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Intvw Transcript: James Risen--Tips on Investigative Journalism and Living With Prison Hanging Over His Head

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storycon.org H1'ed 10/30/14
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Rob: If you pull a thread...tell me more about that because I'm very interested in what makes a journalist...an investigative journalist as successful as you are. What are the secrets? What are the tools that you use pulling on threads?

JR: It's pretty simple basically. I mean it's...you've got to be curious, you've got to be a little fixated and obsessed on stories. You know, when I hear about something that's really interesting, I just want to keep finding out more and you know I think that's the difference between someone...an investigative reporter and other kinds of reporters...a lot of reporters just do daily news and they're happy to just do daily breaking news every day, but I just like to dig into things deeper and find out more about what's going on. I've always...I realized about myself that I really like getting into subcultures. You know I wrote a book about the anti-abortion movement and what fascinated me about that was the anti-abortion movement was a really interesting subculture of people. And then I covered the CIA and I realized the CIA is its own little subculture and I covered the Federal Reserve for a few years and that was like a little subculture too, so what I really enjoy is digging into little groups, little areas, and then getting to know people...and you realize eventually that we've got all these different subgroups in America that are fascinating if you delve into them deep enough.

Rob: Okay, so are there tips that you could give to budding investigative journalists/citizen journalists on the idea of looking for a subculture and what you look for and how you delve in?

JR: I think you have to be patient and that's the hardest...that's the thing that separates I think investigative reporters from like regular daily reporters. And partly it's not the fault of daily reporters, a lot of is the pressures they face from editors or from their bosses. But you have to be willing to just kind of fight the system and be patient and keep digging into stories, and realize that it's going to take time to find things out; and that -- believe it or not -- that's the hardest thing in the news business to get these days is the time to do in depth reporting.

You know people always say investigative reporting costs a lot of money and that's why news organizations don't do it -- but that's not really true, it doesn't really cost that much more money; it just...the only real cost is you've got to be willing to have a reporter who's not writing or broadcasting everyday because they're digging into something in depth. I mean I guess that's a cost, but it's not any major cost -- it really requires just time and patience.

Rob: Okay. Now you're with the New York Times. The book that you released that got you in trouble, State of War, the key story in there that got you "in trouble" was the disclosure of stuff that government and security agencies didn't want you to tell and that the New York Times didn't want you to tell either -- you worked on it for a long time and they kept it secret for over a year; they worked it out, made a deal with the government...that doesn't sound like a very profitable investment for you. I'm amazed that they keep you...did they ever threaten you with...did you feel your job was secure after having invested all that time and it never coming to light?

JR: Well there was a...what happened was that they, you know, the government told the New York Times that if our story...if they published the story on the NSA domestic spying and on another story I did on the CIA screw up on the Iran nuclear program, that both stories would damage national security so the New York Times editors believed what the government was telling them and so they didn't run either story. Then I decided to write a book and finally the New York Times ran the NSA story a couple weeks before my book came out. So yeah, I mean it was difficult...it was a very difficult time, it was the most traumatic time in my life to go through that because I had to decide to put my career on the line in order to get those stories out by putting them in a book.

Rob: it seems to me that doing that you forced the New York Times.

JR: Yeah, I did. Yes, that's exactly what happened (laughs).

Rob: It seems to me that that was a really good thing for all of us.

JR: Well it was tough, it was dangerous at the time. It was clear that...it was made clear to me that I might get fired so...but then when the story came out it was...everything worked out in the end.

Rob: Wow...you might get fired. That kind of boggles my mind. I'm sorry...I'm tempted to ask you who told you that...I wouldn't blame you if you didn't say (laughs).

JR: (Laughs)

Rob: Who told you that?

JR: (Laughs) Well you know, my editors. They said it was made clear that if...see the problem was I told them I was going....the NSA story was going to be in my book and that they should now run the story. And they wanted me to...for a while they wanted me to take it out of my book rather than...if they decided not to run it in the paper. And so it was a very weird and complex, difficult, traumatic period in my life -- I didn't sleep for about 6 months.

Rob: Well it raises a question -- if you're doing the work in the investigating reporting for them, and they don't publish it, do you have the right to publish it as an author?

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