Whither (or wither) the state of journalism?

Woodward told him what he and Bernstein had heard from the Bookkeeper about Magruder and Porter.

“They’re both deeply involved in Watergate,” Deep Throat responded. He sounded resigned, dejected.

Woodward asked him to be more exact.

“Watergate,” he repeated. Then he paused and added, “The whole thing.”

He confirmed that Magruder and Porter had received at least $50,000 from Stans’ safe. And Woodward could be damned sure that the money had not been used for legitimate purposes — that was fact, not allegation. That was all he would say. From there, Woodward and Bernstein would be on their own for a while.  …

Bernstein was already sparring with the typewriter. Woodward glanced at the lead:

“Two of President Nixon’s top campaign officials each withdrew more than $50,000 from a secret fund that financed the bugging of Democratic headquarters, according to sources close to the Watergate investigation.”

     — “All the President’s Men

Two of the legends of American journalism spoke again this year at the American Society of News Editors convention in Washington on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the third-rate burglary at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.

Carl Bernstein remarked, “We were fortunate and lucky enough to work for a newspaper where the bottom line was the truth.”

The bottom line is that the number of reporters and editors at American newspapers has shrunk 26 percent in just the past five years, as advertising revenue has fallen precipitously and the use of online devices for obtaining news has cut into the time people once devoted to reading newspapers.


At a session titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?” Bob Woodward noted that someone once said the two reporters basically stumbled into the Watergate story, “That’s about 90 percent correct.” But after that, Woodward offered, the task was “in-depth, persistent reporting,” finding the next hook for the next story.

An account of the session reported by the Newspaper Association of America said Woodward and Bernstein “operated in an era without the Internet, computers or cable television. But in today’s digital era of tweeting and blogging, investigative journalism and news in general take(s) a different shape.”

No, it doesn’t. How absurd. There may be a deadline every minute, as the old UPI motto stated, but news is still dug out by talking to people and ascertaining previously unknown facts, not merely aggregating known information found by Googling or Yahooing on the Internet.

A startling ignorance of this by advanced journalism students at Yale University was reported in The Wall Street Journal by columnist L. Gordon Crovitz.

Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer and Court TV, told Crovitz he asks his elite students every year whether Watergate could have been reported by simply using Internet sources.

After reading essays by those students, Woodward wrote to Brill, “To a person, your students have what I can only call a heart-stopping over-confidence in the quality of the information on the Internet.”

Crovitz writes:

“Another student wrote that ‘with the advancements in the technology of the Internet,’ it ‘would be simple to track down the $50,000 that were withdrawn from the intelligence-gathering fund.’ Another speculated that ‘the online community would have gone into a tweeting frenzy.’

“Why would bright students think they could simply do a Google search for ‘Watergate’? Mr. Woodward told me last week that the ‘magic lantern’ phrase came to him after reading one of the Yale essays as saying, in effect: ‘Just go to the Internet and Google “$50,000 secret fund” and somehow details of a hidden criminal conspiracy would be there.'”


I’ve heard Woodward and Bernstein speak at past ASNE conventions, as well as their editor Ben Bradlee. The Watergate story was reported by using reliable human sources who had inside information. The stories kept coming, despite a calculated White House backlash with a disinformation campaign and legal threats, because the editor and publisher of the Washington Post expressed a willingness to go to jail rather than give up their reporters’ notes and sources.

No Internet search could ever reveal someone pulling cash from a private office safe. Perhaps the NSA could, but that’s another frightening story.

This story is being reported without picking up the telephone and calling a single person, without meeting anyone in an underground garage. That means it isn’t news. And if future journalists think the Internet is a substitute for shoe leather, this country is in a fine fettle.

Here are some handheld videos from the ASNE session:

(Click on the “Follow Blog via Email” link at top right to receive an email alert when new blog items — mostly Internet aggregation and commentary, but some occasional original reporting — are posted.)

21 comments on “Whither (or wither) the state of journalism?

  1. nyp10025 says:

    On the other hand, this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists have some fine examples of shoe leather reporting.

  2. Yes, but there is 26 percent less shoe leather out there.


  3. Ched says:

    College students’ notions of the reliability of information garnered on the web is hardly journalism’s biggest problem. I submit these instead:

    > The indsutry’s inability to change and adapt to the Internet age

    > The fiscal mismanagement by those at the very top of some companies

    > The crushing effects on advertising dollars of the recession

    > The constant, almost 20-year drone of Fox News’ bullshit “liberal media” claim – interrupted only to feed viewers’ prurient interests in the latest damsel-in-distress story or some manufactured outrage that proves the former: “the vicious attack on Ann Romney,” an almost continuous video loop of the same three Black Panther Party nuts …

  4. nyp10025 says:

    I despise Fox News as much as the next liberal, but journalism, particularly print journalism would be in a terrible position even if Roger Ailes had never been born.

  5. Beryl Baer says:

    Excellent but depressing piece!

  6. Sorry, Ched, after many years of ASNE conventions, I can attest the “liberal media” charge is not bullshit. Your other points are largely accurate.

  7. brucefeher says:

    News! Are you kidding me? The “modern” generation is more interested in who won American Idol!
    I saw a show on the History channel where they interviewed one of the crew on the Enola Gay and he said he recently spoke at a High School in his town and the teacher introduced him as a veteran of World War ELEVEN!
    News? Who cares????

  8. Please elucidate, Petey.

  9. World War Eleven? My retired teacher wife groaned.

  10. Steve says:

    If Watergate took place in today’s digital world.

    Would anyone know just who broke the story?

