Watergate and the “Profession” of Journalism

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’.

42 replies
  1. 1
    Handy says:

    There has never been much real journalism in this country but I fear it is getting worse not better. The only place to find anything worth reading is blogs or sites completely unconnected to the old school media or M$M outlets.

    Like here for example.

  2. 2
    Culture of Truth says:

    Encouraging a generation in a profession to be careful, accurate, and professional seems not entirely terrible.

  3. 3
    NancyDarling says:

    Anne, if I had to use one word to describe Woodward in his current incarnation, it would be smarmy. He seems ubiquitous on the networks. I know less about Bernstein as you just don’t see as much of him. Woodward uses too many anonymous sources and reports conversations as if he was in the room.

  4. 4
    Zifnab says:

    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’.

    I am shocked, SHOCKED! to discover that neither Woodward nor Bernstein were legendary journalistic demigods striding the Washington landscape, but were instead humble tradesmen looking to advance their careers just like everyone else. Shocked, I tell you!

  5. 5
    Culture of Truth says:

    methodical –> careful —> accurate —> sense of nobility —> sanctimony —> hypocrisy —> pushback —> poisoned culture

    damn you, Woodstein!!!

  6. 6
    Culture of Truth says:

    “Who you callin’ scruffy?”

  7. 7
    Culture of Truth says:

    never have been more

    If that’s all they were Nixon would not have resigned.

  8. 8
    Mike E says:

    Plus, the whole “kill the whistleblower” thing, too. Also.

  9. 9
    Mauve Lantern says:

    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…that has thoroughly poisoned politico-media culture.

    I don’t know, Anne Laurie. That’s a tenuous bit of stretchy thesis right there. The W-B myth inspired J-school students, and that led to sanctimony, which led to toxic pol-media culture? Where Cook sees his navel, I see thin sauce.

  10. 10
    Violet says:

    neither Bernstein nor Woodward blossomed into great crusading journalists after their early coup.

    They were young when they had their big break and became famous. How many people in other occupations who have similar trajectories when they’re young continue the fantastic work they did when they’re older? Not that many. Sure there are some, but a lot more are the “remember that great thing he did early in his career” types.

  11. 11
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @Zifnab:

    I am shocked, SHOCKED! to discover that neither Woodward nor Bernstein were legendary journalistic demigods striding the Washington landscape, but were instead humble tradesmen looking to advance their careers just like everyone else.

    __
    The tradesmen have morphed into demigods. That’s all you need to know. Everything else is details.
    __
    What is wrong with our news media today has a lot more to do with which capital gains and marginal income tax bracket our reporters fall into, and who they identify with and socialize with as a result, than anything to do with how Watergate was or was not reported. It isn’t the methodology that has corrupted our news media, it is the celebrity and perks and pay that go with it. We need fewer reporters (so-called) like Andrea Mitchell and more reporters who have to dig in the sofa cushions to find enough scratch to pay for that next shot of bourbon at the bar.

  12. 12
    Maude says:

    The Pentagon Papers were published by the NYT before Watergate broke. The court case was big new.
    The WaPo joined the NYT in publishing them.
    The Watergate story evolved slowly.
    It was the story itself that was riveting. It was like a movie.
    All The President’s Men in book and movie form really pushed Woodward and Bernstein into stardom.
    Woodward’s book are eye rolling boring and Bernstein hasn’t written anything to write home about.
    They were lucky.

  13. 13
    Keith says:

    Imagine banking *your* professional reputation on stuff that you did 40 years ago. Woodward is just some guy who writes books about presidents…Kitty Kelly without the scandalous childhood stories. And who the fuck is Carl Bernstein any more?

  14. 14
    Culture of Truth says:

    Woodward has had by DC standards, not merely a great career, but a fanstastic one. Endless access, best selling books by the ton, adulation and respect… and he wrote books people read in a town where just turning out bullshit in a daily paper makes you Aristotle.

  15. 15
    Alabama Blue Dot says:

    I got out of full-time journalism after just a few years on a community newspaper. This was four years after Nixon resigned, so it was in the middle of a sea change in journalism. I saw reporters who focused so much on getting a big story, that they ignored the day-to-day news important to their readers. I also saw an alarming trend of basically writing your story in your head and then looking for information that supported your preconceived narrative. Reporters would assume that all elected officials were crooks, and they were determined to prove it. I just couldn’t continue with my commitment to “interpretative journalism.” So I went into PR – figured if I was going to be a hack, I might as well get paid for it.

