Will somebody hand David S. Broder a Valium and a glass of water? Writing on the op-ed page of yesterday’s (Sept. 26) Washington Post, “The Dean of Washington political reporters” gives himself an itching hot case of the heebie-jeebies from assessing the state of American journalism.
Cataloging the deceptions of the New York Times’ Jayson Blair and USA Today’s Jack Kelley, the gullibility of CBS News’ Dan Rather, and overkill coverage of the Swift Boat Vets’ allegations, Broder writes, “it is hard to overcome the sense that the professional practices and code of responsibility in journalism have suffered a body blow.”
The Dean is taking it personally. “After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance,” he mopes, going on to attribute the recent decline in professional standards to 1) the emergence of the politician-turned-TV-anchor; 2) the preference for wordsmiths and activists over seasoned, aged-on-the-police-beat reporters; 3) news executives’ predilection for sensational stories that boost ratings and circulation; and, of course, 4) the Internet, which:
opened the door to scores of “journalists” who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, [when] the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations. That is how it happened that old pros such as Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards slip.
Time was when any outfit such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that came around peddling an ad with implausible charges would have run into a hard-nosed reporter whose first questions—before he or she ran with the story—would have been, “Who the hell are you guys? What’s your angle? What’s your proof?”
As much as I admire Broder’s tut-tutting skills, he should know that I can cluck my tongue better than anybody who can cluck faster, and faster than anybody who can cluck better, when it comes to press transgressions. What’s more, I keep a bag packed in my closet and a Gulfstream gassed at Reagan National in case somebody calls from Tierra del Fuego, Baffin Island, Diego Garcia, or any other remote media market requesting an emergency investigation of waning journalistic standards. But how can I possibly follow The Dean on his particular tour when he never begins to explain how George Stephanopoulos’ and Tim Russert’s infiltration of the fourth estate, the embrace of good writing, the pursuit of circulation and profit, and the invention of the Web conspired to cause Blair’s lies, Kelley’s malpractice, or Rathergate?
Broder’s rant makes him sound like every other grandfather who wakes up one day to find himself confused by the modern era and wishing for the simplicity of the good old days. But the reporters working in the good old days were not as skeptical as he remembers, nor were they more ethical than today’s. If Broder doesn’t believe me, I refer him to the journalistic screw-ups and compromises of the newspaper that has employed him since 1966.
I drag the Washington Post into this discussion not because it’s been a sloppy, unethical paper but because it’s been one of the best and most principled. But even the best newspaper operating during what Broder must imagine as the salad days of journalism stumbles. Has Broder forgotten Janet Cooke’s Sept. 28, 1980, Pulitzer Prize-winning heroin hoax of the Post, “Jimmy’s World“? Where were Broder’s hardnoses that week?
Or how about Oct. 5, 1981, when the Post’sgossip columnist, “The Ear,” reported that President Carter had bugged Blair House, where President-elect Ronald Reagan and his wife had stayed before Reagan’s inauguration. The Ear wrote, “And at least one tattler in the Carter tribe has described listening in to the Tape Itself.” The Post blustered in defense of the story, just as Dan Rather did in defense of his, but 17 days after the item appeared, and after the Carters threatened a libel suit, Post Publisher Donald E. Graham did the right thing and wrote them a personal letter of apology that retracted the story. Where were Broder’s hardnoses that week?
If Broder thinks reporters can compromise journalistic standards today because “senior journalists” are looking the other way, he should reread Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men. The young pair is remarkably candid in the book about their iffy journalistic methods and practices circa 1972, part of Broder’s golden age.
- Woodward lies to his source, Deep Throat: “Though it wasn’t true, Woodward told Deep Throat that he and Bernstein had a story for the following week saying that Haldeman was the fifth person in control of disbursements from the secret fund.”
- Bernstein knowingly crosses an ethical line when he requests confidential telephone toll records from his phone company sources: “Bernstein had several sources in the Bell System. He was always reluctant to use them to get information about calls because of the ethical questions involved in breaching the confidentiality of a person’s telephone records. … Without dwelling on his problem, Bernstein called a telephone company source and asked for a list of [Bernard] Barker’s calls.”
- A Bernstein source who is a law enforcement official in Miami asks Bernstein for information about an individual: “A couple of weeks before, [Martin] Dardis had called him for a favor. ‘It’s on a case we’re working, not related to Watergate,’ he had told Bernstein. ‘You must have some friends at the Pentagon or somewhere in the military. If you could get somebody to look up the records for you …’ Then he asked for any possible derogatory information—arrests, mental illness, history of homosexuality—in the file of Neal Sonnett.” A Pentagon colonel agrees to get Sonnett’s military information for Bernstein, but when he tells Dardis he’s submitted the questions, Dardis says the information is no longer needed.
- Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee approves Woodward and Bernstein’s plan to ask grand jurors to share what’s happening in the grand jury proceedings: “Grand jurors took an oath to keep secret their deliberations and the testimony before them; but the burden of secrecy, it appeared, was on the juror.”
- Bradlee attempts to write a correction for a story that Woodward says is flawed. Bradlee: “I can remember sitting down at the typewriter and writing about thirty statements and then sort of saying, ‘Fuck it, let’s go stand by our boys.’ “
Had Broder applied his higher cognitive functions to writing this piece instead of relying on his limbic system, he’d understand that what appears to be a collapse of professional standards is actually a rise in ethical standards and an increase in the arrest rate of journalistic reprobates thanks to technology. Computers, the Web, and the Nexis news database make it much easier to expose plagiarists and fabulists whose crimes would have gone undetected in 1966. Nearly every big city newspaper employs a press reporter these days to police such misbehavior, and many have ombudsmen. If Ben Bradlee tried to duck a significant error in reporting today, the TV talk shows, the blogosphere, and the daily press would gang-tackle him and send him to Romeneskofor detention.
David Broder’s complaint is less about journalism’s bad year than it is about David Broder’s bad decade. Once upon a time, The Dean and other surviving members of the old guard—to which I’d add Jack Germond and Johnny Apple—enjoyed a level of prestige and influence that nobody can claim today. But technology, competition rising from every corner, and the cruelty of age have diminished all of them. Instead of accepting the new—improved—era, Broder would prefer to channel Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent star in Sunset Boulevard played by Gloria Swanson, who is blind to the passing of her day.
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” Desmond says.
I’m indebted to Stephen Bates’ unaccountably out-of-print If No News Send Rumors for the historical section about the Post. Will somebody in New York publishing please commission an updated version? Send e-mail with your candidate for the best out-of-print book to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)