Politics & Policy

Getting It Right

Watergate's lessons for a media lacking credibility.

The opening of the Watergate papers at the University of Texas at Austin last week provided more than just another opportunity to speculate on the identity of Deep Throat. The reporting on Watergate was journalism at its best. Following a year in which Dan Rather, one of the icons of Watergate, tried to cover up the use of forged documents in a news story (Peggy Noonan reflects on this irony here), it might be useful to take this moment to ask ourselves how journalists can do better.

For former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, the answer is simple. Speaking at a symposium at UT to celebrate the opening of the Watergate Archive, Lewis blamed the press for failing to bring down a president who in Lewis’s opinion is so corrupt he makes Richard Nixon “look like an amateur when it comes to arrogating government power.” Lewis ranted about the many supposed crimes of the Bush administration for about five minutes, concluding that the press had failed to hold Bush accountable for all these crimes. Sadly, he got the loudest applause of any single panelist, including Woodward and Bernstein, but later–through divine intervention–his microphone malfunctioned and cut off another laundry list of grievances.

For Lewis it’s simple: Today’s reporters are not bringing down this president, the one Lewis finds so detestable. Today’s reporters do not agree with Lewis that “something is wrong.” But listening to the comments of Woodward and Bernstein this week, and reflecting on the nature of their investigation into Watergate, might lead one to a different diagnosis of the problem.

In an interview with Woodward last week, I asked him about the media’s credibility crisis, and what could individual reporters and editors do to improve things. “Just be more careful, more thorough,” he said. “Try not to do these hurry-up stories under a lot of pressure.” He said that most of the time, the premium on getting information out fast was causing journalists to sacrifice the quality of the information.

Bernstein echoed his former partner’s criticisms in an interview with Houston Chronicle, claiming that “speed often substitutes for accuracy” in today’s media environment. He said that the benefits from the technology and information available to today’s journalists had been offset by the competitive pressures that drive the 24-hour news cycle.

Last week, the Washington Post itself provided evidence to back up this contention. The Post’s economic writer, Jonathan Weisman, made an embarrassing mistake when he went to press with details of President Bush’s Social Security plan that turned out to be inaccurate. The story claimed that under the president’s plan, a worker would have to return the money in his personal account to the government, keeping only the interest. This idea naturally horrified conservatives, for whom ownership of the account is the principal reason for Social Security reform. Weisman posted a corrected version of the story hours later, after the White House issued a press release debunking the whole thing.

Donald Luskin rightly excoriated Weisman for getting such a major detail wrong, attributing the error to Weisman’s eagerness to “quote conservatives criticizing Bush.” However, Weisman’s history with fellow liberals suggests that other factors might also be at work.

In February of 2004, left-wing blogger Brad DeLong accused Weisman, Mike Allen, and Fred Barbash of essentially rewriting a Bush press release in one of their articles on the budget. Weisman fired back, cc’ing DeLong on an e-mail to a colleague that read: “The first piece put on the web is slapped together as quickly as possible,” and indicating that he had written a more in-depth story that had gone online later.

It is a pattern that, exactly one year later, appears to have recurred in Weisman’s treatment of the president’s Social Security plan. An article published last August in the Columbia Journalism Review criticized reporters for this pattern of publishing spin as fact. Now that Bush has won the election, however, the White House is getting all the blame for the sorry state of political coverage. The American Journalism Review has just indicted the administration for being obsessively secretive, and Jack Shafer at Slate compared Bush’s communications strategy to Kim Jong-Il’s brainwashing machine.

While it’s true that the Bush White House is more tight-lipped than its predecessors, the opening of the Watergate papers should help us keep perspective: No president hated the press more than Nixon.

In our interview, Woodward said, “I don’t know anyone who sat down with Nixon during his first term for four hours and asked him the questions I asked about Bush’s response to 9/11 and the Afghanistan war. We spent hours doing that. Nixon never did anything comparable.”

Despite the fact that Nixon was a hostile and paranoid president who used all his powers to intimidate the media, two reporters were able to uncover the corruption that surrounded him. However, it took them two years of patient reporting to chase the story and, as Bernstein said Friday, to get “the best obtainable version of the truth.” If today’s media weren’t so obsessed with reporting the story fast, they may get better at reporting the story right.

Stephen Spruiell is the editor of the LBJ Journal Online at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin.

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