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So What Do You Do, Richard Behar, Investigative Journalist, Fast Company?
A vet of Forbes, Time, and Fortune, this journalist is willing to risk it all to get the story- July 9, 2008
In his 25-year career, investigative reporter Richard Behar has written exposés on the Church of Scientology (igniting a decade's worth of lawsuits), the Russian mafia, terrorist networks in Pakistan, the World Bank, the IRS, New York City's garbage mafia, and how the FBI ignored its own agents' early warnings of 9/11. This year, Fast Company* sent him to Africa to document China's systematic strip-mining of the continent's natural resources. He returned with an exhaustive account of social and environmental degradation, one in which we are all complicit. The photo above, for example, was taken outside a Zambian copper mine where a Chinese-owned explosives factory exploded in 2005, killing an unknown number of Zambians. Their unidentified remains are buried in the cemetery behind him. The copper extracted is eventually used in products exported to the U.S. While he was in the Congo, he caught an intestinal bug (not the first in his career, nor likely the last) that nearly killed him, but did provide the overarching metaphor for the piece, the longest in the magazine's history.
Behar spent more than 20 years at Forbes, Time and Fortune before striking out on his own in 2004. That summer -- four years ago today, in fact -- Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov was shot dead on a Moscow street by unknown assailants. It was assumed their motivation was to silence once of Russia's few independent and most voracious reporters. Upset by this blatant attempt to squelch Russia's free press and the murky circumstances surrounding his death, Behar launched Project Klebnikov that summer. A worldwide confederation of journalists volunteering their time and expertise, Project K. is dedicated to bringing the killers to justice, and to demonstrating that murdering a reporter will not necessarily silence him. The model for Project K. was the "Arizona Project" organized in 1974 by legendary Newsday editor Bob Greene. After an Arizona Republic reporter was killed by a car bomb that spring, Greene assembled an all-star team of reporters and spent six months in Phoenix assembling a 23-part series on the links between state politics and organized crime. Greene, who assembled the first full-time investigative team at a national newspaper, was Behar's first mentor. Perhaps one of the last of a literally dying breed, he passed away this spring at age 78. We spoke with Behar less than a week after he attended a memorial service for Greene on Long Island.
Name: Richard Behar
Position: Investigative journalist; director of Project Klebnikov
Resume: Forbes (1982-89); Time (1989-95); Fortune (1995-2004); freelance (2004+)
Birthdate: Age 47
Hometown: Born in Manhattan, grew up in Levittown, NY.
Education: New York University (journalism)
First section of the Sunday Times: Frank Rich (Week In Review)
Favorite TV show: Entourage
Guilty pleasure: Entourage and Lifetime (which I refer to as MSN, the "Men Suck Network")
Last book you read: Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, by Steve Weinberg
I'd like to talk about the "China in Africa" article for Fast Company first. It's certainly no secret that China has been busy in Africa securing access to oil and other resources, but no one has questioned Chinese intentions on the continent as pointedly as you have. You didn't just let the facts speak for themselves -- you really issued a call to arms. Did you set out to write an overtly political wake-up call, or was this a natural extension of your investigative work?
I think every piece of investigative work is a wake-up call by its nature. It's "Wake up everyone!" and "Look how this is working; look at how this system, or this agency, or this company is functioning". A good piece does that -- people raise their eyebrows and learn something.
Yeah, it was a wake-up call but it was also a pox on both your houses. It wasn't China-bashing, it was "Look at what America has done, look at what the West has done, look at what African society is doing to itself." It's just a cesspool of problems: You've got so much corruption in the sub-Saharan, so much corruption -- China at this stage of economic development is a corrupt business culture -- and our track record in Africa hasn't been great. I have always felt that if a reporter really puts in the work, the piece can and should have a point of view -- if it is backed up by the facts, of course.
|"My god is transparency. I really believe that the more there is, the better society will be."|
While you were in Congo, you contracted an organism, Entamoeba histolytica (or "Eh" for short) that could have killed you but instead provided an elegant framing device for the entire package. But from what I've heard, that wasn't the first deadly disease you contracted in the line of duty…
I didn't know if it would work, journalistically speaking. You know, you get too close to things, so you don't know if they'll work. That's when you need an editor to slap you around after you try it.
