Former NBC and ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross says his stories often make officials and politicians not only uncomfortable, but angry.
Ross attended a celebration at Wartburg College of what would have been Grant Price’s 100th birthday. Price was a long time Iowa broadcast journalist and later a Wartburg College professor. He also founded the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting (AIB).
Ross got his broadcasting start at KCHA radio in Charles City, Iowa. He later got his degree from the University of Iowa journalism school and his first TV job at KWWL in Waterloo.
Paul Yeager of Iowa PBS interviewed Ross in front of the audience attending the event. Below are excerpts from the interview. You can watch the entire interview on the AIB website.
Does a journalist of today, 2023, need to have some type of formal training to get into the role to be respected? I think you might need a degree to get hired and sometimes the master’s degree helps you even get hired quicker. But I think what you need to do is to be able to think, have intellectual curiosity, and a key is to be able to write. And that’s the one thing, I think the one trade or craft where college and high school can help the most.
You said strong editors helped you and have helped you in your career. Why? Because you need strong editors to make sure you get it right. And if you get too close to something, you don’t see your own errors and you can improve.
You describe your career or style of journalism as aggressive. Why? I’m out to get the truth. And too often I run up against government officials who try to spin it, don’t want the truth to be known. And, you know, I include corporate officials. I include people on both sides of the aisle in terms of politics. That’s really our job, to figure it out, what’s really going on, and to explain it in a way that connects with the viewer, the reader, the listener.
We are in 2023, and just a couple of years ago, I remember former President Trump on stage in front of thousands of people pointing out where journalists were standing and saying, ‘they are the enemy.’ How did you react? I took it as a challenge. And I would also say that the shift in reporting techniques that was required by the Trump administration was a good thing for journalism. We had often been too cozy and too tight with government officials. And this reminded us, I think, in a way that we need to challenge presidents and mayors and governors, senators. I think it was healthy for journalism to have a Trump administration which required us to get back to our basics of doing the job.
You’ve been in hot water a time or two. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve always thought you’re going to make mistakes and if you make a mistake, you correct it. Take the consequences. You know, I’ve been sued probably 12 times, never lost one of the lawsuits. I prevailed or settled. I’ve angered lots of people.
How has the internet affected journalism? I think it’s changed everything in a way. It’s easier in some ways to do our job. Technologically its improved it substantially. There’s more reach and almost anybody can be a journalist now, you know, we aren’t licensed. Talking with students here yesterday at Wartburg we talked about the need for media literacy. How do you figure out what to watch or what to read?
Could you remind us of a couple of the stories that you have done that you felt were most rewarding? We did an investigation into Walmart. We learned Walmart was using child labor in Bangladesh to make t-shirts and other clothes, which were being sold in their stores under a ‘Made in America banner.’ We went to Bangladesh. And at some of the factories there had been fires where a number of children were killed because they locked the doors for fear they would be stealing t-shirts. I then went to Bentonville, Arkansas to confront the new president of Walmart, David Glass. Sam Walton had just died.
When I handed him a picture of the bodies of the dead children outside his factory in Bangladesh, you could just see the look in his eyes. He got up, walked out of the interview, went to the phone…and called Jack Welch who was the chairman, president of General Electric which at the time owned NBC. And he told Jack Welch, ‘if that story airs, every single GE product comes off the shelves of Walmart.’ So this was a challenge for journalism. And to the everlasting credit of Jack Welch, they decided the story would air. And they said, ‘you’re going to go back and continue the interview.’
I went back to interview David Glass, and this second interview was even worse because I asked him about these young children working in the factory. And he said something to the extent of ‘well, you know, with those little brown people, they look a little younger than they actually are.’ This was on camera, three cameras rolling.
So when this aired it was a crisis for Walmart. That was a story that had great impact and I was proud to do that. And I was proud of the bosses who withstood the pressure. By the way, the GE products did not come off the shelves. It was an empty threat.
Ross joined the Law & Crime Network in 2018 as Chief Investigative Correspondent, after decades of award-winning work in similar positions at ABC News and NBC News.
Among his more than 75 major awards are 19 Emmys, six DuPont awards from Columbia University, six George Polk awards, five Peabody awards and in 2016, the Harvard University Goldsmith Award for the year’s outstanding investigative report in either print or broadcast.