A painful time for the world of news reporting. The Authors Collection.

Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward took investigative journalism to a new level with their reporting on Watergate.
Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward took investigative journalism to a new level with their reporting on Watergate.

 

In the 70s there was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  Today, it’s Bradley Manning and Eric Snowden.

For many of us who once worked as professional journalists, the past 20 years have been a particularly painful time.   Dozens of daily newspapers that were once pillars in their communities have crumbled.  Working reporters have become an endangered species.  Many newspapers have merged, reduced the number of days they publish or just shut their doors completely.

No one is immune.  The Washington Post is being sold to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million.  Recently, it was announced the Boston Globe was being sold for $70 million by the New York Times Company two decades after the Times paid $1.1 billion for the Globe.  Apart from the three newspapers that claim some national status – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Post – the Globe was considered a leader in the next tier of the largest regional papers both in quality and business clout.

It’s easy to bemoan the fate of newspapers and the many who have lost their jobs during the industry’s decline.  It’s a much tougher job to try to ferret out what this portends for society and communities.  What happens when the industry whose clout became so great that it was called the ‘Fourth Estate,’ becomes a shadow of itself?

I usually open the discussion with a simple question: “Could Watergate happen again?” Implicit in the question is whether any newspaper – or broadcast entity – would have the expertise, the tenacity and the institutional fortitude to take on a sitting president the way the Washington Post took on Richard Nixon.  It took months of reporting, overcoming a misstep or two, and withstanding intense pressure on the newspaper’s ownership for the Post to compile enough evidence of high-level skullduggery to rally other key players in government and media to its side.

Eric Snowden
Eric Snowden

Even before the sale to Bezos, it was hard to imagine the scenario playing out this way now with editors and reporters feeling fortunate just to have a job and even the largest newspapers struggling to survive. It’s hard to take on Moby Dick when you’re fighting to keep your head above water.

On the other hand, we have the examples of Manning and Snowden.  Manning provided the mountain of data that Wikileaks disseminated that disclosed hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables, army reports and videos of botched military air strikes.   Snowden revealed the existence of the huge surveillance programs conducted by the U.S. and British governments which included maintaining databases of citizens telephone and Internet usage.

If the Internet and the new Information Age has undercut the business underpinnings of the newspaper industry, it has also made it astonishingly easy for whistle blowers to disseminate evidence of wrong doing.  The transmittal of embarrassing documents or digital evidence of malfeasance often only takes a couple of clicks for the person having access.   Indeed, if you compared the Bradley-Snowden disclosures to the body of investigative reporting in recent years, there’s no contest.  The Wikileaks disclosures of military airstrikes that killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reports of corruption in Middle East regimes – which some commentators credit with causing the Arab Spring protests in 2010 – would easily have won top journalistic prizes had they been unearthed by reporters.

Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning

But there is also the key difference in the fallout of Woodward-Bernstein and Bradley-Snowden.  Woodward and Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to have successful careers as journalists and authors.  Bradley faces years in prison for releasing classified material. And Snowden has evaded imprisonment in the U.S. thus far only by lingering for five weeks in the political limbo of the Moscow airport and then persuading the Soviet Union to grant him temporary asylum for a year.  For whistle blowers who want to avoid self immolation, it may be harder to find the tough newspaper willing to protect their identities and able to do the tough legwork to independently confirm a story.

At least one leading newspaperman has opined that the cost in good reporting will be felt more at the local level than in national affairs where newspapers like the New York Times will continue to flourish, broadcast journalism will focus its attention and seasoned political pros will steer busy reporters to stories damaging to their counterparts across the aisle.  In the smaller communities many of the newsroom reporters who spent their days following the police, courts or city hall, cultivating sources and burrowing beneath the superficial are simply gone now.

I also fear that we’re slipping away more and more from an objective measure of ‘truth.’ Most of the influential blogs still adhere somewhat to the standard journalistic measure of truth which values sources willing to go public and corroboration, such as additional witnesses and documentary evidence.   But you can feel it degrading in the rush of the 24-hour news cycle and as those steeped in traditional journalism practices become older and fewer.  Whether a politician  has a drunk driving arrest or has accepted a bribe might as well be true in terms of the damage after the retweets saying so reach a million or two.

And what to make of the Washington Post sale?  I view it as a positive.  Bezos knows that any editorial interference or unwarranted weakening of the news operation will result in high- profile resignations.  He surely doesn’t need that legacy.  Of all the possible motivations, the most plausible is that he sees ways to restore financial viability to a troubled business.  And who else would you want as your pilot as the changing winds of the Internet economy plunge your newspaper toward the ground?

thumb(Author Robert B. Lowe won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.  His Enzo Lee Mystery Thriller Series, including Project Moses and Divine Fury, focuses on a newspaper reporter in San Francisco.)   

 

Please click the book cover to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s thriller on Amazon.

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