To my colleague Melinda Henneberger on the subject of The Washington Post’s pay-to-play scandal and her dropped jaw: Word!
We all remember watching President Nixon taking off in his helicopter after resigning. We remember Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, as Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward, sweating it out in “All the President’s Men,” a film that holds up well and stands as a riveting chapter of journalism’s heyday.
When Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham died in 2001, you may have seen the TV special about her life. Here was a woman who was better equipped to play Capitol Hill hostess than to run a newspaper.
It wasn’t easy. One interviewer asked her about the publication of the Pentagon Papers at a most inopportune time for The Washington Post company. Graham answered:
The woman had guts. Not to mention integrity. The unlikely heir to The Washington Post throne went on to make journalism – and American – history.
In the 35 years since Nixon’s resignation, we’ve all watched as newspapers began to stumble. Rare is the paper that has not been tainted with plagiarism, bias, publishing fiction as fact, “infotainment” in place of reporting or a wholesale breach of the wall between editorial and advertising.
Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine, believed the press corps, lobbyists, corporations and politicians of both parties all worked together like one big machine. Lapham referred to it as an oligarchy. You don’t have to bribe a reporter with money or gifts. Nothing so obvious and crude as that! All you have to do is invite them to dinner and a few parties. Make them feel like an important part of the team.
Comedian Stephen Colbert took the press corps to the woodshed in his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. His blistering – and highly amusing – attack went viral in no time and even spawned a blog, thankyoustephencolbert.org. As for most of the journalists in attendance at the dinner, to quote the lovely Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest:” They weren’t smiling.
While mainstream media may be ethics-challenged (or just a lumbering dinosaur), individual writers still try to get the truth out. They may or may not have to fight their editors and publishers. Some write books. Others start blogs. Some aren’t even journalists. A blogger might be an obscure history professor who knows injustice when he sees it, and decides to step up the the plate.
In times like these one can’t help but think of Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Mr. Smith, a junior senator, is an unwitting pawn in a statewide graft scheme. The senior senator, naturally, owns the press, so Mr. Smith has to call on the Boy Rangers back home to use their kiddie newspaper to get the facts out to the public.
In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” democracy emerges victorious. Here’s hoping our own century’s boy (and girl) rangers will save the day, too.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]