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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

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Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

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Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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June 5, 2005

Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion

Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers--and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism--is a big question. Whether it should is another question.

People have been asking me what I think about the discovery that W. Mark Felt is Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s legendary source during the Watergate scandal.

Other people have been asking me what I think about the big $6 million undertaking by four journalism schools, and Harvard University, assisted by two foundations, the Carnegie Corporation and Knight Foundation. The partners now hope to revitalize journalism education, a development Tim Porter headlined: “The Priesthood Gets Funding for a New Church.” (Background statement here, a pdf. Deans’ manifesto here. Reactions here by Andrew Cline, here by Bob Stepno, here by Jeff Jarvis, here by recent grad Daniel Kreiss. Inside Higher Ed has an account worth reading.)

I will to try to answer both groups, showing how these two stories connect. They connect through newsroom religion.

I am in the journalism education business (PressThink is journalism education, of a kind) and so I had a sizable interest in the announcement that “five of America’s most respected research universities” are uniting to change themselves, and create a new vision of J-school for the 21st Century. They say they’re going to add other institutions, and spread the dough around, which is good.

I am certain the partners have the right intentions; and the involvement of the presidents of the universities selected is an unusual achievement. I know most of the people involved and they’re good people, each one a first rate mind. I share their sense of urgency. I’m not sure they have the right ideas. And I know why my own program at NYU didn’t make it into the $6 million club. We’re not rich enough to need the money. But that is the way it is wherever you have an Establishment.

I have a big stake in Watergate, too— personal, professional, generational. But I recognize that it has been fading in public imagination, and matters little to the younger troops coming in, even the ones well informed about politics and recent history.

In his excellent book, Watergate and American Memory (1992, Basic) Michael Schudson distinguishes between the scandal, which didn’t change the world very much, and the myth of Watergate in journalism. By giving the warrant of history, and the mandate of heaven, to the adversarial press, and the Fourth Estate model (where the press is an essential check on government, a modern addition to the balance of powers); by telling each new crop of journalists how to be heroes and how do good; by glamorizing the underworld of confidential sources, the mythos of Watergate had very definite effects in journalism.

“At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington reporters brought down the president of the United States,” Schudson writes. “The press, truth its only weapon, saves the day.”

Who cares if journalism in Watergate was generally lazy. Or if Judge Sirica or some FBI agents were as vital to Nixon’s undoing as were Woodward and Bernstein? That does not matter, because the Watergate myth is sustaining. It survives to a large extent impervious to critique. It offers journalism a charter, an inspiration, a reason for being large enough to justify constitutional protections that journalism enjoys.

So there’s the myth, and there’s the scandal. You can’t always trust the press to keep them straight. After all, there’s a charter at stake. The events of the Watergate scandal (1973-74) were the first time I paid attention to politics, the first time I tried to participate in the American system of government—by following along in the investigation of Richard Nixon—and also my first encounter with journalism beyond the sports pages.

I was 17 on July 16, 1973. I had just watched several hours of the Watergate hearings, easily the best daytime TV then. Nixon’s taping system had been revealed that day in testimony by aide Alexander Butterfield. Electrifying. When the hearing ended, I grabbed my mother’s copy of Time magazine because it had Watergate on the cover.

Inside was a chart showing all the players and how they connected to the White House or the Nixon campaign. The chart helped me make sense of what I had been watching on TV, and that made me watch the next day and the next. Congress and television were the ones informing me then— not the press. Edward J. Epstein, in a 1974 article questioning whether the press uncovered Watergate, said it was less the press than the “agencies of government itself” that exposed the truth. (This never made it into the myth, even though Epstein is a journalist.)

If you don’t ask journalists but just people who lived through it and paid attention, what they remember about Watergate was watching the Senate hearings on television and figuring it out. They don’t talk about Woodward and Bernstein, but about Sam Ervin and Howard Baker and John Dean, the stars of the hearings. Charles Taylor, a film critic for Salon, pulls the camera back a few feet (June 17, 2002):

Watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein putting the pieces of the story together became a metaphor for how Americans put the story together. Mary McCarthy wrote about people reading three or four newspapers, plus national newsweeklies, rearranging their schedules to watch the daily broadcast hearings of the Senate subcommittee headed by Senator Sam Ervin. She was describing the thrill of feeling yourself a participant in the fate of the republic.

Feeling yourself a participant…. Yes, exactly.

In the fate of the republic… Actually, yes. Watergate was a real life Constitutional test. (Why do we appoint Supreme Court Justices for life? See Saturday Night Massacre.)

As a professor of journalism, a lot of my work has been trying to get journalists to recognize in their work that the “feeling yourself a participant…” part is basic to any demand that may exist for their skills and services. Watergate was different from prior news events I had lived through because it didn’t happen without me. This immediately made me a customer for political journalism. (There’s a theory of the serious news customer in there somewhere.)

It was after Nixon was exiled, after my brief journalism career was aborted, and after the movie of All the President’s Men—directed by Alan J. Pakula and a commercial hit—came out that I returned to look more closely at Watergate. But now I was after the meaning it held for journalists. During graduate school (mid-80s) I reviewed the social science research on the American press, trying to understand what made it the way it was, what kept it from changing into something else. As I followed different leads in my research I would invariably run into the Watergate mythos, a force field affecting all ships.

Trying to understand this took me right into the religion of journalism— a belief system and meaning-making kit that is shared across editorial cultures in mainstream newsrooms. Young people are introduced to the religion in J-school, where it also lives, but even if they skip the academies they learn it within a few years on the job.

In the daily religion of the news tribe, ordinary believers do not call themselves believers. (In fact, “true believer” is a casting out term in journlism, an insult.) The Skeptics. That’s who journalists say they are. Of course, they know they believe things in common with their fellow skeptics on the press bus. It’s important to keep this complication in mind: Not that journalists are so skeptical as a rule, but that they will try to stand in relation to you as The Skeptic does.

As everyone knows, there is a priesthood in journalism. Whether it has authority is another matter. The team of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and Woodward himself as author and investigator, are comparable to cardinals in the church. (Although Bernstein is seen as an under-achiever after Watergate, Woodward heads the college.) A chain of belief connects them and their deeds to the rookie reporter, to the J-schooler sweating a Masters degree, even to the kid taking liberal arts who joins the college newspaper. (Me, class of ‘79.)

A young journalist, Greg Lindsay, in his very interesting open letter to the class of 2005 (May 11 at Media Bistro) gets a lot of it right. He noticed in his training an undercurrent of religious instruction. But not very good instruction. “They’re desperate to make believers out of you,” he writes.

You thought you were buying a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology—- one in which newspapers are God’s work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb….

To have made it this far, you’ve had to inhale the usual bromides like “the reporter’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—a noble sentiment that overlooks the fact that anyone who can spend $30,000 on j-school should be considered “comfortable.” You’ve been trained to be skeptical of every truth and every detail (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”) but you’ve been steered away from skepticism about j-school itself.

Which is a shame, really. Lindsay’s letter is only one account, and he’s trying to be provocative. But it would be a good starting point for the Harvard piece of the Carnegie/Knight puzzle, where Alex S. Jones of the Shorenstein Center is going to convene a Dean’s Council to speak to some of the issues before journalism educators. Here’s one for them: what if we are schools of religion, and we have the religion wrong?

Lindsay is correct that in both the J-school and newsroom worlds, reasoning-by-bromide is normal behavior. Question for the Deans: why is this? “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is treated not as folk wisdom, a clever crack, but as heavenly wisdom, a thundercrack.

Meanwhile, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is handed down not as a slogan too clever by half, but as a public service philosophy. Find 100 journalists who know the slogan, perhaps five can tell you the origin. And they don’t know that the author (Finley Peter Dunne) was being sarcastic, either. Is this education?

Lindsay includes on his list “pay your dues,” endlessly taught to the recruits. It means accepting the career ladder as is. (A good way to kill ambition in the ranks.) One he left out is “good old-fashioned shoe leather reporting,” which is probably the number one commandment a believer learns to accept. (And I have, I have.) There is almost no problem in journalism that doesn’t come down to the neglect of GOFSLR. According to the priesthood, there are no goods in journalism that don’t flow from it. Where are The Skeptics for that?

And yet when the New York Times had to decide recently what goods to charge for at, did it choose good old fashioned shoe leather reporting? No. It chose the columnists. The religion we teach them in journalism school cannot account for this.

Proof of the great good that shoe leather reporting does is found—where else?—in the legend of Watergate: Woodward and Bernstein on the trail. Director Alan J. Pakula knows. In All the President’s Men he shows the reporters criss-crossing a deserted Washington as they hunt down the facts. They’re wearing down those soles. The scenes where Woodword meets his highly-placed source in a darkened garage are among the most potent the religion has to offer. The truth is hidden. But we have a source and bring it to light. This is the temple of secrets. This is myth.

I’m going to show you a passage where I think the religion of the newsroom appears in everyday life. It comes from a piece called The Useless Credential, which ran at The author, Darryl McGrath, graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1986, the year I joined the faculty at NYU. She writes:

I would tell the dean that this business does not know what to do with career reporters, the people in their 40s who realized years ago they were never going to make it to the New York Times or win a Pulitzer, but nevertheless loved chasing stories and exposing public corruption and giving a voice to the downtrodden. (Yes, I’m still that idealistic.) We are the journalists who never wanted to move into the higher-paying jobs, like editing and management or newsroom Internet technology, because we absolutely loved being reporters. But as we got older, we realized that very few newspapers wanted to pay a salary that would allow us to continue doing what we do best: report. The journalism school did little to prepare me for this reality.

Which is a good point. Notice how McGrath said she still believed in the religion, despite salaries so pitiful they suggest employers do not. She said she “loved chasing stories and exposing public corruption and giving a voice to the downtrodden.” That’s the lord’s prayer in the mainline church of journalism right there. And I think it’s dead on too when McGrath (now a happy freelancer) adds: “I’m still that idealistic.”

Deans of Journalism, scribble a note: Investigative reporting, exposing public corruption, and carrying the mantle of the downtrodden were taught to McGrath not as political acts in themselves—which they are—and not as a continuation of the progressive movement of the 1920s, in which the cleansing light of publicity was a weapon of reform—which they are—but just as a way of being idealistic, a non-political truthteller in the job of journalist. (Which is bunk.)

This kind of instruction is guaranteed to leave future journalists baffled by the culture wars, and in fact the press has been baffled to find that it has political opponents. Well, jeez louise, so did the progressives of the 1920s! As far as the religion knows, none of this is happening. And J-schools—by passing the faith along but making little room for non-believers—are part of the problem.

In the newsroom faith that I have been describing, Watergate is not just a big, big story with a knock-out ending. It is the great redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapon, journalists save the day. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers—and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism—is to my mind a big question. Whether it should continue is an even better question.

More so now that we know about W. Mark Felt. If Deep Throat was not Hal Holbrook but the number two guy at the FBI, was he Woodward’s source, or was Woodward really his agent? Now look at Epstein’s conclusion: “agencies of government itself…” were mainly responsible for getting the truth out about Watergate. Suppose he’s right, more or less. Admitting it would crash a big portion of the religion.

But maybe it should be crashed. Maybe what we need is not funding for a new church, but a breakaway church, or two, or three of them. (And what is Fox News Channel, but that?)

When the press took over the legend of Watergate, the main characters were no longer the bad guys like Richard Nixon, John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, or Chuck Colson, all of whom broke the law and abused state power. The narrative got turned around. Watergate became a story about heroism at the Washington Post. The protagonists were Woodward and Bernstein, editor Ben Bradlee, other editors like Howard Simons, and Leonard Downie and above all publisher Katharine Graham. (Plus Deep Throat.)

Because of what these people did from 1972 to 1974, staying with the story despite enormous pressures to stop, everyone in journalism got the Constitutional glow, which some say is still glowing. Pakula knew this part too. In the film Nixon is almost absent. He’s seen only twice on flickering TV sets. Journalism takes over the frame; and it makes for a great detective movie. (So would Felt’s story, now that we know it.) Michael Schudson concludes:

Watergate, by forcing a president to resign, was an exploding supernova in the sky of journalism, blotting out the record of investigative work during Vietnam. It was not only more salient, it was more consensual. Seymour Hersh’s work in uncovering the My Lai massacre was too bloody and devastating and divisive a report to hold up as the epitome of American enterprise journalism. Watergate, at least retrospectively, could be accepted as a triumph not only of American journalism but of the American system of a free press. (Emphasis mine. That was ‘92; see Schudson’s comments on the Felt revelation.)

