When reporters were heroes


When "Deep Throat" first cloaked himself in secrecy, W. Mark Felt was the nation's No. 2 crime fighter, the presidency was headed into some of its darkest days ever and the news media were on the verge of what would be their brightest.

Today, more than 30 years later, Felt is a 91-year-old stroke victim who uses a walker. The presidency has, despite some bumps, rebounded. And the news media are limping through a mire of scandal, public distrust and self-doubt.

Felt's disclosure that he was the nation's most famous anonymous source comes at a time - ironically or not - when the press, and newspapers in particular, is re-examining not just that practice, but its very soul.

Battered by those who consider it too liberal, more concerned with profits than pursuing truth, some critics say, and left reeling after a series of blows to its integrity - from the fabricated reporting of Stephen Glass to Jayson Blair to Jack Kelly - the industry, fearful of its future, is endlessly re-examining itself as readership steadily declines.

It's a far cry from the years after the Watergate scandal was exposed, leading to Nixon's resignation, when newspapering became noble, cool, even, in some circles, respected.

Ed Asner played the gruff, but lovable, city editor Lou Grant on television. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the big screen. Journalism schools were inundated with applications. In the late 1970s, newspapering had a heyday.

Journalism was like a proud bulldog then - maybe, some would argue, a bit too quick to pounce. Today, by comparison, many on its front lines would describe it more along the lines of a quivering Chihuahua.

Against that backdrop, some in the business view the revelation of "Deep Throat's" identity - that he was real, that he was right, that he was protected - as evidence that unnamed sources, in some cases, have their place.

For others, the disclosure of "Deep Throat," in the coming issue of Vanity Fair, is a much-needed public reminder that the press is a vital part of a democracy.

"That was a moment in which the democratic system worked and journalism played an important role in its working," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We're looking back at it now almost with a sense of nostalgia because there haven't been great moments for the press to revel in since then. When people talk about the press, they talk about its failings now."

"There have been small heroic moments - like nursing home and mental institution investigations - but the big, breathtaking, stop-the-democracy moment hasn't occurred lately. ... We could have done it with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, but the press is patriotic and nationalistic and nationalism trumped the investigative instinct." Instead, she said "journalists rolled over and played dead."

While some criticize the modern-day media as lax; others still see them as overly aggressive. More harmful to their image, though, have been the much-publicized cases of sloppy and flat-out bogus reporting.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was fired for making up quotes, people, places, even entire events, in articles he wrote for The New Republic magazine and others. His fall from grace was the subject of the 2003 bad-reporter movie, Shattered Glass, which hit the screen 27 years after the Watergate-inspired reporter-as-hero movie, All The President's Men.

After Glass came Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter, and former University of Maryland student, fired for making up sources and stories. Then came Jack Kelly, forced to resign from USA Today for similar reasons.

USA Today says it has reduced its use of anonymous sources - an "evil" practice in the view of the newspaper's founder, Al Neuharth - by 75 percent in the past year, and across the country, hundreds of newspapers are considering or have already established policies prohibiting or restricting the use of unnamed sources.

Too heavy a reliance on unnamed sources was a factor in both Newsweek's controversial Quran-abuse story and CBS' report on President Bush's National Guard record.

Just last month, Newsweek retracted a story that, based on anonymous sources, said investigators at Guantanamo Bay prison, as part of their interrogations, had flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet - an article some blamed for leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, two nationally known reporters - one from The New York Times, one from Time magazine - still await final say on whether they will face jail time for failing to reveal who disclosed to them the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The lesson of Watergate, if not the legacy of "Deep Throat," Jamieson said, is that anonymous sources aren't the end of a reporter's search, but a beginning.

"The real danger of Watergate, the journalistic enterprise, is that young journalists mislearned the lesson and overvalued the anonymous source and undervalued the legwork."

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed that after Watergate, journalists became "somewhat sloppy" in their use of anonymous sources, and prone to using them in "less than critical stories, almost as a convenience.

"Having said that, I absolutely defend the public's right to know, and in the society in which we live today, in which there is a huge veil of secrecy and often deception, it is absolutely critical that people who know something and are willing to come forward but are afraid of being punished, persecuted or locked up in jail have a way to be heard.

"In my experience," he added, "most reporters want to do a good job, but they have neither the encouragement, the time, the resources, nor the sort of presumption of backup to engage in really edgy reporting. I fault not so much the reporters - I fault more the system that is so market-driven that it has a hard time doing these kind of projects, that is more concerned with enhancing the bottom line, and doing stories that 'get the eyeballs' Paris Hilton does."

Public confidence in the press has declined almost steadily since 1976, reaching a new low in 2000 before surging slightly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a Pew Research Center report released this year.

Most striking of all, the report says, is the decline in credibility of daily newspapers. In 1985, the report says, 16 percent of Americans said they could believe "little or nothing" of what they read in their daily paper, compared to 45 percent in 2004.

