Reporting Was King
In a year
in which the daily headlines scream about how irrelevant and passé the
mainstream media are becoming, and the are media under vast siege from
both left and right, it’s useful to hearken back to a time when
journalists were not only respected, but in some cases venerated. A
fascinating new book looks at two legends of journalism, and the
sometimes strange directions their lives took after they broke the
ultimate story – one that led to the only resignation of a president in
and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” by Alicia C. Shepard,
is a tough but fair look at Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two
young Washington Post reporters who wrote a series of stories
that brought down Richard Nixon in 1974, while neither reporter was
making more than $25,000 a year.
provides an exhaustive history of the men, their work and their personal
lives, with details culled largely from Woodward and Bernstein’s
Watergate papers, which were sold to the University of Texas for $5
Million in 2005. The author also makes excellent use of Lexus-Nexis, on
top of numerous interviews, and material from the personal archives of
the late Alan J. Pakula, who directed the 1976 film “All the President’s
laudatory about the groundbreaking work the two men did, but does not
shy away from the wart – such as certain minor ethical lapses during the
Watergate reporting, Woodward’s sometimes not-so-masterly use of prose
and, essentially, Bernstein’s entire life since 1974. (As it depicts him
as a womanizing deadbeat and career failure, constantly in debt and
never measuring up to the solo output of his partner, it’s not too
likely Bernstein will be particularly happy with the book.)
book also provides a window into the media culture that changed rapidly
between 1972, when Woodward and Bernstein began their Watergate
reporting, and 2005, when W. Mark Felt revealed himself as “Deep
Throat,” and Woodward sat down to write “State of Denial,” his third
book about George W. Bush’s administration which, while very critical,
certainly did not bring down Bush’s presidency.
dawns, journalists may matter less in America than at any time in recent
history, despite the proliferation of media. This is because so little
of this media is devoted to old-fashioned, muckraking newsgathering, and
so much is pure partisanship, pure opinion and pure noise.
and Bernstein did similar reporting about a similar president today,
they would likely be faced with a coordinated conservative smear
campaign, across numerous media, of a much more hostile and personal
nature than what Nixon, Haldeman and Ron Ziegler came up with at the
time. One of the book’s most fascinating anecdotes was that the White
House likely knew that Bernstein’s parents had been members of the
Communist Party, yet never used that information to discredit him.
with the New York Times and Washington Post reporters who
won Pulitzers for exposing wiretapping and secret prisons, these likely
would also be accused of compromising national security in wartime, not
to mention treason. Yet at the same time, certain liberals would almost
certainly assail them for not going nearly far enough. (“Why didn’t you
bring down Kissinger, too?”)
book goes into detail about how Woodward and Bernstein became major
celebrities, not only in Washington, but nationwide, with Bernstein in
particular becoming a Manhattan man-about-town connected with a string
of eligible bachelorettes. The idea that print journalists could attain
such fame among the general population, merely on the strength of their
reporting work, is all but alien in today’s media.
a “well-known newspaper journalist” is usually one of those screaming
sportswriters who now occupy the majority of ESPN’s shows, or the print
journalists of similar demeanor often seen on MSNBC and Fox News.
Today’s quintessential “celebrity journalist” isn’t Edward R. Murrow or
Bob Woodward; it’s Jay Mariotti or Geraldo.
of course, should not be a barometer of what makes an effective
journalist. But “Life in the Shadow of Watergate” shows that, whatever
their flaws, the age of Woodward and Bernstein was a triumphant one not
only for themselves, but for the journalistic profession as a whole. As
the axes continue to fall on more and more newsrooms nationwide, it’s
uncertain when, if ever, that triumphant age will return.
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