Sunday, June 5, 2005

…the money. Right!

You’re probably sick of hearing Mark Felt’s advice to Bob Woodward and even how much money he and Bernstein have raked in (compared to Felt) since. Nonetheless, how well Woodward heeded the advice, of course in pursuit of that particular story, but more significantly personally is worth thinking about. Woodward has leveraged Watergate in a way probably never before seen in journalism. He has become an industry within himself, a manufacturer of the best seller. Many reporters were forced to dangerously embed themselves with the troops in Iraq. Some lost their lives in the process. Woodward safely embedded himself in the White House during the run up, and far from facing any risk more the possible ire of Dick Chaney et al, his “reporting” ended up in yet another blockbuster book. In the years since breaking major news as a young reporter Woodward not so quietly moved to the other side becoming a celebrity part of Washington’s society elite, rather than its independent critic.

The fact is I don’t much care what Woodward has done as an individual – more power to him in living out the American dream in the American way. But his disease is contagious as Frank Rich so aptly pointed out last month in writing about the White House Press Corps gala. Remember that when Watergate broke, CNN didn’t exist and even the greats like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley weren’t raking in numbers like those accorded to modern day anchors. In an era where news broadcasts are routinely described as “shows”, which they are, it's often hard to distinguish between the interviewer and the interviewee. In fact the former is most likely to be better known, better paid and more of an insider than the latter. For many in the press, it would seem that what they do “on the job” (to use TV cop show jargon) is often used to reinforce what they do on their own, especially to increase the nickel earned elsewhere.

Case in point: Tom Friedman of the NY Times has written a new and from what I understand (it’s on my growing to read pile) very insightful book about a sea change in the world economy. I’ve heard him interviewed about it which (as such interviews are meant to do) made me log into Amazon. He also has been coming back to the subject in his regular column. In many respects that’s not surprising. Columnists often take on a theme and pursue it for an extended period of time to drive home their point. The only problem is that, much as I am impressed with his argument, I can’t get it out of my mind that he is promoting his book, not on a tour at this point but while drawing a salary for his day job.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not focusing on Friedman for anything more than to make a general point with a particular. I could have just as well pointed to the multi-million dollar man Tom Brokaw who may not have used his nightly broadcasts to push the Greatest Generation but who like his (former) anchor colleagues epitomizes reporter as celebrity. Friedman continues to be an important voice, an honest one. While I don’t always agree with him, it’s a voice that hopefully will be used for a long time to come. What I fear is that as news people following in Woodward and Bernstein’s footsteps, also take on Felt’s advice to a degree even Richard Nixon might not have dreamed that our nation and its free press risk becoming an endangered species, even more so than we already are. In yet another time of White House denials, cover-ups and disinformation that is a significant problem. We, their readers and listers, dare not let it happen.

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