Monday, November 21, 2005

On Bob Woodward

The picture posted here was taken by Fred W. McDarrah at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The photographer is Barton Silverman of the “New York Times” and what’s happening is that he’s getting arrested during a now infamous street battle launched by Mayor Richard Daley against the hippies who’d come to spoil his commercial party.

We run this today as the archetypal portrait of a true journalist and as counterpoint to Bob Woodward of the “Washington Post” who, after many years in the golden circle, has turned out to be anything but.

For those who lack the time to make heads-or-tails out of all the hoopla surrounding Woodward’s admission he’d been in on the whole “who outed Valerie Plame” scandal, the picture is meant to serve as sample of what journalism used to be like.

The link below is to an article by Tim Rutten of the “L.A. Times” entitled, “Woodward Joins a Decadent Dance,” which can be found here:,0,2580451.column?track=hpmostemailedlink

The business with Woodward turns out to be an embarrassing, but well-deserved revelation about what has happened since the scribe took up cudgels in the trade 22 years ago.

The profession’s reigning principal, at the time, was “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.”

After doing reporting that sunk a presidency and brought imperial power to heel, Woodward began to peddle a type of what we call in the biz, “trust me” journalism, wherein he got to talk with very important people he could not name, but whom you could rest assured, were only out to tell the truth (because they were telling it to him, Bob Woodward).

The whole point of journalism, of course (this is the primer) is truth for attribution. You don't meet a contact at his mansion or bunker. You meet him at the coffee shop, neutral territory, where lots of people can confirm the meeting. The matters you are discussing are of importance to the public. If they're not invited, in some way, to the party then something's amiss.

Here’s what Rutten had to say about this in his piece: “It’s a journalistic strategy style dependent on the cultivation of access to well-placed officials greased by promises of ‘confidentiality’. It’s a way of doing journalism that still serves the practitioners’ career interests, but less and less often their readers or viewers because it’s a game the powerful and well-connected have learned to play to their own advantage.”

This may be one of the reasons reporters have sunk in the public’s eyes and it would be deserved, too. A reporter’s allegiance is not to his career (read: self), but to his country; no less so than any soldier’s.

One of the running battles enemies of the Bush administration have been fighting is the notion that, if you surrender your rights and liberties to your government so that it might use violent policies to keep you “free,” well, then you’ve bought a pig in a poke.

Without a free press informing a concerned populace (and that’s a topic for another day) about what the powers-that-be are doing, you don’t have a democracy – just a big army that talks a good democratic game.

After reviewing some the administration’s recent manipulations of the media to fit a conservative agenda (the paying of journalists to ply the Bush line, pressuring public television by bringing on more [r]epublican staff, and the famous videos passed off as news pieces to pump up government policies), Rutten notes that Woodward, the “New York Times’” Judy Miller, “Time” magazine’s Matthew Cooper, and NBC’s Tim Russert, “are less tragic figures in a grand journalistic drama than they are sad – but willing – bit players in somebody else’s rather sorry little charade.”

And that’s not what journalists used to do.

the scribe remembers a time when the breed was still ink-stained, given to hanging out in bars, union halls and street corners, perpetually cantankerous toward and mistrustful of those they covered. The name of the game was to question authority and your press badge gave you special license to do so.

If you didn’t get “access” you slagged them and the bosses backed you.

But things are different now. As the media companies bought one another up, shrinking the number of papers and radio stations, while simultaneously homogenizing them, the jobs became fewer, but more lucrative because of the organizations’ mass reach.

Sometime around 1988, when you looked at journalists attending, let’s say, a campaign event for George Bush Sr., what you saw, instead of the usual shabby guys with bad breath and permanent scowls, were a bunch coifed masters-of-journalism from fancy schools and hair salons to match; or women who could easily have been drafted as actresses instead of anchorwomen, because the distinguishing characteristic was their prettiness.

Around that time the scribe went to see an agent at William Morris in Beverly Hills named Kenneth Lindner who represented news reporters on television. It took two days to get a portfolio in order for such an auspicious event, but Lindner never wanted to see what the scribe had reported or how. He wanted to know where his head shots were.

So that’s what’s up. You work at these places and you question nobody. Stories and what they should say are concocted by editors with an agenda, and if the reporter can’t match that story with the reality he/she finds on the street, the editor will rewrite the story anyway.

You do what you're told and provide the “content” that’s been requested. If you try to press some issue of journalistic ethics, in the old style, they’ll fire you, because there is no shortage of good girls and boys prepared to march lock-step to orders, simply glad to have a job and a byline.

It takes some chestnuts to confront the administration or some corporate interest in today’s climate. The sense that there is some adversity in the process of extracting information is smoothed away by the presence of public relations people hired at great cost to apply now well-tested strategies for disarming reporters.

They do it with niceness, free coffee, and cheese Danish.

You want to go ahead and ruin the party and pleasant atmosphere? Go ahead. Your performance will be duly noted and transmitted.

The result is Bob Woodward and July Miller and the rest of the suck-ups who wine and dine with the same people they are supposed to be keeping honest with the threat of revealing what’s not honest or above the board.

Rutten talks a little more about how the administration has taken to bullying the press, denigrating its individual members as enemies of their own country for having the temerity to question national priorities.

He observes how it has all gone largely unremarked upon because, “the administration has adroitly availed itself of the cultural complicity that prevails in a fin de siĆ©cle Washington press corps living out the decadence of an increasingly discredited reporting style.”

It is not the administration’s commingling of national virtue and purpose with its own policies that the scribe finds so appalling.

It’s that we’ve complied with their sinister little game.


the highway scribe will read from the novel "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows," to the accompaniment of guitarist Omar Torrez on Dec. 15, 8 p.m., 33 1/3 Books & Gallery Collective, Sunset Blvd and Alvarado St.

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