The Next Generation of Guerilla Warriors


A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

The big term bandied about in media circles these days is impact journalism. Cause-and-effect journalism. The kind of journalism that gets people talking, uncorks indictments, passes bills, frees the unjustly incarcerated, and might convince people to pay for their news.

At the same time, more and more news veterans are worrying about the thousands of new reporters being spit out of journalism schools who could care less about game-changing journalism. They want to be Anthony “No Reservations” Bourdain. They wish their lives were as interesting as David Sedaris’, so they could write a memoir and have critics declare them the voice of a new generation. They don’t want to be I. F. “Izzy” Stone or Sy Hersh, in their thick eyeglasses, hip deep in the deadly dull but ultimately damning reporting that renders government malfeasance transparent and cleaves a lot closer to what John Henry Faulk said were our “guaranteed liberties and freedoms.”

These are the things I think about as the presidential race kicks into high gear this new year. The stakes seem higher than ever. With the economy ground to a raw nub, college graduates carrying record debt, and journalism students less certain than ever that there will be any kind of paying job in the news game, you may wonder if there are any young journalists at all willing to take on the hard, droning work of the modern muckraker.

Thankfully, there are. From the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to Southern Methodist University, students are signing up to become muckrakers.

Don’t tell Rick Perry as he continues his fevered quest to ferret out research on Texas campuses, but student journalists are researching him and other profoundly important issues in Texas and elsewhere. They are committing to a career in investigative work, and diving into it without much faith that there will be jobs with 401(k)s waiting for them when they graduate.

They are doing it as a calling, “swooping down” on government bureaucracies like a “guerilla warrior,” as Izzy Stone once put it.

At UTEP, the extraordinary “Mexodus” project is a sweeping investigative narrative, driven by student journalists, that shines a light on middle-class families fleeing Mexico because of drug-related violence. The ongoing “Light of Day” project, spearheaded by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, teaches students from universities across the state how to use public records to create investigative stories. The project has led student journalists to take long, hard looks at whether Texas schools are fully disclosing their public records.

In my investigative journalism class at the University of Texas at Austin, students spend several months looking into these issues: the breakdown in a federal system meant to protect parents against international child abductions; whether public universities are violating federal labor laws; why Texas immigration judges have the highest denial rates for asylum seekers; what happens to women in Texas when lawmakers slash health care funding; the lives of poverty-stricken college students; how U.S. policies for assimilating refugees cause further suffering for newcomers to this country.

As the new year unfolds, and you worry whether the media’s clucking prophecies (“You’ll miss the news when it’s gone”) are about to come true, take solace in the fact that there are fresh legions of young journalistic foot soldiers who are clearly not averse to investigative news.

I knew a Dallas reporter who was nicknamed, behind his back, The Reverse Nostradamus. He wrote a column that often featured excerpts from stories that had appeared decades earlier. People said he was good at predicting the past. I’m taking a crack at predicting the future:

Journalism will survive in 2012 and the years to come. The hard stories will be covered, and covered well, by young Texas reporters who are doing it because it is a calling. With no reservations.