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January 8, 2007

When 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 U.S. history.


“Woodward 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.


The book 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 Men”.


Shepard is 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.)


Shepard’s 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.


As 2007 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.


If Woodward 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.


As happened 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?”)  


The new 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.  


These days, 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.


Celebrity, 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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