hard. But I like to write. I’m sorry to say that in some ways I really stopped being a reporter at a pretty early age and got pulled into editing. I feel that writing is also a craft and you get better, better, and better at it as you do more and as you get more experience.

VQ: Looking broadly at the state of investigative journalism in the United States, a paper like the Times has the resources to put Eric on an in-depth story that will take months to report and write. But what are your thoughts on what’s happening with smaller papers?

Lipton: The United States used to be filled with great large papers and great regional papers. There were multi-layers of great newspapers that had multi-levels of daily and investigative reporting and it just is vanishing. It is really depressing. 

Rosenthal: The lack of public service journalism on a local level throughout the United States, even on a county level, is really appalling and it is a problem. 

What we are trying to do here (at the Center for Investigative Reporting) as a non-profit is think very differently. It is a whole different conversation about what we call engagement. We have to be able to show the people who support us that there’s impact and something happens. We’re non-partisan; we’re not advocates; we do very high-standard traditional, fact-based reporting, but we really experiment in how we tell stories and reach an audience. Our business model is based on serving the public interest in the most simple, direct way.

Our audience is not always the big audience, it is the audience that can get involved and create change. Impact for us can be getting a story we do to become part of a curriculum in a school, that’s a good thing. 

VQ: You both, each in your own way, graduated into very different times for daily newspaper journalism. What do you tell today’s Cynic student hoping for a career in journalism? 

Rosenthal: Well, I would tell them that there are still opportunities, but you can’t just think of a newspaper. I think the reality is if you know how to get the information, can write or tell a story on whatever platform and tell it well, you can self-publish in a way now that you never could before. How you make money is a complicated question. But I think in the new media landscape there are lots of opportunities. It is just a really different world. 

I do think the role of investigative journalism in this country is crucial and is at risk because of the business model. People often don’t understand what we do and frequently don’t like journalists. So I think the more someone like Eric or myself goes out and talks to people about the public service aspect of journalism, the better it is for our whole society. 

Lipton: I was reading recently that the number of trade press reporters in a city like Washington or New York has actually grown. Specialization has occurred in all of the blogs and web-based trade press as regional newspapers, because of the tremendous loss in revenue from the departure of print advertising, have seen enormous reductions in staff and, therefore, much less opportunity for young reporters out of college to get jobs. 

After graduating from UVM, I got a job at The Valley News in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Typically, that was the path—get a job at a small regional newspaper, go to the bigger regional newspaper, then try to go to the national newspaper. That pathway is really, really hard nowadays. The upward mobility possibilities in that kind of chain, to me, it just doesn’t exist. 

The pathway now is to go and get a job at a blog or an online publication and develop an online character, a personality, a following and then take that to a mainstream large daily newspaper. So there are still avenues, it is just a very different process than it used to be from my perspective.

Josh Prince, another grad from my era who is now the CEO of a global advertising firm in New York, and I are always marveling at how many people from UVM have ended up in and been very successful in the media world—from book publishers to magazines to newspapers and advertising. On one of our recent visits to UVM we engaged in a conversation to try to understand why that is the case. We both came to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with the independent spirit that is natural to Vermont, the second-guessing, the willingness to be a skeptical reporter on the Cynic staff. And after graduation that translates into making your own way, pursuing your own path, and doing it in a way that allows you to express your creativity. For Josh and me and many of our friends, that is something we took away with us from UVM and our experience living in Vermont.

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