Monday, June 18, 2012

The De-Watergating of American Journalism:

"Dicey" and "high-wire" aren't really words usually ascribed to Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate reporting. The popular myth features them politely and insistently pushing their story forward, ever mindful that the reputation of the Post and of the entire newspaper business—the future of the Republic, even—rested on their actions and behavior. They were methodical paragons. "You're no Woodward and Bernstein" has become the insult of choice (believe me, I've heard it plenty) hurled at reporters who were deemed insufficiently careful, accurate, or professional.

The popularity of their heroic account helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession. Those schools, in turn, instilled a sense of rectitude and sanctimony in their young recruits, based in part on the model that young Woodward and Bernstein presented. That carefully cultivated sanctimony, in turn, helped fuel the right-wing critique of the news media—which was always based more on the hypocritical distance between journalists' public claims to abstract fairness and their actual human behaviors than on any actual transgressions—that has thoroughly poisoned politico-media culture.

So imagine, if you will, how the ombudspersons of our day would have reacted if they had learned that reporters for the Washington Post had agreed to adhere to "guidelines" and "ground rules" laid out by Ken Starr governing how and when they could interview potential witnesses in his investigation? How would Media Matters react if a Fox News reporter got caught privately advising Rep. Darrell Issa on fruitful leads to pursue in his Fast and Furious inquiry? How would Fox News react if it emerged that New York Times reporters, in pursuit of an interview with Obama for a story about his "Kill List," had agreed to submit their questions in advance?

Woodward and Bernstein, of course, did all the above and more—including burning confidential sources, illicitly accessing phone and credit card records of investigative targets, colluding with congressional and law enforcement investigators, and impersonating sources in order to trick targets into talking—in the course of their Watergate investigation. These are not secrets—they're all right there, laid out in full view in All the President's Men, which at times reads more like a confessional than a victory lap. To their credit, the reporters seemed as concerned with unburdening themselves about the corners they cut and mistakes they made as they were with soaking in the glory of their fresh kill. The "diciness" of the whole affair comes through loud and clear, even though it has subsequently been sanctified by the priesthood.