Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Could Woodward/Bernstein Happen Today? (The State of Media)

I rewatched one of my favorite films today, All The President's Men. Being a journalist, it helped inspire me to be in this field just seeing how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were diligent about doing the right thing and finding the truth. It's the essence of what being a reporter is about - telling stories and telling the truth.

The movie itself is faithful to the original story. It teaches a lot about how the newspaper biz works - the young, eager reporters working to get a story, the dogged editor-in-chief who slowly gives them support (Jason Robards owns this Oscar-winning role as the legendary Ben Bradlee - before this movie I only knew Robards as the grandfather on Heidi), and ultimately the power of the press to serve the people and check those in positions of authority.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman do a great job playing off each other as total opposites yet united in a common goal. The camera work is incredible with the heavy light inside the newsroom and nowhere else, the long shots when they are in the library and driving through the city. Washington D.C. is as much a character in that movie as anybody.

"Follow the money" - a classic quote that to me describes the best way to find the truth about something.

Just like Good Night and Good Luck, it's one of the best movies about the business that I've seen. And at times when I feel like journalism is short on inspiration, it reminded me why I do this.

But it made me wonder if the Watergate stories could happen in today's media climate. A major national story carried by one paper that put the pressure on the government. No.

(Bernstein and Woodward - real American heroes. Ironically, Bernstein left the Post before the 70's ended and is now a CNN contributor and Woodward went on to be one of most celebrated reporters of our age)

In the era of partisan criticism and bloggers, any major story would be under heavy scrutiny. The paper running the story would need a combo of strong reporting, solid editors to help guide them and protect them, publishers and owners who wouldn't succumb to financial pressure and support the editorial direction. They also would need a lot of luck.

Cable news would most likely be the source of a hard-hitting investigative piece but because there is so much news and so many distractions, it'll be hard to keep the focus of the American public on any issue. Just look at the debate on health care being pushed to the back burner.

What I know for sure is that there's no chance Deep Throat would stay a secret for 30+ years. To quote my favorite LA band of the moment, Silversun Pickups, "There's no secrets this year" - and in this era of TMZ and tabloids, its hard for anything to stay hidden. Consider how Tiger Woods' secret affairs stayed a secret for several years apparently but unraveled faster than Usain Bolt.

Not to mention the decline of newspapers around the country makes investing in hard-hitting stories a lot harder. You have people who own papers who are more concerned about the money and advertising than the product. I've seen it firsthand and it often means that newsrooms can't engage in the type of reporting needed for those kind of stories.

To me, the movie represents a watershed moment of journalism and the times (any surprise that Walter Cronkite is one of my role models?). Not to mention an era of filmmaking that took chances and was more about art and storytelling than public tastes. It's a shame neither happen again more often.

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