John Cook at Gawker has a detailed, thoughtful piece exploring the toxic aftereffects of the Great WoodwardandBerstein Myth:
… [I]t was a dicey, high-wire thing to do. But that’s what we did. That’s what the whole enterprise was.”
That’s Bob Woodward, defending himself recently to New York magazine after writer Jeff Himmelman uncovered evidence that—contrary to their previous claims—Woodward and Bernstein had received crucial help from a grand juror on the Watergate case. “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?…
Media-watchers old enough to have lived through the Watergate hearings occasionally wonder ‘what went wrong’ that neither Bernstein nor Woodward blossomed into great crusading journalists after their early coup. Looking at the details since uncovered about that triumph, it would seem that Bernstein may never have been more than the stereotypical scruffy young fame-hunter on the make, and Woodward the dutiful courtier to the Permanent Republican Party via his original career in ‘Naval intelligence’.