In the 1970s, journalism schools across the country began filling with students. I wasn’t one of them. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then with the Washington Post, were bringing the Nixon presidency to its knees via their investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal and Baby Boomer college students began thinking that a career in journalism would be fulfilling and important, albeit underpaying. It probably marked the first and last time those Baby Boomers would consider income potential as a secondary option.
At the same time, America was in the final phases of its painful Vietnam troop withdrawal, and a good number of war correspondents had grown in such stature that they were basically household names—Vanocur, Rather, Safer, Bradley, Halberstam and Sheehan among them. They were another motivation for many in that generation of J students, each armed with the notion that they, too, could provide a useful service to a country in need of “truth to power”—a phrase they wouldn’t even invent for nearly four decades. The notion that standing up for truth was a good and honorable way to make a living was spiced by the realization that it also may offer a fast track to fame and notoriety.
I still wasn’t on board.
I favored fitting GPA-building classes like Utah Geography into my already weak school schedule over taking courses like journalism law or photojournalism. Meanwhile, all my pals were smoking cigarettes in the Huddle in the University of Utah union building, and I felt an imperative to give them and my class work equal time. Plus, there were games of snooker to be played and dimes to be dumped into the greatest pinball machine ever, Fireball. If Nixon was going down, he’d have to do it between games of Hearts, which he graciously did.
My time in the union building wasn’t a total waste because, at all hours, the Watergate hearings were broadcast on every major television channel—all three of them. Great crowds gathered around monitors to watch the Nixon presidency unravel. The Watergate era was high drama, a time when one could taste empowerment. But the tense debate gradually filled each of us union building ne’er-do-wells with the gnawing notion that we’d have to grow up and graduate sometime—which I did, a full five years after Nixon finally resigned.
I’m glad there was no Internet back then. If there was, there would have been no Watergate. Sure, the petty and amateurish break-in at the Watergate apartments would still have occurred. And, sure, Woodward and Bernstein would have sniffed the same trail of discovery that exposed the nasty behaviors of the Nixon administration. And that would have been that. For, if there were the Internet, the Nixon administration would have been able to fend off any and all of the malfeasance accusations thrust at it by merely tapping into its own Internet channel of information—or disinformation—and allowing all the talking heads to do the even dirtier work of mopping up after them.
As influential as the Internet is, it basically distills down to a few narrow channels. Politically, there’s the left, the ultra-left and the center. There’s also the right, the far right and the center. The great center—both sides singing to it, both shaping the debate within. No sooner does a piece of news favoring one side hit the Internet than the opposite side loads up counterpoints of its own, usually mocking in nature.
If Woodward and Bernstein broke their story on today’s Internet, in just a few minutes, counter stories would appear telling how Woodward is a money-loving grub and Bernstein is a patron to un-American fiends unknown. They would be smeared, and the discussion wouldn’t be about the motivations of a president hellbent on bending the Constitution but about the motivations of two reporters. Nowhere would the words “truth” or “abuse of power” enter as validation for that motivation.
Spreading disinformation is easy thanks to the Internet and the media conglomeration—absent in the early 1970s—that spawned giants like News Corp, Clear Channel and even Dean Singleton’s own Media News. Whether building a case for war, endorsing a cause or candidate (hello, Salt Lake Tribune’s backing of George W. Bush) or Swift Boating a presidential nominee, today it only requires pulling complicit strings to start a national discussion or move an agenda. Who needs the one state-run media in a communist country when you can accomplish the same thing with many media in a democracy? Toss in Internet porn and a zillion sports channels, and a paltry few pay attention to politics anyway.
When I finally did enter journalism school it wasn’t for noble reasons or money—it was because I looked at my transcripts and discovered that after five years on campus, the quickest way out was through the journalism department. I took the path of least resistance. That path led me this past weekend to meeting the smart and articulate face of progressive America, Arianna Huffington. She was recently proclaimed by Time magazine as among America’s most powerful citizens, primarily thanks to her content, blog and community site, HuffingtonPost.com. Huffington then introduced me to Carl Bernstein who was also in Salt Lake City and happened to be at the same function.
At first, I thought it ironic that New Media Arianna was introducing me to Old Media Carl. Then I realized it was just an introduction, nothing symbolic about it. Except that Huffington herself knows her realm is at truce with Bernstein’s—simply because, so far, the Internet can’t even get a president elected, let alone cause one to resign.