Not too long ago, legendary reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, had the chance to speak with a journalism class at Yale. Their professor had assigned them to write about how the Watergate story might have broke today in the age of social media, instant news, and blogging.
Back in the early 1970s, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to do the legwork on tracing the Watergate break-in back to the Nixon White House, meeting clandestine leads for verification of details learned from other sources.
But in 2012, the students seemed to think that a journalist could have merely Googled all this stuff and uncovered the conspiracy just as easily- in fact, it would likely be even easier today, thanks to the Internet. Surely all the facts that Woodward and Bernstein learned, the students argued, would have been floating around in cyberspace; it would just be a matter of searching for it. Forget meeting Deepthroat at 1am in an empty Washington parking garage; just fire up the PC and bookmark your source sites.
Woodward couldn’t believe it. “I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.”
He went on say that there was no substation for doing your journalistic legwork: even in the age of social media and instant email, it’s best to meet your sources face to face and piece the story together. The journalist must synthesize the story, because the Internet cannot.
Shortly before I heard that story, I heard a report on the Pulitzer Prizes, and who had won them for journalism. All but two of the winners were newspapers or reporters who worked for them. (The two exceptions were Politico and the Huffington Post). However, it made me wonder when we’d see an independent blogger win a Pulitzer. Is it possible?
Perhaps not- though there are certainly bloggers out there who are excellent journalists, every bit as professional and talented as those who work at newspapers or magazines, but the problem may be in the fractured world of media consumership today.
In Bernstein’s words:
“We had a readership [in the 1970s] that was much more open to real fact than today,” 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 don’t think [the story] would withstand this cultural reception. It might get ground up in the process.”
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