The Magic Lantern

This piece originally appeared in The Age

Forty years ago, five men in business suits were arrested burgling the Watergate building in Washington DC, the site of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. What was initially dismissed as a “third-rate burglary” by the White House press secretary would provide the thread for exposing a thoroughly criminalised White House, led by the paranoid delusions of its very strange 37th president, Richard Nixon.

The bungled burglary may have been left as just that but for the now-fabled tenacity of two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Invaluably fed information from their highly placed source “Deep Throat” (later revealed to be Mark Felt, then the No. 2 at the FBI), Woodward and Bernstein painstakingly mapped and corroborated the White House conspiracy, using tried-and-tested techniques – knocking on doors and talking to people. “It was old-fashioned police reporting,” Bernstein said this week. “A shoe-leather endeavour.”

Today, some of us may fetishise the achievements, but it’s difficult to overstate their importance: their unveiling of industrialised criminality led to the only resignation of a US president, and gave all of us an enduring suffix to append to descriptions of scandals.

But 40 years on, what’s the state of political journalism? Can Watergate tell us anything about the perilous future of newspapers in the information age?

Recently, Yale University asked its journalism students to write one page on how they thought Watergate would be reported in the age of Google. The professor leading the class had arranged for Woodward to speak to the students afterwards. The famed reporter was shocked by what he saw.

Essentially, the students had written that they would simply Google “Nixon’s secret fund” and the conspiracy would promptly reveal itself. Woodward would later say the students felt that the “Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events… they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate”.

This naivety infects one of the popular theories on the future of journalism—that bloggers and other independent writers will heroically fill the breach left by liquidated newspapers. That a benevolent web of “citizen journalism” will bridge the chasm. This theorised web would constitute lone bloggers, writers for independent online publications and the engaged citizen providing impromptu reports.

There is some superb independent writing out there, but this theory strikes me as absurdly optimistic. For starters, it’s ignorant of the specific skills and institutional support that birthed the Watergate scoop. You’ll find the same skills and institutional support were vital in making sense of the Wikileaks cables. That’s why Julian Assange gave them to four reputable newspapers—The New York TimesDer SpiegelLe Monde and The Guardian—well before their public release, so trained journalists could corroborate and contextualise them for their readers.

Newspapers do not have a monopoly on quality journalism; in fact, much in our papers is scarred with the fatuous, the inflammatory and the lazy. But newspapers traditionally have attracted, trained and supported our finest political writers. The public goodwill that newspapers have developed—and the imprimatur they confer on their journalists—has allowed for an access to public figures and institutions as yet unavailable to our notional “citizen journalist”.

One of the curious demarcations in the culture wars is that between “mainstream journalists” and independent writers. The line is most hurriedly and observably drawn on Twitter, where bloggers and journalists boorishly defend their turf. Not all, mind you. Many writers and journalists realise it’s an increasingly fatuous distinction.

The battle goes like this: independent writers charge that Canberra’s press gallery has squandered their readers’ goodwill with a mindless focus on trivia. With some, you detect a gleeful anticipation of the collapse of mainstream newspapers. The other side derides the bloggers’ smug detachment from journalistic and political realities, arguing they know nothing of “shoe-leather endeavour”.

The truth is, both have points. Many independent writers and bloggers provide commentary rather than reporting, depending on mainstream journalists’ facts for their analysis. Much of it is very good, but I doubt that the less glamorous aspects of our civic life will be covered by a well-intentioned brigade of bloggers.

For the other side, much of our political reportage is dross, the web versions of our major newspapers are disheartening and publishers seem increasingly confused or cynical in their response to a haemorrhaging model.

If it’s the total collapse of newspapers you’re after—I mean, totally expunged with no digital life either—be very, very careful of what you wish for. There are a few ways this could yet go, and it might not be the Schumpeterian destruction some hope for. In San Diego, the daily has been bought out by a major developer who has devoted its pages to his business agenda. He’s absolutely frank about it too, and you can be assured he has no interest in the inspired detective work of Woodward and Bernstein.

High-end journalism is being eroded the world over, and the democratisation of micro-publishing isn’t an antidote. David Simon, a former Baltimore newspaperman and creator of the television series The Wire, testified at a Senate hearing into the future of journalism. He said: “You do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don’t see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others.”

And I don’t see many bloggers—of which I am one—doing much of that in this country, either. We live in a country beguiled by possessive apostrophes whose blogs are given to repetition and apoplexy. Perhaps, if newspapers continue to be squeezed and liquidated, we’ll all be unveiling Captain Emads and AWB scandals in our spare time, but I doubt it. Good journalism is one of the more muscular expressions of democracy, and if the Lowy Institute’s poll last week was right in revealing a generational antipathy towards democracy, a healthy and vigorous fourth estate is as vital as ever.

Read Bernard Keane’s response in Crikey here.

One Response to The Magic Lantern

  1. Mr Pedant says:

    “… —and the imprimatur they confer to their journalists—has allowed for an access to public figures and institutions as yet unavailable to our notional “citizen journalist”… ”

    Confer *to*?

    No, confer *on*. Check it if you like.

    Mr Pedant.

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