He’s right: Watergate, a sustaining myth, sustains an entire press system, including its thought system. (We might also say national hierarchy. Or priesthood.) “It was more consensual,” Schudson says of the scandal. What Nixon and his henchman did wrong is wrong by consensus— or even acclamation. It’s like mom and apple pie in reverse. Therefore what the Washington Post did right during Watergate is right by consensus, or even acclamation. And who doesn’t want to be right like that? Who wouldn’t want to sustain it?

The myth of Watergate presents the press as a powerful force but also an innocent actor because its only weapon is uncovering truth. One of the reasons I kept running into Watergate in my research is this spectacular production of innocence, which is supposed to serve as a force field against charges of agenda-serving. Of course it doesn’t.

Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that’s what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend—from the movies—how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate. Two young Washington Post reporters, guided by a powerful FBI official, bring down the…

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

“We have long heard about the banality of evil — but there may also be a banality of virtue.” Watergate and press scholar Michael Schudson reflects on the Felt revelations in comments.

Also in the comments, newspaper journalist and blogger Daniel Conover says he bought the Watergate myth when he started:

The first hard lesson I had to learn: I was full of crap. Were there liars and manipulators in the governments I covered? Of course. But things are never that simple, and I learned pretty quickly that the Watergate model was a lousy way to do the day-to-day job of covering a community.

Recent J-School grad Daniel Kreiss reports this in comments:

As I read your piece, I did not know whether to laugh or cry as I recalled the smokey-voiced nostalgia, the dashing stories of shoe leather reporting, the 1950’s throwbacks of “just the facts”, the crusading oxymoron of non-political populism, the desperate need to create journalist-saints to hang our piety on.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Steyn gets this part of the Watergate Mythos right: “Thanks to All The President’s Men, the media took it for granted they were America’s plucky heroic crusaders, and there’s no point being plucky heroic crusaders unless you’ve got the dark sinister forces of an all-powerful government to pluckily crusade against…”

What I mean by gets it right is that a lazy, cliched view of self will tend to produce a lazy, cliched view of OTHER to be “up against.” Also what Daniel Conover testifies to.

Also in the Sun Times, Laura Washington has the populist response to the Top Five J-School venture with funders Carnegie and Knight: “This effort may be well-intended. It is also wrongheaded. It is preoccupied with enhancing their status and buffing up the work of, as the ivory tower types like to say, ‘the academy.’”

Jeff Jarvis picks up on maybe we need a breakaway church.

The commonly accepted tenets and practices of our religion are due for questioning and one would hope that journalists—so proud of being skeptics—would be the questioners and that journalism schools—where academics are so proud of questioning— would be the place for this to occur. But, of course, journalism and journalism education are institutions that attempt to preserve their religion.

Same post: Jarvis has a reply to Laura Washington (scroll down, it’s around “diversity” questions.)

A reader sent me this link: a user’s guide to journalistic cliches. Much of it priceless stuff. One bit of translation I liked:

Tearful: Could have been crying

Choked up: Definitely could have been crying

Weeping: Tear spotted in one eye

Thanks, DM.

Matt Welch responds to this post at Reason Magazine’s Hit and Run: Why Watergate Matters:

Much of George Bush’s governing philosophy has been shaped by men (especially Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) whose worldviews are anchored at least in part to the various scandals (and reactions to same) of the mid-1970s. Like Wolfowitzian democracy-promotion, Sept. 11 gave fresh oxygen to their long-held conviction that post-Watergate reforms “tied the hands” of the CIA and FBI, put the Executive Branch on the defensive, and handcuffed America’s ability to get her hands a little dirty in the name of making the world a safer place for democracy.

Welch calls it Watergate Blowback, in a Reason article from last year.

I would add: rollback of perceived gains by the press, post-Watergate, is part of the same sprucing up of the executive’s powers, and freedom of action. Thus the move toward de-certifying the press as interlocutor.

Just posted: This is Not a Blog, the work of NYU Digital Journalism students, led by I Want Media’s Patrick Phillips (their instructor) features interviews and profiles of Web movers, among them: James Taranto, Craig Newark, Jim Romenesko, Jacob Weisberg, and Lockhart Steele.

Howard Kurtz asks self, “Was Watergate bad for journalism?”

Perhaps a better lesson for the press is the way that Woodward and Bernstein pored over phone lists and knocked on doors late at night, the kind of shoe leather reporting that seems less fashionable in an age of cable, blogs, Podcasts and the like. There is still a burning need for original reporting amid the cacophony of analysis, commentary and celebrity news.

Hugh Hewitt comments on this post and Darryl McGrath’s lament about poor pay:

Why doesn’t it pay enough? Because the marketplace doesn’t want that product. Will MSM’s rank and file ever figure it out that their own vision of themselves is delusional? Sure, they can tell each other how noble are their efforts, how invaluable their “exposes,” but the only reliable measure is the marketplace, and “professional journalism” of the MSM variety is on the ropes. The customer isn’t interested. The reality is that journalists don’t matter all that much —and consequently aren’t paid all that much— because ordinary Americans aren’t waiting with rapt attention in anticipation of being told what to think…

Or it could be the laws of labor supply and labor demand, Hugh.

Edward Jay Epstein: Did the Press Uncover Watergate? (July, 1974)

A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising reporters who by one means or another pierce the official veil of secrecy. The role that government institutions themselves play in exposing official misconduct and corruption therefore tends to be seriously neglected, if not wholly ignored, in the press. This view of journalistic revelation is propagated by the press even in cases where journalists have had palpably little to do with the discovery of corruption.

Also see Lead and Gold on this.

The Six Million: A bit of background: The $6 million in grants announced May 26, along with the consortium that will receive it, had their origin in comments Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian made to a reporter from the New York Times in 1998. (If any reader has located the article, shoot me an e-mail with it.)

See this account by Loren Ghiglione, now Dean at Northwestern, and one of the key figures in the new grant. In 1998 Gregorian expressed to a reporter his deep disappointment with journalism schools. He said that training in basic skills should yield to history, economics and other knowledge fields. “Journalism schools should either be reintegrated intellectually into the university,” Gregorian said then, “or they should be abolished.” Abolished? It’s safe to say he got their attention with that. Seven years later we see the fruits of that moment. The news coverage I saw overlooked this history. Too bad, too, because it makes for a more interesting story.

Earlier PressThink, Journalism Is Itself a Religion: “The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith.” (Jan. 7, 2004)

Tom Watson on why confidential sources are necessary:

Opening newsrooms is a fine thing to do in principle; but it’s no replacement for a free press that has no fear of taking on those in power, whatever their political party (see Nixon/Clinton). Is the New York Times aloof, elitist, and often-times a self-parody of “big journalism.” Absolutely. Would we all be poorer if we didn’t have a Times or a Washington Post or a Wall Street Journal with some “trust me” swagger? Yes, we would be.

I completely agree with Tom. And with the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler:

Many of the recent attacks on the media have come because of the use of anonymous sources. In general, this is a healthy challenge because the use of such sources has become far too routine and has contributed to serious mistakes. But this attack is fairly easy to make and it is being used, in part, these days to undermine news organizations that report things some people don’t want to hear. Watergate revisited reminds us that it is naive to believe that important stories involving potentially serious danger to sources can always be reported on the record or should not be reported at all.

“Let me make this clear.” Legal Scholar Ernest Miller adds something important in responding to my post: “The interests and purposes of the First Amendment are not identical with the interests and purposes of the mass institutional press,” he writes. One way the religion I spoke of operates is by obscuring this fact. Thus: “we’re the only profession mentioned in the Constitution,” a common view in journalism.

Here’s a sample I found online a few years ago.

Cleghorn says he tried to hire top scholars as well as top journalists. Still, he made sure the school emphasized the basics of the profession - its history and its ethics. “Since we are all journalists, I get to preach the gospel, go to the freshmen and tell them we are the only profession mentioned in the Constitution, that we have a unique responsibility and our democratic government depends on it,” he says.

Miller’s point is: that man is miseducating students in the First Amendment, tutoring them in an illusion. True. But my point is he’s successfully passing on the religion. “I get to preach the gospel.” And who was he, some ill-educated bumpkin? Not at all. Reese Cleghorn, former Dean of the J-School at Maryland, a top ten school— one of the leaders in the field for 20 years. Read the rest of Miller’s analysis.

Fishbowl DC: “Did Woodward break his word to Felt in order to make his books more dramatic?”

David Brooks on the purpose of Watergate in our culture. “… a real-life fairy tale, an inspiring ode for mediacentric college types - about the two young men who found exciting and challenging jobs, who slew the dragon, who became rich and famous by doing good and who were played by Redford and Hoffman in the movie version.”

Glenn Reynolds: We the Media. (Opinion Journal.) In it he talks of “news without newspapers,” and makes an important point.

Of course, when you take content from correspondents around the world, organize it in an easy to navigate form, and deliver the eyeballs that it attracts to advertisers, you’ve created something that looks rather a lot like … a newspaper. But it’s a very different kind of newspaper, one that takes advantage of the big-media capabilities that, thanks to technological progress, are now in the hands of individuals worldwide. Will traditional newspapers be able to keep up?

Even if they don’t, they’ll benefit. Because with mainstream media losing credibility through scandals like Easongate, Rathergate and Newsweek’s latest, free-press protections are likely to come under fire. The best defense will be a public that sees free speech as something it participates in, not just a protection for big corporate entities.

My emphasis. For the record, I don’t think newspapers are about to be replaced. I’m not your source for that. So if you need someone to de-bunk about it, fine, I understand. I wish I could help. I can’t.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 5, 2005 12:00 PM   Print


I don't doubt the so-called professionalization of the press - the drive for formal training the turn away from sensationalistic, rumor-driven Yellow Journalism - is a legacy of the Progressive movement (which by the way didn't extend into the 1920s - by all lights it ended when the US entered WWI, and effectively ran out steam five years earlier).

But I have to nit to pick with the claim that "carrying the mantle of the downtrodden" has been a significant motive of the commercial media. Richard Hofstadter concluded in the Age of Reform that muckracking journalism of the social reform variety was largely confined to a few large-circulation magazines, and even that outlet was choked off by 1906, "closed off at it's sources by those who were most affected by its exposures." Upton Sinclair was famously compelled by 1919 to compare what we call "mainstream journalism" to prostitution.

Watergate-type reporting is an entirely different strand from "carrying the mantle of the downtrodden." The former stems from the Progressive ideal of Good Government, the latter from more radical notions of social justice that run against the values of the commercial press.

Coincidentally, last week Chris Lehmann produced an excellent dissection of the New York Times strained attempts to examine the plight of the downtrodden in its recent series "Class Matters:"

So the many installments of "Class Matters" — a now nearly completed work in progress — come across less like an authoritative exercise in social criticism than like an oddly anxious series of Tourette’s-style asides, desperately sidestepping the core economic inequities that the Times can never quite afford to mention outright. Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.

Posted by: Sven at June 5, 2005 4:11 PM | Permalink

I think that in the 70s, following Watergate, there was too much investigative-shaped journalism. I remember a TV reporter here in the least-known state that could make a story on the swimming pools annual opening sound like a deep conspiracy. What needs to happen, I believe, is that along with the investigative part of journalism, there needs to be a return to the day-to-day nitty gritty reporting of city hall, the county courthouse, the water department, the business practices and events, and open pages to a variety of views. But perspective and editorializing need to be kept in special sections that identify them as such. It may be that the tones of voice and the eyebrowraising of television may have, however, done away with the shoe-leather journalism.

Posted by: Chuck Rightmire at June 5, 2005 6:59 PM | Permalink

Great summary, Jay. It's interesting how mythologized Woodstein have become over the years as well as Deep Throat.

Reading about the difference between the fact and the myth is interesting.

It reminds me of my favorite college class which was an analysis and comparison of Watergate and Iran-Contra, put on while the latter scandal was still unfolding.

My final for the class was a comparison of the media coverage of the two controversies. I think I focused on how it was a non-American newspaper that had the initial big scoop in the Iran Contra case.

As a former journalist who used to read you and chat with you in Salon and elsewhere, it's glad to see you have a blog. I've just started my own and plan to write about leaking in the next day or so.

Does it seem odd - or hypocritiacal to you - that the mantra at news organizations in recent weeks has switched from "anonymous sources are bad to use" to "Deep Throat was good for doing what he did and Woodstein wise to use him," ignoring the contradiction between the two?" Or is there a contradiction?

Put another way, if Woodstein had Deep Throat today would they have trouble getting their piece
published?Wouldn't the W. House and Republicans just compare it to the Newsweek Koran story and dismiss it, forcing other media groups to either lookn like hypocrites or just ignore the story?

