Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where Are The Woodwards and Bernsteins?

Lawrence Martin has a timely column this morning on the the state of Canadian journalism. Martin writes of the late James Thomson, who warned that the biggest occupational hazard for journalists is being co-opted by the powerful. Martin then turns to the press in Canada:

Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.

The economic environment is much different than it was forty years ago. Newspapers, which used to generate huge profits, are now hanging on by the skin of their teeth. And to date, no one has been able to come up with a model which makes electronic journalism a reliable source of income. Last but not least, with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, the need to feed the beast causes not just sloppy reporting but ephemeral reporting. Journalists just don't dig the way they used to.

Still, Martin writes, Canadians could take a page from the New York Times or the Washington Post:

During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.

The Times and the Post are not above criticism. After all, both papers were hoodwinked by the second Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq War. And they were not alone. Frank Rich has chronicled that sad tale in his book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Rich maintains that modern politicians are masters not only of voter suppression but of information suppression. They use access to buy spin.

The sign of a healthy democracy is a vigorous, and courageous fourth estate. The young Woodward and Bernstein personified that kind of courage. The question is, who are this generation's Woodward and Bernstein?

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