Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sat for an interview at the American Society of News Editors yesterday, and they were asked about how a Watergate-type scandal would play out in the Internet age. They mocked a set of papers from a Yale journalism class, which they claimed said that the Watergate scandal would pop up on the Internet, and that Nixon would have had to resign much more quickly. Anyway, here’s their response:
“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.” [...]
“I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them,” Woodward continued, “but the basic point is: The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.” [...]
“We had a readership that was much more open to real fact than today,” Bernstein said. “Today there’s a huge audience, partly whipped into shape by the 24-hour cycle, that is looking for information to confirm their already-held political-cultural-religious beliefs/ideologies, and that is the cauldron into which all information is put. . . . I have no doubt there are dozens of great reporters out there today — and news organizations — that could do this story. What I don’t think is that it would withstand this cultural reception. It might get ground up in the process.”
Let’s set aside the distinction that Woodward makes between “the Internet” and “human sources,” as if websites are written by robot automatons getting their information from digital printouts cooked up by a computer program. I would have to burst Woodward’s bubble by mentioning that I actually do talk to “humans” now and again, as does any reporter working online or offline. And normally that process does not involve inventing conversations in subsequent novelistic hagiographies.
But I question this idea that we have to wonder what would happen if a Watergate-type scandal broke out today, and how it would be covered. Because we’ve already had one. We’re still having one. The foreclosure fraud scandal, years in the making and the telling, chronicles the largest consumer fraud in American history. You’re talking about millions of homes illegally seized, tens of millions of properties with confused or unclear ownership, a total corruption of the land title system that has served America for over three hundred years. Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of bringing down a President, but it’s not a miniscule, irrelevant issue.
And we know exactly how that coverage went. It flared up on the Internet, first with smaller sites and the financial blogosphere, then with an entirely new set of sites dedicated to the enterprise. It occurred with the same drip-drip-drip of stories as we saw in Watergate, with little details getting filled in along the way. It went from back-page news right to the front when depositions caught banks robo-signing documents and fabricating others. It led to a near-total moratorium on foreclosures in the country near the end of 2010.
That’s where the similarities end. The story never reached a critical mass outside of the large and growing community of homeowners affected by it. The public at large never got much of a chance to understand the issue, confined to the business press and some online outlets. That’s because the traditional media, precisely what Woodward and Bernstein glory in here, just decided they weren’t interested in the largest consumer fraud in American history. You didn’t see a drumbeat of stories. You didn’t even see follow-up when Congress held hearings and state Attorneys General decided to open an investigation. And this gave those same forces the breathing room to diffuse the situation with a slap-on-the-wrist settlement and a series of other steps designed to limit the damage to the financial institutions and the mortgage market.
In other words, the reason that big, complex scandals cannot flourish in America and bring with it justice has nothing to do with “the Internet,” the only segment of the media-scape actually paying attention to such matters. It’s because we don’t have a media willing to challenge power anymore.
To be fair, Woodward and Bernstein listed some other problems, including cash-strapped budgets for media outlets, and the timidity of Congress to act decisively. Those are true in part, although the foreclosure fraud cottage industry on the Web has a collective annual budget below most dinner specials at medium-priced restaurants. But they ignore the real problem, that the traditional media has shifted over a 40-year period from adversaries to gatekeepers, from barbarians at the gates to members of an insular club. And so they get to decide the scandals and how far they will push them. It’s a testament to the desire for human understanding that, despite this gate, the foreclosure fraud story has pushed so far. But ultimately, the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the modern day, along with their editors, slammed the door shut.
Rather than blaming the Internet, these two would do well to blame themselves.
UPDATE: Let me just add that Bernstein’s point about epistemic closure and people who create their own reality is valid as far as it goes. I also find this a convenient out to not pursue stories where the facts are actually quite clear, however.