Upon the news this week that Watergate source “Deep Throat” had come forward, CNN's Judy Woodruff waxed nostalgic about the golden era of muckraking journalism. "It is so hard, I think, for young people we know who work here at CNN and other news organizations to even imagine what Watergate was like," she said. "To have a White House come undone, an administration come undone, because of some news reporting." Coming from a lead reporter at one of America's largest cable networks, it was truly a sad commentary.
First and foremost, it was sad because she was right -- American journalism today has lost its confrontational, hold-their-feet-to-the-fire attitude that gave it a reputation as our government's fourth check and balance. Young reporters can't imagine what that kind of reporting really is because they've never experienced it.
Certainly there was Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but those were cheap attempts by journalists to recreate Watergate without actually doing the real investigative work. They were pathetic journalists' attempt to grab the sizzle of scandal without doing the hard work that uncovers serious crimes like Watergate. Though there are certainly some very fine investigative reporters left, they have become a rare breed, usually replaced by blow-dried blowhards who spend more time sucking up to power than challenging it.
It was also sad because Woodruff, one of CNN's senior reporters, had the nerve to complain about the decline of journalism, even though she and her television news colleagues have had a big hand in that decline. Though Beltway insiders lament the termination of Inside Politics, that show -- like most others -- has cheapened journalism and made politics into a melodramatic soap opera. For every occasional story that delves into real issues like health care, jobs, and stagnating wages, we get hundreds of stories that are nothing more than "he said, she said" fights between dueling suits, the reporter never once taking the time to delve into the issues that are actually being discussed.
Interestingly, one of the much-lauded reporters who broke Watergate, Bob Woodward, actually epitomizes these problems. More than any other, his career charts the decline of the national press corps to the laughingstock it is today. Here was a tough-nosed reporter who made his name doing the gritty, unglamorous work that eventually exposed one of the most egregious abuses of power in American history. But instead of using the credibility he had earned from Watergate to build a career exposing corruption, he quickly dove into the Beltway culture, where that kind of thing is looked down upon. He used his fame to suck up to those in power, and then write books like Bush at War that simply told power's story, ultimately becoming just another bloviating cardboard cutout on the pundit circuit.
To be sure, Woodward's sad story is just one in a constellation of similar tales, and certainly he can't be blamed for all of journalism's current failings. But make no mistake about it: Woodward's pathetic trajectory was a very powerful model for young journalists. He helped legitimize the practice of discarding what journalism should be about (investigation and challenging power) in favor of exactly what journalism should never be about (glamour, propaganda, and genuflection).
And we see the results today. We have top White House reporters like The New York Times ' Elisabeth Bumiller spending much of their time writing doozies like the one about what's on the president's iPod, or the one about how the president's butler has a good sense of humor and a nice hairdo. But when it came to asking tough questions of the president in the run-up to war, Bumiller said, the press was "very deferential" because "no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time." When the subject was the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, The Washington Post could quote the Beltway's top pundits frothing at the mouth about Bill Clinton's deceptions. "I resent deeply being constantly lied to," said Hardball's Chris Matthews. Yet these same reporters have been for the most part silent about being constantly lied to about the war in Iraq.
Toward the end of her segment, Woodruff did (inadvertently) manage to offer a silver lining. "In the beginning [of Watergate]," she said, "the reporting was considered blasphemous, practically." That offers us at least a glimmer of hope. Yes, much of the national press corps today is a joke. But it doesn't have to be. The courageous reporters, while rare, are out there (Sy Hersh, Bill Moyers, David Cay Johnston, to name a few). And when they break stories, they face the kind of establishment scorn that Woodruff was talking about. But that scorn is usually a sign that they are touching a nerve in the power structure, which is exactly what they are supposed to do. It means a reporter is having far more of an impact than simply using cocktail-party connections to get on television.
That is the journalistic legacy of Watergate, too often forgotten. It is the lesson of Watergate Woodward, not Bush at War Woodward, and one we should pray comes back into style sometime soon -- for the sake of our country and our democracy.
David Sirota, a Northwestern University journalism-school graduate, is finishing a book about the middle-class economic squeeze. He was previously a top strategist for Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer's successful campaign in 2004, and the chief spokesman for Democrats on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. He lives in Helena, Montana.