Interview: Michael Sallah

Michael Sallah received numerous state and national awards for his investigative reports for The Toledo Blade before joining The Miami Herald. In 2004, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series called "Tiger Force" about a US army platoon during the Vietnam War.

Michael Sallah received numerous state and national awards for his investigative reports for The Toledo Blade before joining The Miami Herald. In 2004, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series called "Tiger Force" about a US army platoon during the Vietnam War.

Sallah spoke to PRWeek about investigating Miami and his relationship with the PR industry.

PRWeek: What drew you to become an investigative journalist?
Michael Sallah:
It was probably a combination of growing up in a post-Vietnam generation where people still questioned authority - and it was still a very positive thing to do so. I was also educated by the Jesuits, and they were some of the most fervent anti-war activists in the country at the time. We grew up in social justice and believing, and because I like to write, I felt that journalism fit that bill. I grew up in the era of Woodward and Bernstein, All the President's Men, and we saw how two young reporters shook the presidency and also challenged our nation's leaders to become better. So I saw that journalism was a positive force in the country in the 1970s and I was proud to be a part of that, to be a student at that time, and be a part of that generation.

PRWeek: Do you feel that you still have that fire now that you are a seasoned reporter?
Sallah:
Never lost it. It's even more passionate. I even believe in it even more so today; without the force of state and without the watchdog function of the press, this country would be in very bad shape. I see it everyday. I see it in small towns where good newspapers have either gone away or they have been bought up by suburban shopper weeklies and there is nobody there to challenge authority. Zoning people are getting away with doing whatever they want to do. Bad things happen when the press goes away. I know there [are] a lot of things that are said today about the media, the 'liberal media' if you will, those kinds of flights that are directed at reporters. I would shudder to think of this country without a fair and impartial press asking tough questions. So I feel more passionately about today than ever.

PRWeek: Have the recent financial problems of the newspaper industry in general hurt your budget or changed your job?
Sallah:
No, not at all. Actually the Miami Herald is doing rather well, and it has a long history of supporting the industry of investigative journalism. It has won 18 Pulitzers. It's been a Pulitzer finalist over 35 times. It's a legendary paper and will continue to do the kind of work that it has been known for. With that said, industry-wide, the worst thing you can do in budget cutting days is eliminate investigative reporting, because investigative reporting is so good for business. It increases interest. It increases circulation. Good, hard-hitting stories that reach readers and get them talking about you is the most important thing you can do. Becoming relevant-- newspapers need to become even more relevant in people's lives. Investigative journalism plays a very important role in that process. I think people are very foolhardy to think that by somehow eliminating investigative journalism and the budgets for that work that somehow they are going to save their newspapers. They are not; they are actually going to hurt their papers. They need to rethink it and look at the case examples of what other papers have done and how they have actually helped themselves by doing first-rate investigative work.

With that said, industrywide the worst thing you can do in budget-cutting days is eliminate investigative reporting because that type of reporting is so good for business. It increases interest. It increases circulation. Good, hard-hitting stories that reach readers and get them talking about you are the most important thing you can give readers.

PRWeek: Your recent book came out in May, and it tackles some issues from Vietnam. Can you tell me about the process of digging up that information?
Sallah:
Well, it started with an army commander who was giving us the records before he died. His name was Henry Tufts. He was the founding father of Criminal Investigations Command, and before he died he felt that this was one case that got away from him; where military justice wasn't served, where there was actually a cover-up. So when he released those records-- there were only 22 classified documents, but they became the beginning of what probably became the longest war crimes investigation by an American newspaper. We spent a year on it; digging up records, getting to the soldiers-- the former soldiers that were still alive. It was a long, arduous process, but it was worth it in the end because we were able to basically unearth what was an untold chapter in the Vietnam War. It was a long process, it was digging up records and convincing people to talk to us that didn't want to talk to us. It was going to Vietnam and finding some of the witnesses to the atrocities and then going to the soldiers and getting them to admit to these things. So it was a long process, but it was shoe leather reporting, old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. It wasn't computer assisted. We used an excel spreadsheet. But it was done with old-fashioned reporting, something that hasn't changed for generations.

PRWeek: What sort of impact do you think the Internet and blogging is going to have on the future of investigative reporting?
Sallah:
Hopefully it will be good. I think sometimes it gets muddied a little bit. What is really first-rate investigative journalism isn't always found in the bloggers and isn't always in people who are putting out their own web sites, because they don't take the time to carry out journalism in a professional manner. I mean, there is a real process of refining and experience that goes into our work. There are too many people, in the wrong hands, [who] pervert it and they bend it and they twist it so it really isn't investigative journalism. I think that what they end up doing is really feeding off the good work that is done by good journalists. And in some ways [that] helps. We get a lot of our stories out there by bloggers. They end up actually picking up our stuff and then linking to it. That is good for us. If it's good work and it holds up, you don't mind if the bloggers get a hold of it because they can actually help advance it out there on the Web for you.

PRWeek: Are there a lot of blogs that you read?
Sallah:
No, not really. I do get a lot of them sent to me. I should read them more often, but I just don't have enough time. Whatever research I do on the internet and time I spend is typically for my work. You are limited on the amount of time you can spend on this kind of this stuff. So I don't spend a lot of time. So much of it is just rantings, and it is things that are personalized. That is good for some people, but I think that if you are in the trenches as investigative journalist blogging is not a priority with you. It is really about getting to the heart of news and information. Many times it doesn't involve blogging. It's not to say that good stuff isn't out there, but I think it is still in its infancy. I think the jury is still out on what kind of impact this is going to have on American journalism.

PRWeek: Does Miami offer you some unique story opportunities compared with other areas of the country?
Sallah:
Yes, of course. This is the candy store of American journalism. This is where everything happens. The corruption - it's in-your-face corruption; it's not even subtle. You have an immigrant population that is simmering with all kinds of issues from Cuba to Haiti. Then you have your normal drug trafficking here.

I don't know what normal is in Miami because you have no norm. You have crime. You have so much white-collar fraud for illegal stock operations. You need the press here.

PRWeek: Do you find a lot of stories coming to you through PR people? Are they pitching you?
Sallah:
Sometimes PR pros can be great. If you get one on your side, they can direct you to a certain area that they feel needs to be covered. [These are] particularly savvy PR pros who understand the role of the press and actually empathize with reporters. They are typically people who know what is going on, and they are only a breath away from the daily journalism. They are in a great position to lead us to the good stories, and they should. It is not going to hurt them; they are not going to give us a story that might point the finger at their own institution, but if they feel that their company is being unfairly singled out, they might lead us to where the real culprits are. They have a way of being able to do that sometimes that it is actually going to get the truth out more. I can honestly say that I understand their role. I don't look at PR people as the enemy... As long as they don't lie. We don't want to be lied to. I think that's important. Good PR people don't do that. They would rather say, "I'm not going to tell you." It's better to actually do it that way than to lie. The good PR people don't do that. There are some very fine people in PR that I would work with time and time again.

Name: Michael Sallah

Outlet: The Miami Herald

Title: Investigations editor

Preferred contact method: msallah@miamiherald.com

Web site: www.herald.com

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