Fatal balance: An Ice Age falls on the newsroom | Hal Crowther | Indy Week
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Fatal balance: An Ice Age falls on the newsroom 

The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before. William Safire

click to enlarge Bob Woodward: A symbol of everything thats desperately wrong with the media culture in Washington, D.C.
  • Bob Woodward: A symbol of everything thats desperately wrong with the media culture in Washington, D.C.
I have a serious problem with Bob Woodward. As venal conglomerates, an indifferent public, a septic culture and a hostile government rapidly drain the lifeblood from a free press that was once the envy of the world's democracies, it's no time, I know, for journalists to turn cannibal. But this legendary reporter, who took a crooked president's scalp and was once the torchbearer for every journalist who hoped to make a difference, has become, instead, a symbol of everything that's desperately wrong with the media culture in Washington, D.C.

As an unrestrained admirer of investigative reporters, who practice a critical art for which I was never suited, I concede without a murmur that Woodward may have been the greatest of them all. (I despise rewrite artists who will try to tell us, now, that Barry Bonds was overrated anyway.) For all I know, Woodward may still be a great reporter. If you sent the two of us out on a high-priority investigation and gave us a 24-hour deadline, I might turn up with a phone number--one digit missing--and he'd come back with a fistful of signed confessions. But success has been the undoing of this reporter, and his decline coincides precisely with the demoralizing decline of his trade.

I pointed out 10 years ago that Woodward, at the height of his Watergate celebrity, appeared to be exempt from all the rules of the game as I had learned them. How was it possible, I wondered, for him to be a salaried, favored employee of The Washington Post and yet withhold front-page information from his editors because he was saving it for his books? From my own experience of managing editors, this was a sin most of them would punish with instant unemployment, if not actual physical assault. In some cases, the reporter's children would not be safe from retribution. Yet Woodward was clearly authorized to hoard his scoops as he pleased; he was such a sacred cow that his editor, Len Downie, was clearly obliged to endure it.

We were encouraged to believe that Downie actually knew what Woodward had squirreled away--hiding information from the boss is the capital offense in every newsroom--but that myth was exploded when Woodward turned out to be a silent player in the Scooter Libby leak case. He never came clean until subpoenas loomed, leaving Downie covered with eggshells and albumen for the second time in a year: The editor's first humiliation came when Woodward declined to break the long-hidden identity of Watergate's Deep Throat in the Post before DT told the world.

Downie tried to save face by letting his smirking competitors understand that he had "taken Woodward to the woodshed" on the Libby case ("Aw gee, Bob, how could ya?"), but there's no apparent change in Woodward's status at the Post, or in the way he does his business. The Legend made it clear that he was just trying to protect key sources for his next big book from deep inside the Bush administration.

His biggest source, of course, is George Bush, to whom he's had unprecedented access--celebrity trading with celebrity, Washington style, while editors and readers of the Post, like the rest of us, watch the world go up in flames and wait patiently to see what pearls of revelation the president has bestowed on Bob Woodward and his hardcover publisher. The top man in the White House and the top man in the press room, both sworn to serve the public, instead serve each other while we wait and whistle.

Besides embarrassing his own newspaper, Woodward's private agenda tends to impeach its own importance. He's a reporter, not a historian. Iraq is a breaking story. If the content of his books is so earthshaking, if the secrets of a new generation of Deep Throats are so vital to the debate, couldn't they influence an election or a turn in foreign policy, even save some lives? Their shelf life, by definition, is brief. How could Woodward sit on them until his next book tour? "Unconscionable" is a strong enough word, but a journalist might favor a stronger one, like "sellout."

Can you sense my irritation? Ad hominem is always distasteful, and intramural media stories usually bore me. But the Scooter Libby case raises many unflattering questions about Woodward and his methods. To many beleaguered journalists, he's a pariah for the selfish way he exploited his celebrity and turned his back on the newsroom. Yet far beyond the Beltway, in places like Chapel Hill, Woodward descends in clouds of glory as the patron saint of the Fourth Estate, charging the natives $26,000 just to look at him.

