The country’s foremost celebrity journalist, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and Watergate fame, has deplored what he called the “curse” of celebrity journalism, which he reportedly said has infected the news media.
Woodward was speaking the other night at a panel in Austin, Texas, that was convened to mark the 35th anniversary of All the President’s Men, the motion picture about the Watergate reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.
According to a report posted online by ABC News, Bernstein, who also was on the panel, complained that the culture of journalism has shifted dramatically since the Watergate era of the early 1970s. Woodward, according to the ABC post, characterized this shift the “curse” of celebrity journalism — the “Paris Hilton factor and Kardashian equation.”
Even if he was referring to excessive media attention to the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, it’s still pretty rich for Woodward to bemoan celebrity journalism — given that All the President’s Men established the cult of the contemporary celebrity journalist.
By “celebrity journalist,” I mean the journalist who has attained outsize prominence or who is regarded as more important than the people and the events he or she covers.
Sydney Schanberg, writing in the Village Voice in 2005, pointed out that the Watergate era of the early 1970s “can be fairly marked as the starting point of the age of journalists as celebrities. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein weren’t celebrities when they cracked the story for The Washington Post, but they soon would be, and a wave of emulators quickly began applying to journalism schools.”
Schanberg was incorrect about the Watergate effect on journalism schools: The surge in enrollments was well underway before Watergate, before Woodward and Bernstein became household names.
But he was quite correct about Watergate’s having represented a demarcation of modern celebrity journalism. (Alicia Shepard referred to this phenomenon in 1997, writing in American Journalism Review in 1997: “The Watergate affair changed journalism in many ways, not the least of which was by launching the era of the journalist as celebrity.” She also claimed in the article that Woodward and Bernstein “brought down a president.” Not so.)
More than any other single factor, the movie All the President’s Men propelled the media myth of the heroic journalist — the beguiling notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal exposed the corruption of Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in disgrace in 1974.
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, All the President’s Men placed the characters of Woodward and Bernstein squarely if inappropriately “at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.
“The effect,” I write, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”
The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity,” I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:
“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”
I further note in Getting It Wrong that the notion Woodward and Bernstein “exposed Nixon’s corruption is a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication.” And that offers a wholly inaccurate misleading reading of the history of Watergate.
Woodward and Bernstein didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That was the effect of the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of the Justice Department, the FBI, special Watergate prosecutors, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Against that tableau, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance.
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