"Thirty years ago, members of the press were the heroes, but now there's a different view about reporters and journalists," said Andrew Kohut, director of the independent research center. "There's much more skepticism, much more cynicism ... . The news media has to regain some of its lost confidence to get anywhere close to where it was when this [Watergate] happened."

Polls show that the public's trust in Washington to do what is right has fluctuated since Watergate, rising during the early Reagan years and rebounding after the 1994 election that saw Republicans gain control of Congress. It shoots up from time to time, such as it did briefly after Sept. 11.

But Greg Schneiders, a Democratic strategist and former White House aide, believes the "whole notion of the upticks and downticks with regard to institutions tends to be overblown." Even if the public has grown more cynical, "the media still have enormous influence and the ability to do great damage to politicians who get in the line of fire," said Schneiders, who began his career as a strategist in Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign.

He also questions the validity of surveys that show a sharp drop in the public's trust in the news media. "It's a lot like their view of negative [campaign] advertising. They say they hate it and they don't believe it, but we know it works. What people say they think of the media and how they actually react to the media are two very different things," he said.

Joe Trippi, who was Howard Dean's campaign manager during the 2004 Democratic primaries, believes that "the press' lack of credibility has made politics a lot worse than it was, pre-Watergate."

A key difference that plays into this transformation: the proliferation of news sources and heightened competition to be first with the story in the 24-hour news cycle.

"It's actually become [easier] to get out damaging information about opposing candidates than it was back in the Watergate years. It's easy to leak dirt on an opponent because there are so many different outlets and different reporters to get it to."

Trippi contends that today's round-the-clock news cycle and heightened competition has also led to much less questioning about the motives of those who leak damaging material against opponents.

Bill Whalen, a Republican campaign strategist, now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says the media explosion that began in the 1980s - the emergence of the Internet and blogs, the rise of conservative talk radio - added another element.

"Now there is another voice in the mix. ... Where there is anger and frustration, it's now vented."

And the mainstream media's stories are more likely to be challenged, he said.

"What if CBS had run a story similar to its story about George Bush and the draft 30 years ago? What would have been the response to it by the GOP? Thirty years ago, you would not have had all these different vehicles - talk radio, the Internet - and the story would have gone through pretty much unchallenged."

He contends that anti-press sentiment can also play a role in the outcome of elections. He noted a series of stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger's personal behavior that ran in the Los Angeles Times before the California recall election. "You saw a backlash against the L.A. Times," he said, with voters questioning the newspaper's "tactics and motivation and timing."

Roger Stone, a Republican consultant who worked as a Nixon campaign aide, said CBS' Bush-National Guard story had "done more to lower the credibility of the mass media among the voters than perhaps anything else in recent times. There used to be a supposition that if CBS or ABC or The Baltimore Sun reported a fact, you could believe it. Now big government, big politics and big media are all distrusted by the voters."

Stone said former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's attacks on the press as "nattering nabobs of negativism" would likely "resonate even more today than it did at the time."

Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, sees more than a few similarities between the two eras.

"Nixon was popular with a lot of people, and they regarded what Woodward and Bernstein were reporting as persecution, and so wild as to be unbelievable, and hanging it on anonymous sources made it even more questionable.

"Here we are 30 years later, and a lot of people are awfully unhappy with the press and what they are reporting, and have the feeling they are anti-government."

Kunkel says Watergate enhanced the popularity of journalism among people who wanted to be journalists, though maybe not the public at large.

He, too, believes that the press became too dependent on anonymous sources after Watergate. "It became much more fashionable - on the part of reporters, and also on the part of sources - to talk only on an anonymous basis."

In the wake of the Newsweek story, and the succession of scandals that preceded it, the profession "is looking very closely at how it conducts itself, and I think it's a good thing," he said.

Of course, while the news business was busy looking at itself, the long-running mystery of "Deep Throat's" identity was solved - not by a reporter, but by a lawyer.

And, to add a little more insult to injury, there is this: He wrote the Vanity Fair article, his colleagues said, in his spare time.

Journalism's darker days

If Woodward and Bernstein represent the glory days of American journalism, this trio symbolizes more recent bad times.

Stephen Glass was a young star at "The New Republic" magazine, coming up with one story after another that seemed too good to be true - because, it turns out, they weren't. His story was told with some attention to accuracy in the movie "Shattered Glass."

Jayson Blair made his name as an aggressive up-andcomer at "The New York Times," burnishing his reputation by stealing some stories and making up others before he was caught. Blair's serial misrepresentations led to what is considered the biggest scandal in the history of the "Times."

Jack Kelley was a respected foreign correspondent at "USA Today," one of the paper's original reporters. Colleagues who doubted the veracity of his stories were told that they were jealous. It turned out that they were right - Kelley was fabricating everything from small details to entire people.

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