Ed Driscoll

Blame Watergate

James Taranto writes that the Newsweek scandal is yet more self-inflicted media damage caused by impulses born during the days of Watergate and Vietnam:

The obsession with Vietnam and Watergate is central to the alienation between the press and the people. After all, these were triumphs for the crusading press but tragedies for America. And the press’s quest for more such triumphs–futile, so far, after more than 30 years–is what is behind the scandals at both Newsweek and CBS.

It’s also behind the Valerie Plame kerfuffle, which hasn’t been properly recognized as a journalistic scandal. The mainstream media accepted uncritically a Democratic partisan’s unfounded allegations of criminal conduct within the Bush administration, suddenly discovering that there was no crime only when the ensuing special prosecutor investigation threatened to put two reporters behind bars. (See our February account of the New York Times’ evolution on the subject.)
In response to the Koran-flushing debacle, Newsweek has acknowledged only technical problems with its reporting. This follows the pattern of CBS, which commissioned an “independent” report that allowed the network to claim it was free of political bias. In the Plame case, we don’t know of any journalistic outfit that’s admitted an error; the Times, for instance, still insists baselessly that Plame’s “outing” was “an abuse of power.”

The problem in all three cases is that news organizations were so zealous in their pursuit of the next quagmire or scandal that they forgot their first obligation, which is to tell the truth. Until those in the mainstream media are willing to acknowledge that it is this crusading impulse that has led them astray, we are unlikely to see the end of such journalistic scandals.

Somewhat apropos of Taranto’s post, you could make a pretty good case that more so than the actual Watergate scandal, the movie version of All The President’s Men starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Batman and Robin armed with Smith Coronas and a ’69 Volkswagen for the Batmobile did more to cause far too many people to become reporters–and almost always for the wrong reasons: not to, you know, report the news, but to have a shot at superstardom by bringing down those in power (provided they’re not Democrats or the UN of course). And awards–such as this year’s Peabodys (note their exquisitely unintended timing, though)–honoring those proven to have falsified stories doesn’t help matters.

At the risk of sounding even more cynical though, I think Steve Green is right: don’t hold your breath waiting for big media to clean its own house. It’s just not going to happen. If 9/11 didn’t change anything, Newsweek’s body count won’t, either.