Our memory of Watergate owes much to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who spent two years investigating the burglary at the Democratic National Committee offices, uncovering a criminal conspiracy inside the Oval Office.
But 40 years ago, if you lived in Maine or Wyoming and wanted to follow Woodward and Bernstein’s day-to-day revelations, you’d probably have to get them filtered through broadcast news reports by Walter Cronkite. You probably wouldn’t have access to a copy of the Washington Post; maybe your local paper would reprint the articles later, or you’d read rival reporters’ work. To get Woodward and Bernstein themselves, you might have to wait for the publication of All the President’s Men, which revealed the behind-the-scenes of stories you may never have actually read.
If it were breaking today, every Woodward and Bernstein scoop on Watergate would be instantly available to you, no matter where you lived, by logging onto the Post website. You could share the article with your friends on Facebook, or discuss it on Twitter. You could read any number of blogs deconstructing the stories, written by everyone from amateur hobbyists to experts on the legal issues. If you chose (and maybe if you didn’t have a job), you could read every single word written by or about Woodward and Bernstein, all with the click of a mouse.
So does this mean we’re in a golden age of journalism? It would be nice to think so. It’s true that Americans with Internet access can find more journalism than ever before, from every perspective and all over the world. I can look out over the Pacific Ocean and swipe my phone to read about farming techniques in Mongolia.
However, as many have pointed out, the new economy of journalism favors speed over drawn-out investigative scoops. Editors want to find as many eyeballs as possible for their stories and elbow out competitors in a 24-hour news cycle. That leads to more stories about random tweets or gotcha comments than investigations taking weeks to report. While the local reporters left do a great job (think about the Chris Christie bridge scandal), there aren’t enough of them; employment at daily newspapers dropped by one-third from 2000 to 2012. There’s more news these days about the news than news itself.
Carl Bernstein actually saw this coming. In 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, he told the PBS Newshour, “If you’re covering City Hall and what you’re really looking for is to catch the mayor saying something that’s a little untrue and turning it into a big story when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can’t get their water and they’re getting poisoned, you’re missing the news.” Ten years later, the only difference is that nobody covers City Hall anymore.
It doesn’t have to be this way. New communication tools make stories easier to gather than ever.The Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald was living in Rio de Janeiro and his colleague Laura Poitras in Germany when Edward Snowden contacted them over the Internet from Hawaii. That led to a series of stories about the National Security Agency that won a Pulitzer Prize.
But while that case would not have been possible without online communication and encrypted software, in the end it looked a lot like how Woodward and Bernstein got their Watergate stories. Woodward would signal Deep Throat about meetings by moving a flower pot with a red flag in it to his balcony. Greenwald and Poitras found Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel by looking for a man holding a Rubik’s Cube. As Bernstein told DuJour, journalism is “a means of getting to the best obtainable version of the truth. It requires a lot of diligence and perseverance and common sense to achieve.” While these days we may have a bounty of media, we need to make sure we have the journalism that actually matters.