Posted by: Scott Butki at June 5, 2005 8:43 PM | Permalink


Sounds interesting. How does all this explain the excessive hoopla over the abuse of *korans* at Gitmo? Especially when Christians complained about "Piss Christ" and were basically told off.

And does any of this explain the incredible number of stories about Abu Ghraib and the other subsequent attempts to create a new Abu Ghraib, such as Al-Qaqa?

I.e. the one aspect you have not included is the incredible level of political bias and partisan hackery in the MSM. This is why I don't trust a damn thing I read in any newspaper. Why I don't trust a damn thing I see on any television.

If a reporter tells me the sky is clear and blue. I got outside and verify it for myself. Expecting the truth from journalists is a game for losers.

Posted by: ed at June 5, 2005 9:10 PM | Permalink


"that the mantra at news organizations in recent weeks has switched from "anonymous sources are bad to use" "

Frankly I haven't seen a cessation of using anonymous sources anywhere. If they are in fact "bad to use" then it's a practice objected to in public but promoted in private.

IMHO every time I see "senior administration official" I think they're quoting Senator Reid. And they probably are.

*shrug* when I see an anonymous source, I figure the journalist is probably making it up and using the whole "anonymous" as a CYA. It would be nice to be proved wrong, but that'll never happen. Otherwise 2/3rds of what passes for journalism today would largely disappear.

Posted by: ed at June 5, 2005 9:13 PM | Permalink

In simple terms, it's "holier than thou". Journalists feel they need to be telling us what we "oughta" be feeling about whatever ever it is. Red state peasants not smart enough to figure it out on their own.

Posted by: spaceman at June 5, 2005 9:43 PM | Permalink

I think Epstein deliberately underplayed the significance of Woodstein --- sure, it was the revelations that arose from the actions of the courts and the Ervin committee that really brought down Nixon, but absent the work done by Woodstein the robbery of DNC offices at the Watergate complex would still be a "third rate burglary" not even worthy of a footnote.

The true function of the press must be that of a "watchdog" -- a watchdog can't prosecute anybody, or impeach anybody, but it can tell us when the bad guys are trying to break into the house.


on anonymous sources....

Yesterday, we found out that a two-week old story based on a single anonymous government source that had been widely reported, and had created significant negative feelings about a nation, was completely false.

And there has not been a wimper of protest, outrage, or objection from all those folks (including our host) who obsessively criticized Newsweek for the Koran story.

In this case, however, it was an anonymous government military spokesman in Baghdad who had claimed that Zarqawi had been in Syria in April planning attacks in Iraq. Turns out, it wasn't true -- and that there is not the least bit of intelligence which supports this story.

The original story was published by the AP, Reuters, LA Times, and god knows how many other outlets. Yet none of the people who criticized Newsweek has raised a whisper about this false story based on a single anonymous source.

It thus becomes clear that the shitstorm of criticism directed at Isikoff and Newsweek was entirely politically motivated.... nobody cares when lies are told about Syria, even though acceptance of those lies may cost tens upon tens of thousands of lives, and hundreds of billion of dollars (just as the lies about Iraq have cost all those lives and dollars.) When the press critics, especially those pretend to care about journalism and the truth, focus on these kind of mass distributed lies, maybe we can believe that they have the interests of "journalism" at heart. But until then....

Posted by: rsmythe at June 5, 2005 9:49 PM | Permalink

Hi, Jay. When I heard the news about Felt I knew you would write an essay on it and that it would be really good. I've been waiting all week, and it was worth it!

Posted by: Lisa Williams at June 5, 2005 10:07 PM | Permalink

ed: I am curious, how do you get news about things you can't see directly?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at June 5, 2005 10:10 PM | Permalink

ed: that wasn't a poke at you or anything. I really do want to know.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at June 5, 2005 10:11 PM | Permalink

Journalists do invest their jobs with spiritual significance: Something has to carry you through the years of low pay and lousy hours, and help you shake off the inanities of ed and spaceman in comments above.

But it's an odd religion that encourages skepticism about the major tenets of the faith. I don't how many journalists know the origin of the "comfort the afflicted" bromide, but I have never heard the phrase used without irony. And for every article of faith ("If your mother says she loves you ... ") there's a cynical counterpart ("Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.") Is there any profession in which the college credential is less respected than in journalism?

One reason I've stuck with the business so long is that it puts your feet in the mud at the same time your head is in the clouds. For every high-flown sentiment, there are dozens of daily compromises, tradeoffs, errors and concessions. You can be breaking front-page news in the morning, then cleaning up a mistyped obituary that afternoon. Journalism puts your integrity, your intelligence and your diligence on the line every day.

That's the glory of the business. You can screw it up every single day of your life and still believe you're trying to do something worthwhile - putting facts that matter in the hands of people who need them. It's not as good as bringing tablets from the mountain, but it ain't bad.

Posted by: David Crisp at June 5, 2005 10:34 PM | Permalink

Rsmythe says: "I think Epstein deliberately underplayed the significance of Woodstein ... absent the work done by Woodstein the robbery of DNC offices at the Watergate complex would still be a 'third rate burglary' not even worthy of a footnote."

This is certainly the general impression, but I don't see what you can refute in Epstein's account. W&B only leaked stuff that was going to come out anyway. Democrats were the majority in both House and Senate -- there was no way they were ever going to let the Watergate story die, still smarting from their landslide loss. The only thing Woodward and Bernstein really developed on their own was the Donald Segretti material Felt gave them -- which turned out not to be relevant to Watergate at all, and may indeed have been a deliberate diversion by Felt.

Face it, take away the whole Cigarette-Smoking Man melodrama (Felt didn't actually smoke), the messages signalled by flower pots and picked up in newspapers (except, as Adrian Havill showed in 1993, the building Woodward lived in made that mode of signal highly unlikely and that mode of reply impossible) -- take away the fictional part, in short -- and the special role of Woodward and Bernstein simply disappears.

Posted by: Bill at June 5, 2005 10:45 PM | Permalink

Interesting approach, Jay ... trying to connect the Deep Throat revelations to the J-schools' new initiative. (Although I see that the bias warriors are already trying to hijack the comments section.  But, hey, that's your cross to bear.)
As per Greg Lindsay's comments on the religious aspect of J-school training, check out Barney Calame's first column today as the New York Times' new public editor.
By way of introducing himself, Barney says that, as the son of a Methodist preacher hop-scotching from one small-town church in southwest Missouri to another, he grew up with "an instinctive affinity for the underdog ... sensitive to the problems of ordinary people and focused on journalism's role in looking out for the less powerful and those who have been wronged."
(Sounds a lot like the much-derided "Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," doesn't it -- although I doubt that young Barney had ever heard the phrase.)
He further adds, "At the Missouri School of Journalism, I was captured by the idea that the craft is one of public service -- with a crucial watchdog role in our democracy."
And he sums up by noting that his four years as a naval officer off the coast of Vietnam "left me convinced that powerful institutions merit the news media's watchful eye."
Was there ever a starker explication of the faith, made by one who made his way from humble beginnings to his current standing as [to borrow a scornful phrase from blogdom] "a high priest of the decaying cathedral ?"
I can't think of one.
(Confession: Barney and I go back 38 years to 1967, when we were both wet-behind-the-ears reporters sitting next to each other in a small newsroom of five writers and an editor.)

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 5, 2005 11:03 PM | Permalink


"ed: that wasn't a poke at you or anything. I really do want to know."

I reserve judgement until someone who is actually there can provide a first hand account. For this I generally search the blogs and the various search engines. If it takes me a couple hours to track down a good source of information, then that's time well spent.

Frankly I'd rather be doing something else. IMHO this is why journalists exist in the first place. But it's extremely difficult to put any trust into journalists.

I'm not going to hide anything. I'm a serious hard-line fiscal conservative. I'm extremely ambivalent about abortion. I'm not at all a Christian, actually I'm an Animist, but I have deep respect for Christians as I know many who are both devout and "iffy". I abhor embryonic stem cell research and have high hopes for adult stem cell research as I am on kidney dialysis. I consider the creation of Chimeras, human/animal hybrids, to be an abomination that should be eradicated immediately. The biggest current fear is of a world-wide avian flu pandemic. Chimeras offer the probability of animal diseases overcoming the species barrier and becoming dangerous to humans. Currently it takes a duck-pig-human route, Chinese traditional agriculture, but Chimeras offer the probability that a disease could do the entire cycle in one single step.

I wish there was a journalist I could trust to simply report the news. Not to try and impose their doctrine on me. Not to try and innoculate me with their ideology.

The only metaphor I have for the current situation is that the MSM is pissing on me and trying to tell me it's raining.

Posted by: ed at June 6, 2005 12:03 AM | Permalink


"Although I see that the bias warriors are already trying to hijack the comments section. But, hey, that's your cross to bear."

*shrug* what's the point of j-school if nobody believes you? The public trust in journalists is around 28% and *dropping* like a rock. That's a pretty bad percentage. What will you do when it hits 25%? 20%? 15%? 10%? 5%? Will there actually be a need for j-school? And if there isn't, then at what point? When the public trust hits 10%? At some point either journalists change, or there won't be a need for journalists. Or j-school for that matter.

Some schools, and skills, become obsolete and then no longer exist in large numbers. How many blacksmiths are there in your town?

Posted by: ed at June 6, 2005 12:08 AM | Permalink

Could the problem be that journalism is not strictly speaking a profession like medicine, law, or engineer that requires considerable training to be competent. I suspect that any intelligent person who was willing could make a good journalist. Thus, the tendency to make journalism a deep dark mystery that only those who have been properly initiated can be admitted and woo to anyone who thinks this is stupid.

Posted by: Joachim [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 6, 2005 12:33 AM | Permalink

Excellent point. You need a temple of secrets because there are no secrets.

Steve: You're right. Barney's remarks are a very good expression of the faith.

David Crisp: "Is there any profession in which the college credential is less respected than in journalism?" None that I know of. Maybe the Dean's Group will address the anti-learning bias in newsrooms. Has this been a net plus?

rsmythe: The problem I have with the watchdog press is not the concept, which is clear enough, or the aspiration, which can be noble. It's episodes like Enron. If you had a watchdog, and your house was robbed with you in it, you might get a new dog. But we can't ask for a new press. The First Amendment prohibits that. So is the press really our watchdog? The problem of accountability is real.

Lisa W. Thanks for those words. Really.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 6, 2005 12:59 AM | Permalink

"we're the only profession mentioned in the First Amendment."

They actually believe this is the case? Gee, isn't the military a profession? Don't judges count as having their own profession?

This is rather selective blindness. Heck, they only get mentioned once, and in an amendment to the original. The military gets provided for right in section I, and a bunch of other times. Same with the Judiciary.

Posted by: Dave at June 6, 2005 1:43 AM | Permalink

I tend to use Ed's methods when I'm looking for news I consider important. I also maintain a ranking of various people in my head, mostly bloggers, according to how trustworthy I perceive them to be. Positive links from a trusted blog enhance the credibility of a news item; negative links decrease its credibility.

Journalists and editors can't be trusted, but fortunately the Internet makes it possible to be your own investigator, or to enlist trusted others to do it for you. Using blogs as the primary news filter corrects many of the deficiencies of the mainstream media.

Posted by: Evil Pundit at June 6, 2005 2:23 AM | Permalink

Journalism needs a complete transformation.

I do not understand why anyone subcribes to weekly magazines. They are either full of "old" information that I have already read about or have too much information on topics that I am not interested in reading. There is some good information in weeklies, but not enough.

Newspapers across the country are full of the same redundant information on national items of interest such as sports, national and international news, politics, movie reviews, etc. Lots of trees being felled and processed to repeat the same stuff across the country. State and local news is different and should take up more space.

After being a consumer of reading blogs for a couple of years now, my reading habits have changed. Newspapers and magazines are too shallow and linear for my taste. Shallow in that there is only limited space and alot of that space is devoted to bring readers who are behind on the story up to speed. If I want more information, it used to be difficult getting it. As the old Wendy's ad used to say, "Where's the beef?" I need meat.

Reading news items on the internet is not linear. There are links all over the place so that you can get background information, read the actual source information, get updates, go as deep into the story as you want to, and get perspectives from the most diverse and interesting people on issues that interest you. As Glen Reynolds would say, "Rich Bloggy Goodness".

Finally, I get tired of reading something on the blogs and finding that the MSM is not interested in covering the issue. This article from John Leo of US News and World Report talks about this issue. Whether its bias or poor judgement or a combination of both I do not know.

Bloggers will not replace journalists. People still need journalists and media to report. They just have to do it differently.