"Journalist Woodward delights UNC audience," said the headline. Standing ovation, autographs, etc. I guess many of the locals just came to look at the man who bagged Nixon, the way they'd come to see the man who shot Jesse James. But the local reporter, Leah Friedman, was no fool. She tucked her own questions between the lines, noting the way Woodward recited the names of his publishers and nearly all his books, and that his "objectivity" was of an unprecedented purity: "He ended almost every point with an on-the-other-hand remark."

"I've been wrong in so many personal evaluations that I've taught myself not to have them," he boasted. Opinions are for lesser beings; Mr. Woodward soars high above personal feelings, like a god--or an info-cyborg, an organic tape recorder. Thirty-five years in the business, he said, has eradicated both emotion and intuition.

This nonsense is the final insult. After 40 years in that same business, I can't recall a time when it was easier to form opinions with confidence. Without benefit of Woodward's high-level sources, I've yet to make a prediction about the Iraq war that proved inaccurate, or offered a criticism of this administration that proved to be unfair--though many were too timid or too generous. In spite of its obsessive secrecy, the Bush White House is as obvious as Donald Trump's combover. Liars, bullies and bunglers, these conspirators are the authors and owners of the single worst mistake an American government has ever made. Ever. It takes no insight whatsoever to see through them, yet considerable courage to oppose them. They've created a national crisis where every credible voice can make a difference, where experienced journalists who close their eyes or mask their responses are something worse than useless.

Of course Woodward, who's neither an idiot nor a robot, has strong opinions about President Bush and Iraq. But if he expressed these views in public, he might lose his lucrative franchise as The Scribe Who Talks to Presidents. So the stubborn silence he presents as professional objectivity is, in my humble opinion, the most self-centered kind of hypocrisy.

I long to hear what Woodward might say in his own defense. But any response to his critics might place him in mortal danger of uttering a lowly opinion. Fortunately, many of his colleagues--further down the investigative food chain--object to placing their critical faculties in blind trusts. They shy from voluntary intellectual castration. In a furious memo to his editors, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, ridiculed "spurious balance" that produces "utterly spineless reporting."

"I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news," Silverstein wrote. "The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn off our brains and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. 'Balanced' is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers." In a column headed "A False Balance," Paul Krugman of The New York Times mocked "journalists who believe they must be 'balanced' even when the truth isn't balanced."

A depressing truth is that most media, in a politically charged marketplace, accept the Woodward Doctrine that opinions are bad for business. To imagine how Woodward might have behaved, hero-hungry Americans can turn nostalgically to Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's Academy Award-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck, a title that increases in irony every time you hear it. This timely film attracted my attention because Murrow's producer Fred Friendly, the character played by Clooney, was my broadcasting professor and faculty advisor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. How it would have delighted the late Fred, no matinee idol by any stretch, to see himself played by an actor once voted "the sexiest man alive" by readers of People magazine.

At Columbia, the voluble Friendly, recently president of CBS News, served as a sort of St. Paul of Tarsus to Murrow's Jesus Christ, a ministry that had increased in passion after Murrow's death in 1965. Everyone who studied with Fred was baptized in his idealistic Gospel of Murrow. For its optimism and aspirations, this pre-Watergate moment in the late '60s may have been the high watermark for American journalism, a nexus of self-confidence and public confidence without which Woodward and Bernstein would have been impossible.

There are two critically important messages in Clooney's film. The explicit one, expressed by David Strathairn as Murrow, is that certain events--in this case the Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy--push a responsible journalist beyond the convention of reportorial "balance." There are times when it's a question of right and wrong, not Right and Left, and a journalist's "objectivity" becomes a lame excuse for cowardice. Murrow was by nature a cautious man who had earned his spurs in the era of the FCC's Mayflower Doctrine, which prohibited all editorializing on the air, and its successor the Fairness Doctrine, which sanctioned opinion only if anyone who disagreed was granted air time to respond. Yet Murrow came to be convinced, after years of holding his fire, that McCarthy was evil and dangerous and had to be stopped. The risk he took and the dramatic way it changed the public's perception--on television, Sen. McCarthy, a sweaty, inarticulate drunk, was no match for Murrow's suave, controlled indignation--set a precedent that empowered American journalists in all media for 20 years to come.

