Friday, May 10, 2013

Gene Policinski: Watergate Era: ‘A’ peak in journalism

  Forty years ago this week, The Washington Post – and its self-described “young and hard-digging reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein” – took home a Pulitzer Prize for public service for coverage of the Watergate scandal.

  Other winners in journalism that year included the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and Knight Newspapers, and entries from several local newspapers  –all part of what we today would call “mainstream media.”

  Interestingly, the winner in drama that year was Jason Miller, for a play titled “That Championship Season.” There’s little doubt that the year and the era also was a “championship season” for journalism and a free press.

  The Watergate era, which echoed well past President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, was a time when reporters were considered heroes by most, newspapers and broadcast outlets still churned out high profits and journalism school enrollments swelled with increased numbers of young men – and for the first time, young women – intent on writing stories and doing good.

  Forty years later, Woodward and Bernstein are pursued themselves by the journalists today asking at least two questions: How would Watergate coverage been different in the digital era? And, to a lesser degree, what’s happened to the “golden glow” around the profession?

  Woodward and Bernstein responded to the questions at the 2012 convention of the American Society of News Editors (which in 1974, by the way, had “Newspaper” not “News” in its name).  In a story by The Washington Post on that ASNE session, it quoted the pair as saying that “editors gave them the time and encouragement to pursue an intricate, elusive story … and then the rest of the American system (Congress, the judiciary) took over and worked.

  “It was a shining act of democratic teamwork that neither man believes is wholly replicable today — either because news outlets are strapped or gutted, or because the American people have a reduced appetite for ponderous coverage of a not-yet-scandal, or because the current Congress would never act as decisively to investigate a president.”

  Bernstein was quoted by the Post as saying that “We had a readership that was much more open to real fact than today. Today there’s a huge audience, partly whipped into shape by the 24-hour cycle, that is looking for information to confirm their already-held political-cultural-religious beliefs/ideologies, and that is the cauldron into which all information is put.”

  Forty years after Watergate,’s 2013 annual report tagged “reporter” as the worst job to have. There were just under 1,800 daily newspapers in 1985, and fewer than 1,400 today. Yet, with all of that negative news, don’t count out a free press yet.

  At that same ASNE session nine months ago, even Bernstein said, “ . . . I have no doubt there are dozens of great reporters out there today — and news organizations — that could do this story.”

  And look at the Pulitzer winners this year. Winners again included regulars such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But prizes also went to a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reporting team that included a “database editor” examining traffic statistics; and a three-person team from – which published an “e-book” in 2012 on flawed regulation of the nation’s pipelines.

  We’re in the midst of a huge, exciting change in how we get news, and from whom. The once-a-day ritual of a national news campfire, the network newscast, is fading – challenged first by 24/7 cable news, and now increasingly replaced by news alerts on mobile “apps” that bring images and video to consumers at near real-time.

  The First Amendment’s protection for a free press continues to encourage journalists – now joined by new age publications and even citizens as bloggers – to hold accountable even the highest levels of government and the powerful.

  Watergate and “Wood-Stein” may belong to the ages, and news-on-printed paper may well be in its last years. But the appetite for news among consumers remains a constant. Technology provides ever more ways to get the news than ever.

  If we work at accessing multiple news and information sources – as opposed to relying on anonymous aggregators or automatic algorithms to feed us packaged information – this new, larger and more varied stream of news will be ever more valuable to each of us.

  Forty years from now, it’s my bet the Watergate era will be remembered as “a” pinnacle of American journalism – not “the.”

  About the author: Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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