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Six Lessons from Decades of Investigative Reporting
There are no shortcuts for in-person interviews and research but a little luck helps
I get a lot of unsolicited email from strangers. I am not complaining since I have an easy to use contact form on my website. Emails pile up in my inbox when I am on a deadline. During frenetic stretches while working on a book, I do not reply sometimes for several months. However, I ultimately answer all except for the occasional, nasty personal attack (the anonymous haters wishing me a miserable death or eternity in hell are invariably in a fury over my conclusion that Oswald alone killed JFK).
Those emails cover a lot of subjects. Some describe possible fraud or public corruption they want me to investigate. Others have questions related to one of my books or articles. A few suggest topics they hope I will put on the short list for my next book. The biggest share, though, are from aspiring journalists and not-yet-published authors looking for advice, particularly about the best way to approach their first nonfiction book.
Some are worried about picking a subject that could turn into a bottomless pit of reporting. I am the wrong person to ask about that since I’m happiest when my home office is stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of documents and the walls have been converted into whiteboards. For a couple of years in the late 1970s I was a litigation associate at the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. There, defending IBM in a Justice Department antitrust suit, I immersed myself in the more than a million pages of trial exhibits and transcripts. My wife, author Trisha Posner, once told Publisher’s Weekly that I had a “photographic memory that can recall exactly where in a bulging file a paper can be found, and where on the paper a fact can be found.” I am not sure whether my memory is “photographic” but I know it is tailor-made for working with a tsunami of documents and cobbling them together into a good story.
However, some universal journalism/author lessons I have picked up during the last 40 years of investigative reporting, apply to big topics as well as those with a much narrower focus. At least they work for me, and others have gotten back to me over the years with a ‘thanks for the tip.’
(1) Start with a deep dive to learn as much as possible before doing any reporting.
This might seem obvious, but I understand that many writers are anxious to start reporting before they have come up to speed on what is already on the record. This is a pretty exhaustive phase for me since my subjects usually involve history as well as current news. I mark up books, highlight PDFs, fill up both digital and metal home office file cabinets, and start creating databases and spreadsheets. On a whiteboard I map out a visual diagram of links between key players and events. That sometimes reveals connections other reporters might have missed.
For instance, when studying the finances of the Vatican, I discovered a storyline that later proved to be a reporting goldmine. I had come across bank account numbers in government archives and through private papers connected the accounts to Vatican financial advisers. Those matches were the Rosetta Stone for eventually exposing how the Vatican Bank secretly invested in German and Italian insurance companies during World War II and make obscene profits from life insurance proceeds stolen from Jews sent to the death camps.
During this early immersion of what is already published on my topic, I develop a wish list of interviews. I want to feel confident that I am conversant enough to conduct them intelligently. I would rather be over-prepared than caught short on the reporting. It usually takes me a couple of months after jumping into the topic before I feel I’m ready to start. On Pharma, I lived in dread of appearing to be an ill-informed lay person when interviewing an infectious disease expert or a pharmaceutical scientist. Given the complexity of drugs and medicine, I spent nearly a year before I was confident enough to start the interviews.
(2) Make Freedom of Information Act requests as quickly as possible.
Many colleagues rightfully complain that the 1967 law that created FOIA is weak. Federal agencies have learned how to delay releasing files and often heavily redact those they do make public. Most federal bureaucrats may not care about a file until a journalist ask for it. FOIA is undoubtedly slow but is worth mastering because it is a linchpin for nonfiction book research. It can occasionally lead to a breakthrough. I learned that on my first project, a biography of fugitive Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. A request I made to the U.S. Army resulted in the declassification of Counterintelligence Corps files. When I got those, they revealed that American army forces had twice captured and released Mengele in the chaotic months after he fled Auschwitz. That scoop was not the result of dogged reporting but simply was information buried inside government files that were waiting for someone to use FOIA to retrieve.
