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The Media and Congressional Investigations

Tune in tomorrow morning from 8 to 9 a.m. to see Donald Ritchie on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. In the post below he puts the current Congressional committee investigations, into the Bush administration, in historical perspective. In his last post he looked at the Scooter Libby verdict.

Congressional committees are currently investigating the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors, and are preparing to launch a host of other inquiries into the Bush administration. The question inevitably arises whether or not these investigations are “playing to the press.” Historically, attracting publicity to expose wrongdoing and influence public opinion has always been an integral part of congressional investigations. But to be judged successful, investigators have had to demonstrate that there was something more to their charges than a desire to make headlines.

Back in 1923, when the Senate began looking into allegations that naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, had been improperly turned over to private interests, most Washington reporters dismissed the investigation as a publicity stunt. They had seen too many others start with fanfare and then die obscurely. The Teapot Dome investigation differed because of its tenacious chairman, Montana Senator Tom Walsh, and his ally Paul Y. Anderson, an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who shared his findings with the senator, suggested witnesses for him to call, and drafted questions for him to ask. The rest of the press corps started paying attention and the investigation eventually sent Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to prison for bribery and discredited the administration of Warren G. Harding.

In several court cases growing out of Teapot Dome, the Supreme Court affirmed Congress’ right to investigate any issue and call any witness it wanted. Congress exercised these rights in a series of high-profile investigations during the 1930s into business, banking, and stock practices and lobbying activities that made headlines and produced major legislation. With the coming of World War II, an obscure Senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, became a household name by relentlessly investigating corruption in national defense spending. Congressional investigations turned darker later in the 1940s and ‘50s as they hunted for subversion and espionage in the government. The House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations grabbed headings with sensational charges–often less than adequately verified. By 1957 the Supreme Court applied the brakes by asserting that witnesses before congressional committees retained their full constitutional rights and protections.

In the 1950s, television expanded the public audience for congressional investigations, beginning with Senator Estes Kefauver’s riveting hearings on organized crime in 1951. Later, television broadcast the special investigation of labor racketeering that pitted committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy against Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. Congress’ most famous investigation took place in 1973, when the Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by the indomitable Senator Sam Ervin, painstakingly explored and exposed illegal activities within the Nixon administration, sending high-ranking officials to prison and precipitating the president’s resignation.

Successful congressional investigations have required persistence, diligence, superior staff work, astute questioning, and media attention. A century ago, in his book The American Commonwealth, Lord Bryce observed that the power of the press was rarely the result of any single piece of insightful reporting, but instead came through dogged repetition, sticking with a story until it “hammers it into the public mind.” The same persistence won investigators from Tom Walsh to Sam Evin national recognition. Investigations started both Harry Truman and Richard Nixon on their journeys to the White House, and then dogged their own presidencies. Joe McCarthy enjoyed passing success as an investigator, until the spotlight of publicity turned and destroyed him. Legislative investigators need some degree of showmanship to hold the attention of the press and the public, but ultimately the merit of their investigations will depend on their determination to actually do something about the problems they uncover.

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