  16. 16
    Brachiator says:

    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.

    Wrong conclusion. Who are these godlike Media Watchers and what the fuck have they done?

    I recently listened to an interview with Robert Redford (on Kermode and Mayo’s movie podcast), which brings the larger point home.

    The Watergate break-in story was just breaking as Redford was doing promo work for The Candidate. All the smart, veteran Beltway reporters assured Redford that the story was nothing and would go nowhere, that both sides did it, and anybody with any brains wanted to be on the side of the winners, Richard Nixon.

    I wonder what these wise hands did with their careers.

    So, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t become journalistic demi gods. Where is it written that they were supposed to do this?

    But they did get a piece of one of the most important political stories in American history. And they got it right.

    Most people don’t get a good first act in life, let alone a great second act.

    And what has poisoned politico-media culture is not the work of journalists, but the noxious rage of conservatives who have been trying to get revenge for Nixon’s downfall for the last 40 years.

    An interesting post, but are you really saying that Woodward and Berstein don’t matter because they are not morally or professionally or politically acceptable?

  17. 17
    Zifnab says:

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ:

    We need fewer reporters (so-called) like Andrea Mitchell and more reporters who have to dig in the sofa cushions to find enough scratch to pay for that next shot of bourbon at the bar.

    I honestly don’t think so. I think we need journalists that get paid a decent median wage, just like their blue collar / white collar constituents. We don’t need a band of starving artists trolling K-Street – that way lays Brietbart territory as quickly as Woodward/Bernstein.

    I knew a few friends that went off to journalism school and came out discovering they could be lucky to pull down $15k/year doing free-lance work. They – to a (wo)man – turned around and went to law school (which also didn’t end up so well, but whateves).

    There needs to be a middle ground. It doesn’t have to be major league baseball, where everyone starves until they get called up into the majors and start earning enough to gold-plate their genitals. However, the atrophying of local newspapers and news stations has created just that kind of atmosphere. Disastrous.

  18. 18
    patroclus says:

    All the President’s Men was a great movie! But Woodward is an extremely wealthy light-working hagiographical stenographer who thought that smearing Joe Wilson was fair game and Bernstein, while a lot smarter, has faded into the woodwork after marrying Nora Ephron.

  19. 19
    SFAW says:

    How many people in other occupations who have similar trajectories when they’re young continue the fantastic work they did when they’re older?

    Well, W killed something like three companies before age 50 (more or less), and managed to build on those successes, enabling him nearly to destroy the country.

    It don’t get any better than that.

  20. 20
    Nellcote says:

    and now we’re left with

    Buzzflash:
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/rosieg.....t-ma#HTWF2

    and Wonkette:
    http://wonkette.com/475883/rom.....on-to-love

    for actual reportage.

  21. 21
    Culture of Truth says:

    Maybe because they weren’t “crusaders” but guys who followed the story where it led.

    Look obviously their lives changed pretty fast from the local DC beat to post-Watergate. Anyway, their place in American history is secure. And that’s not bad.

  22. 22
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @Zifnab:

    I think we need journalists that get paid a decent median wage, just like their blue collar / white collar constituents.

    __
    Agreed. I was engaging in rhetorical hyperbole (imagine that! on Balloon-Juice of all places!). But median wage is within hailing distance of what-can-I-find-in-the-sofa-cushions. It is not within hailing distance of Mrs. Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman. Now granted that the superstar reporters aren’t the ones who do most of the legwork, they are merely the faces in front of the camera (see the movie Broadcast News for more details) but it is they and their editors and producers who decide which stories get airtime and which don’t, or how much, and they put the final gloss on our media bias by way of their personal point of view.
    __
    Take Jake Tapper as an example. A 1%er? No, obviously not. Is he making US median wage? I very much doubt it. He falls in the 2.5%er category where they are just close enough to hear the siren song of the 1%, enough to think that with just the right career break he might get within hailing distance of that 1%er income bracket. And that is a deeply corrupting way to see our world.

  23. 23
    Mark S. says:

    In December 1972, Woodward and Bernstein ran afoul of U.S. District Judge John Sirica for contacting grand jurors investigating the break-in. He threatened to hold them in contempt for attempting to interfere with the grand jury process (a legally dubious proposition),

    Legally dubious? I don’t know the ins and outs of grand jury law, but I could easily see a judge throwing you in jail if you tried that shit with a trial jury. And rightfully so.

