Fri, Jun 10, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Watergate gave the media bravado

By Caroline Lin 林照真

The mysterious "Deep Throat", who contributed to the fall of former US president Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal by providing journalists with direction and high-level confirmation, has finally come out of the shadows.

This has given the world a new insight into the extent to which the US intelligence community's infighting brought the scandal out into the open.

It cannot be denied that Watergate had a profound impact on reporting. After Nixon resigned, reporters around the world wanted to emulate the Washington Post reporters; all of a sudden everyone wanted to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

After Watergate, passionate and idealistic young people entered journalism, journalists were better remunerated, media companies paid more attention to journalism education and expertise and invested more in investigate reporting and readers expected a higher standard of journalism to follow.

Watergate helped cement the notion that in democratic societies the news media's duty is to monitor the government. Reporters must leave no stone unturned because the government is probably being deceitful or hiding something -- and each reporter aspires to resulting investigative work as a form of public service. This has been a good thing, to the extent that it caused reporters to be more on their guard and expect politicians to not always be telling the truth.

But while the Watergate scandal bred a new generation of reporters -- idealistic about public service, cynical about politicians -- it also created a romantic cliche of the young reporter who, through hard work and skill, can bring down a president.

The media really does have the ability to monitor even the most massive government apparatus and uncover and correct its worst abuses of power. But too often this leads to "star" journalism, with reporters motivated by ego, hoping that they, too, will uncover a scandal and become famous by making the mighty fall. Utilitarianism and a longing for fame has threatened to lead journalism to all but ignore the little man and small news.

The role of the reporter changed: one now had to get close to the powerful in the hope that government officials would take a risk and leak information. Newspapers used this to determine how good a reporter was, as if the ability to bring home privileged information made a good reporter, while altogether forgetting that the constantly evolving techniques of manipulation used by politicians increasingly made reporters their tools.

The names of the two Watergate reporters almost became synonymous with investigative reporting. Bernstein eventually left the mainstream media, while Woodward has remained at the Washington Post. Woodward has been working constantly, but several of the books that he has published have been contentious.

His book Plan of Attack tells the story of the decision-making process that led to US President George W. Bush starting the Iraq War. Woodward describes former US secretary of state Colin Powell as a thoughtful statesman, but anyone familiar with the US media knows that Powell has been a main source of information for Woodward.

Woodward's other books also seem to have their own Deep Throats, in Washington and among top political leaders and intelligence agencies. Woodward, however, doesn't seem to realize that he might be being used as a tool, and such concerns are not expressed in his writing.

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