Posted by: jeff at June 6, 2005 7:25 AM | Permalink

The press has been believing its own press for too many years. They have been the center of their own fascination, and as such, they have drunk the Kool-Aid of lethal narcissism.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at June 6, 2005 7:38 AM | Permalink

As an engineer, I have one great complaint about "Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable." It's a feedback loop.

If you turn the volume up too high on your PA, you get a loud squeal instead of something useful. If you afflict the comfortable strongly enough, they will become afflicted and your duty is to comfort them; but then they will be comfortable, so your duty is to afflict them; and so-forth until everybody melts down.

This wretched Holy Maxim, in short, becomes UNholy if you take it seriously. How fortunate for the Press, then, that they have a neat division of the world into oppressed (afflicted) and oppressor (comfortable). It saves them actually having to pay attention to what they are doing.

Posted by: Ellen Kuhfeld at June 6, 2005 7:46 AM | Permalink

This is certainly the general impression, but I don't see what you can refute in Epstein's account. W&B only leaked stuff that was going to come out anyway.

not having read Epstein's book itself, I'm curious as to how he draws this conclusion --- especially given that the burglars were willing to plead guilty to keep the White House connection hidden.


rsmythe: The problem I have with the watchdog press is not the concept, which is clear enough, or the aspiration, which can be noble. It's episodes like Enron. If you had a watchdog, and your house was robbed with you in it, you might get a new dog. But we can't ask for a new press. The First Amendment prohibits that. So is the press really our watchdog? The problem of accountability is real.

Just because the dog isn't perfect, doesn't mean you get rid of him. (I'd also suggest that the press was "barking" about Enron on occassion--- but that the institutions that needed to investigate what the dog was barking at failed to do their jobs.)

(quoting Glenn Reynold)
Because with mainstream media losing credibility through scandals like Easongate, Rathergate and Newsweek's latest, free-press protections are likely to come under fire.

its ironic that Reynolds --- whose obsessions with minor media errors play directly into the threat to "free speech protections" would say this. Reynolds wants people to believe that there is a "liberal media" that is so biased that it can't be believed. Yet the more likely reason that the press is losing credibility is that people cannot believe what they read in the papers because the press uncritically repeats lies and disinformation from the government.

This is why I highlighted the "Zarqawi in Syria" story and contrasted it to the "Koran flushing" story. When someone like Isikoff has a source retract his story on him, everyone goes apeshit. But when we find out that the government has lied, and that the media allowed those lies to be promulgated for weeks, no one says a word --- no one blames the reporters or the editors or the wire services or newspapers or networks for spreading untruths. But in reality, the press is behaving like a (unwitting?) co-conspirator in the spread of government lies, propaganda, and disinformation specifically designed to influence public opinion.

And as the press critics ignore the spread of these kinds of falsehoods, while obsessing about irrelevancies like the Newsweek controversy and Easongate than the right-wing spin machine wants to focus on, the institution of journalism is being seriously damaged. Reporters are being told that there is no "downside" to repeating government Bush administration lies, but that anything critical of Bush must be triple checked before it sees the light of day.

Posted by: rsmythe at June 6, 2005 7:55 AM | Permalink

Jay, wow. I'm with Lisa. I've been checking for the past few days to see what you would say.

I used to be a believer, a devout member of the journalistic faithful. But I saw things that made me wonder about truth, and objectivity.

When I first came to the academy, I was surprised at the amount of agenda-setting in research. Scholars would publish what they called definitive research, only to have another scholar take similar data and come up with a different conclusion. Then a heated deabte would turn up in the pages of a journal. What was this? I was surprised that scholars, who were supposedly as dedicated as journalists to the religion of truth, would question each others truths so publicly.

But I've come to see the debate as the source of truth itself. Within the exchange of ideas is a close approximation of truth, and if you listen and look, you can find it.

There's not much similar in journalism, or there hasn't been for awhile. The news and journalism, until recently, had one "take" on the truth, one perspective on the event. Which is why the explanation of journalism as religion makes so much sense. Until recently, there was no room for anything but the dogma and the bromides.

It's laughable, almost, to read the NYT somedays. On page one is this kind of anthropological view of poor people in the class series, a kind of "wow, look at how poor and uneducated these people are and what awful lives they have." And then turn the page for ads from Tiffany's, restaurant reviews of places where an entree runs close to $100, reports of couture fashion affordable to the very few, stories about vacation homes in places like Hilton Head or Easthampton.

Sorry for the mish-mosh of ideas. I drop in between bouts of data crunching and I'm always scattered...but delighted by your writings, Jay.

Posted by: JennyD at June 6, 2005 8:00 AM | Permalink

I meant to finish my thought above, but was interrupted. Maybe that was a good thing. However, this journalistic navel-gazing may be good, but it's been going on far too many years now. The press's main interviews are with other press to talk about the press, its coverage, its bias or lack of, its political influence (or the disingenous claims of having none).

The rest of the world--the unwashed commoners outside the Holy of Holies--noted for itself all of the above-mentioned "religion" and moved on years ago. Long before a Fox News or a Rush Limbaugh, the unfaithful were happily lining their birdcages with the Times, and throwing things at the Evening News with Dan Rather. And laughing at the growing self-importance of the media darlings and their cloying hollywood-like treatment of themselves.

Sorry guys, but you were dismissed long before now. I'm glad you're having symposiums and discussions and Serious Research into the malaise that is the MSM.

But, seriously... less talk, more walk, if you want to catch up to your long-lost integrity.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at June 6, 2005 8:44 AM | Permalink

rsmythe: The Epstein book is an article and you can read it online.

Also see Michael Schudson, Watergate: A Study in Mythology.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 6, 2005 8:49 AM | Permalink


"I tend to use Ed's methods when I'm looking for news I consider important. I also maintain a ranking of various people in my head, mostly bloggers, according to how trustworthy I perceive them to be. Positive links from a trusted blog enhance the credibility of a news item; negative links decrease its credibility."

This is why I have great hopes for PajamaMedia. I don't want a news source that panders to my bias, which I absolutely know I have. I want a news source that provides me with the truth, and the raw facts to back it up in case I wish to dispute the reporter's findings. I want a news source that will actually fight it out internally, and publically, in order to find the truth.

Is that worth $50 a year to me? A $100 a year? You damn skippy it is.

What is truly amazing to me is that any news source, CNN for example, could provide this service. CNN could take it's existing structure and call it CNN/Blue. Create a brand new structure from Republican/Conservative pundits and journalists and call it CNN/Red. And then have them duke it out over every single story.

Let each bring out their own little interpretations, factoids and spin. And then let them fight it out. In this way the audience gets to participate, to decide what is the right answer. News becomes less a presentation, and more an investigation.

FoxNews approaches this but doesn't really go all the way. CNN had something like it, CrossFire, but frankly that show became far too lame. When people can spin, misdirect and outright lie without getting called on it, that's lame.

I want a news source that is willing to put it's facts up for anyone to see. I want a news source that's willing to go 14 rounds in a heavyweight title match every time. I want a news source that's not willing to let anyone, and I mean ANYONE, spout any sort of drivel or bullshit.

I'm still bloody well waiting aren't I?

Posted by: ed at June 6, 2005 9:58 AM | Permalink

Jay--this is our effort at the Tyndall Report to summarize how the TV networks' nightly newscasts tackled the Watergate revelations last week--Andrew

History lessons supplanted breaking news. We were transported back 33 years to Richard Nixon’s White House, when all the President’s men were embroiled in scandal. Vanity Fair revealed the identity of the Washington Post’s secret source Deep Throat and the rehashing of Watergate led to the year’s third-busiest week (84 min v 45 52-wk-avg) of inside-the-Beltway coverage.

He was Mark Felt, second-in-command of the FBI, in charge of the Watergate investigation. Felt was eventually convicted, and subsequently pardoned, of "illegal FBI break-ins against anti-war radicals," noted NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. As for his motive for leaking, "perhaps he was angry at being passed over for the top job when J Edgar Hoover died," speculated CBS’ Jim Axelrod. ABC’s Dean Reynolds argued that Felt knew that the FBI Director was destroying Watergate evidence, that the Attorney General had "soft-pedaled the probe," and that top White House aides "were implicated," so "with reluctance he turned to the Post." Vanity Fair’s John O’Connor told CBS he was "really protecting the FBI, proving they were incorruptible."

Post reporter Bob Woodward described Felt on NBC’s Today as "a mentor, almost a career counselor...when I said I was going into journalism, I said: ‘Now you can help me with stories.’" Nixon knew his identity all along, NBC reminded us, playing Oval Office audiotapes: "He knows everything that is to be known in the FBI," said Chief of Staff HR Halderman. Counsel John Dean "is concerned that if you let him know now, he will go out on network television." For Nixon, allowing Felt to talk anonymously to one newspaper was less damaging--"The Post went out on a limb. With two young reporters, it was virtually alone on the story," ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas recalled--and made it easier to apply pressure: "The government threatened to take away the licenses of the Post’s television stations," Vargas added. In this telling, the press was a pawn in the power struggle between an elected, corrupt, imperial President and an unelected, turf-jealous, secret police. Rather than Deep Throat being the Post’s source at Justice, Woodward looks like the FBI’s contact in the press corps.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 6, 2005 10:27 AM | Permalink

"Zarqawi in Syria"

WaPo, May 18, 2005:

The U.S. official who briefed reporters Wednesday said that it was unclear whether Zarqawi attended the meeting in Syria but that his lieutenants were encouraged to step up attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, particularly with car bombings. Insurgents have carried out 21 car bombings in Baghdad this month, compared with 25 in all of 2004, the official said. [emphasis added]

WaPo, June 4, 2005:

U.S. intelligence now discounts reports that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, crossed into Syria earlier this year for a summit with the heads of Iraqi insurgent groups to map out a new strategy of suicide bombings against U.S. and Iraqi forces, administration officials said yesterday.

The intelligence assessment contradicts an assertion last month by a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi had called the April summit in Syria. After a brief lull in violence following the January election, the pace of suicide bombings has picked up dramatically in Iraq.
Here are two stories based on anonymous quoting.

From what I can tell, the WaPo has misrepresented what was said a month ago. It was, in fact, not asserted that Zarqawi went to Syria.

Soooo ... why does rsmythe believe one story over the other when neither is attributed? Why believe either story when WaPo contradicts itself about what was said a month ago?

If you always start with the premise that the government lies, and then chose which government "lie" from anonymous sources you want to believe based on a story that misrepresents what was said, what does that tell us?

Posted by: Sisyphus at June 6, 2005 10:33 AM | Permalink

From what I can tell, the WaPo has misrepresented what was said a month ago. It was, in fact, not asserted that Zarqawi went to Syria.

Sisyphus, there is more than one official in the government, more than one news outlet in the USA, and more than one day in the past when relevant news has been reported....

Here is how the story was reported on May 19th by the Associated Press...

"A U.S. official said Wednesday that Syria was the site of a key meeting last month in which al-Zarqawi lieutenants were ordered to carry out more attacks in Iraq. More than 520 people have been killed since the country's new Shiite-dominated government was announced April 28."

USA Today...

Al-Jaafari's appeal came a day after a top U.S. military official said the leaders of Iraq's most notorious terrorist group recently held a secret meeting in neighboring Syria, where they plotted the recent wave of insurgent violence that has killed hundreds of people.

"There are infiltrations of non-Iraqis through the border to carry out sabotage activities," al-Jaafari said of the meeting that may have been attended by most-wanted militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself.

(Note the use of the unqualified definite article bolded above. "The leaders" means the top leadership, and its attributed to a "top US military official. al Jaafari's qualified statement does not negate the unqualified statement of the "US military official" .....and you can visit scads of right wing websites who took these reports, and said flat out that Zarqawi had been in Syria.)

and then from Reuters on Saturday...

U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don't believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened , according to U.S. officials."

(oh yeah, Zarqawi sent out a statement on the day after the initial reports, denying that the meeting happened as well.)

Now, explain to me why the AP and USA Today would report about meetings attended by Zarqawi when there is no evidence that he ever attended such meetings, and doesn't even appear to be anything more than minor circumstantial evidence that any meetings occurred.....

If you haven't figured it out by now, there is a concerted campaign to attempt to associate the Syrian government with the insurgency in Iraq --- and most critically, with al Qaeda.

It wouldn't be terribly surprising to hear that some ex-Baathists had met in Syria at some point, but Zarqawi was an anti-Baathist terrorist given shelter by the US backed Kurds before the occupation of Iraq (and, of course, the Bush regime knew about Zarqawi's association with OBL and his whereabouts prior to the invasion, but did nothing about it.) . And Zarqawi is, of course, associated with al Qaeda. But we're supposed to believe that the Baathist regime in Syria is aiding and abetting an anti-Baathist terrorist. "Zarqawi" is the current face of terrorism in Iraq, and the Bush regime is looking for pretexts to invade/attack Syria, so regardless of how absurd it sounds to anyone familiar with history, the US government is trying to put make Syria synoymous with "Zarqawi."