    The paragraph then switches to grand jury witnesses, which is a completely different ball of wax. This dude claims it’s a crime against journalism to agree to any rules concerning a grand jury, but Christ, one of the reasons for making grand jury proceedings secretive was so innocent people wouldn’t be needlessly dragged through the mud.

  24. 24
    Amir Khalid says:

    John Cook overestimates Woodward and Bernstein’s impact on the course of American journalism They certainly didn’t create any cosmic distortions. They were just a couple of rather ordinary reporters who happened upon the biggest story of their careers.

    As for the ethical corners they cut pursuing the story, those are nothing to applaud; but any reporter can tell you he or she’s seen just as bad, seen an editor let it slide. You want that scoop. You want the glory. The editor’s breathing down your neck 24×7. Sometimes your own bosses will let you cut an ethical corner or two, when the story demands it. Fuck, sometimes the bosses demand that you do it. They got papers to sell

    An American journalist, who was at the Post in the early 1970s, once told me Bernstein was a very competitive reporter (and, ahem, a ladies’ man), and he also told me something about Woodward I find scandalous, but didn’t have much else to say about either of them as reporters. i guess this was their one big hit. Nothing unusual there.

  25. 25

    It’s not that reporters wanted to become Woodward and Bernstein, it’s that they wanted to become Redford and Hoffman.

  26. 26
    Brachiator says:

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ:

    We need fewer reporters (so-called) like Andrea Mitchell and more reporters who have to dig in the sofa cushions to find enough scratch to pay for that next shot of bourbon at the bar.

    You’re getting more of these, as a result of the death of newspapers. And soon, you may not have much in the way of journalists, or journalism at all, apart from small mom-and-pop operations.

    And there appear to be quite a few who believe that the coming of online indie journalism, like indie music, will be all we need to get by.

  27. 27
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    Another thing about the DC Village in particular, as distinct from people working in the news media more generally. The DC Villagers are really fucking old. Last night I was reading the latest volume of Caro’s LBJ biography and was semi-startled to keep tripping over names from today’s village, like Andrea Mitchell for example, who were the primary reporters at the time of JFK was shot. That’s ridiculous. Luke Russert may have his faults, but at least he hasn’t been reporting since from before the Apollo program. It is no wonder that our political discussions today are dominated by crap from the 60s that passed its sell-by date decades ago when the people who are steering the discussion are holdovers from that era. Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt’s reforms circa 1902 were being disparaged by people who fondly remembered the pre-Civil War South?

  28. 28
    Culture of Truth says:

    Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt’s reforms circa 1902 were being disparaged by people who fondly remembered the pre-Civil War South?

    Observing the reaction to 3 years of a Barack Hussein Obama Presidency, oddly enough I think I can imagine that.

  29. 29
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @Culture of Truth:

    oddly enough I think I can imagine that.

    __
    There are a lot of parallels between the BHO admin and the TR admin. Not in the personalities so much, but rather in the structure of our partisan politics and in the approach that both admins took/have recently taken to working with Congress whenever possible and working around Congress in situations where nothing else works.

  30. 30
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Polish the Guillotines:

    DING DING DING DING DING.

    Michael Isikoff was imagining, as he reported on the Clinton/Lewinsky thing, that Tom Cruise was going to play him in the movie.

  31. 31
    Tokyokie says:

    @Alabama Blue Dot: I was in the news-ed sequence at the Mizzou when All the President’s Men, then watched in horror as a generation of nitwits followed closely behind me in journalism schools across the country. But, as none them wanted to do the drudgery of copy-desk work, it helped further my career, I suppose (besides providing copy that really needed editing).

  32. 32
    Scamp Dog says:

    One of the interesting points about Woodward and Bernstein was that they weren’t big-time politics reporters, but ones on the city beat. Big-time political reporters know better than to write articles that tick off their subjects.

    Now that Woodward IS a big-time political reporter, he’s following the big-time political reporter rules.

  33. 33
    pj says:

    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’.

    So, all through his reporting on Watergate, Woodward was a dutiful courtier to Richard Nixon? There are a few screws loose in that notion.

  34. 34
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @pj:

    So, all through his reporting on Watergate, Woodward was a dutiful courtier to Richard Nixon?

