Journalist Q&A: Richard Behar, investigative journalist (Extended)

Richard Behar has tackled some of this era's major stories, such as tracking the 9/11 money trail in Pakistan. He spoke about his work and the narrow intersection where PR and investigative journalism meet.

Name: Richard Behar
Title: Investigative journalist
Outlets: Has worked on the staffs of Forbes, Time, and Fortune, and has done assignments for the BBC, CNN, Fast Company, Fox News, and PBS
Preferred e-mail address: behar@richardbehar.com
Website: www.richardbehar.com

Richard Behar has tackled some of this era's major stories, such as tracking the 9/11 money trail in Pakistan. He spoke to Michelle Lodge about his work and the narrow intersection where PR and investigative journalism meet.

Describe the nature of your work.
A seasoned investigative reporter crawls into dark, dank, smelly corners—I don't mean bedrooms — and stays there as long as needed to find out how things really work. It can be damn lonely down there. But there's nothing magical about it. It doesn't take an Einstein to do it. You search beneath the surfaces for an underlying reality that is normally concealed—and you try not to come up for air until you find it. You go as far as you can. After all, knowing that reality is the only thing that makes real change possible, right?

What got you into journalism?
It was journalist Bob Greene who turned me onto it. As a kid growing up on Long Island, both he and I lived in Levittown at one stage. I was weaned on Newsday, where in the late 1960s he had started the first permanent investigative team at a U.S. newspaper, called the Greene Team. I was also inspired by the Arizona Project, a team of nearly 30 reporters from two dozen media outlets that descended on Phoenix in the mid-70s to continue the exposes on organized crime and political corruption that local reporter Don Bolles had done before he was murdered. Greene ran that operation, too.

What's a good interview?
It's one that takes place over days, not hours. A good interview is one where the subject lets me hang around with them while they move through a typical day, perhaps riding with them in taxis or waiting with them in airports, even if what I see and hear has to be green-lighted by them if I want to use it. It gives me an invaluable window into who the person is. A good interview is one where you feel in your gut you haven't been lied to.

You've reported from some of the world's hot spots. What's been your hardest assignment?
My Madoff book for Random House is probably the toughest and most challenging project of my career. Now well into my third year of full-time reporting for it, I'm very excited by what I'm finding out. Generations will look back on the case and want to know what really happened. The public deserves that. Law enforcement deserves that. The Madoffs deserve that. So I'm giving it my all.

And among some of your shorter projects?
There was a cover story I wrote on Scientology for Time that led to a decade of libel litigation up to the Supreme Court. At one point I filed a harassment suit, but later dropped my complaint.

A10-week reporting trip in Pakistan after 9/11 probing terrorism and extremists inside Pakistan's economy for Fortune and CNN was also very tough for reasons you might imagine. I came back with a journalist's version of post traumatic stress syndrome, where I couldn't write for more than a month and could hardly get out of bed. I'm proud of that work more than anything I've done. While there, I privately met some dangerous extremists and guerrillas and tracked and followed one of the 9/11 logistics leaders, Said Bahaji, to the Afghan border area. Another tough expose, for Fortune, took me to Siberia and involved the Russian aluminum trade – the country's second-largest export and arguably its most dangerous industry then.

How does the Internet and social media impact your work?
Long-form investigative reporting is not easy in the age of Twitter, where tens of millions of people prefer to read 140 characters rather than a great long-form article or book.

And WikiLeaks poses a huge challenge, given how so many documents are dumped on the public without either sources to explain their significance or reporters to try and verify that they're not forgeries. Toss in the endless number of blogs, and the brains of citizens are just short-circuiting from too much lousy media saturation. In the old days, even just 10 to 15 years ago, the first thing a thorough investigative reporter would do is see what already exists on a subject he or she is writing about. Back then, it might lead you to perhaps 10 or maybe a few hundred articles. Today, you can be talking about tens of thousands of e-hits: How does one even begin to digest it all and separate the good from the crap?

By the very nature of their respective interests, it seems that investigative journalists and PR professionals cannot find common ground. True or false?
PR and investigative reporting can meet, but only if the PR firm is willing to provide negatives along with the positives, rather than paint their clients like cardboard characters deserving worship. They need to humanize their clients. They need to share the strengths and weaknesses of their clients, as well as some honest strengths, weaknesses, and dirt about their rivals/competitors. If they do that they'll at least have the ear of a good investigative reporter.

On the other hand, a PR firm whose clients have been completely demonized and dehumanized by media should be more proactive with investigative reporters than they usually are. They should try and ensure that their clients' reputations, mental states and legacies are not totally and forever mutilated. The best PR experts know this and do it. The worst ones simply build a “nuclear bomb shelter” to hide their clients in. They get paid for essentially doing nothing and, in the end, it really doesn't serve their clients' various needs. In fact, it just makes their clients look like they have everything to conceal.

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