And when the lies and propaganda and manipulation are exposed, nobody complains about the "mainstream media" being the conduit for this disinformation. We saw the exact same thing happen in the run-up to the Iraq War.... and no one in the mainstream media lost their jobs because of they were spreading lies -- and the right-wingers like yourself who screamed bloody murder about Dan Rather and Eason Jordan never called for the head of Judith Miller or anyone else who spread Bush administration lies.

It thus becomes obvious that all of this talk about "credibility" and "journalistic standards" emanating from right-wingers has nothing to do with journalism or a flawed mass media. Their complaints are driven solely by a far-right partisan agenda. When anonymous sources make Bush look bad, you scream bloody murder. When people go on the record to criticize Bush (Clarke, Wilson, et al) the right-wing goes into full on character assasination mode, and you either participate or acquiesce in the campaign.

That isn't concern for journalism and the truth --- that pure partisanship.

Posted by: rsmythe at June 6, 2005 11:26 AM | Permalink

Romenesko links to a fairly convincing Albany Times-Union piece in which a retired FBI agent reveals that, in a sense, Deep Throat was a clandestine group of four guys -- Mark Felt and three of his deputies: Richard Long, chief of the FBI's white-collar crimes section during Watergate; Robert G. Kunkel, agent-in-charge of the Washington field office, which led the Watergate investigation; and Charles Bates, who was assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division.
They saw themselves not as disgruntled mavericks, but as a clandestine group in a high-stakes fight to the death with a White House that was itself trying desperately to rein in the FBI's Watergate investigation. The four met regularly to decide what tidbits to feed out to the public -- with Woodward selected as their weapon of choice -- so as to illustrate just how deep the rot ran.
Looked at that way, the enterprise was neither noble nor venal. What it was, was office politics at a very high level, employed by powerful bureaucrats intent upon preserving their not just their ongoing investigation but also their agency's very independence.
Red versus Red -- a right-wing White House coming off a landslide electoral victory, squaring off against what was still Hoover's FBI, just months after Hoover's death.
It doesn't get much more Shakespearian than that.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 6, 2005 12:11 PM | Permalink

Exactly. And furthermore, if Deep Throat had been examined a little more skeptically, more carefully, rather than accepted as the elusive element that makes for a great mythology (and creates the all-time guessing game: who was Deep Throat?) it might have occurred to someone that the "plot" you're describing, Steve, is an age-old one, in which the loser in an internal dispute or conflict, left without many other options, decides to change the game on other insiders by going outside.

When I say age-old I mean back to the 18th century. Politicians in Parliament learned that if they leaked what happened in their debates to the newspapers that circulated around town, everyone at the public house (where those newspapers were found) would soon be talking about it. You might still lose. But at least you changed the game. If what you have on the winners cannot withstand the light of day, you may also change the outcome.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 6, 2005 12:26 PM | Permalink

"Why do we appoint Supreme Court Justices for life? See Saturday Night Massacre."

I'm not so sure this follows. Representatives are elected for a mere two years, but the President can't fire them, either.

Posted by: Kirk Parker at June 6, 2005 12:58 PM | Permalink

Jay, this is the most important piece you have written yet. Congratulations. Terry

Posted by: Terry Heaton at June 6, 2005 1:08 PM | Permalink

Woodward and Bernsten messed me up, but I was lucky to start my career at a great little tri-weekly paper where there were no phony walls between reporter/subject/readers. I showed up ready to duel with every government official I met, assuming as I did that every one of them was a liar. I thought the only way I could ever prove my worthiness to my journalistic heroes was to stand tough and never bow to pressure.

The first hard lesson I had to learn: I was full of crap. Were there liars and manipulators in the governments I covered? Of course. But things are never that simple, and I learned pretty quickly that the Watergate model was a lousy way to do the day-to-day job of covering a community.

But that was just the first step in waking up. You go in thinking that government is corrupt and venal and then you find out that there are honorable people in government who suffer and strive and you feel their pain. You start to see them as individuals working within a system, and then you struggle to understand the system.

My current understanding of that larger system is bleak indeed: We live in an agreed-upon illusion and the mainstream media has a stake in perpetuating it.

Many people today want the critique to stop there. If they can just stop the rot at the integrity of media, then they can continue to pretend that the problem lies only with government, or political parties, or with the media. Never with themselves, or with their own compromised integrity.

The worst thing that the Watergate myth did to journalists was that it encouraged us to believe that people would love us if we "rescued" the truth for them. In my experience, the opposite has often be true.

Which brings up another point: You can't "tell" anybody the truth. Truth has to be experienced personally to have any meaning. Another good argument for a new model of the press that includes people outside "the priesthood..."

Posted by: Daniel Conover at June 6, 2005 1:12 PM | Permalink


" age-old one, in which the loser in an internal dispute or conflict, left without many other options, decides to change the game on other insiders by going outside.

"When I say age-old I mean back to the 18th century. Politicians in Parliament learned that if they leaked what happened in their debates to the newspapers that circulated around town, everyone at the public house (where those newspapers were found) would soon be talking about it. You might still lose. But at least you changed the game. If what you have on the winners cannot withstand the light of day, you may also change the outcome."

Jay, you aptly point out that this use of the press as a forum to play out a power struggle was obscured by mythologizing in the case of Watergate. The model was reenacted more baldly 25 years later in the Lewinsky Affair. There, again, the Washington press corps made constant use of anonymous sources (mostly from Starr's office, presumably; some probably leaked illegally from his grand jury proceedings). No claims of heroism were made by the main recipients of those leaks (ABC's Jackie Judd, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff et al). The press did not actively advance that story; it was merely the forum in which the Clinton-Starr feud was transacted.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 6, 2005 1:22 PM | Permalink

If a reporter is going to be a skeptic, he/she should be equally skeptical of both sides of the ideological fence. Sadly, this is seldom the case. And, in fact, many journalists today are not skeptics at all, they are cynics.

Here is USA Today founder Allen H. Neuharth on the subject, speaking in a 1998 interview: It started with Watergate, (when) journalists coming off college campuses (were) determined to be (Bob) Woodward or (Carl) Bernstein. They believed that because of Watergate’s successes there was dirt under every mat in front of every office. They came out as young cynics. The journalists of my generation were taught to be skeptics. And there’s a hell of a difference between a skeptic and a cynic. All you need to do is be accurate and fair.. See this for more.

You write that: Michael Schudson distinguishes between the scandal, which didn't change the world very much, and the myth of Watergate in journalism. Although I agree with you (and, I assume, Mr. Schudson) about the latter, I disagree about the former. I have come to believe that there is a strong argument that Watergate actually changed the world quite a bit, at least indirectly, in the following way: by removing Nixon from the Presidency, it allowed the antiwar movement and Congress to pull the plug on funding for Nixon's Vietnamization policy, thus paving the way for the fall of Saigon and the resultant sequence of tragic events in that region. See this.

Posted by: neo-neocon at June 6, 2005 2:08 PM | Permalink

"No claims of heroism were made by the main recipients of those leaks (ABC's Jackie Judd, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff et al)."

Good point, Andy.
Indeed, if I recall correctly, at one point after the dust settled Isikoff ruefully acknowledged that his initial sources -- Linda Tripp via Lucianne Goldberg -- were people who gave him the creeps.
But Tripp's motivations -- betray a friend, embarrass the president and feed Ken Starr all at once -- dovetailed with Isikoff's -- get the scoop -- so it was off to the races.
There is one parallel with Watergate tho -- both Mark Felt at the FBI and then Linda Tripp at the Pentagon had been denied promotions shortly before the leaks began.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 6, 2005 2:12 PM | Permalink

"(I'd also suggest that the press was "barking" about Enron on occassion--- but that the institutions that needed to investigate what the dog was barking at failed to do their jobs.)"

Well, kind of. But any barking the press did was more than drowned out by the howls of approval coming from government, shareholders and, of course, the press itself.

Enron was universally seen as a net-positive for society, one of the paragons of the New Economy and hence praised to high heaven by any number of press folk, many of whom had only a passing knowledge of economics. Certainly there was no push from the local, state or national government, or the Houston Chronicle (it would have been seen as a betrayal of civic pride), or the Washington Post, or the London Times or CNN or any other organ that might reasonably be expected to check the organization out.

In fact, it wasn't until a couple of reporters within the specialty business media (if memory serves, a Wall Street Journal and a Fortune magazine reporter) started a) looking at the balance sheets and b) asking some questions like "Uh, how are you guys making any money?"

Not long after that, Enron disappeared into a puff of smoke, and deservedly so. Up until that point, Enron had been championed as a glorious place to work, full of smart people well compensated, on the vanguard of a new way of thinking about the business world, a cleaner and better form of company very much a part of the technology revolution. And a company that contributed not a few dollars to journalists' 401k plans.

Point being is that the media - especially but not exclusively Big Media - thinks of itself and markets itself as smart and skeptical, due to its self-described unique mix of institutional knowledge and access.

But in this case, the media was decidedly late to the party because it could never seem to bring itself to question its assumptions - it was, instead, lazy and incomplete in its understanding of basic economics.

This is my biggest problem with the media right now: Not that it's skeptical to the point of being cynical, but instead that it's skeptical to the point of being cynical about a limited number of subjects, and what's more, apparently utterly disinterested in the very subjects it seems to detest so much: Business, foreign affairs, the military, Christianity or religion in general.

On the other hand, it's incredibly credulous when it comes to government, entertainment, education, environmentalism, NGOs like Amnesty International, education, and, above all, journalism itself. These are the subjects in which only token questioning is allowed and only the most tepid of rebuttals are included. Very much like Enron and other vaporware firms weren't questioned back in the late-'90s, except by only the wettest of blankets.

I would love the press if it lived up to its self-image as skeptics interested in exposing the truth. But it repeatedly shows itself as being both naive and cynical and extremely limited and shallow in what it considers to be worthy of its time and efforts. Looked at that way, it's no wonder a bunch of smart people with extraordinarily lowered barriers to entry have stepped in to provide the service the media claims to be delivering.

Posted by: Steve in Houston at June 6, 2005 2:56 PM | Permalink

Actually, the question that Fortune reporter Bethany McClean asked of Enron was more like,
"Do you guys actually do anything --- besides buy contracts cheap from one of your off-the-books partnerships and then sell the same contracts marked-up to another of your off-the-books partnerships ?"
The answer was "Gulp!" and so the unraveling began.
But for all McClean's good work, Fortune itself was a little late to the game -- two years earlier, her own editors had crowned Enron "the Company of the Year."

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 6, 2005 3:54 PM | Permalink

dirt under every mat

The bias ranters have the same mindset. That there is dirt under every mat of MSM.

Chicken - Egg?

Posted by: Sisyphus at June 6, 2005 4:05 PM | Permalink

The MSM is the mob in the Bible. Late to the party, doesn't have its facts straight and very vocal to the end and then is silent when it is all over.

Posted by: Tim at June 6, 2005 4:27 PM | Permalink

THIS MODERN WORLD has, what should be, the last word on this topic...

Posted by: rsmythe at June 6, 2005 4:35 PM | Permalink

"Maybe the Dean's Group will address the anti-learning bias in newsrooms. Has this been a net plus?"

Good question. But I really don't think it's an "anti-learning bias." Journalism is, after all, the perfect calling for those who want to learn a little about a lot, in small and casual doses. Anti-scholarship? Yes. Anti-intellectual? To be sure.

It's a bad thing in that it helps make too many news reports more superficial than necessary. And, oddly, the one thing that might have made it useful -- the old reporter's tendency to vent against elites and side with ordinary folk -- seems to have been entirely co-opted. Now we're not only viewed as ignorant, we're seen as arrogant elitists, too.

And thanks, Jay, for pointing out the nature of supply and demand to Hewitt. Pay was lousy when margins were pushing 40 percent and penetration was pushing 90, too.

Posted by: David Crisp at June 6, 2005 5:38 PM | Permalink

"Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable." There it is, the presumption of guilt in the unreformed catechism that has destroyed journalism.

Note how it doesn't say, "Comfort the honest, afflict the dishonest?"

It is no wonder, when presented with a story whose truth is more complex than the neat absoluteness of the catechism, that a reporter's loyalty lies with the religion rather than the truth.

Why do virtually all media references to Bernard Goetz written after 1989 omit the salient fact that his attackers were armed?