With a license to editorialize and to criticize the government, broadcast news, which had been in its infancy, came of age. How brief, in retrospect, was that maturity, that Golden Age of confidence and competence. The second critical message in Good Night, and Good Luck--one that Bob Woodward might have missed--is that it takes a giant, a Paul Bunyan of a newsman, to cut down a runaway demagogue wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. "The Murrow broadcasts were far more nakedly political than anything on network television today," Nicholas Lemann writes in The New Yorker ("The Murrow Doctrine," Jan. 23), "and came from a source with a much bigger share of--and more adoration from--the audience than anybody has now." He adds, with regret, "the days when a major figure on network television can pick that kind of fight, and openly state political opinions on prime time, are long gone."

Apparently Lemann exempts Fox News from "network television," which is fine with me. But he's dead on about the miniaturization of media personalities, who've traded their authority for a lucrative but empty celebrity. Walter Cronkite could have shamed a president and Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward's Kennedy-connected Watergate editor, actually did. Katie Couric couldn't thwart a county commissioner.

"He's betting that a senator trumps a newsman," Strathairn's Murrow says of Sen. McCarthy in Good Night, and Good Luck, and resolves to call his bluff. With TV news in its second infancy and newspapers suffocating in the coils of their chains, who's left with the credibility and prestige to call George Bush's bluff? Possibly someone carrying a reputation from the newsroom's glory days, like Bob Woodward. But he clams up like the Tar Baby and clutches his cards to his vest.

click to enlarge Lower tech, higher impact: The risk Edward R. Murrow took and the dramatic way it changed the publics perception set a precedent that empowered American journalists in all media for 20 years to come.
  • Lower tech, higher impact: The risk Edward R. Murrow took and the dramatic way it changed the publics perception set a precedent that empowered American journalists in all media for 20 years to come.

The only living heir to powerful, opinionated journalists of yore--Murrow, Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken--is a movie star like George Clooney, who puts his money where his heart is and uses his celebrity in the service of his conscience. Some people find this influence regrettable. A celebrity-addled culture where movie stars trump senators, journalists, philosophers and archbishops makes a sad comment on democracy. But in this late phase of a warped society, we take the field with the team that shows up to play. Clooney has all my blessings, and he's earned them. These political films of his, Good Night and Syriana, are no polarizing passion plays but thoughtful, scrupulous warnings ("ambitious and stylishly done," Lemann calls the Murrow film) of clear and present dangers that no American can afford to ignore.

One hostile critic called Clooney's films "left-leaning movies ... so narcissistic and shallow as to suggest that 'liberal' is fast becoming a synonym for 'lobotomized,'" an assessment that leaves me scratching my head. Since when has a defense of the First Amendment against Joe McCarthy or Karl Rove been a "liberal" commitment, and why is it "left-leaning" to deplore the pathological dependency on Arab oil and fickle sheiks from which, in the light of the trillion-dollar debacle in Baghdad, the United States may never recover? It seems to me that conservatives of many stripes would share these concerns most anxiously. And of course they do; new books by neoconservative Francis Fukuyama and ex-GOP strategist Kevin Phillips describe substantial segments of the principled Right in open rebellion.

The word "liberal" has been too ruthlessly overworked and misused to retain any stable meaning. The innocent creatures it once called to mind exist only on hermetically sealed college campuses and small magazines, a remnant slightly less influential than the Branch Davidians. In current usage, "liberal" seems to cover everyone who doubts that the United States of America can survive much more of George W. Bush. "The Hollywood liberal," that vain, superficial limousine lefty who pontificates on talk shows, has become such a weary cliche that every time I hear it I expect, in the next breath, to hear about "liberal bias in the media." Maybe entertainers like Clooney and Warren Beatty, not to mention Michael Moore, shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of dissent because self-serving celebrities like Hillary Clinton and Bob Woodward--and a timorous host of other politicians and journalists--lack the clarity and courage to take the lead.

