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Friday, June 10, 2005

Watergate's Journalistic Legacy

The following is a statement by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post:

“But it must also be said that while Watergate and "All the President's Men" briefly turned journalists into heroes, they may have contributed to the long-term credibility problems of the profession. Too many journalists became sloppy with anonymous sources, some of whom didn't have first-hand knowledge of what they were talking about, and some reporters tried to pump every two-bit scandal into a "-gate." Having been lied to by the Nixon White House, journalists became more confrontational, more prosecutorial and more willing to assume that politicians must be lying. And the news business is still paying the price for some of those excesses.”

His statement contains a number of truths.

Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting exposed criminal behavior connected to the President of the United States, and made heroes of them. Many believe that this was the finest hour of the media. What Woodward and Bernstein also did in exposing the Watergate burglary cover-up, however, was to create tremendous desire among their fellow journalists to get the next “Big Story.” Reporters and editors often weren’t thorough and took shortcuts that resulted in sloppy work at best, and dishonest and inaccurate news at worst.

Mr. Kurtz said, “Having been lied to by the Nixon White House, journalists became more confrontational, more prosecutorial and more willing to assume that politicians must be lying.” This statement is true and provides insight into the underlying bias of many reporters. The press/media are supposed to be skeptical of government. That is one of the safeguards that the citizenry has against official mischief. It is that watchdog role that earned the press/media the title “the Fourth Estate.” But while it is the proper role of the media to keep an eye on government and politicians, it is not the job of journalists to be “prosecutorial” “confrontational," or to assume politicians are lying.

To the contrary, reporters are supposed to develop leads and follow them. They are supposed to ask questions of relevant persons and report the answers they receive. If they don’t get the answers they think are the right answers, they have to find reliable and credible sources who have information to support what they think is the truth. They are not supposed to become adversaries of the people they interview. They are supposed to present credible information based upon reliable and knowledgeable sources.

Some reporters are interested in making headlines or creating news where none exists, for selfish or ideological purposes. They use single anonymous sources as authorities to create their “Big Story,” but as Mr. Kurtz said, sources sometimes didn't have first-hand knowledge of what they were talking about, and thus were not qualified to be sources. Even if the source has first-hand knowledge, if he or she wants to remain anonymous, other sources are needed to provide credibility.

This is why the use of, and reliance upon a single anonymous source has been so harshly condemned. A story backed up by only one anonymous source is merely an allegation, it is not a news story, and it has no place in news reports. This practice violates the most basic tenet of responsible journalism, which is to accurately and fairly report what actually happened.

Woodward and Bernstein were lucky. Their single anonymous source, if indeed Mark Felt was the only person known as “Deep Throat,” turned out to be mostly credible and reliable. Many single anonymous sources aren’t, and a reporter and his/her editor are playing with fire to rely on them. Unfortunately, all too many of them lack the discipline and integrity to make sure a story is correct before printing or airing it.

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