I would suggest that it is because journalists' loyalty to the "afflicted", the four youths he shot, took precedence over loyalty to the truth -- if indeed journalists have any respect for honesty whatsoever.

Whatever you think of Goetz, the difference between "the man who shot four armed youths" versus "the man who shot four youths" is significant enough that to report the incident as the latter reaches the level of "outrageous lie", even if it does "comfort the afflicted".

Under the aegis of "Comfort and Afflict", then, the purpose of journalism is to tell outrageous lies to serve a political agenda.

As a frame it explains every media scandal since the invention of online fact checking. It also explains why reporters exposed as liars act so incongruously nonplussed, even innocent, as Barbara Stewart's bewildered reaction to her fake seal hunt story aptly demonstrates:

"The whole situation, while resulting from ... unbelievable carelessness, was nevertheless not malicious fabrication ..."

No, not the malicious kind, but that other kind of fabrication, the kind that serves the very purpose of journalism: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. What could be wrong with that? "Why is everyone so angry at me?"

You can just imagine poor Barbara, sitting in the same Starbucks she wrote her fake story, the Boston Globe letter bearing the elaborate language of "You're Fired!" held in her shaking hands, as she thinks to herself with wide-eyed innocence: "This isn't about lies! It's about baby seals!"

Having no loyalty to the truth, journalists honestly see nothing wrong with lying, and are shocked when those lied to take exception.

If journalism is advocacy then we media consumers have no need of it but of some other profession, defined by some other word, which requires truth-telling.

In the meantime you journalists should consider the possibility that your dishonesty violates your own twisted code, as to your audience you are the comfortable and your lies the affliction.

Posted by: Truth Comforts at June 6, 2005 6:44 PM | Permalink

This is an important and central chapter in your ongoing demystification of the fossilized news church you write about. After accounting for the narcissistic, false heroism of Woodward and Bernstein and Bush's decertification of the press, however, there is another part of the media environment still left to be addressed. I'm just a year older than yourself and I also have very formative memories of the Watergate hearings.

I was raised in a deeply Republican midwestern family and to this day, my mom thinks Dick Nixon's country did him wrong. Naturally I was rooting for Nixon to be exonerated. As the hearings went on, I was increasingly impressed with Republicans on the committee, such as the Republican Senator from Tennessee, who demonstrated an actual interest in the facts as well as a protectiveness of Nixon. Republicans like him allowed me to maintain at least a modicum of self-respect as a Republican. At a certain point, it became clear that there were Republicans with scruples who were ashamed by what Nixon had done and were determined to help the opposition party put a stop to it BECAUSE IT WAS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE COUNTRY EVEN IF IT WOULD TEMPORARILY HURT THE PARTY. Nixon was revealed as a lawless tyrant. How could that be a pro-Republican party value? In the early seventies, influential Republicans were ashamed when their leaders held themselves to be above the law, even if they felt the degree of wrongdoing was exaggerated (in fact, just the opposite proved to be true).

Based on the MSM's PR stage for convicted Nixon stormtroopers like Liddy and Colson this last week you'd never guess that moment in history had occurred. For today's Republicans, truth stops at the party's edge. The cult of party personality requires rallying around a lawless tyrant caught red-handed. Mark Felt has a character flaw because his loyalty to the tyrant wavered while the tyrant's attorney general was busy destroying evidence. My point is the one Stephen Colbert made on the Daily Show the other day: the problem today is not that the media lacks the credibility to take on lawlessness within the government, our problem is that today THE TRUTH lacks the credibility to get anything done.

If Liddy and Colson and Noonan and Buchanon were intentionally trying to position the Republicans as the party of lawless, tyrant-friendly, totalitarians, they couldn't be doing a better job. For Republicans, the truth and respect for the country don't have enought credibility to require withholding support for the cult of Nixonian tyranny. Stalin was popular too. Maybe that should give Hewitt pause when he equates approval ratings and profits with ethical standards. He and his fellow apologists for tyranny might want to start drawing slightly finer distinctions in this area. I realize the regular practice of corporate law (same goes for the Powerliners) requires that be done in your spare time.

During Watergate, the truth eventually led to Republican shame and return to the rule of law. Today, truthful exposure of a lawless executive run amok simply leads to more and bigger lies. Raging right alongside the myth of Woodward and Bernstein, we have the seething victim complex of the ruling party that THEY are the heroes unjustly shot down by the falsity of unscrupulous media bias, that ANYTHING coming from the press that criticizes a Republican is biased on its face because it criticizes a Republican. These myths are of a piece.

Demythologizing the heroism of the Washington Post also requires demythologizing the Republicans' quasi-Nazi interpretation of media coverage of the TET offensive as the stab in the back that plunged the US into decades of moral darkness, that Watergate was a Democratic conspiracy to undermine a great American hero, that Nixon's documented crimes can just be politically wished away and it will be so--away from the light of Nixonian tyranny and Ford Administration support for Pol Pot.

The Republicans' "They stabbed our heroes in the back just as we were saving the free world"* victim mythology also needs the curtain pulled back on it. Thanks to people like Colson, Noonan, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McLellan, as well as full blown fascists like Liddy and Coulter, the truth doesn't have the credibility that it once had.

*In Bush Republican-speak, "saving the free world" means sending 500,000 Americans across the Pacific to kill millions of Vietnamese in their own country after they rebelled against the French colonial government we restored to power after we defeated the Japanese. Would staying longer and killing millions more Vietnamese have prevented mass murder in Cambodia? That's Noonan's calculus.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 6, 2005 7:11 PM | Permalink

Mark Anderson's post reminds me of a small comfort I have heard more than one journalist refer to lately -- the fact that in the most recent one of those perpetual who-do-you-respect-least surveys that are so beloved by pollsters, while journalists indeed were indeed consigned to the region of lepers, they still outpolled lawyers by a country mile.
Food for thought for the Powerliners, the Hugh Hewitts and the Glenn Reynolds --lawyers all.
(Department of full disclosure: Forty years after the fact, it still gives me cold sweats to think how close I came to going to law school.)
PS -- Which is not to say that my own lawyer is not a fine fellow; she is.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 6, 2005 8:39 PM | Permalink

As a news consumer what I have seen post- deep throat is less investigative journalism especially at the local government level where I think it is most important and way too much horse race political coverage. I'm a political junkie and I do not want to read all the ins and outs of a campaign as much as issues and I would love to see local reporters delve into every budget and department ( over time, I know it cannot be done everyday) and report the good results as well as the bad.

Posted by: kate yost at June 6, 2005 9:08 PM | Permalink

Jay, as always...tremendous post.

I wrote initial pieces of my post (thx for the link) shortly after I graduated -- at the time it reflected a deep desire of mine to improve the quality of journalism.

But it was also more than that. It was the utter frustration I felt at being so woefully unprepared for the career journalism of my professors. The constraints of the religion: the paltry salaries, the straightjacket of the "view from nowhere", the unacknowledged fact that journalists are political players.

And this leaves out how unprepared I felt to be entering a world with a vastly different relationship between information producers/consumers, the potentials of digital media, new revenue models, most importantly, new ways of doing journalism. The problem is that these schools prepare you to look only backward, so by the time you are cast out from the coddling world of the university, you can only think to aspire to the moral universe of a profession that existed in a time long past.

As I read your piece I did not know whether to laugh or cry as I recalled the smokey-voiced nostalgia, the dashing stories of shoe leather reporting, the 1950's throwbacks of "just the facts", the crusading oxymoron of non-political populism, the desperate need to create journalist-saints to hang our piety on.

I shrugged it off as being sanctimonious then, but now I find it insufferable. Then again, one year out, here I am, no job in journalism despite once-desperate attempts to find one that could pay me more than $20,000/year.

And like all great religions, there is the guilt felt by all of us who just couldn't measure up: "If I only could have taken out a loan for that unpaid internship," "If I only could go without health insurance," "If I only could smile when I write about Laci Peterson," "If only I didn't feel the need to have a point a view..." Those are the ones who get into heaven.

I know a lot of sinners like myself.

Posted by: Daniel Kreiss at June 6, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink

Jay, what would you say is the primary purpose of a journalism school? and is there some other way of serving that purpose?

The basic lesson of Watergate with respect to the press (according to me) is that bearing up under pressure from a government isn't fatal and may ultimately even benefit a news organization. Instead, we're stuck with a national press corps who, judging from Sally Quinn's description, are essentially okay with an insider who defenestrates the Constitution but who let out one long, collective "Ewwwwww!" when confronted with icky behavior from an outsider.

I'm not sure reporters and editors generically think in terms of potential repercussions but the end product very often suggests timidity, laziness and the snobbery Quinn is immersed in and relishes, and results in the concommitant inability to provide rational coverage of political news, or news that should have political implications. (And not least at the modern-day Post; they should probably change Walter Pincus' byline to "A-26" and save some ink.)

You expect that behavior from the aristocracy in any town, but not from the press. Maybe J-schools should teach students how to be rabble.

"Do good work." Is that a religious concept? It oughtn't be. You can't teach people how to stumble on a story that ends in the resignation of a president, but you can probably hide around a corner and whack 'em with a 2x4 until they learn some critical thinking skills or quit. If he was in his right mind when he died, Ron Ziegler must have been insanely jealous of Ari Fleischer.

Posted by: weldon berger at June 7, 2005 12:01 AM | Permalink

Right on, Kate. I run a local news site for my small city of 33,000, and this year I just went and picked up a copy of the proposed budget and scanned the juicy parts and put them up on the net with some snazzy graphics. Our local paper isn't off chasing campaign stories -- they only have one reporter and have limited resources. Me, I have fresh blog-issue pajamas, Google ads, and infinite pixels. One problem with many weekly papers is that they won't go back to a developing story because "they did it already." I went back to the budget over a dozen times. No newspaper would do that. I'm also not constrained by format. I can write a seven word story or a seven hundred word story if I feel like it. So can anybody else in town who signs up for an account.

As far as the local stuff goes, every functional town and small city is basically a comic opera with real estate taxes. But our local paper isn't allowed to note that a lot of what goes on is, in fact, funny. Not us, humble blogpersons! We can crack wise all we want. We give the people what they want: a forum to complain about Canadian Goose poop and poke fun at ourselves.

The fact that a lot of news makes you want to say Wha?! is the truth that the Daily Show is getting at, and why this "fake" news show seems more truthful than many real ones. It says, no, you are not crazy. This, now, this news is crazy. And look at that haircut! Yikes!

Posted by: Lisa Williams at June 7, 2005 12:24 AM | Permalink

Lisa Williams, you are one helluva writer.

Thanks for all these comments, even the ones I don't mention or argue with.

I love this response (below). It is Derek Rose, a reporter for the Daily News in New York, at his blog, confirming in his own case what I said about "afflict the comfortable..." It's the unbearable lightness of bromide learning, also testified to by recent grad Daniel Kreiss in the comments here. Thanks, Daniel, for the candor. Here's more of it from Rose.

Derek Rose

Via Jay Rosen’s Pressthink, I learned today that the old journalism maxim of “afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted” was actually sarcastic.

About 100 years old, the full quote is

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Satirist Finley Peter Dunne was arguing “that the power of newspapers was out of proportion, that they exerted influence where they had no legitimate business,” writes Poynter’s Dr. Ink. “They even had the arrogance to think they can afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Like many people, I had thought the quote came from H.L. Mencken. Apparently, it was popularized by the movie “Inherit the Wind,” a fictional account of the Scopes “Monkey trial,” in which the Mencken character utters those words.

In any case, I agree that it’s not a particularly useful or relevant journalistic slogan. (Dr. Ink: “If journalists want to comfort the afflicted, they should send money to the Red Cross.”)

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2005 1:16 AM | Permalink

This was e-mailed in by Jack McCain, a reader in Durham, CT.

Until quite recently, I regularly read a blog by a Boston media critic. Last Thursday, he made a brief remark about Felt that prompted me to send him this message:

Are you familiar with this old essay by Edward Jay Epstein, "Did the Press Uncover Watergate?"?

If Epstein is correct, the mythology that has been constructed around (and by) Bernstein and Woodward (and Deep Throat) is self-serving hyperbole, and distracts attention from the real heroes of that era (Judge John Sirica, among others, grinding away in the machinery of government). Bernstein/Woodward eagerly took the credit that rightly belongs to others, and Nixon would have fallen had they (and Deep Throat) never existed.

The media critic wrote back, "Without even reading this..."

I unsubscribed from his blog the next day. But when the conventional/received wisdom is so strong that big-city media critics won't even bother to read a short essay that challenges their beliefs, journalism is in a sorry state.

