If Watergate happened today, would the story be reported? If so, by whom? And would you believe what you read, or saw or heard about it? Let those questions slip into the background for a bit and consider how two writers from the New Yorker view the media.
Said one: "The public trust in newspapers has been slipping at least as quickly as the bottom line. A recent study published by Sacred Heart University found that fewer than twenty per cent of Americans said they could believe 'all or most' media reporting, a figure that has fallen from more than twenty seven percent just five years ago."
Said the other: "I think that anybody who talks often with people about newspapers nowadays must be impressed by the growing distrust of the information they contain. There is less a disposition to accept what they say than to try to estimate the probable truth on the basis of what they say, like aiming a rifle that has a deviation to the right."
The first quote is from Eric Alterman, writing in the March 31, 2008 edition of the New Yorker, and got me thinking about Watergate. The second is from A.J. Liebling, the magazine's press critic from 1935 to 1963, and came in an essay (although not in the magazine) in 1947.
This crisis of the press has been a long time coming, more of a slow-motion train wreck over decades than a violent collision that has just taken place. The sad part is that it is the journalists and their owners who are driving the train. The sadder part is that we, our society, are the passengers on board.
We like to think of the 1970s as a golden age of journalism. The Washington Post (and later the New York Times) exposed Watergate. The Times (and later the Post) printed the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the Nixon Administration. Before that, Edward R. Murrow on CBS exposed the poison of Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1954, albeit when McCarthy was in his decline.
But we sometimes forget how lonely the Post was for months as it was the only paper on the story, and other news organizations woudn't touch it. And we forget the sainted Murrow was eventually driven out of CBS after it couldn't stand the pressure. Sound familiar? To Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, it should.
Alterman is right to chronicle the decline of the news business. But as we saw in the run up to the Iraq war, reporters for the big news organizations gave the public every reason to distrust them. Stories about the evils of rendition and the conditions at Walter Reed are excellent, but they still pale in comparison to the lack of good reporting, and the wrong reporting, which helped drive us into the war.
Reporters were afraid to ask the questions of figures of authority, editors were caught up in the tide of the times and reporters who raised the contrary view were ignored or had their stories shuffled off to page A-nowhere if they were printed at all. Even those good stories that were printed from regional chains, like the fabulous work by the McClatchy (nee Knight Ridder) bureau were ignored.
Which is more typical of the media, the Bob Woodward who reported Watergate, or the Bob Woodward who metamorphosed into Bush's Court Reporter, trading facts for access?
Paul Farhi of the Post, writing in the American Journalism Review, brought together the ages of Liebling and Alterman: "Every presidential campaign of recent memory has produced its share of Dewey-Defeats-Truman press embarrassments, but Campaign '08 has been particularly rich in bogus media narratives. Ever since the races began in earnest last year, the blown calls have just kept on coming. Many of the storylines around which the political press has pegged its coverage haven't even come close to falling within a reasonable margin of error."
Combine the unwillingness of the journalistic enterprises with the most resources to challenge authority with the willingness of said enterprises to consider themselves as insider founts of wisdom, and it's not hard to believe that Watergate would go largely uncovered. It took a lot, more reporting than one can imagine today if you weren't around then, for the story to progress from a police-beat Metro story of a "third rate burglary" to a political story that challenged the authority of a president who was overwhelmingly reelected. That's the part that it would be hard for the online news organizations, even the most dedicated ones, to duplicate.
There is a lot to be said for the rise of political blogs. They give voices to many people who wouldn't be chosen to occupy one of the half-dozen columns on the op-ed page of a newspaper and yet who have worthy things to say. They are in that sense a value-added product. Should a Watergate story be reported somewhere other than in a major newspaper, the blogs would keep it alive. But a contest between the influence of the blogs, even the ones that do reporting, and the historical timidity of the large press is no contest at all.
There are many reasons for the continued decline of the journalistic establishment. Failure to adapt to changes in society is one. It's not only the rise of the Internet. Long before that, cities and towns changed from industrial economies in which the morning shift at the factory could support an evening paper to big commuter suburbs which prevented newspapers from getting beyond city limits in a timely fashion. Newspapers bought radio stations. They bought television stations. They finally got into the Internet age, although today's failure to find the value to advertisers of going online is only another contributing reason to the descent.
Perhaps the technological barriers could be overcome. Perhaps newspapers will make the mechanical transitions they need to make. But until people regain trust in what they read (and what they see, for that matter), the rest is superfluous, and the long, slow decline will continue regardless of the medium through which information is conveyed. Watergate should be the rule. Instead, it all too often has been, and will likely be, the exception.