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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Forget the Glamour, Knock on the Doors   

Carl Bernstein looks back at Watergate and takes the temperature of contemporary journalism.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Woodward and Bernstein. Woodstein. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate twins, as inextricably linked in our collective memory as Lennon and McCartney, Sacco and Vanzetti, Batman and Robin, Laverne and Shirley, Laurel and Hardy, Peaches and Herb, Bill and Monica.

And yet they have traveled very different paths in the quarter-century that has passed since their reporting brought down a president.

Woodward has known little but success, writing bestseller after bestseller, breaking big stories, establishing himself as perhaps the outstanding reporter of his era.

Bernstein, too, has written books, but he has spent the post-Watergate years largely out of the limelight.

Fittingly, he has re-emerged in the midst of the most serious presidential crisis since the one he helped trigger, occasionally joining the battalion of television talking heads commenting on--what else?--the president and the former intern.

So it was with great curiosity that I awaited his speech at the annual convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in San Antonio in September.

The continuing hold of Watergate on journalists was palpable. During the Q-and-A portion of the event, questioner after questioner told Bernstein that they considered it a great honor to be in the same room with him.

And it was interesting to get Bernstein's take on the state of the news media at a time of high-profile ethical lapses and heated debate over coverage of the ongoing White House scandal.

He started out by saying that he was loath to join in the chorus of media-bashing. In many ways, he said, journalism is much better today than it was during the Watergate era. There's simply more of it, there are more outstanding people practicing it and going into it, and there is more sophisticated reporting on complex subjects.

At the same time, Bernstein was deeply troubled by what he called the "triumph of idiot culture," in journalism as elsewhere.

He also pointed the finger at a much-criticized villain, the combustible mix of instant communication and frenzied competition. This, he said, created problems when the Clinton-Lewinsky story broke, particularly on cable, where wall-to-wall coverage exaggerated the drama.

But don't count Bernstein among those who think the current contretemps has been way overcovered. He points out quite correctly that an investigation that may well lead to impeachment is "a deadly serious, grave business." And, he believes, the news media "have done a terrific job on the whole."

Before he left the podium, Bernstein was asked about Watergate's legacy to journalism. The chase, he recalled, was "very unglamorous." It was about knocking on doors, not pontificating on pundit shows and chowing down at glitzy expense account restaurants. The bottom line: Good journalism is hard work.

We can't be reminded of that too often.

The advent of Salon, with its hip, provocative amalgam of serious political journalism, cultural coverage and abundant sexual commentary, has been one of the more exciting developments in the nascent field of online journalism.

That made it particularly disappointing that it would run with the Henry Hyde story.

Literally dozens of news organizations, not to mention Salon's own Washington correspondent, passed on the chance to report that the House Judiciary Committee chairman had had an affair 30 years ago. Undeterred, Salon Editor David Talbot did the story himself.

The fact that Salon published a story of dubious relevance to anything was sad enough. Even worse was its explanation of why it had done so.

"Ugly times call for ugly tactics," Salon's editorial proclaimed. It couldn't be more wrong.

You no doubt have already noticed that this month's AJR cover story is by Peter Arnett. Yes, the same Peter Arnett who got himself caught up in CNN's "Operation Tailwind" debacle.

Unless you were on Neptune over the summer, you know that Arnett was the on-camera talent for a since-retracted story saying that the United States used poison gas on American defectors in Laos in 1970. It turned out that Arnett, in a practice that sadly is all too prevalent, had little to do with reporting the piece.

Arnett says in retrospect he shouldn't have done what he did, and he's right. It's a bad, misleading way to do business, and it should be abolished (as Tom Johnson has ordered at CNN). But it's a transgression that pales next to many of the bullet items in journalism's recent litany of shame.

Arnett's reporting wasn't the issue. In fact, throughout his career, Arnett has been the man at the scene. He could tell the generals in Saigon they were wrong because he had seen first-hand. There's that unforgettable image from William Prochnau's wonderful book, "Once Upon a Distant War," of Arnett swimming across the Mekong River, a copy of his latest exclusive clamped between his teeth.

In reporting on the decline of foreign news in America's newspapers, Arnett characteristically was once again on the scene, visiting newsrooms across the nation to find out what was happening and why. It turned out to be a fascinating journey, albeit a disheartening one.