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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Woodward and Bernstein are dead

(With a tip of the porkpie to Tom Stoppard. Jesus, can't a guy even use a metaphor any more?)

A triple-barrelled meme generator, starting with this piece yesterday by Lawrence Martin. It was picked up by Owen Gray over at Northern Reflections, and amplified by CK at Sister Sage.

In brief, they're all lamenting the passing of old-time journalism, the kind that used to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, exposing the truth that powerful interests wanted to keep buried, and empowering citizens by keeping them informed. The classic examples, of course, are the New York Times and its handling of the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post's pursuit of the Watergate scandal, which eventually drove Richard Nixon from office.

Mr. Martin, who really should get on the Tweeter, notes how stories of abuse and secrecy haven't seemed to stick to the Harper government. That's been a theme in this little corner, not to mention huge tracts of the blogosphere as well.

There's plenty of scope for discussion of how the economics of journalism and news gathering have changed, and the challenge in finding a business model that makes the industry profitable in the age of the intertoobz, but CK hits on something fairly early in her post when she cites the shorter attention span of Gen-Xers and the attendant fascination with sensationalism and lurid tabloid-style stories. It's the curse of the Shiny Object.

It's not the only problem, of course. Investigations take time, resources, and commitment, and an acceptance of the possibility that they may not always pan out. Bottom-line-focused owners don't like that. It's easier and cheaper to produce vapid lifestyle fluff, or better yet, pick it up off the wires.

And of course, there's the increasingly litigious propensity of high-profile public figures. Again, easier and cheaper to avoid the headache by skirting controversial or loaded stories in the first place. What we end up with, though, is a media establishment that's less concerned with what used to be the worthwhile objectives in journalism – the things that used to inspire idealistic kids to pursue careers in the business – and more concerned with ass-covering and sucking up.

I don't want to make the explanation strictly generational, and it wouldn't be fair to cite Mr. Martin in a manner that suggests that's what he's doing, but I'd submit that a large part of the reason has to do with this:

... today there appears to be less independence in the media, less sense of outrage at abuses of power. Journalists of the baby boomer generation who were anti-establishment back then are old and more passive now, co-opted if you like.

It's something I've touched on previously, but the three pieces cited above make it worth another look.

Recently I wrote about the corporate media and their fascination with Ruth Ellen Brosseau. At the time I was more focused on the cowardice, hypocrisy and sheer laziness behind the “story.” She's blonde, she's a single mom, she's a rookie MP, she doesn't speak French very well – what could be easier than training the spotlight on her and just waiting for her to trip up?

But given the take from Mr. Martin, Mr. Gray and CK, perhaps it's time to look beyond the corporate-media label and look at the Ottawa Villagers themselves. It's no great secret that such a detached and insular clique exists in Washington; what's puzzling is why there isn't a wider acknowledgment of the same thing in Ottawa.

It's not good for democracy or the body politic when the national conversation is controlled by a self-appointed cadre of well-connected insiders – journalists, lobbyists, officials, civil servants, consultants, power brokers and the people Jeffrey Simpson lunches with – especially when they're so tightly inside the bubble. It means that only certain ideas are discussed or even considered worthy of discussion, and it's part of a larger pattern wherein journalists start to value access and their own insider status more than getting the truth.

And when they start identifying with the power brokers rather than the people they're supposedly writing for, journalism stops being journalism and turns into stenography or flackery. Not only do they no longer question the official narrative, they make it their business to scorn and ridicule the people who do – because deep down, they're embarrassed by their own weakness and toadying, and they turn their fury on anyone who shows them up.

So, to answer the question about Woodward and Bernstein: Look what happened to Bob Woodward. He became the consummate Washington insider, writing hagiographies about George W. Bush. Carl Bernstein might be better known nowadays for his philandering and celebrity dating. Either way, does anyone think they'd be enjoying their current status if they were still writing things that annoyed powerful people?

Sorry, but their time is gone.

Related posts:


  1. I always wondered how Woodward and Bernstein turned out. Somehow, I'm not surprised.

  2. I confess that I last practised the Dark Arts in the late 70's but, watching from the outside, it has been painful to witness the degeneration in Canadian journalism.

    It's all treacly, synthesized shit today, tightly formulated and then passed through the political filter of head office. Outside some aging veterans at the CBC, the calibre of scribes and their output has noticeably declined.

    One thing I have noticed is that, while there are fewer exemplary journos, there are no longer the truly awful types either. It used to be an industry in which real fuckups could earn a living wage for several years before they were booted. Perhaps the looser standards contributed to a standard of journalism that was more organic, perhaps even more creative.

  3. Much to chew on, both here and in your links, but it may be that one of the problems is not too few Bernsteins and Woodwards, but too many, or at least too many pale imitations. They were not typical members of a large anti-establishment profession, they were enfants terribles and trailblazers who turned journalism upside down. Until Watergate, journalists were arguably much cosier with the establishment, in some cases almost incestuous by modern standards. They didn't report on private lives, they assumed an underlying good faith and nobility of purpose, especially in foreign affairs, and they relied heavily on personal relationships and schmoozing with politicians to get the inside scoop. Woodward and Bernstein turned investigative journalism into a thriller and uncovered a crime and cover-up of widespread deceit by an unlikeable President at a time of deep national divisions. It was a grand achievement that rocked the country very painfully, but it ushered in an era that put journalists into a much more adversarial position with politicians.

    They were the heros of the profession, and for several subsequent decades every budding young hopeful in journalism school dreamed of a similar coup. This led many to shift from an "analyse the politics" to a "find the scandal" mentality--late nights poring over financial records, chasing down mistresses, cultivating whistleblowers, etc. All well and good, but in some ways that has led to far more "shocked and appalled" revelations of scandal than the public can digest or take seriously, and also a tone of priggishness that lead journalists to profess alarm and outrage about things that in former times would just have been seen as part of the daily cut and thrust of democratic and electoral politics. Blogs, tabloids and radio jocks survive on a steady stream of this. It also ushered in the era of the spin doctor in response to the inevitability of accusations and "revelations". The pols may not know which ones are coming, but they know something is because that's what the editor wants.

    In the last election and the years leading to it, I wasn't struck by how little of this kind of stuff was directed at the Cons, but rather how much and how little effort was made to distinguish between a real abuse of power and a "gotcha' moment. The rhetorical excess was often the same. The Carson affair was a serious matter, but suddenly it was dropped so we could all have fits of the vapours over irregular student polls in Guelph. There were lots of examples, but the day I ceased to pay any attention was the day I started seeing articles trying to leave the impression our democracy was in grave danger because of the typically high-handed way Harper treated Helen Guergis.

    I'm sure there will be ample opportunity to Mr. Martin and his ilk to unveil the shady and autocratic in the next four years, but he should get a bit of perspective. Try as he might, all the poetry and rhetoric in the world isn't going to convince most of the public that the very foundations of our freedoms and parliamentary democracy are wobbling because someone dipped into the kitty to buy portable toilets for Muskoka.