Was Watergate bad for journalism?
On its face, the question seems absurd. The drama of two young metro reporters for The Washington Post helping to topple a corrupt president cast a golden glow over the news business in the mid-1970s.
Newspapermen became cinematic heroes, determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders.
But the media's reputation since then has sunk like a stone, and one reason is that some in the next generation of reporters pumped up many modest flaps into scandals ending in "gate," sometimes using anonymous sources who turned out to be less than reliable. Journalism became a more confrontational, even prosecutorial business, with some of its practitioners automatically assuming that politicians in the post-Nixon era must be lying, dissembling or covering up.
The disclosure last week that Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, was former FBI official Mark Felt provided a needed reminder that sometimes reporters have no other way to ferret out vital information than by promising anonymity. In the war-against-its-enemies atmosphere of the Nixon administration, Felt not only would have lost his job had he gone public about White House skulduggery -- he was threatened with firing just as a suspected leaker -- but might well have been prosecuted for breaking the law.
The revelation also serves as a reminder that sources may have complicated motives for whispering to the press. Felt may have worried about the FBI's integrity but he also may have been resentful, as the bureau's No. 2 official, at being passed over for the top job, and according to Woodward he came to detest the Nixon White House. Inside sources rarely have clean hands.
Three decades later, the use and abuse of unnamed sources is rampant, especially in Washington, and the media all too often protect those with partisan agendas. It's a long road from Felt telling Woodward to "follow the money" to a Bush adviser telling the New York Times that John Kerry "looks French." But such potshots have become routine in daily reporting.
The public, understandably, has become increasingly suspicious of blind quotes, and sometimes unnamed sources are simply wrong. The Post recently relied on "two senior federal officials" in reporting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had given the authorization to shoot down if necessary an errant Cessna that had strayed too close to the White House, but when Rumsfeld denied this, it turned out the sources did not have firsthand knowledge that he was involved.
Newsweek apologized and retracted a news item -- attributed to "a senior U.S. government official" -- saying military investigators had confirmed that U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down a toilet.
By the time the source backed off, riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere had killed 16 people.
Newsweek has now joined the Times and Post in vowing to curtail the use of unnamed sources and to better describe their motives -- although reporters at USA Today, which has cut the use of such sources by 75 percent, say it is harder for them to compete on investigative stories.
And columnist Robert Novak's Deep Throats -- two senior administration officials who revealed that Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush White House critic Joe Wilson, was a CIA operative -- are nobody's idea of heroes. Time's Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of the Times are now facing jail for refusing to disclose their sources to a prosecutor investigating the Plame leak.
That case has prompted some of President Bush's detractors -- including Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, whose magazine carried Felt's confession -- to liken the administration's criticism of the press to that of the Nixon regime's war on journalists. The president and his deputies have been sharply critical of the media at times, most recently in the Newsweek case, even as the White House has continued to make top officials available to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis.
Bill Clinton and his lieutenants also fought bitterly with the press corps over what they saw as the hyping of the Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate stories, along with a relentless focus on Clinton's personal life and the allegations of Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. At the same time, the Clinton White House was one of the leakiest in modern history. And longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover notoriously tried to peddle to reporters surveillance information about Martin Luther King Jr.'s sexual activities. Whether leaks are good or bad for those in power often depends on who is dishing what. But both administrations paled compared with Nixon's men, who thought nothing of wiretapping reporters to uncover leaks, ordering tax audits of its detractors and, in the case of The Washington Post Co., threatening to yank its valuable television licenses.
One other effect of Watergate and the movie "All the President's Men" is that journalism became a more lucrative endeavor than it had been in the old "Front Page" days. While few became as wealthy as Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the advent of television contracts, book deals and movie rights boosted many practitioners into the upper middle class -- where critics say they are less in touch with the daily concerns of many readers and viewers. The lure of instant stardom also may have prompted the fabrications of Janet Cooke -- the Post reporter who conjured up an 8-year-old heroin addict in 1980 -- and later Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. In one string of Times stories, Blair quoted unnamed law enforcement officials about the case of the Washington snipers -- sources it now appears he invented, along with many others. Despite the mythology, The Post didn't force Richard Nixon from office -- there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.
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.
Felt, now 91, was conflicted enough about his role to lie about it for 33 years, in part out of concern for what the FBI would think about a top official who spilled secrets. But it has taken about that long for source-addicted journalists to engage in some serious soul-searching about whether they have pushed too hard and gone too far in an effort to recapture some of that ancient Watergate glory.
Radar, the new magazine launched by former Talk editor Maer Roshan, has no qualms about unnamed sources. TV "insiders" are quoted anonymously in trashing top anchors and correspondents with such comments as "She's so dumb she can't even read off a teleprompter"; "He's a sociopath"; and "Everything has to be scripted for her." One woman said to report by "flashing her cleavage." Not exactly courageous journalism.
Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Brownstein told readers last week that he didn't intend to treat John McCain any differently, despite the fact that Brownstein's wife, former CNN producer Eileen McMenamin, has become the Arizona senator's communications director. "I am confident that her new job will not affect my judgments," he wrote.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus says the couple is in Paris and "we decided not to stop the honeymoon to have the argument" about "where the right boundaries are" for Brownstein. "We're all agreed that Ron can't cover McCain per se," but McManus sees no problem with Brownstein writing a story "if McCain's name comes into it in a minor way. . . . We think Ron is the best political writer in the country and don't think it'd serve the nation or our readers to take him off politics."
The Cartersville, Ga., Daily Tribune News has fired Associate Managing Editor Chris Cecil after Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. told the paper that Cecil had lifted parts of eight of his pieces since March. The paper said it was "embarrassed, furious and simply dumbfounded."