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Monday, November 21, 2005

Woodward, Miller, and the Fall of the Fourth Estate

Joe Conason has posted a good piece about Bob Woodward, the reporter who was lionized for helping break the Watergate story but who since then has spent most of his time kissing up to important people then writing laudatory (and lucrative) books about them. Conason points out:

"Forced to reveal his strange secret about the Valerie Plame case, Bob Woodward has humiliated his trusting bosses at the Washington Post and exposed something rotten at the center of journalism's national elite. By withholding critical information from the Post's editors and pretending to be a neutral observer, Woodward badly compromised the values that he and his newspaper once embodied. A living symbol of the great constitutional role of a free press -- to hold government accountable -- has evidently degenerated into another obedient appendage of rogue officialdom.

"With his relentless pursuit of "access," the literary formula that has brought him so much money and fame, Woodward placed book sales above journalism. Boasting of his friendly relationship with the president who facilitated his interviews with administration officials, he now behaves like the journalistic courtiers of the Nixon era.

"To those who have observed Woodward's career since the glory of Watergate, including readers of his many bestselling books, the change in his role and outlook have long been obvious. For him, the cultivation of high-ranking sources is the very essence of journalism."

The "muckrakers" -- investigative journalists motivated by a sense of moral justice -- were a key component of last century's Progressive movement. Without them, the ordinary, middle-class citizens who formed the backbone of the movement would not have known about the abuses that the Progressives rose to rectify. The muckrakers were accurate, but they were not purely objective. They knew right from wrong, and the urge to rectify wrongs is what drove them. (How different, nowadays, when on the one hand schools of journalism are combined with schools of communication and public relations, and on the other hand reporters consider it "editorializing" to engage in analysis or truth-testing of government press releases.)

In the 1970s Woodward & Bernstein appeared to be the heirs apparent of the muckraker legacy. Not only was their work uncovering the corruption of the Nixon White House akin to some of the muckrakers' exposes, but the resultant public outcry and Nixon's ultimate resignation echo the Progressives' belief that government power does indeed come from the People, and that the People consequently had the power to counter corruption.

In hindsight, though, I realize that Woodward's career never was premised on investigative skills, but on the accident that he was contacted by the no. 2 man in the FBI (Mark Felt, aka "Deep Throat"). In other words, the Woodward-Bernstein team we associate with earthshaking investigative reporting actually relied on ... wait for it ... having access to a friendly high administration official. Exactly what Conason says Woodward banks on today. Which, of course, isn't surprising given the times (no pun intended): the greatest political journalist of that day, Scotty Reston of the NY Times, depended absolutely on his access to power, which in turn depended on ability to keep secrets and his willingness to disseminate good stories even when they were handed to him to advance someone's political goals. Woodward was just another Restonite "access journalist" -- but without Reston's sound judment or ethics.

So now I'm not surprised that Woodward is such an administration lackey. A good journalist would have understood Watergate as a vindication of the Fourth Estate's role in “checking and balancing” government. But a second-rate local crime beat reporter -- which is what Woodward was when Watergate fell into his lap -- only learned the lesson that having access to top people is how you get stories.

It's sad for Woodward, the Post, and all of us who used to hold him in high regard. He should not only be fired, but shunned -- in the old, literal sense of the word -- by all legitimate journalists. (He's free to catch a beer with Judy Miller and Jeff Gannon now and then.)

The good news is that we still have a muckraking press. However, it’s not found in big-city newspapers anymore. It’s more like Ben Franklin and Tom Paine: folks who combine investigation with comment, publish in small, competetive, opinionated journals and pamphlets, and distribute as directly as possible to the public. They're called bloggers.

OK, the idea that the blogosphere is taking over the politically-corrective functions of the "press" as that term is used in the First Amendment is not deep insight. In fact, it’s been recognized by the court. In his concurring opinion (caution: pdf) in the Judith Miller case, Judge David Sentelle (quoting a 1938 Supreme Court case) said this (internal citations and quotes omitted):

“[F]reedom of the press is a fundamental personal right not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. The press in its historic connotation
comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion. Are we then to create a privilege that protects only those reporters employed by Time Magazine, the New York Times, and other media giants, or do we extend that protection as well to the owner of a desktop printer producing a weekly newsletter to inform his neighbors, lodge brothers, co-religionists, or co-conspirators?

Perhaps more to the point today, does the privilege also protect the proprietor of a web log: the stereotypical “blogger” sitting in his pajamas at his personal computer posting on the World Wide Web his best product to inform whoever happens to browse his way? If not, why not? How could one draw a distinction consistent with the court’s vision of a broadly granted personal right? If so, then would it not be possible for a government official wishing to engage in the sort of unlawful leaking under investigation in the present controversy to call a trusted friend or a political ally, advise him to set up a web log (which I understand takes about three minutes) and then leak to him under a promise of confidentiality the information which the law forbids the official to disclose?”

In other words, if a “confidential source” privilege is given to Judy Miller, then it would also have to be given to me, Thersites.

That opinion offended reporters from the mainstream outlets – who disliked being equated with “mere” bloggers – when it should have chastened them. If we're doing their job, what the hell are they doing?