    Look at the rumors that still surround the Angle/Reid election. On as simple an issue of polling showing Angle ahead, then Reid takes the vote along the same lines he has for the last couple cycles, we get tons of persistent conspiracy theories. The polling was likely due to all the outside money and advertising, the public responded to outside influences but voted the way they did in past elections anyway.

    What would have happened with those 18 minutes of blank tape? I think there are conspiracy theories that persist to this day. Today the rumors would travel at the speed of light all over the world and multiply with each readers take on the situation.

    Like those days one has to find good sources of information and double check it with other sources.

    Before the internet there were plenty of rags at the supermarket check stands. Today there are plenty of rags on the internet.

    Shoe leather may disappear but shoes never will and it takes people to make this all work no matter how much technology is available to speed it up.

    Of course there are growing pains but I think it will all shake out for the better.

  11. nyp10025 says:

    I believe the Murdoch press degrades civil discourse in the United States just as it does in the UK. But, of course I would believe that. However, the parlous state of print journalism can’t be blamed on right-wing media outlets. It is mostly the internet destroying the traditional newspaper business model and not replacing it with something that can support high-quality journalism.
    As for the ignorance of the American public … well, I don’t know about that. Complaining about “kids these days” seems to be a constant theme from decade to decade.

  12. Vernon Clayson says:

    I’m surprised nyp10025 didn’t bring up the quotation attributed to the ancient Socrates, and others, “The children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders, etc., etc. But enough about “kids these days”, Mr. Mitchell was writing about the decline of journalism rather than being judgmental of the American public. As for how the Woodward and Bernstein revelations about the Watergate burglary would be carried/handled today, the first thing I think of is that the Nixon isn’t president so it’s a stretch into the hypothetical but the main stream media headlines today would be larger and stories even more condemning, even juicier, he was a Republican. Times change, if something similar happened now with Obama at the helm the news media would make an issue of something else, e.g., Secret Service agents partying in Columbia to take the edge off his blunder of refusing to consider Cuba joining in the political conference there. That was obviously aimed at pleasing Cubans in this country at the expense of alienating every other nation in this hemisphere, and wasn’t especially clever as Cubans surely recognize pandering, they aren’t liberals or Chicagoans. He may even have believed this ploy pleased all Latino voters, but most are from the very countries he discounted and have their own loyalties. I strayed almost as much as nyp10025, so back to journalism’s struggles, we are so deluged with news on television that few see the difference between news of significance and the spin of the so-called talking heads, the smarmy insults of Bill Maher and the sarcastic insults of Jon Stewart. Newspapers have to adjust, they shouldn’t compete with the electronic media and they shouldn’t do political spin, they should report facts and let the reader form an opinion from that. The grim reportage of TVs Scott Pelley, Brian Williams and Bob Scheifer, or the agonizing of Bill O’Reilly, isn’t necessary, but can’t be replicated in a newspaper, just report that the economy and employment is in free fall and the Senate no longer produces a budget, we’ll take it from there. As for newspaper advertising it’s going the way of the telephone book, if a person wants to buy something or needs a service a click of the mouse gives thousands, if not millions, of results. If newspapers want readers, they should start with headlines that say,WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN WASHINGTON, and give a true unbiased opinion.

  13. Athos says:

    Watergate. What a conflicting memory (I was in college at the time). I’ve often wondered if “Woodstein” would have been equally dogged, if they were around during the LBJ years.

    And, of course, we know how effective the “shoe leather on the ground” was during JFK’s years, don’t we?

    Could the decline of news reporting have more to do with the ideologies of the reporters? (as compared to the ideologies comprising our nation)?

    After all, there was a reason the new Coke was a such a bust out. (There weren’t enough people that liked it)

  14. Vernon Clayson says:

    Woodward and Bernstein were more ennobled by a movie than their actual writing. The famous/infamous “Deep Throat” was a rat, an unscrupulous disgruntled FBI agent, not identified until he was reportedly near death and troubled with dementia. He was more treacherous and problematic than the Secret Service agents that were recently faulted for having engaged with prostitutes in Columbia; I recall the Congress did not press the issue for identification of the source for Woodward and Bernstein’s speculation, they took it a face value, much as they have Barack Obama’s credentials. Nixon, for all of his faults, acted honorably and resigned the presidency rather than further shame the office; history has come around to acknowledging that he did some good, e.g., ending the Vietnam War by seeking a way out while his predecessor, LBJ, lost heart after years of personally approving bomb targets and didn’t run for another term. LBJ’s Great Society lives on and is part and parcel of today’s movement towards bigger government and socialism in this country. Watergate was a piss ant affair and is better forgotten considering the foibles of more recent presidents, including the current office holder.

  15. Athos says:

    I’ve heard that the flap in Colombia was caused by a Secret Service Agent refusing to pay the $46 “service fee” and the prostitute called the police.

    Anyone else heard this rendition?

  16. Sources often have ulterior motives, but factual information. Loyal people don’t snitch.

  17. It was $47 and hotel management called the cops over the argument.

  18. Athos says:

    What sort of elitist idiot employs a hooker, and then refuses to pay for the hooker? All while working for the Secret Service? What part of “Secret” does this idiot not understand?

    Or is this just the quality of men that would take a bullet for Ø?

  19. Steve says:

    Too funny.

  20. Athos says:

    We can always count on BJ Clinton for raunchy laugh. Shame of it is, the man is REVERED in liberal circles.

    Did shame die in the last 15 years?

  21. Steve says:

    Business lunch today got a one hundred percent positive laugh from everyone. Sometimes we need to lighten it up. This time we get to do so at the expense of some our favorite people!

    Hell I even know a couple self described liberal Democrats that got a chuckle from that photo.

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