There are only a handful of reasons why people of my generation decided to go into journalism.
1. To see the world.
2. To meet interesting people.
3. To get free stuff.
4. To help people.
5. To cover sports.
For me, put the check mark beside No. 6. Yes, I’m a Watergate baby.
The truth is, my interest in news actually predated the famously third-rate break-in during the summer of 1972 at the Democratic headquarters then based at the Watergate hotel in Washington. The break-in itself wasn’t that big a deal. In fact, it was barely worthy of a cop news item in the Washington Post, which was picked up by a new guy it had on staff at the time by the name of Bob Woodward. He was the nighttime reporter, hardly a big name . . . yet.
But all the unraveling that happened thereafter is the stuff of journalism and political legend.
Almost from the start, I was fascinated by the Watergate business. The truth is, I was always drawn to big news. My mom recalls that following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I watched all the TV coverage — and she would emphasize all. At age 4, and nearly blind as a bat, I stood right in front of the black and white television. Mom said I was particularly riveted by the coverage of JFK’s funeral. My only personal recollection is of the white horses pulling the flag-draped casket that day. I thought it would never arrive at its destination, which was Arlington National Cemetery.
But during the years in which I was ages 12 and 13, this Watergate deal lassoed my attention in a way few non-baseball-related things had before or since. I read everything I could find about it — and there wasn’t much because in those days the Washington Post couldn’t just be picked up in rural Stokes County. Still, I monitored Watergate on network news and when the hearings began in Congress, I saw it on TV — even when we were on vacation in Myrtle Beach.
Yes, I gave up skee ball at the Pavilion to watch North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin’s jowly queries of President Richard Nixon’s constipated-looking henchmen.
Ultimately, of course, Nixon resigned but not because of the break-in itself. No, that was just the cracked manhole cover into a fetid sewer of cover-ups, payoffs, illegal use of campaign contributions, enemies lists, IRS audits, break-ins into the offices of doctors, illegal wiretapping . . . the list goes on and on. The guilty even included agencies like the U.S. Department of Justice. Nixon got off lucky. Nearly everyone else who worked for him landed in one country club prison or another.
And all because of some newspaper reporters who wouldn’t take no for an answer, lost sleep tracking down mind-numbing amounts of paperwork or leads that often went nowhere and endured threats from the highest levels of government. They drank a lot of stale coffee, too, I suspect.
What I learned then and there is how important journalism can be. Sure, reporters work on significant stories, gut-wrenching stories, even amazing stories from time to time, but there is a much larger picture. Journalism practiced professionally and thoroughly is an obstacle to unfettered corruption, a guardian of freedom and a line of defense against government authority run amok. If it exists for no other reason, it’s to stand up to the powerful and pursue questions others can’t.
That’s how this deal was set up in the Constitution. It’s what the people who founded this country had in mind. Doesn’t really matter whether people in authority like it or not.
But it only works if the government is not allowed to throw up random roadblocks to public information, harm whistleblowers, seek retribution upon those who report the news or investigate news organizations without cause.
As a result of all this, of course, I decided to pursue a career in journalism. I brought along a finely honed sense of cynicism. I don’t have much faith in authority figures and trust relatively few in public life. I like to get answers when reporters pose questions and have no patience with government agencies that want to withhold any public documents — no matter the reason. I want to be able to write accurate and fair stories. When someone in government gives us a sound reason to hold an item, we usually listen. For example, we never want to publish a story that would harm an important police investigation.
Most reputable news organizations conduct business the same way. I know the Associated Press does. In fact, if there is a knock on the AP, it’s that it is too mild-mannered in its reporting, a hazard of being a one-size fits all type of operation.
So word this week that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly obtained the telephone records and other items from the AP and its staff because it was fishing for information about the source of a story the government didn’t like sent the journalism world into a collective Richard Nixon flashback. And it should have. The act is indefensible, even though the Obama Administration appears ready to try rather than reprimand the DOJ and call for the ouster of Attorney General Eric Holder. It’s standard operating procedure for an administration that isn’t even media-tolerant, forget media-friendly.
Sadly, for a president who ran on themes of hope and change, this all looks very 1972.