Stop the Press! The Downward Spiral of Journalism from Watergate to the UK Hacking Scandal
These lines in Nick Davies' book about the hacking scandal of England, “Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch,” caught my attention:
I thought back to the 1970s and 80s, when the secret state routinely invaded the privacy of its targets, and a network of lawyers and politicians and journalists had worked hard to try to make the police and security agencies accountable. Finally, those agencies had been forced to accept strict guidelines for the use of surveillance on citizens. Yet now, tabloid journalists had pulled on the secret policeman’s boots and started to engage in wanton surveillance, without any kind of accountability or due process: simply, they spied where they wanted.
I've been thinking about this kind of thing for a while.
I began to think about it when comparing and contrasting two movies, “All the President's Men” and “The Insider.” In each, you have two men working together to uncover something illegal or unethical. In each movie, their initials are W and B (Woodward and Bernstein; Wigand and Bergman). In the first, it's two journalists, in the second a journalist and a corporate insider. The two men struggle, are besmirched by the powers that be, but ultimately, in each case, they get the truth out.
The next movie about a real-life scandal that I compared and contrasted with these two is “Fair Game” from 2010. If this film isn't as good as the other two (and it isn't, nearly), it's partly because its two heroes, Valerie Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, a CIA operative and a career diplomat, are at odds with each other for the last third of the film. The latter is working to uncover the Bush-era scandal, the former to keep it covered up. As for the press? It's helping spread misinformation rather than information. It clouds rather than clarifies. This was true of the Iraq War in general. (See: Judith Miller.)
In other words, we've gone from “All the President's Men,” with its two journalist heroes, to “The Insider,” with its one journalist hero, to “Fair Game,” with not only zero journalist heroes, but with a press corps more interested in sensationalism than accuracy.
And with “Hack Attack”? The press—or its Murdoch variation—is the scandal.
At least we still have Nick Davies and The Guardian. We still have a journalist hero. But what a downward cycle. The press has gone from uncovering governmental or corporate scandals, to clouding governmental or corporate scandals, to being the scandal.
I look forward to the movie. And to better journalism.
Good ol' days. The press, uncovering the scandal. Today, it often is the scandal.