Friday, December 2, 2005
Mark Jurkowitz of The Boston Phoenix mourns the selling out of a great American journalism hero—and great American journalism:
"I wish I were wrong, but to me Woodward sounds as if he has come a long way from those shoe-leather [Watergate] days — and maybe on a path that does not become him," declared Village Voice media critic Sydney Schanberg, in a column written more in sorrow than in anger.
This burst of somber but serious criticism of Woodward — a genuine journalistic icon for three decades and a symbol of the power and prestige of the mainstream media — may mark the closing of a distinct and important chapter in American journalism.
Woodward's Watergate exploits inspired a generation of starstruck baby boomers to flock to the news business and yielded a movie starring two of Hollywood's leading men, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. But the tarnishing of his reputation comes at a time when the media business is so desperate for heroes, that it has had to reach back half a century to find one: CBS's chain-smoking, crusading Edward R. Murrow, the protagonist of George Clooney's new film Good Night, and Good Luck.
The demythologizing of Woodward is occurring during a period when the kind of investigative reporting that built his legend faces a constellation of daunting obstacles, including declining newsroom resources, a secrecy-obsessed administration, and prosecutors and judges using subpoenas to poison the relationship between journalists and their confidential sources.
The mounting critique of Woodward as access-seeking insider also corresponds to the growth of public skepticism about the mainstream media's methods and motives. Citizens frequently see journalists as biased, unaccountable and — perhaps most of all — part of a privileged power elite rather than a populist voice fighting for their rights and interests.
In the end, playing into that corrosive public perception of the media as a cadre of elites may prove to be Woodward's biggest sin.
"Gradually, as [Woodward] moved higher and higher in the stratosphere, he became a kind of princeling of American journalism," says Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel.org and author of the new book, The Death of Media (Melville House). "I feel he basically abandoned investigative journalism and basically became an emissary from the powerful to the media."
"Whom the gods would destroy, they first call credible." Watergate gave Woodward such unparalleled gravitas that the siren song of using that to gain access must have been irresistable. To his credit, he has produced some amazing stuff about the inner working of recent presidential administrations--but he means nothing as a hard-boiled investigative journalist anymore. He essentially retired from that, I think, after Watergate. Seymour Hersh is a good counter-example of a journalist who gained credibilty at a similar time (by exposing the My Lai Massacre), but refused to turn back the plow and is still going strong, scaring the pants off the Bush administration at present with the information he has compiled vis-a-vis Iraqi black ops and torture. Cheers, TH
- Tom Head
Should add here: Even though Woodward is not personally taking up the sword anymore, the Washington Post is still probably the top mainstream newspaper in the country, particularly in terms of its investigative journalism. Cheers, TH
- Tom Head