I did live through the Watergate hearings (I'm about 4 or 5 years older than you are) -- and my memories of the time are similar to yours: watching television for hour upon hour, riveted by Sam Ervin, John Dean, Senator Lowell Weicker. In fact, Weicker made such a strong impression on me that when I moved to Connecticut a few years later (trading newspaper work in Ohio for collegiate propaganda in Connecticut), I registered as a Republican, figuring that if the party had room for someone like him, it could accommodate me, too, and I would be proud to vote for him now that I lived in his state. But Woodward and Bernstein do not figure at all in my memories of the era, even though I read the book and saw the silly movie. -- Jack McCain

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2005 9:37 AM | Permalink

(aside) Well, I've got some good news for regular readers of PressThink. Kerry signed his Form 180 on May 20, and his "private" records have been released. That means that right-wingers will have to find something else to obsessively complain about!

Posted by: p.lukasiak at June 7, 2005 12:49 PM | Permalink

M. Anderson: "*In Bush Republican-speak, "saving the free world" means sending 500,000 Americans across the Pacific to kill millions of Vietnamese in their own country after they rebelled against the French colonial government we restored to power after we defeated the Japanese. Would staying longer and killing millions more Vietnamese have prevented mass murder in Cambodia? That's Noonan's calculus."

Shouldn't this be "Kennedy/LBJ-speak" and "McNamara calculus"?

Posted by: drago [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2005 12:51 PM | Permalink

I wonder who the Boston media critic Jack McCain mentions is -- I scanned Dan Kennedy's (fun and excellent) Media Log, and didn't note this passage. The only other one I know of is Mark Jurkowitz of the Globe, who doesn't have a blog.

I haven't looked around at the blogs of off-duty reporters and "just folks" for this passage. But I'm always interested in people who want to have a little klatch about local media (since I can see the Boston skyline from my neighborhood).

Posted by: Lisa Williams at June 7, 2005 1:30 PM | Permalink

Somewhere I read that the best thing about blogs was that there were lots of smart people out there who didn't have j-school degrees and who were not employed by major media outlets, who, nevertheless published their expertise for all to consider.

Like most of you, I have read mucho blather about Watergate/Felt, but Daniel Drezner, an assistant political science prof at UChicago, gives Watergate/Felt a new look. Drezner mostly blogs about economics and globalization, but says the two best things he has read about Watergate/Felt was the Brooks column that Jay linked, and a Slate article by Sasha Issenberg. Drezner says that Watergate follows a common American narrative: what begins as conspiracy is eventually reduced to camp. The Issenberg article bears that out with the review of a Watergate movie that ain't "All the Presidents Men". Drezner is an original thinker, and here's his comments:

Posted by: kilgore trout at June 7, 2005 2:08 PM | Permalink

Here's a link to the "comforts th' afflicted" Dr. Ink column. (Derek Rose gives it too, but that's twice as many clicks from here)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at June 7, 2005 4:01 PM | Permalink

More on the religion and Watergate's central place in it. Ben Bradlee Jr. (son of the legendary editor) in the Boston Globe says that learning it was Felt all along vindicates the press because, given all the big screw-ups lately, imagine how awful it would have been if Deep Throat turned out to be a composite or a fake? (No lie, he actually says that.)

This would seem to be a rather depressed standard: if not fraudulent, then victorious! Bradlee Jr. goes on to describe the magical properties of Watergate, such that a new turn in the story can somehow--through a mechanism left unexplained--invigorate the entire institution of journalism. Listen:

Newspapers -- nearly all suffering declining circulation because of media fragmentation, the rise of the Internet, partisan fervor, and other factors -- should get a proud shot in the arm from the Deep Throat denouement. And many publishers and editors across the land should at least be given pause in their race to dumb down, slash costs, and reinvent newspapers as mere infotainment vehicles in an effort to pander to the elusive 18 to 34 demographic that never seems to have grasped onto the newspaper reading habit.

For the Felt case serves as a potent reminder and reaffirmation of the press's crucial role in a vital democracy -- especially the role of newspapers, from which the vast majority of investigative stories still bloom. And for the most important of those stories, there will always have to be a place for anonymous sources.

Gives a little more meaning to Schudson's words:: Watergate "offers journalism a charter, an inspiration, a reason for being large enough to justify constitutional protections that journalism enjoys."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 7, 2005 11:00 PM | Permalink

Sy Hersch has interesting reflection on Watergate and W. Mark Felt in this week's New Yorker:

While Hersh dwells awhile on the role of Woodstein in nurturing the story, he also takes more notice of the indispensable role of people within the Government in coming forward with damning information:

The Nixon White House was unable to spin the story, or to control it. In part, this was because of the wealth of information, including documents, that reporters got from sources within the Administration. ... I knew W. Mark Felt, identified last week as the critical Post source, as a senior F.B.I. official who, like others in the demoralized bureau, was talking to the press.

The story could not have lived long without those sources, but Woodstein and the sentient press of that era also deserve credit for being a potential receptacle of such information vital to the health of the country.

Today much credit and comment is given to Rove and Bush for their ability to maintain secrecy and to prevent such leaks from springing, but I wonder if a large part of their success is due to the general unavailability of the press to serve as a useful receptacle of such information. Those brave few who have come forward on record, such as Clarke, have been battered sufficiently (and significant numbers of the press have participated in the pummeling) to discourage others. The prisoner abuse stories and the road to war stories have each likely produced enough disquiet in true patriots within government, who would come forward, if only there were some way in which to do it, and to some good end result. Hersh, for almost a year now, has, in speeches if not in print, bemoaned the lack of press willingness to work, and noted that in this climate, whistle-blowers were risking their careers by coming forward, without an inkling of a corresponding willingness within the press to take similar risks.

Posted by: Mark J. McPherson at June 8, 2005 12:02 AM | Permalink

Thanks Jay. Mammoth subject.

But you seem to have totally omitted your own heroic cause in the Deep Throat context: Your battle against anonymous sources.

I would like to see a fat graph on how you square your views against anonymous sources and your acceptance of the Watergate model.

Yes, you are critical by calling it a myth - and with your comparing a fundamental belief in the role of the press in a democracy as a religion.

I consider it a secular matter worth fighting for.

Perhaps the press in New York or Washington cling to the religion. And maybe even those who never show up for church in the hinterlands and red states carry the faith somewhere deep down and hidden in a closet too. I would like to see more faithful showing up on Sunday myself. Much of what I read on Sunday in print is filler between the ads : )

But you admitted this: "Watergate, at least retrospectively, could be accepted as a triumph not only of American journalism but of the American system of a free press."

Exactly. And it was . . . a rare example in our history.

You asked: ". . . was (Felt) Woodward's source, or was Woodward really his agent?"

The answer is both, but who cares. That's how truth emerges. It worked.

Then you say, about the church. "But maybe it should be crashed. Maybe what we need is not funding for a new church, but a breakaway church, or two, or three of them. (And what is Fox News Channel, but that?)"

Now this analogy I like. It happens all the time around here, in real churches. There are Hispanics worshiping in Baptist churches, and they tend to split after the group reaches a certain size, I'm told.

Maybe we should consider splitting up a few newsrooms or entire media companies and perhaps achieve a little real competition here and there. I would like to see you write more about this issue and the FCC.

Of course you are also talking about the role of bloggers as a splinter church, yet you decry the faith model.

Why not go ahead and embrace the myth and use it for good?

It works in football. Look at Bear Bryant. Of course he was a drinker and womanizer. But football players will still get back on the field in great pain to honor the man - and he's dead.

Heck, maybe we should remake Superman again? Wasn't that a marketing attempt to raise the public's trust in the press back when? Personally, I'm working out more and thinking of breaking out the costume for Halloween this year. Maybe I'll find a female reporter to rescue as a damsel in distress . . . couldn't hurt. At least back then journalism was fun. Is it now?

Posted by: fast2write [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 8, 2005 12:34 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Glynn (fast2write). People sometimes associate me with positions I do not hold. (For example, I don't think blogs are going to "replace" the traditional news media.)

I am not on a campaign to stop the use of anonymous sources. Like most people who are not fighting a holy war about it, I accept the common sense view that they are necessary sometimes; and I agree with an opinion prevalent in journalism that the press began to devalue its own method by using confidential sources when there was really no good reason for it. I also believe their use can be cut back without significant harm to truth-telling.

The "battle" you refer to was my position against the White House press attending so-called "background briefings," where some official who should be on the record is allowed to go off the record. I said there was a simple answer: don't show up.

Also, Glynn, I didn't admit this: "Watergate, at least retrospectively, could be accepted as a triumph not only of American journalism but of the American system of a free press." That was a quote. It was author and press scholar Michael Schudson who said it. And speaking of Schudson... (next post.)

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 8, 2005 9:31 AM | Permalink

Michael Schudson is a sociologist and press scholar. (Along with James W. Carey the best we have in the U.S.) He wrote a book twenty years after the break-in called Watergate and American Memory. He knows the subject.

I e-mailed him to tell him about my post and ask three questions. 1.) Did any reporters call you during Deep Throat week? 2.) What was your reaction to the news that Mark Felt is Deep Throat? 3.) How does it change your view of the Watergate episode?

Who won? James Madison and Max Weber.

I've talked to a few reporters (4 or 5), some of whom have quoted me here or there. Several others seem to have remembered the book and have cited it. And one -- in town here at the Union-Tribune -- quoted me more extensively but on a small point that interested him in particular. He cites several of our leading newspapers as reporting that Watergate prompted a rush to journalism school and he remembered that I claimed no such thing happened. He remembered correctly. J-school enrollments were rising rapidly from the mid-60s on, for reasons you evoke well in your piece -- people wanted to change the world, to reform through the power of truth (and the persuasion of language and the pleasure of writing) and to do so from a position of innocence, rejecting the sordid messiness of party politics. Your point about innocence is well taken.

As for Deep Throat: knowing Deep Throat's identity is more interesting than I thought it would be. I have resented the mystery of Deep Throat for a long time because, when my book appeared, a number of reviewers dismissed it because it "told them nothing new" about Watergate--and sometimes this meant not much more than--it didn't reveal who Deep Throat was. So everything else in the book was just academic stuff that they could not possibly be interested in.

I did not expect my views of Watergate to change at all when Deep Throat's identity was revealed. But Mark Felt as Throat is more interesting than I thought. And I expect we will learn significantly more when Woodward's book appears. What strikes me as interesting is deciphering Felt's motives. Resentment at Nixon for having been passed over. Anger at Nixon for threatening the autonomy of the FBI, the agency that (I think) Felt loved. Patriotism, acting in allegiance to a higher patriotic duty? Maybe, but maybe not, that's not at all clear from what's come out so far. And maybe other things as well.

We have long heard about the banality of evil -- but there may also be a banality of virtue. Let's suppose Felt's motives were not high-mindedly patriotic but were more narrowly related either to protecting his agency or protecting his career or both. In other words, his motives were pretty banal, pretty ordinary, and yet strong enough to push him into very unorthodox and risky behavior. Does this diminish him as a hero?

My first read would be that it makes the complexity and separated powers of our government the hero. Felt's acts were heroic even if his motives were pedestrian. But that pedestrian quality was in the service of the integrity of a government agency and its distance from the President. This was not "a civil servant does what he's told" but "a civil servant is committed to the integrity of his office and not to the career of his superior or his superior's superior." So the hero, from the incomplete picture we have so far, is not exactly Mark Felt but is James Madison (separation of powers, checks and balances) and maybe Max Weber on the character of bureaucracy and the ethics of the bureaucrat. That's what the Mark Felt revelation has me musing about.

Thanks, Michael.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 8, 2005 9:52 AM | Permalink


"*In Bush Republican-speak, "saving the free world" means sending 500,000 Americans across the Pacific to kill millions of Vietnamese in their own country after they rebelled against the French colonial government we restored to power after we defeated the Japanese. Would staying longer and killing millions more Vietnamese have prevented mass murder in Cambodia? That's Noonan's calculus."

That's a remarkably inept statement coming from a lifelong Republican.

We didn't fight the Vietnam War to kill Vietnamese. If that were the case there wouldn't BE any Vietnamese left in the world. We fought the War to battle Communism. You know. The same type of government that runs Vietnam today and had turned it into poverty stricken pit. I'd suggest you read some history about Vietnam and the War before spouting this sort of nonsense.

As for the rest of your post, complete tripe.

You're a *Republican*? Sounds like a false flag.

And btw "Ford Administration support for Pol Pot" is incorrect. It was *Jimmy Carter* who supported Pol Pot and who had a photo op with him.

Posted by: ed at June 8, 2005 2:38 PM | Permalink


Pol Pot took over in 1975. Carter was elected in 1976. Before Carter's election, Nixon and Ford supported the corrupt government of Lon Nol which drove nearly three-quarters of a million Cambodians to join up with Pol Pot.

