Ken Bensinger '93: Taking risks in investigative reporting
by Lornet Turnbull
Bensinger is an award-winning investigative reporter for BuzzFeed, where his reporting of the bribery/ corruption scandal involving officials of soccer’s international organization (FIFA) is the subject of his forthcoming book, “Red Card.” He previously wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. @kenbensinger
In 2014 Ken Bensinger made a radical career move that stunned perhaps even him. An investigative reporter at the L.A. Times, he was among the first hard-news journalists to join BuzzFeed, as the site, known back then for its outrageous lists and quizzes, sought to build an investigative team and sober up its brand. He was growing restless at the Times when BuzzFeed came calling. “Something about it appealed to me, and I decided ‘I’m gonna take a crazy risk.’ ” Former Times colleagues would come visit “dummy Ken in that weird internet place to see why he walked away from everything.”
Granted, there were things early on that concerned him, “like the silly, trivial stories that ran on the home page next to my stories: ‘The 25 Bathroom Signs That Will Make You Pee Yourself.’” But he liked the laid-back culture; the CEO, when he was in town, would hang out with reporters at their desks to talk about story ideas. “It had an effervescent feel to it.”
The new investigative team began hitting home runs right away. Bensinger authored one of its first, on how the head of the Los Angeles NAACP chapter, which had bestowed awards on racially controversial L.A. Clippers owner Don Sterling, was an ex-Detroit judge disrobed for accepting bribes. The chapter president later resigned.
He was also on the team that last year published the controversial Russian dossier, which described alleged attempts by Russian officials to cultivate and compromise candidate Trump. Bensinger can’t discuss the piece, which has drawn no fewer than three lawsuits, including one by the president’s personal lawyer.
“It’s noble and important that outlets like the Washington Post call 20 people to verify a story, and I think history will prove they were smart and careful to do that. But I also feel like the reading public doesn’t appreciate it because the reading public will just believe the loudest voice that they like.”- Ken Bensinger '93
These days, BuzzFeed is more structured and balkanized, with a breaking news department and a politics team, and “hyper aware of the speed of news in this environment,” he says.
“I think it’s incumbent on journalists to hold the bar high, despite everything that’s going on, and I personally try to do that. But I think as a symptom of the Trump era, there’s a bit of journalism that is faster and looser right now. The pressure to be faster is crazy these days.”
Yet amidst this ferment, he sees good news: “a flourishing and democratization of investigative and public service-type journalism.” That includes an emergence of conservative investigative journalism, he says. He cites a news and opinion site called The Daily Caller that he believes does good work through a different political lens.
Lornet Turnbull is a Seattle-based freelance writer and regional anchor for The Washington Post. She’s a former reporter for The Seattle Times and a writer and editor for YES! Magazine. You can reach her at email@example.com.