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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