A good FOIA query requires strategy and planning to target the government agencies most likely to have relevant files. You cannot get the information if you do not zero in on the right part of the federal bureaucracy. Long before I had started on Pharma, for instance, some reporters had made FOIA requests to the FDA about the Sacklers, the owners of Purdue Pharma whose bestselling narcotic painkiller, OxyContin, had become a poster child for the opioid epidemic. I submitted FOIA requests to the FDA, but I also sent them to the FBI. The key files were there. My request produced a treasure trove of information including revelations that the Sackler patriarchs were committed leftists, some even card-carrying members of the Communist party. The FBI had repeatedly investigated them. That prompted me to expand my coverage of the Sacklers in the book. Combined with other reporting, the family went from a single chapter in an early outline to become the narrative thread that ran through the post-World War II history of the American drug industry.
(3) It is NOT possible to do all research online
Every time I begin researching a book, I know the final manuscript will bear little resemblance to the proposal I had submitted my publisher. Matters that seem important when picking a book topic often fall by the wayside as fresh reporting takes me in unexpected directions. The documents I review and the interviews I conduct ultimately determine the story I tell.
Given the vast digitization of many archives and easy availability of comprehensive databases, it is tempting to be lured into thinking that everything is a few keyboard clicks away. And several online databases are very useful. Still, nothing beats going manually through boxes of documents looking for threads of information that stitch together a story. That involves more than just going in person to the National Archives or a major library.
In 1984, for instance, I traveled to Buenos Aires as part of my research for a biography of Josef Mengele. There were many published reports that Mengele had sought haven in Argentina after the war but no solid proof beyond rumors and secondhand accounts. I petitioned Argentina’s first democratically elected president, Raúl Alfonsin, for access to the country’s secret files on Mengele. There was no response for several weeks. Then, one night, at nearly 11:00 p.m., several uniformed police knocked on the door of my downtown Buenos Aires hotel. I managed to make a hurried telephone call to my wife, Trisha, who had returned a few days earlier to New York. At least I wanted her to know where I was headed in case events turned out badly that night. I was put into the back seat of a blue Falcon, the very type of unmarked car that had become notorious under the country’s military junta for taking away thousands of dissidents, many of whom were killed.
They took me to the main headquarters of the Federal Police and put me into a large, windowless office. There, a grim-looking colonel informed me that he had been ordered to produce some documents. The folder I soon reviewed in an adjacent room contained an invaluable trove of information about Josef Mengele and his decade as a fugitive in Argentina, everything from his original International Red Cross passport under an alias on which he had arrived from Europe to details of how he stayed one step ahead of Nazi hunters. A few of those papers raised broader and troubling questions about other Nazi war criminals.
A few weeks later, I was in Asunción. There, I toured the country with Colonel Alejandro von Eckstein, a military officer who was not only a good friend of the country’s dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, but who had personally cosponsored Mengele’s application for Paraguayan citizenship. With von Eckstein in tow, I reviewed a small part of that country’s previously sealed Mengele file.
There was no doubt I would never have gotten to those government files if I had not been there. A couple of months later, a British journalist requested to see the same files. The Argentines told him no. The spasm of democracy that had swept Argentina after the fall of its military junta had created a small door of transparency and access and then it closed again.
Although the Argentines refused to let me see the files of other Nazis, several years later I wrote an OpEd complaining about that in the New York Times (The Bormann Files). It sparked at international hue and cry that kicked off a process leading eventually to Argentina opening all its Nazi files.
Not everything has to be a momentous change in government policy to get the benefits of doing research away from the computer. In Pharma, I tracked down in person dozens of decades-old incorporation documents in state archives and cross referenced them against addresses and phone numbers from telephone books stored on microfilm. That exposed some of the labyrinth of hidden business interests the Sackler family had tried to shield. Inevitably, I used only a small fraction of what I reviewed. And occasionally, as with Sackler company info, much of it ended up in footnotes.
And remember when deciding where to do research, keep an eye out for authors who have previously written about your topic and donated their reporting to public institutions. I discovered that during the Mengele biography when I found the papers of author Ladislas Farago. George McMillan’s excellent collection of interviews and original reporting was indispensable for my reexamination of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination (my own voluminous research for all books is at the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, where I had come across the Farago collection 36 years ago).
(4) Related to “don’t do all research online” is “do not do all interviews by Skype.”