    __
    The sentiment as stated sounds loony but isn’t as far off as it scans if you contrast “Permanent Republican Party” with “Richard Nixon” and understand that they weren’t the same thing back then. Nixon had few friends or truly loyal supporters in the professional GOP outside of his White House staff, because neither liberal Republicans nor conservative Republicans really trusted him. Over the course of his long career he’d spent too much time wandering all over the GOP’s ideological map for anybody to feel that he was really on their side. That’s the price you pay for being a ruthless opportunist and shameless liar, a hard lesson that Mitt Romney may end up re-living this election cycle.
    __
    Part of the reason why Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal is that his base of support in the GOP was a mile wide and an inch deep, especially in Congress. He was a horse that they were happy to ride to the winner’s circle, but once he was lamed, if was off to the glue factory with him. That is one reason why no subsequent scandals have had the impact of Watergate, because we haven’t had any presidents since then whose base of support was glued together in such a cheap and shoddy fashion.

  35. 35
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    The thing is, it started out literally as a third rate burglary. Which is why Woodward and Bernstein, cub city beat reporters, got assigned to it. In the course of investigating, they found loose threads. Loose threads that had the fingerprints of CREEP on them…which led, ultimately, to the big creep himself.

    “Follow the money”.

    It certainly helped that Mark Felt had it in for the AG and others and so he pushed them along.

  36. 36
    pj says:

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ: None of what you wrote makes sense of the notion that Woodward reported on Watergate as a courtier to the GOP. It’s ludicrous, regardless of the depth of Nixon’s support throughout the party. Nixon finally lost the support of Goldwater because the House Judiciary Commt. voted in favor of articles of impeachment. The transcript of the June tape proved Nixon had lied from the very start. It didn’t matter then what friends Nixon had outside his staff. I think the post up top misunderstood John Cook’s article. Cook addresses a particular response over at Gawker: “I don’t think you understood this post. I am arguing that in the wake of Watergate journalistic standards become too restrictive, broadly speaking, leading to a state of affairs where the Woodward and Bernstein investigation would be viewed as illegitimate by many of the people who followed in their footsteps.” Taking an extra step from the notion Cook rebuked to paint Woodward as a toady to the GOP in 1972 is truly a remarkable piece of crap.

  37. 37
    Anne Laurie says:

    @pj:

    So, all through his reporting on Watergate, Woodward was a dutiful courtier to Richard Nixon?

    No, ever since that “third-rate burglary” the Republicans have insisted that Nixon was a rogue alcoholic, a “lone gunman” who had nothing in common with actual practicing Republicans. Very Serious People like Kathleen Parker are still repeating that lie, insisting it was not the Republican party but ‘government’ that ‘failed the American people’. Woodward, from all reports, used the happy accident of being in the right place at the wrong time to curry favor with those high-level Republicans who still had a future in politics — and he’s been richly rewarded ever since. He’s spent the last 40 years writing high-dollar doorstops breathlessly sharing the ‘wisdom’ of mostly-Republican powermongers, assuring the doubtful that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

  38. 38
    pj says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    I agree with you that John Cook’s article is thoughtful, but there is nothing there about Woodward being a courtier to the GOP, either in 1972 or in the ensuing 40 years. His point was that by today’s standards, the Post’s Watergate reporting would be considered illegitimate. Cook considers that a bad thing. Read his own comments. You seem to be parlaying a misread of Cook’s article into a smear of Woodward. Cook’s article isn’t about how Woodward failed his profession post-Watergate. It’s about how newspaper journalism failed post-Watergate.

  39. 39
    HyperIon says:

    @Zifnab: I blame the movie.

  40. 40
    Mnemosyne says:

    @HyperIon:

    If you haven’t seen Dick, you really need to, because it’s a vicious takedown of the whole Woodward and Bernstein mythos.

    “You smell like cabbage!”

  41. 41
    piratedan says:

    I thought the lesson of Watergate was for the Repubs to gain control of the MSM so they couldn’t get caught again, but maybe I missed something.

  42. 42
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @pj:

    None of what you wrote makes sense of the notion that Woodward reported on Watergate as a courtier to the GOP.

    __
    I wasn’t interested in or attempting to defend that particular statement, which was made by a different commentor. Instead I was quoting it in order to use it as a launching pad for explaining that Nixon and the GOP establishment were not one and the same thing, a factor which contributed to the way that the Watergate scandal unfolded. Not every quotation of a prior comment around here is made as an uncritical assent to that comment. My apologies if this was unclear.

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