by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 19, 2005
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO WATERGATE?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Back in 1882, a woman named Elizabeth Jane Cochran changed her name to Nellie Bly and invented investigative reporting.
She posed as a sweatshop worker to expose working conditions in factories. In Mexico, she wrote about poverty and political corruption and was thrown out of the country for it. Back in America, she committed herself to a psychiatric hospital and exposed the horrible conditions there.
Exposés, muckracking, stings, enterprise journalism - what Nellie Bly began has had many names since then. But now, with the most dishonest, scandalous, aggressive, secretive and corrupt administration this country has seen in more than a century, the pie is full of plums and journalism seems to have lost its thumbs. Among other body parts.
Yes, I'm thinking of the current Newsweek scandal - and by scandal, I mean the magazine's retraction, not the story. But I'm also thinking of Dan Rather and Spokane's Spokesman-Review.
The Spokesman-Review story is instructive. The editors there hired a forensic computer expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy on a site called Gay.com. They caught Spokane Mayor Jim West - a family-values hypocrite - trolling for male teenage sex. They consulted a few lawyers and broke the story. Then all hell broke loose in journalismland.
Romanesko (the journalism news and gossip site run by the Poynter Institute - poynter.org/columns) was flooded with letters decrying the S-R's methods. This response, from Oregonian editor Tom Detzel, as quoted on Jay Rosen's PressThink site on May 11 (www.journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs.pressthink), is typical: "It's a pity they had to undercut the credibility of an otherwise fair and relevant report by setting up a phony identity and luring West into a trap... You can't lie to get to the truth, then expect someone to respect or believe your version of the truth."
Tell it to Nellie Bly, man. Tell it to Nellie Bly.
What journalists condemned, readers wholeheartedly approved. In the same PressThink interview, S-R's editor, Steve Smith, said, "I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively."
Not so long ago, two investigative reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did a bit of investigating and brought down a president. Watergate had a profound effect on journalism. J-schools were flooded. Investigative reporters became stars and competed with each other for stories. Quite a bit of government corruption and deception was exposed. Many officials straightened up and flew right (for a while), afraid of being exposed.
It's different today. President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are scary individuals. With one eye firmly on Watergate, they want to discredit the press before their own dirty tricks are exposed. To that end, they have bribed columnists to create propaganda, lied their way to war, strong-armed media owners with threats and bluster, and buried as much real news as they could - for example, the public is still not allowed to see photographs of coffins coming back from Iraq.
Their corruption is pleading to be exposed. But at a time when "follow the money" means reporting on the wholesale looting of the American treasury, journalism has lost its way. Take Dan Rather, who just received a Peabody Award for journalistic excellence for his reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He got in trouble with a story about President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard duty. Everyone knows that he received special privileges and was often MIA. Everyone knows that he is, like most of his Administration, a chickenhawk - someone who dodged the actual fighting in Vietnam yet freely sends other people's children to their deaths in Iraq.
Even if Rather's report contained a faulty document, the meat of the story has been public knowledge for years. Yet CBS did not defend its reporters and tell the Bush Administration to go to hell. Instead, Rather resigned and his producers were fired.
Which brings us to Newsweek and its short piece about the American "interrogators" (read "torturers") in Guantánamo who defiled the Koran by tearing it up and flushing it down the toilet. After the story came out, there was rioting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, perhaps because it confirmed to many in the Muslim world that America's invasion of Iraq is really a war against Islam - as if, after Abu Grhaib, they needed more confirmation.
The Administration went ballistic, Newsweek's anonymous source recanted, and Newsweek retracted the story. But caving in to Administration pressure was wrong. The military's use of Koran desecration has been known for some time. Molly Ivins collected a laundry list of references to it in her column this week, "Don't Blame Newsweek" (commondreams.org).
Defiling the Koran is a grievous sin, of course, especially when American policy mandates that Muslim detainees be treated with religious respect. But I'm still reeling from the news a few months ago that a female American interrogator smeared fake menstrual blood on the face of a Muslim prisoner. That's not respect in any religion or culture that I know of.
So don't blame Newsweek. Don't blame Dan Rather. Don't blame Steve Smith. Blame instead the cowards who run the national media. Blame them, for example, for not blaring across their front pages last week the disgusting news, garnered from a secret British memo, that President Bush "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq to make the case for war after he decided to invade.
Another journalist on Romanesko, Will Bunch, nailed it when he said the real enemy of American journalism is "The editors and critics who self-righteously attack 'errors' in journalism while erring on the side of pro-government, pro-Establishment timidity every day... The captains of alleged honor and integrity who prefer to go down with the ship, watching the waves of citizens in search of real news migrate somewhere else."
Journalists are the public's representatives in the courts of power. We need a new generation of Nellie Blys. Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.