Though the lockstep Right rarely wins an argument in the open court of reason, its propagandists enjoy tremendous success portraying America as a Manichaean society where political opinion comes in two flavors only, in vanilla and chocolate and no fudge ripple, please. This ultra-polarized model, pure myth, is the cornerstone of reactionary rhetoric. "Here's a time-saving tip," writes my favorite local columnist, Barry Saunders, in The News & Observer. "When the first word out of someone's mouth is 'liberal' or 'conservative,' run away--because not one original thought will be forthcoming. Most people with brains ... consider themselves liberal or conservative depending on the issue."

What's true of "most people with brains" is 10 times true for journalists, who've spent their working lives watching inflexible ideologies founder on the facts. An ideologue with a press pass is always a whore or a fool. But this widespread perception of politics as partisan ping-pong and pundits as team players--a cretinous legacy of Fox News and the Sunday shouting shows--has worked to marginalize legitimate dissent just when the republic most urgently needs to hear it.

Oldtimers beyond the grip of ambition, like Cronkite and Sen. Robert Byrd--and most admirably, Jimmy Carter--don't hesitate to join the resistance and say what they think. But whisper "liberal" to Sen. Clinton with her eye on the White House, or to Bob Woodward with his seven-figure book contract, and you'd think they'd been asked to wear a yellow star. In Murrow's day, of course, McCarthy had to label you a communist to wreck your reputation. People were proud to call themselves liberals, and many of those people, like my late father, were diehard Republicans. Dad was so stubborn he might have remained a Republican through it all--or at least to the point where George W. Bush surveyed his ruinous wars and tax cuts and declared that deficits don't matter.

On the Richter scale of history, Watergate and the McCarthy hearings were mild tremors compared to this globe-rending, nation-grinding earthquake with its epicenter in Iraq. Is Bob Woodward, who knows that, too frightened to come clean? There are better role models, other examples besides the sorry one he set in Chapel Hill. The other night in Greensboro I had a conversation with Bill Moyers and heard him address a large audience of North Carolinians who share his misgivings about the White House and its war. Moyers, for my money the most significant broadcast journalist of his generation, is in the Paul Revere phase of his career. Frozen out of network TV by the dumbing-down of news shows, hounded toward retirement by the right-wing administrators of public television--not for editorializing, but for asking hard questions and tackling issues neutered newsmen and women avoid--Moyers has reached the end of his patience.

Impartial? Think instead of Tom Paine, of Martin Luther King Jr.--of Martin Luther. Moyers has at least 95 grievances to nail on the door of the White House; his hammer is raised and ready. He sees bad faith, arrogance, atrocious judgment and irreversible damage. The media and the Democrats, he believes, are nearly all intimidated or self-servingly supine. It breaks his heart to see Americans accept deceit and abuse from an empty suit like George Bush, whom every unposed photo seems to expose for what he is--an inept con artist, a furtive low-rent hustler about to be caught in the act.

The soft-spoken Moyers, with his East Texas Baptist roots, was always committed to civil dialogue, always more interested in principles than politics. But in speeches like the one in Greensboro, sponsored by the Quakers of Guilford College, he embraces dissent and resistance and puts his professional reputation on the line. He will never be invited to visit with the president. Comparing Moyers' exile to his own exclusive access, is Woodward still proud of the 500 questions he was allowed to ask George Bush? (One question--"How in hell ...?"--might do for me.) Does he think the stories Bush tells him are the ones his poor readers need to hear?

As Murrow demonstrated in 1954 and Moyers is telling us now, any journalism of substance has a moral, judgmental component. Two sides, sure--but rarely two sides of equal merit. And at the point when the side with the power begins to ignore the facts, the laws, and other people's rights--a point Bush passed years ago--anyone with special knowledge, access or influence is ethically obligated to tell the public what he knows and what he thinks. No matter who proclaims it, "objectivity" that ducks this responsibility is a contemptible sham.


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