The other night I was in the mood for a tale of political espionage that didn’t involve the current administration, so I re-watched “All the President’s Men.” The 1976 thriller, based on the Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein bestseller, follows the two then-young Washington Post reporters and their dogged coverage of the Watergate break-in, which brought down a sitting president.
During the Vietnam War, mainstream media (which is all we had back then) had grown increasingly critical of government, but when Woodward and Bernstein exposed corruption at the highest levels in the Nixon Administration it shook public confidence like nothing since the Progressive muckraking journalists of the early 20th century. This was journalism wielded as a tool of justice and it was gripping. “All the President’s Men” made journalism, particularly investigative journalism, seem like the coolest profession ever. Enrollment at the nation’s journalism schools soared. I so wanted to be part of that, but in the end, I had to live it vicariously.
It was fun to watch the movie again after so many years: I’d forgotten about Dustin Hoffman’s shoulder-length shag. Last night I was inspired to re-watch another movie about investigative journalism: “Spotlight,” a riveting account of Boston Globe reporters persevering in bringing to light the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of child abuse by its priests.
Re-watching both movies was instructive. It was 40 years between “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.” That’s a long time to wait for Hollywood to portray journalists in such a heroic light. But what was really interesting was how both films paid tribute to the tough, ethical editors who kept the brakes on these bombshell stories until they were ready to see the light of day. The Post’s Ben Bradlee demanded multiple credible sources for Woodward and Bernstein’s claims. Twenty years later, the Globe’s Marty Baron challenged his team to look beyond the local scandal and to dig deeper for the story that ultimately exposed decades of pass-along pastoral pedophilia not just in Boston but throughout Massachusetts and around the world, right up to the Vatican. These editors played the role of Skeptic in Chief. The stories had to pass their smell test, and only then would they be considered high quality, ethical journalism. It is a role almost entirely missing in the world of online commentary.
A key component of an editor’s job is to ensure the accuracy and fairness of what gets published. A friend of mine who worked for a top business magazine once had copy returned with a red marginal note from his editor: “Interesting…if true.” That was the editor’s way of saying, “Not ready for prime time.” My friend had to go back and prove the truth of his assertions to his editor’s satisfaction before the story could be published.
This kind of accountability and quality control is rare outside of mainstream media. There is no system in place to subject the “facts” in a blog post to the kind of editorial scrutiny a New York Times, Wall Street Journal or New Yorker story gets. (Of course, the disgraced former NY Times reporter Jayson Blair showed us that there’s no such thing as a foolproof system but at least the NYT has a system and it works pretty damn well.)
In the U.S., irresponsibility on the Internet is not only tolerated, it’s protected by the Constitution. We saw polarizing, irresponsible and flat out inaccurate commentary in this most recent election cycle and we continue to see it. Journalistic integrity is not the motivating factor in much of what passes as “journalism” today.
Indeed, we know that much of today’s online journalism is funded by unseen hands dog-paddling in the dark money pool. If you happen to be a person whose views mirror those of a given “news” site, you will see your particular bias reinforced every day. That’s what they are counting on. These sites are not trying to convert the heathen, just whip up the faithful. And keep them in a state of credulity that no fact can penetrate.
In spite of the main stream media’s longtime insistence that “editorial and publishing are separated by a wall,” we also know that that wall can be as permeable as the one President Trump proposes to build. And like Trump’s Folly, more and more of that wall seems to be disappearing amid a flood of obfuscation and, yes, Fake News.
Although most of the talk about “fake news” is, well, fake, we now know that there really is fake news out there. I’m sorry Mr. President, but it isn’t in the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Boston Globe. Far too much (if not all) of what appears in Breitbart and countless other virtual cesspools that collectively shitify the Internet is biased, partisan and/or blatantly untrue. Increasingly, we are on our own to judge the truthfulness and accuracy of what we read outside of the mainstream media (although it doesn’t hurt to keep a skeptic’s eye while delving there, too).
Can a truly independent, skeptical editor survive in today’s fractious newscape? Damn, I sure hope so. Because I don’t think we as a nation can make rational decisions in a landscape split neatly and exclusively down the middle into Red and Blue. Someone needs to walk down the center of the lane and present two points of view as objectively as humanly possible and let us make the judgment about where we stand.
It’s not fake, it’s a fact. A skeptical editor and a free and independent press are our last best hope.
Categories: Random PR Thoughts