Journalism Explained, and Honored

August 1, 2008

Labaton covered McCain controversy

 

York Wilson Photography

The proliferation of online news sources has "smashed assumptions about the news cycle" and intensified pressure on journalists to work faster than ever before, even on complex investigative pieces, New York Times reporter Stephen Labaton A.M. '86, J.D. '86 said in a March talk at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Especially for investigative pieces, "It's increased the tension between the need for quality and the demand for timeliness."

Labaton, a longtime member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board, was the winner of this year's Futrell Award for Excellence in Communications and Journalism, given annually by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy to honor a Duke graduate.

Labaton has a long record as an investigative journalist. Earlier this spring, he co-wrote the first controversial reports about presidential candidate John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist. In the wake of the "Keating Five" investigation, McCain had dedicated himself to reform, including crafting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. So evidence of his favoring issues close to telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman—including assumptions by some McCain staff members that the senator's motives might have been rooted in a romantic relationship—was important to report on, said Labaton.

Editors were concerned about word of their investigation leaking onto the Web, Labaton said, as well as the possibility that other news outlets might rush to break the story. Their concerns were borne out in December when the online Drudge Report posted a piece about the Times investigation.

The story generated more than 2,000 reader comments to The New York Times, many of them negative. As a result the newspaper created, for the first time, an online question-and-answer webpage explaining how the story came together. "We knew this would be a controversial story," Labaton said. "There were dozens of editorial meetings about it. We didn't anticipate how the reporting would become part of the story."

Labaton joined The New York Times in 1986 and became a legal-affairs correspondent in New York in 1987. In 1990, he moved to the paper's Washington bureau, where he covers financial and legal affairs, and works on campaign finance stories during the national elections.

Labaton has written extensively about the impact of the Bush administration's sweeping deregulation of industry on worker and consumer safety. He won the 2003 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism for his coverage of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which prompted chair Harvey Pitt's resignation. In 2003, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting as part of a team of Times business reporters.

The Futrell Award was established by Ashley B. Futrell Jr. '78, the publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington, North Carolina, Daily News, as a tribute to this father, Ashley B. Futrell Sr. '33.