Story About Knut Royce, Newsday Reporter
Going to the Sources
Knut Royce '62 logs decades as a newsman/sleuth
By Sherri Kimmel
The war with Iraq is winding down, and Knut Royce (Dickenson College, class of 1962) has a thing or two to say about the quality of the coverage.
"It's a mixed bag. I think the print medium is doing a far better job at explaining it than all-news cable, which tends to be jingoistic, very simplistic and makes no pretense at dispassioned reporting." Why does it matter what this son of the late Dickinson German professor Herbert Royce thinks? Because Knut Royce was an investigative reporter before Woodward and Bernstein made it cool and glamorous.
Thirty years post-Watergate, and after contributing to three Pulitzer Prizes, he's still at it, filing stories for Long Island-based Newsday with headlines like: "A Terrorist No One Wanted, Except U.S." and "Sources: CIA Tips Prompted Bomb Attack."
During his college days he not only didn't write for The Dickinsonian, but he had no interest in journalism. Royce transferred to Dickinson in the early 1960s when his bow-tie-wearing dad, who students affectionately called "Papa Royce," took a job here.
An English major, Knut took off for Ethiopia after graduation as one of the nation's first Peace Corps volunteers. He so liked his assignment that he wanted to return to work in Africa. Being a foreign correspondent seemed the ticket. It didn't exactly work out as planned, but Royce found his way to the newsprint path, in 1966 earning an M.A. in journalism from the University of Iowa.
In the late 1960s he joined Newsday, which he says, "had the first investigative team in the world." He spent a year reporting on the story that would win him his first Pulitzer in 1974, about the illicit narcotics trade in the United States and abroad. "I was in Turkey working on 'The Heroin Trail' when Nixon resigned."
The second Pulitzer came in 1982, when he was part of a team at The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times covering the Hyatt Regency hotel disaster and its causes. For the third he was back on the Newsday team, covering the crash of TWA Flight 800 and its aftermath.
What draws him to investigative journalism rather than just getting the straight scoop? "The hunt," he proclaims. "First you need a sense of indignation that something is wrong. Then there's the hunt. The writing at the end is anticlimactic. It's more of a chore. But if you've done a good job [of reporting] the stories will write themselves."
With a wife and a young son, Royce does most of his work for Newsday from Washington, D.C., these days. He looks at intelligence documents and gleans tips from the many sources he has cultivated over the years. Just because information may come from a government document or source, doesn't mean he takes it at face value. He asks, "Is it true, is it a stretch, is it phony? It takes a lot of time to figure that out. Ultimately, I have to rely on my gut instinct.
"There are a zillion gradations of intelligence, but intelligence is never evidence," he continues. "An example of good intelligence was in 1962 when a U2 [plane] spotted what looked like matchsticks [in Cuba]. They were analyzed rapidly as being nuclear-missile components."
In contrast, he says the Bush administration was not able to provide evidence for many of its claims before commencing the war with Iraq. "Bush and his officials spent a number of months going on the stump, not to inform, but to sell. They highlighted their best sales pitch-a link between Saddam and bin Ladin. They contorted, exaggerated and misrepresented the truth."
Reporters, he adds, "are too prone to take what leaders say and report on them unquestionably." He points to the lead headline in USA Today a week before the start of the war: "Saddam 'is not disarming'-Bush vows to press case at U.N., insists on right to defend U.S." Royce shakes his head. "There is not a shred of evidence [of the presence of weapons of mass destruction]."
As for roadblocks to information access during the current administration, Royce notes, "Not since the Nixon administration [has it been so difficult to get sources to talk]. Bush is preoccupied with secrecy. People don't want to lose their jobs or go to jail. It makes it harder to report, but you can't just stop."
To gain the information he needs, Royce rarely goes to top government officials. "They are more removed from the data than a junior official, and they have greater motive for spin. Rather than cultivate a Cabinet secretary, I go to a deputy assistant secretary, who is much closer to the information."
What does Royce think of the new brand of war coverage, where reporters are "embedded" with the troops? "It gives you little glimmers of what's going on. They provide very good color, but you need the broad brush, and embedded reporters can't do that. Reporters in Washington or Central Command in Doha or Kuwait try to pull that together."
While analysis and skepticism are essential for the investigative reporter, they also are necessary skills for news consumers. "Be skeptical of information from the executive branch that is filtered through the media."
But ultimately, he adds, "It is the responsibility of journalists to make readers skeptical of the media."