headshot of rosenthal
Former director of the Center for Investigative Reporting Robert Rosenthal (Photo/Courtesy CIR-Eric Luse)

Q&A: This old-school investigative reporter is on the hunt for the truth

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Name: Robert Rosenthal
Age: 68
City: San Rafael
Position: Former director, Center for Investigative Reporting

J.: After nine years on the job, you stepped down in May as executive director of the Emeryville-based Center for Investigative Reporting, which was the nation’s first nonprofit investigative journalism organization when it was founded 40 years ago. How did your job change over the years?

Robert Rosenthal: I started at CIR in 2008, when we had seven people on staff and it was difficult to raise money. Today, we have 70 people, a budget close to $11 million and multiple platforms for telling stories. We’ve been extraordinarily successful in not only growing the organization but also in doing dozens of stories that have improved people’s lives, helped powerful interests be held accountable and revealed injustices.

Are you retiring?

No. I am still on the board and I’m working on several projects with CIR and also some outside projects.

You’re an award-winning journalist with a long career as a reporter at papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe and an editor at papers such as the Inquirer and San Francisco Chronicle. Today, journalists are under constant threat — both verbal and physical — from the current administration. How would you characterize President Donald Trump’s relationship with the press?

This is not new. Historically the press often has been in adversarial relationships with almost every president, but Trump repeatedly has said that the media is the enemy of the people. The charge is not believable, but it sets the stage for bad stuff to happen.

What’s behind this?

The president comes from a world where he is part of the media and he has manipulated it for decades. He is not used to and cannot comprehend or tolerate stories critical of the administration. He wasn’t ready for that, plus Washington has become a sieve — people in the White House and government agencies are leaking like mad.

How do leaks make Trump’s relationship with the press more adversarial?

No one seems to get through to him that stories critical of the administration are part of the democratic process in the U.S. Also, the dysfunction in the White House — and the fact that Trump tweets without thinking — has exacerbated everything. Trump has become an influential publisher through Twitter, and that does a disservice to him and to the American people.

The CIR website, revealnews.org, has a “How to Leak to Us” option. Is it popular?

CIR gets some crazy things and some good things, because all sources are motivated by something. We don’t just run with a tip. We do a huge amount of checking, because our standards are really high.

How have news organizations adapted to covering this administration?

Campaign coverage is incestuous, centered in Washington, and you can miss the perspective on the rest of the country. Now the media and journalists are talking to real people all around America to get diverse points of view. The nonprofit journalism sector has seen a surge in financial support. People are more aware of this kind of journalism now, and want to support it.

Has the change in the White House jump-started investigative reporting?

Investigative reporting was never dead. The financial collapse of newspapers, which did the bulk of investigative reporting, has decimated local and regional news organizations. But after the election, a big chunk of the public suddenly woke up and began to take an interest in what journalists and the media do. These people have come to rally around quality journalism.

What about the uptick in fake news?

Fake news contributes to what I call an information civil war. Many people go only to sources they trust and want to believe instead of looking at other sources, those that fly in the face of their political views. I look across the political spectrum, including Breitbart, Fox and even neo-Nazi sites, to see what they are writing about.

What part does your Jewish upbringing play in your life?

I’m not religious, but I am proud of my Jewish heritage and I believe in Jewish values. My father, who grew up in an Orthodox home, started Congregation Shirat Hayam, the only synagogue on Nantucket. I have the distinction of being a Jewish hockey player; I played my whole life until 2002, when I moved here.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m looking into some cold cases, killings by Klan members during the civil rights era. Most Americans don’t realize there was a period of terrorism in this country, and the victims were African Americans in the South. I’m also helping plan a major conference on the First Amendment and its role in democracy.

Anything more?

I’ve had a great career and I want to give back. I really enjoy mentoring others, helping them to follow their dreams when it comes to storytelling.

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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.