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 www.nytimes.com, 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 testycopyeditors.org. 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
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
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....
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.
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.
"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?
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."
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.
"(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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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?
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).