Sunday, December 21, 2008

Could We Uncover Watergate Today?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly is yes, despite Western media suffering a near existential transition and crisis. Two prominent journalists, one addressing the question directly in the wake of the death of Mark Felt, best known as Deep Throat, the source that helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unravel Watergate and force President Nixon out of office. The other, Hesham Melham, a veteran Washington-based correspondent for Arab media, speaking days before Felt’s death in a very different context, a panel discussion on whether the US media are biased against Arabs and Muslims.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr used the question as the title of his contribution to today’s Outlook section of the Post. "In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audience and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification…. In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified? As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work?

These questions are not just about holding leaders and senior officials accountable but can also affect the lives of ordinary citizens. With other words investment bankers may be the only ones to enjoy poorer public ratings than journalists, yet the public has as stake in the media being able to maintain its roles as the fourth estate. The Post’s investigative reporting, Downie notes, ensured that care for US military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has improved significantly at Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital.

In fact, if the Watergate story would have broken today, it would have led to a much quicker downfall of a Nixon, who in 1972 was re-elected five months after his Republican agents broke into the Democratic Party’s Watergate offices. Whistle blowers like Felt exist today in democratic societies in far greater numbers than they did in back in the early 1970s and they enjoy far greater legal protection than they did then. Whistle blowers also have a much larger choice of media and investigative journalists to approach.

In effect, Melham, looking at the US media from a very different perspective comes to the same conclusion. He like Downie points in a discussion organized by the National Council on US-Arab Relations among other stories to the Washington Posts’ disclosure of the CIA's secret interrogation sites for terrorist suspects. “The American media covered the Shabra and Shatila massacres in a more dignified professional way than all the Arab media put together. Make no mistake,” Melham said referring to the killing of hundreds of men, women and children in two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen as Israeli troops stood idly by. “It was the American media that uncovered (US abuse of Iraqi prisoners in) Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker and CBS…. It was the media that uncovered the National Security Agency's involvement in listening probably some of our conversations overseas. That was the New York Times. It was the media that uncovered certain massacres in Iraq, such as Haditha. This was Time magazine.

This is the American media which I criticized during the run up of the Iraq war because they did not engage in the usual cynical questioning of authority and they did engage later on, a few months afterward, when we found out that there were no weapons of mass destruction and all that nonsense and there was no relationship between Al Qaeda and that awful regime of Saddam Hussein. They did engage in their own version of self-flagellation and mea culpa. I've always said and I will continue to say that the American media always get the story right. The problem with the American media is that they do not get the story right at the right time, sometimes,” Melham said.

If anything, Downie argues, new technology has worked in favor of hard-hitting investigative reporting. The Internet allows for searching of records and other information. Contacting sources on pre-paid cell phones gives sources whose identity has to be guarded greater protections. And a Woodward and Bernstein would not be reporting in isolation as they did at the time of Watergate when other media were slow to join the chase. Reporters and bloggers today would be all over the story on the Internet and opinion polls would be gauging public reaction to the story.

That is good news. The key however is to ensure that the current crisis in the Western media constitutes a transition to a stronger and better fourth estate rather than its demise.

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