OK, so what does this mean in terms of building a new progressive movement?

From 1776 to about 1920, the press matured from pamphlets and hand-cranked rags to powerful, widely-distributed and well-respected newspapers, without losing its essential "Fourth Estate" character: probing, analytic, oppositional to entrenched power. Watergate falsely made us think that this tradition had survived, at least into the 1970s. But Judith Miller and Bob Woodward now make it painfully clear that the Fourth Estate, as embodied in mainstream outlets, is not merely moribund, but dead. We’re back to pamphlets and rags again, in digital form.

Unfortunately, that’s not good enough. We need a vibrant mainstream media, because middle America will never cast ballots based on information that's only available in blogs. Bloggers can do a lot of good, uncovering obscure facts (like the Artillery News article describing the use of white phosphorus as a direct antipersonnel weapon in Iraq, as I blogged about a few days ago; scroll down to Must Read No. 3), and bloggers can goad a complacent mainstream press into moving on stories that their corporate masters don't want them to pursue, but we can't win back Ohio without good analytical journalism in mainline newspapers and on the single-digit-channel TV stations’ evening news.

So the Neoprogressive challenge is this: to move real journalism from the blogosphere back to the mainstream, where it was when the original Progressives flourished, and where it belongs.

SUPPLEMENT, NOV. 27, 2005: Well, sometimes it's nice to get affirmation that you're on track. Today on, Howard Kurtz came up with not only the same conclusion I did -- that Woodward is an 'access journalist' in part because the journalistic heroes of his youth were the same -- but even the same comparison to James "Scotty" Reston, the NY Times reporter who was the dean of Washington reporters in the 1960s. Howard Kurtz, Nice to scoop a well-thought-of, mainstream journalist by nearly a week!! --Thersites

SUPPLEMENT, DEC. 1, 2005: The mainstream press' failure to do its job with sufficient rigor and integrity, and to distinguish itself from demagogues and pundits who pretend to be "journalists" but really are partisan operatives, is a fungus that’s starting to spread. (Thanks to Atrios and Jeff Mazur for the tip.)

Now, the press' abdication of its important role in our democracy is undercutting whatever integrity is still left in the campaign finance system. So: as I outlined above, the courts are recognizing that "journalists" aren't independent enough to be distinguished from bloggers and pundits; now they're not even independent enough to be distinguished from lobbyists! The Main Stream Media ("MSM") may feebly protest this ruling, but until it starts showing some backbone, no one will think it's worth protecting.

Once journalists starts angling for access and money, they glissade down an easy and slippery slope: they start emulating Judy Miller and Bob Woodward, start acting like Bob Novak and Ann Coulter, and wind up being Jeff Gannon or a K Street lobbyist. Many "journalists" even take a shortcut, moving from large papers to lobbying and PR firms (and, worse, back again) with relative ease.

If the MSM wants to be treated as something special -- with legal confidentiality and campaign finance exemptions and other perks -- then they have to stop chasing money and access, and start acting like independent journalists again. Our country needs them, and they're not rising to the call.

SUPPLEMENT, DEC. 12, 2005: Yeah, What I Said: Yesterday, Vanity Fair contributing editor James Wolcott had this to say about the fall of mainline journalism:

”So-called reputable journalists have completely forfeited their high horse when it comes to complaining about bloggers as a species of riffraff--they no longer have the right to lament bloggers' slapdash sourcing, to deplore their invective and lack of couth, to act as if they're civilized reporters forced to fend off laptop barbarians. No blogger has comported him or herself with the lazy arrogance and sloppy ethics of some of the Big Names in journalism (Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, Bob Novak), nor has done as much damage to the public's right to know and their own profession.”

SUPPLEMENT, FEB. 9, 2007: What's True, Stays True: Over a year later, and Dan Froomkin does a good job pointing out that mainline journalism remains based on access and collegiality rather than inquisitiveness and holding-to-account. Exhibit A: the Tim Russert's testimony at the Scooter Libby trial, where Russert admitted that all conversations he has with politicians are presumptively OFF the record unless agreed otherwise, instead of (as the law provides, and as is traditional) the other way around. This does, indeed, turn "journalists" into administration stenographers. Or, as Froomkin writes, "According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record. That's not reporting, that's enabling.That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable."

Is it any wonder that the best reporting on the Libby trial comes from a blogger, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake?


Blogger Sunshine Jim said...

freedom to speak our mind...

that's always what it's about,

and tolerance of other peoples views.

woodward reality is quite different

from the contrived image eh?

11/21/2005 11:16 AM  
Blogger OsakaJack said...

As a reporter for my school paper, having taken a few journalism courses, I have always found American mainstream reporting to be suspect.

What's interesting is the weird self-referential commentary this makes. My grad school profs would love to pick this apart. Here we have media sensationalizing the downfall of journalistic integrity while reporting on it. They also pick the biggest name they can find in order to further sensationalize it: Woodward.

Cut the guy some slack. The Fourth Estate wasn't even the Fourth Estate during Watergate! That was just as pandering to the public as this case is!

But I completely agree with sunshine jim above. Regardless of the credibility of the press, when our freedoms become caged we are in trouble.

11/21/2005 5:06 PM  

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