Yeah, I tend to have a hard time when I go to exotic places. When I was in Indonesia in the rain forest during the Bre-X gold scam [in which the discovery of an immense gold deposit turned into a multi-billion dollar hoax], I didn't know it was a scam yet. No one knew it. I caught something and was in bed for weeks. I couldn't write the piece, and thank God it was delayed, because two weeks after I got back, one of my sources leaped out of the same helicopter we had flown in and committed suicide -- or maybe he was pushed, it was unclear -- and the whole thing unraveled as the biggest gold and mining scam ever. This was the story that my editors at Fortune sent me to cover saying "You know, Rich, don't do anything investigative right now. Go have some fun." My antennae were not up on that one. When I finally got into work, [then-Fortune managing editor] John Huey walked into my office, stared at me, and after a long pause that felt like forever said, "Saved by an amoeba…." When I got back from Pakistan after 9/11, I was also in rough shape. I was there 10 weeks, and I left just a few weeks before Danny [Pearl, the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter] was kidnapped. There weren't that many of us in Karachi on the terror money trail, actually -- just a few of us. Everyone else was holed up in Islamabad with the press corps. I knew people who were killed over there; I think that must have gotten to me. I was caught in riots against America and had my first experience with tear gas. I was crawling on the ground in Rawalpindi while there were flames and rocks being thrown in my direction. I've got a camera from CNN and I'm thinking to myself "What the hell am I doing here? I'm a business reporter. How did this happen?"
They actually aired the footage on CNN that night. I was the only American reporter -- certainly the only CNN reporter -- in the riot. Anyway, I came back from Pakistan and I couldn't write for a month. I was feeling sick and miserable. So yeah, I get hit hard.
I find it interesting that the glamour beat of journalism -- high stakes investigative reporting -- is also one of the most miserable….
Is it sexy? I always thought of it more as public service. I grew up with the generation that looked at journalism and the First Amendment like they were religion, and still do. I tell people my god is transparency. I really believe that the more there is, the better society will be. I guess that's what led me to those areas -- that's what led Bob Greene there.
But the foreign correspondent, war correspondent, and muckraker are also the most respected and romantic roles in the profession. That part doesn't appeal to you?
Of course it does, especially the excitement of something suddenly coming together. There's no more exciting feeling than that. So maybe there's some romance in the sense of that, but more than that, I have the sense that this could and should be a better planet, as naïve as that sounds today.
How much should we read into Bob Greene's death as a metaphor for the investigative wing of the profession? Is your kind a dying breed because of newspaper and magazine cutbacks and shrinking news holes?
I'm hoping it's cyclical because of the technological changes and what's happening with the journalism economy. I'm not going say that it's always going to be dying (or dead), but at least it's temporarily dying. There really isn't a lot of good hard stuff going on, there just isn't. Most of the pieces that I've done over 20 years would not get published today in the magazines they were originally published in.
Wow, really? In Forbes, Fortune and Time?
Most of the stuff wouldn't. It might have run in a scaled-down form. Many of my pieces were eight to 10 pages. Look at my Scientology cover story for Time. Maybe it's not fair for me to sit here and say this, but I just don't see it happening today given the page counts, the [drop-off in] advertising, the move to the Internet, and so on. And most people don't have the patience to read a 10-, 15-, 24-page story on the Internet without getting a sore back.
I don't know where it's going. Look, there's always going to be a need for this reporting; I just don't know how it's going to play out. I used to talk to Bob Greene about this, and he was just mortified. He was mortified by what was happening at Newsday, where everything he built was stripped down and destroyed.
Have you looked into efforts like ProPublica that are attempting to find nonprofit models for long-form investigative journalism? In some ways, it sounds a lot like the Arizona Project or Project K -- reporters doing great work and then giving it away to whoever wants to run it.
Yeah, I think it's a good move. It's a little bizarre that the old model isn't working, so Paul Steiger has to take money from a wealthy individual to do this, but that may be where this is going. David Kaplan, who was the chief investigative correspondent for U.S. News for years, was laid off at about a year ago when they closed their investigative team. He's now running a nonprofit unit of the Center for Public Integrity. He contacted me recently and stated, "I'll be running a network of 100 top investigative reporters in 50 countries -- and it should be great fun. Yah, nonprofits... the last refuge of aging muckrakers."
Well, is the kind of journalism you do ever cost-effective, especially at the individual level? Even if you were assigned 7,000 words on Africa with combat pay on top of your fee, that hardly seems to justify a 45,000-word first draft and the hospital bills. What's the temperament of an investigative journalist? Beyond the desire for truth, you must have fantastic organizational skills and discipline. I shudder to think what the outlining process for your Africa series was like.
