Sunday, June 9, 2019

Journalism isn't going to save us.

Tama66 | CC0 | Pixabay
Brace yourselves: This post is going to be political.

When the movie All the President's Men came out in 1976, I was in college, majoring in journalism. I admit that I came away a bit starry-eyed about the profession I was aiming for.

In the movie, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose work went a long way toward bringing down President Richard Nixon and his corrupt administration. The movie opens with Redford, as Woodward, sitting through a routine court arraignment -- the sort of thing a young reporter might be relegated to by an editor looking to fill a few column-inches with details of local burglaries. Woodward comes to attention, though, when he realizes the prisoners are charged with breaking into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. And they have ties to the CIA.

Woodward is teamed up with Bernstein, and together they follow the trail to the highest reaches of government. Everything you know about Watergate -- from the Plumbers to Deep Throat to Nixon's resignation -- all of it began in June 1972 with Woodward paying attention at a nothing arraignment of crooks involved in a third-rate burglary attempt. Two years later, Nixon resigned.

As a journalist, Woodward and Bernstein were, if not my idols, then certainly icons I looked up to. Investigative journalism seemed like a noble profession.

Oh, how times have changed. Here we are in 2019, increasingly aware that our current President is a crook. The Mueller Report has detailed ten counts of obstruction of justice against him, and strongly suggests, without coming right out and saying it, that the House of Representatives ought to begin an impeachment investigation.

But where has the press been? Where's our latter-day Woodward and Bernstein?

As it turns out, a lot of what Special Counsel Bob Mueller detailed in his 400-plus-page report had already been in the news. But as the Washington Post's media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, wrote in a column today, journalism is a different business now. In 1972, we had a very small number of national news outlets doing daily journalism: ABC, NBC, CBS, and a few national newspapers, mainly the Post and the New York Times. Cable news hadn't been invented yet, much less talk radio, podcasts, or blogs. If you watched the national news on television, you watched Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor, or Walter Cronkite. There wasn't anybody else.

Fewer choices made it easier to be a news consumer -- and to trust what you were being told. Now, as Sullivan says, we're subjected to "a polluted firehose blast of information mixed with disinformation." Sure, the TV networks sometimes toed the government-issued news line a little too closely back in the day (as one example, a lot of Americans today don't understand that the people who are coming here from Central America are fleeing political unrest that our foreign policy caused). But nowadays, it's hard to figure out who to believe. Especially when the President routinely calls the news media liars and "enemies of the people." (Not to put too fine a point on it, but dictators including Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have used the same phrase to undercut popular trust in news reporters.)

At the local level, newspapers are going under at an unprecedented rate. More than one in five closed up shop between 2004 and 2018, and those that remain often don't have the resources to cover their localities the way they should be covered. Investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein are usually among the first to get the ax.

The reasons for these changes are many; it would take a book, if not several, to detail them in-depth. The point is that journalists aren't going to play the same role in bringing down the current corrupt administration as they did during Watergate. Even impeachment looks dicey. Our best hope for justice is probably the ballot box next year.

Apologies for the political rant. I'll talk about Treacherous Ground next week -- it's politics-free, I promise.

These moments of wistful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

1 comment:

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

So true, and not only is it becoming more difficult to be informed, we also have greater restrictions to the press ans the technology to alter what is printed or shown. Yet, if we don't make that effort, the rabbit hole we are falling into could be the end of not only human civilization but the very survival of our planet.