No question that Zoom makes it simple to interview many people, no matter where they live. That ease, coupled with huge cost savings for travel, makes it tempting to do all interviews online. Deep throats, however, don’t come via Skype or Zoom. I find it impossible to create a rapport with someone unless I am with them. The trust between journalist and source is built over many meetings. Sometimes it never happens. On other occasions, a source might feel comfortable enough to meet outside the office for a beer or coffee. That social dynamic is the start of creating a relationship where they feel completely at ease. Only then might an interviewee be ready to provide critical information or make an introduction to a key source. My breakthroughs with sources, on subjects as wide-ranging as 9/11 and the business of Motown Records, have always been in person. In 1987, when I was allowed to tag along with heroin traffickers in Hong Kong and Thailand, it was only after Trisha and I had spent several months in Southeast Asia convincing them we were not DEA agents.
(5) Never fail to seek an interview because someone said no to other journalists.
I was often told I was wasting my time. That was sometimes right, as with Jackie Kennedy for Case Closed and Marietta Lutze Sackler for Pharma (the latter, who died at 99 in 2019, lived only two blocks away from me, but steadfastly rebuffed all my requests to talk). Occasionally, however, the “Hail Mary” pass works. Rolf Mengele, the only son of Dr. Josef Mengele, agreed not only to interview but allowed me ultimately to use his father’s diaries in my 1986 biography and even joined me on a riveting Phil Donahue program about his fugitive father and Nazi crimes.
Another breakthrough came in 1992 when I defied the conventional wisdom and decided to try and get an interview with Yuriy Nosenko, a KGB defector who had handled Oswald’s file in Russia and was living anonymously somewhere in America. Nosenko had never talked publicly about Oswald. I wrote to the CIA’s Office of Public Agency and Information, requesting it forward my letter. All but Trisha thought trying to interview Nosenko was a fool’s mission.
But Nosenko shocked all of us when he agreed. I initially traveled to CIA headquarters where he felt safe (I forgot my driver’s license that day and spent an hour answering questions from military guards after I tried gaining access with a credit card with my photo). Nosenko later felt comfortable enough to have his wife join Trisha and me for dinner in Virginia. His revelations were new and important. Why did he agree to my interview request when he had never replied to other journalists over the years? It was the luck of timing. I was the first writer to ask him since the fall of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Russian empire, he no longer felt as if his life was at risk from the KGB.
It is always great when you get a yes to a much-anticipated interview or somehow get permission for hard-to-access files. Even when the door is closed, there might still be ways to get the information. For instance, the Vatican rebuffed my repeated requests to review its Secret Archives. It meant I had to look for the financial transactions through a much more laborious search of decades-old banking and insurance files in half a dozen countries. The payoff was eventually a story of malfeasance and corruption that no one else had managed to penetrate. Sure, it would have been great to find it all on a single trip to the Vatican and inside their own document repository. But their attempt to block my reporting only meant I had to be creative in finding copies of the key papers elsewhere. There is always a copy of a document in some archive, it is just a matter of figuring out where to look.
(6) Never assume you are smart enough to know what someone will tell you.
It is an easy trap to fall into and means you might miss asking a key question. This was driven home during my research for a 1996 biography of Ross Perot. The quirky Texas tycoon was in his second independent presidential run. One of his former executives laid out a grim litany of Perot’s vindictive side in an interview with Trisha and me. Perot, angry over what he considered disloyalty, humiliated his former employee and shattered the man’s life. Trisha always sits quietly through interviews. At the end, she will follow-up if she thinks I missed something. On that occasion, she asked whether he would vote for Perot for president. I thought to myself. “What a silly question. Of course not.” He did not hesitate. “Yes. Perot can be a son-of-a-bitch, but I think that is what we need in the White House.”
I never again assumed I knew what someone might answer.
In all my book projects, I inevitably reach the point when I say to Trisha, “This one is too large, I will never finish it.” That is always the turning point. When I feel totally overwhelmed by the deluge of information is when instinctively I realize it is time to start dialing back on reporting and focus instead on writing the story. There is no rule of thumb by which to measure that stage. Although having a deadline in a publishing contract helps. Especially when paying the mortgage depends on finishing the book. Otherwise, happily ensconced in some endless archive, I could imagine researching some of my projects forever. 1