The Accidental Journalists?
In the aftermath of Watergate, there was a sense that the work of Woodward and Bernstein had inspired a whole new generation of political journalists. That they system worked and the free press was alive, well and would prosper.
Yet, what has Woodward and Bernstein’s generation produced? Whitewater? Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewel? Until the unmasking of “Deep Throat,” I had concluded a decade ago that Watergate didn’t inspire journalists. I think that I was wrong. They were inspired. Not just inspired to work hard to shine a bright light on the ugly underbelly of our government officials. We can’t even say that if it doesn’t involve sex, they aren’t interested because it took Larry Flynt , not the MSM, to break the sex stories on Livingston, Gingrich and Hastert.
Journalists were inspired to become celebrities and rich as Woodward and Bernstein had become. They were inspired to cultivate high level administration sources that would feed them the story that would elevate them to Woodward’s status. They possibly didn’t buy that Woodward and Bernstein had double sourced their stories, and that may be the only thing that they got right. Ben Bradley admitted as such when he said in a recent interview that some sources don’t need confirmation. His example was the President, and he said that if the President says something it can be relied on. Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and GWB said that Saddam has WMD and war was the only option. Neither were reliable, but only the one that was irrelevant to US national security and fiscal well- being was investigated. Editors like Bradley might as well tell us to shred the Constitution because the effect would differ little from where this country is headed.
Back in 1972, plenty of seasoned journalists knew that the Watergate break-in was tied directly to the Nixon Administration and probably Nixon himself. They didn’t tackle it either out of cynicism or realistic appraisals that they either couldn’t crack it or their editors wouldn’t give them the support to try. What those journalists did know how to do was collect information and evaluate it to determine if they had a story that would stand up to further scrutiny. They may have envied Woodward and Bernstein. They may also have known that they wouldn’t have published some of what those two did. And they also knew that a source like “Deep Throat” is extremely rare and Woodward and Bernstein had gotten very lucky.
The Woodward and Bernstein wannabes are not similarly constrained. In a recent NPR interview, Steno Judy (Judith Miller) excused her failings by claiming that “I’m only as good as my sources.” No, Judy, a journalist evaluates the sources and double checks the facts (triple checks when the original source has a vested interest in pushing a story). It didn’t take that much effort to discover that Chalabi wasn’t a credible source. Or that Curveball was a nutcase. Miller’s journalistic skills are on a par with Kitty Kelly’s or maybe worse, but at least Kitty confines herself to reporting celebrity gossip and doesn’t facilitate wars.
Whenever a profession can no longer deny that professional lapses are endemic, the response is to institute new procedures instead of rooting out incompetence and rewarding competence. Unidentified or off-the-record sources aren’t the problem. The problem is that too many MSM journalists today aren’t critical thinkers. Worse, they see as many “Deep Throats” in the WH as Nixon saw commies in the State Department, and therefore, they pass along propaganda that has been fed to them and are completely clueless that they are being used. Is it really such a large step to simply make up a story oneself instead of passing along stories made up by WH insiders? Or being a WH shill for free instead of collecting some extra bucks for the service?
Envy, Greed and Sloth. That’s what Watergate inspired. Instead of asking for legal protection to shield anonymous whistleblowers, they want legal protection to shield criminals. There is no journalistic privilege to protect criminals. The WH character(s) that blew Plame’s identity committed a crime. Perhaps Felt did as well, but if he did, it was minor compared to the crimes he helped to expose. The pathetic part is that today journalists are protecting one or more individuals who use them as patsies. Presumably signaling that they can be trusted to continue shoveling WH propaganda.
The Toledo Blade’s “coingate” investigation and the blogland driven investigation of Guckert/Gannon tells us that political journalism in America isn’t dead. Unfortunately, the MSM’s silence on the Downing Street Memo suggests that it is on life support. Was Woodward ever even the Woodward we thought he was or just an ambitious and lucky young man? John Dean knows that Bush/Cheney are “Worse than Watergate” but Woodward doesn‘t. It’s a sad day when the professional journalist can’t see the truth practically staring straight at him while the actor who increased his fame has no trouble with his eyesight. And it is Robert Redford, not Woodward, who is sad today that journalists and the country didn’t learn the lessons of Watergate.