Yeah, but like with anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I couldn't have done this kind of work in my twenties. It just takes time. I filled up 1,128 pages of notes in Africa. That's just what I do. It may only be the first draft of history, but damn, I'm going to try really hard to get it right. I'm just not comfortable turning in something unless I really, really feel comfortable with it. I just have a hard time with that. I also have a hard time with closings. I had a reputation at Fortune where they would try to lock me out of the copy desk at night when it was time to close one of my pieces. There's always a better way to say something. I used to make friends with all the people in the imaging department, bringing them food, cigarettes, anything just so I could be there before they transmitted the story to the plant, just to tweak one more word.
What's the status of Project K. at this point? What's it been like trying to manage an ad hoc network of unpaid reporters around the world? And how much progress do you think the project has made?
Nick Stein did a big piece for Men's Vogue on the case, and he and I have done some interviews. I talk to reporters around the world -- people overseas who do digging for us -- and we move an inch at a time, which is just the way its got to be. This could take an absolute lifetime, which is fine -- I have a lifetime. I imagine that I'll be doing stuff on this case for the rest of my life, and that's alright, because what's the alternative? Just advance the ball a little bit at a time and try not to get down on yourself, which isn't easy to do. I look at progress that we've made or haven't made over the past few years, and it's easy to kick ourselves and wish we could do more, but it's a brutal environment here, and it's a brutal environment over there, even since Paul was killed. Like we talked about earlier, investigative reporting has been sliding downhill. There's so little interest in doing this stuff and even the Western news agencies that are in Moscow aren't doing it.
A major American news company -- I won't say who -- made it very clear to us when we formed Project K. that their bureau in Moscow would not, and is not doing long, in-depth probes of Russian organized crime. Because they will not put their people at risk, and they need them there for other stuff.
That's incredible. They actually told you that?
I thought "Wow" -- not only is that all the confirmation I needed that we were right to form this project, but that is so upside-down. That's like having a bureau in the Bronx Zoo and saying, "We'll do everything but cover the animals." You've got to do organized crime in Russia. It's infested everything.
On the other hand, it's only human to not want your reporters to take unnecessary risks. I have to ask, considering you followed the same trails as Paul Klebnikov and Danny Pearl, how close to death have you come in the course of reporting a story?
I don't want to comment on that.
Has someone ever threatened to kill you?
I'm not comfortable talking about that. I don't see where that gets me. Look, after 9/11, I was very eager to help, and I felt that I could. I had a lot of contacts in banking in Pakistan, and they were going to open doors for me, big doors, in terms of following the terror money. I told Fortune, I gotta go. [Then-managing editor Richard] Kirkland said "You don't need to do this," and I said "Yeah, I do." I mean, I've been trained as a journalist, doing this stuff for umpteen years. It's 9/11; I'm going.
There are things that all of us did over there that were risky in hindsight. I met with very dangerous killers privately, sitting around with our legs folded on rugs. Often I had some armed security nearby, maybe a floor below me or in the street, but in retrospect it wasn't enough -- if somebody wants you dead, you're gone. But you know, it's like that old saying, "If Americans didn't take risks, we'd all be speaking German today."
But that gets back to the temperament question. I'm a journalist, too, and I can bring my writing and analytical skills to the table, but I have no idea whether I would be so cool under pressure and have the nerve to keep putting myself in danger that way. They try to teach us in journalism school how to be investigative reporters, but you can't teach someone how to behave in extreme situations like these.
Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's a temperament. It's beyond just the desire to write, the desire to report, the desire to learn; all of that's there, but I think you're right -- maybe it's just a part of the personality. It's a calling, it really is. I have found that among colleagues of mine who do similar work, they feel the same way. It really is just in their blood, and something they have to do. This is going to sound really naïve, but it's genuinely about public service -- a real belief that the press is very important to the democracy. Democracy's not going to work without a strong, powerful, functioning press.
What stories do you think are under-reported, or would make for fertile ground for your next project.
I know. Sadly it's the truth.
Every single important subject is barely reported. Pick an agency. Pick a giant business. There isn't enough in-depth stuff going on -- Exxon, the IRS -- it's all out there. It's all out there waiting for a good reporter to go in. Who will publish it, though?
Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
*Disclosure: The author of this article is a contributing writer for Fast Company, however the first time he spoke to Behar was for this interview.
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