What do they say about those doomed to repeat it?

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at June 8, 2005 11:25 PM | Permalink

What actually happened in Cambodia during the '70s contradicts the myths created by neo-con media propaganda:

Pol Pot's horrific rule was preceded by devastating US aggression. In 1969, the US launched an unprovoked bombing of Cambodia (with whom the US was not at war) which lasted until 1975.

The Cambodian resistance took the ultra-violent direction that it did in 1975 only because of the destruction and dislocation created by the US war. The Pol Pot holocaust, far from being a justification for the US holocaust, was the direct result.

As the genocide progressed, for geopolitical reasons, Washington, Bei-jing, and Bangkok all supported the continued independent existence of the Khmer Rouge regime. When U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger visited Indonesian president Suharto on 6 December 1975, the transcript released in 2001 reveals that Ford, deploring the recent U.S. defeat in Vietnam, told Suharto: “There is, however, resistance in Cambodia to the influence of Hanoi. We are willing to move slowly in our relations with Cambodia, hoping perhaps to slow down the North Vietnamese influ-ence although we find the Cambodian government very difficult.” Kissinger explained Beijing’s similar strategy: “the Chinese want to use Cambodia to balance off Vietnam….We don’t like Cambodia, for the government in many ways is worse than Vietnam, but we would like it to be independent. We don’t discourage Thailand or China from drawing closer to Cambo-dia.”

See, Refuting Peggy Noonan's Cold War Fantasy on my blog for chapter, verse, and links.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 8, 2005 11:41 PM | Permalink

This link actually seems to work:

Refuting Peggy Noonan's Cold War Fantasy

Posted by: Mark Anderson at June 8, 2005 11:44 PM | Permalink

This comment by Jay kills me: "This would seem to be a rather depressed standard: if not fraudulent, then victorious!"

I guess if Milli Vanilli hadn't gotten busted for lip synching then they'd be the equivalent to the Beatles.

Posted by: Ron Brynaert at June 9, 2005 3:08 AM | Permalink

[quote]We have long heard about the banality of evil -- but there may also be a banality of virtue. Let's suppose Felt's motives were not high-mindedly patriotic but were more narrowly related either to protecting his agency or protecting his career or both. In other words, his motives were pretty banal, pretty ordinary, and yet strong enough to push him into very unorthodox and risky behavior. Does this diminish him as a hero?[/quote]

Does this then jive with every whistler-blower? Most of them have been "good company men (and women)" who often had much more banal reasons for becoming "whistle-blowers" than serving some public good. Often it was to save their own ass of a sinking ship. I keep thinking of Jeffrey Wiggen of Big Tobacco "whistle-blowing" to 60 Minutes and some of his character problems. Also I remember reading a very uncomplimentary article about Sharon Watkins saying that she was a pretty weak "whistler-blower" who then immediately attempted to turn her one act of bravery into a better position at Enron.

I was also thinking of Richard Clarke and his personality flaws (Rwanada). Clarke seems to be a type of "Mark Felt" who didn't use annoymous sources because at this point in his career he was already out.

I think the phrase "banality of virtue" is genius.

Posted by: catrina at June 9, 2005 8:26 AM | Permalink

Me too, cat.

I forgot to include another piece of the religion that comes to young journalists in the form of a cliche: "holding their feet to the fire." Remember that one, Daniel?

This refers to public officials, who don't tell the truth, being held accountable by journalists, who do. This column in the Hartford Courant speaks of "courageously holding authority's feet to the fire of truth."

It's not that this isn't important (it is) or a valid thing to do (it is.) But it doesn't help younger journalists to learn from older journalists that the name of their tribe is Truth.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 9, 2005 10:12 AM | Permalink

Great piece, Jay. As a college journalist working at a national magazine this summer, and who wrote and edited a media analysis weblog last summer (, I've thought a lot about how--considering the challenges to print journalism--the "objective" journalism model is broken. I've often been discouraged when talking to other aspiring young journalists to learn that they regard politics with a big shrug. For me, journalism itself is inherently political, because its goal is often to uncover information that political and business leaders would rather keep under wraps. When journalists regard themselves as objective centrists or empty sieves through which information passes, I fear they can't grasp the passionate and divisive nature of politics and the "culture war." They specialize in transcribing quotes and facts instead of in analyzing them. That's boring to read. And often, boring to report and write.

Posted by: Dana Goldstein at June 9, 2005 7:29 PM | Permalink

Romenesko has a link to a "Jim Lehrer News Hour" interview with Dan Okrent, late of the NY Times, and Michael Getler, the Washington Post's about-to-retire ombudsman.
In a rather indirect but nonetheless very real way, this all links to Mark Felt, Bob Woodward, et. al.
Getler is far more worried more about press timidity (slavish pre-war acceptance of the WMD lie, including by his own newspaper) than he is about recent press scandals (Dan Rather's misadventures).
I think he is right, in that the former will loom large in any eventual history of press malfeasance -- larger than anything else in my 40 years in the business. While the latter -- a tired, old man who overstayed his welcome at a dying medium, and who got suckered by an overzealous producer --will, gradually, become a footnote.
Getler shares my feeling that a country with a timid and frightened press is a country that is in for a world of hurt. But of course no one will know if Getler, or I, is right -- until, as George Bush says, "we're all dead."
At any rate, here's Getler, who is himself on the way out the door:

MICHAEL GETLER: "It's very important that big news organizations do not pull their punches. They need to stay aggressive. They need to go after these hard stories. They can't become too cautious. They can't become intimidated either by the need for their own transparency, which is important, or by political or other commercial efforts to rein them in."

For some reason, that valedictory reminds me a lot of Dwight Eisenhower's parting warnings about "the military-industrial complex" as he walked out the door of the White House for the last time. Getler, like Eisenhower did, is going against conventional wisdom to say, "You have it wrong; here is the real problem."
And Getler, like Eisenhower, will probably be pretty much ignored.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 9, 2005 8:37 PM | Permalink


I want to quote another "myth" though, this one from the other side. I had a job interview with think tank. It was a job dealing with the press. Someone there told me as a campaign guy who did oppo research he used to ALWAYS tell the reporters "If you did you job correctly my job shouldn't exist." He honestly believed that which, as much as we were on the same side politically, I don't agree. I guess this is how the campaigns have swallowed some of the press' "religion." I guess this goes to the "hold their feet to the fire." Its just that certain campaign peopel feel the press doesn't do that ENOUGH (or to the right person, or with the right story...etc, etc.)

Posted by: catrina at June 9, 2005 10:59 PM | Permalink

Catrina --
Of course the oppo research guy believed that.
I never met a PR guy in my life -- left, right, corporate or government -- who didn't believe that if the press did its job right, there would be no need for HIS job.
Most of these guys -- the Scott McClellan's of the world -- really do believe their own pitch. Even -- most often, in fact -- when they're dead wrong.
It's not that they're venal; it's that they're deluded, "blinded by the light," as the song says, "like a goose in the night."

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 9, 2005 11:20 PM | Permalink

The Okrent/Getler interview on NewsHour that Lovelady mentioned above, provides information on two new canons of Holy Writ for the Church of Journalism. Sure, the interview was filled with typical journo CW:i.e. the public hates us because we tell them stuff they don't wanna know; the public is too stupid to discern the difference between news and opinion; the all or nothing view of anonymous sources. But never mind all that.

The two recent canons added to Holy Writ is that journalists "need to stay aggressive". Uh, no. Journalists need to be more scholarly---the aggressiveness is what has caused print/broadcast untruths (some would say lies). Journalists tend to write the story first, then go look for the facts to back them up. When the false information is discovered, journalists are vulnerable to charges of bias.

The second canon is that "bad journalism"..."didn't challenge the administration's case for the war." It's always possible that I've missed some major piece of information, but regime change was initiated by Bill Clinton, and such other leading Democrat lights as Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Wm. Cohen, etc. plus a bazillion UN Security Council resolutions, plus various foreign intelligence agencies said Saddam had WMD and needed to be taken out. Of course, to people like Lovelady, it's only Bush who "lied".

I can't imagine how the press would have discovered that Saddam didn't have WMD unless they were able to infiltrate Saddam's inner circle. Sure there were those in the government who disputed the WMD charge, but we would have never known for sure until we got in there and checked it out. But for some, if only the press would have been more "aggressive", war could have been adverted because the press would have discovered there was no WMD. Gimme a break!

Posted by: kilgore trout at June 10, 2005 2:15 PM | Permalink

Sorry, Kilgore.
I'm not willing to give you that break.
And I'm not willing to give the press that break.
Whether it's Madeleine Albright or George Bush speaking, the obligation of the press is to try to figure out if the person speaking is full of shit. Because if they are full of shit it's going to cost us.
In this case, it costs us the good opinion of a skeptical world that now thinks that we make things up for fun ... and it costs us a debt that you, I, and our children will be paying for long after you and I are gone.
The uncomfortable facts remain: there were no WMD's; there were no ties with Al Qaeda; the president was either deluded by his own advisors or he was lying. There aren't any other options. And the other uncomfortable fact is that the best of the press laid down, spread its legs, and bought into the utterly false rationale for the hideous misadventure to come.
And that is the shame that the press will live with for the rest of my lifetime and yours.
Getler understands that; you don't.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at June 10, 2005 11:27 PM | Permalink

It's not that they're venal; it's that they're deluded, "blinded by the light," as the song says, "like a goose in the night."

Uh, it's "a duece," not "a goose."

It's a bit ironic that you would call McClellan deluded, and then explain that by quoting a song with gibberish lyrics that the writer (Springsteen) has said "means anything you want it to."

Posted by: Terry at June 11, 2005 12:44 AM | Permalink

Mr. Rosen: Thank you for your insights.

I would suggest that you reread the comments critically, and listen to the tone of what is said and how it is said. What I find wrong with journalism today can be found there.

Note that whether the poster is from the right or the left, the comment is given with scant critical thought to the facts of the matter, but a lot of moralistic assertions are made with the idea that, of course the facts are well known and now we make moral judgments. One of the prime examples of this is "Bush lied". He wasn't merely mistaken. The intelligence services of the free world weren't merely wrong. We were deliberately lied to because the men in the White House were rubbing their evil hands and conniving to take us to war. Passed over in all this are the actions of the enemy. One must read the reports for oneself to find out that the various reporters have picked out this or that, while ignoring salient facts in order to advance their preconceived ideas on the war.

Thankfully, we can now access the actual reports via the internet, and this is why the MSM is being challenged. I now know for a fact that I am being misled by reporters. I know that I am given half-truths and distortions by both the right and the left. Neither side does justice to the truth because one side spends their time slinging mud and the other side spends its time wiping it off.

This infighting is disgusting, as is the constant self-examination and excuse making. To this outsider, all of it is childish and informs no one on anything of importance. Reporters who sit around worrying whether they are being manipulated by the government and the military ought to give some consideration to whether they are being manipulated by the enemy, who counts on them (with cause) to advance their propaganda.

This is a prime example of why I've stopped reading the newspapers and magazines I used to read. Instead of articles and essays giving an historical context and explaining the way the Middle East works, I'm given trivialities designed to make one political side or the other look bad. I've learned precious little from journalists about the different sects of Islam and how these sects think about each other, or how the tribal nature of these people dictates the politics of the Middle East. I've found little background of any use whatsoever because the reports are so ridden by the moral judgment and cynicism of the writer as to be highly suspect, and therefore useless. For much of the MSM, the battleground isn't to be found in the terrorist enclaves around the world, but among themselves; the war isn't between the free world and radical Islam, but between the right and the left of American politics. If you'll pardon the cliché, a pox on both your houses.

I don't want skepticism. I want an objective context for the facts given. If you would only do one thing to make things better, you might consider teaching critical thinking skills and some old fashioned scholarly works in history, as opposed to the post-modern deconstructionist claptrap and social studies that pass for history these days. Perhaps then reporters might find a way to discern facts from wishful thinking and an objective historical perspective in place of personal political bias (of either stripe).

Posted by: JMB at June 11, 2005 3:54 AM | Permalink

Fine posts Jay.
Did you see any of my the Moral Hazard of a Free Press?

The use of a Free Press in a war, helps one side more than the other -- the side it hurts has more deaths.

The Watergate religion is ALSO denial of Free Press responsibility for the success of the US "Peace now" politics. For successfully getting the US to leave Vietnam. For successfully letting the commies win, and then commit genocide.
The success of Free Press support for genocide is NOT part of the religion -- but should be.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at June 11, 2005 5:54 PM | Permalink

From the Intro