Nixon’s Revenge: Modern Journalism

May 15, 2020

WATCHING A NATIONAL PRESS CONFERENCE in the pandemic era is a painful experience for the aged journalist. It reminds us of the wallow that our profession has become — an abandonment of historical purpose that even without the Internet explains the low esteem in which we are now held.

It is sad that this essay must start with the obvious. Polling shows approval percentages for large media so low they correspond to the number of people who might be wandering around at any given moment drunk, stoned or otherwise mentally impaired.

It is worthwhile, though, to backtrack and pick up where things ran off the rails. You should know that at some point “journalism” ceased to be recognizable as journalism at all. I happen to know the day, the exact moment.

And no, there wasn’t a sudden turn to the Left. Soft-headedness has been a constant among young reporters (although once tempered by gimlet-eyed copy editors). Rather, it was a single movie seen by millions of young high school and college students at the very time they were struggling with what, if anything, they were going to make of their lives.

I remember the premier showing of “All the President’s Men” in the spring of 1976 in Columbia, Missouri, home of what was then one of the top journalism schools in the nation. I was back on campus from a first job as a general assignment reporter.

As someone with at least a yeoman’s knowledge of the difficulty collecting absolutes on deadline, I was unprepared for the reaction to Hollywood’s depiction. “This is it,” my friends seemed to think. “I can do this; I can meet sources in underground garages and ask politicians hard questions that topple them from power.”

To give you an idea of the romantic pull, here is the Rotten Tomato’s review (93 percent approval):

“A taut, solidly acted paean to the benefits of a free press and the dangers of unchecked power, made all the more effective by its origins in real-life events.”

Paean, indeed. We since have learned that the events were not that “real-life” and that the presidency, which was constrained by a constitution, was not the unchecked power. Rather, it was glorified journalism.

But the damage was done. Enrollment at journalism schools swelled, increasing by 7 percent a year into the 1990s, fed by adolescent minds who could imagine themselves as a scruffy Dustin Hoffman if not a handsome Robert Redford.

From that moment, journalism was not about providing dependably accurate facts, however mundane, to a loyal readership. It was about destroying at any cost surrogate Richard Nixons — a careless deputy mayor, an over-the-hill county chairman, a stumbling city auditor, whoever was vulnerable and handy.

Please know that today’s working journalist, even the senior editors, have known nothing else.

Political scalps became the thing. If the story didn’t involve bringing down some politically incorrect figure, it wasn’t a story. Community journalism, the noblest of livelihoods, became only a stepping stone to the big-time corporate papers and networks.

Reasons to subscribe were shunted aside. Gone were fully staffed business pages, society pages, even obituary desks and cop shops. In their place came expanded political coverage — front-to-back commentary, actually. Then there were the new “lifestyle” pages, focused on the imaginary lives of readers that never were.

Our national press conferences? They became a rowdy peppering of once-dignified elected offices. Insolence and provocation ruled, often with rude interruptions and politically tinged challenges to the veracity of the hapless soul in front of that day’s gaggle. Self-aggrandizement was behind each question, all detached from verifiable fact.

I will let Conrad Black, a leading journalist of my ilk, wrap this up:

“The national political media are primarily a sewer, accorded about a third of the level of approval from the public that the president enjoys. Their chief purpose appears to be to misinform and to destroy the first president in living memory who has called them the unprofessional rag-tag band of hypocrites that many of them are.”

The free press that Redford and Hoffman grew rich romanticizing? It come to be disgraced and endangered by their very prodigy. — tcl


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