Back at my college newspaper a dozen or so years ago, I had an editor who liked to say (and to hear himself say), "When you bite into a story, you gotta wriggle it and chew it and shake it until it's dead." Such advice made sense at the time. A dozen or so years earlier, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post had just wriggled and chewed and shaken to death not only the Watergate story but Richard Nixon's presidency. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford made heroes out of the pair, portraying Bernstein and Woodward, respectively, in All the President's Men.
A generation later, reporters who treat their stories like prey don't become subjects of Hollywood movies. You won't see Brad Pitt playing Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter whose stories two years ago linked the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras to the crack-cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. Though it wasn't as far-fetched as the notion of a president's staff orchestrating the break-in of a rival party's headquarters, Webb's expos頷as almost universally challenged by the media establishment—even though Knight-Ridder's Mercury News is a member in good standing of that establishment.
And don't look for Val Kilmer to play the Mike Gallagher, the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who wrote in May that Cincy's hometown Chiquita Brands International—among many unsavory activities—uses its ships to smuggle cocaine to Europe, keeps unions at bay by secretly controlling "independent" banana companies, and hires security guards to watch over workers at its Latin American plantations. Nor will you see Jodie Foster and Harrison Ford playing April Oliver and Jack Smith, the CNN producers who reported in June that US Special Forces used nerve gas to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Maybe these journalists don't deserve a place in the movies. Some of Webb's sources were drug dealers. Gallagher relied on some 2,000 ill-gotten internal Chiquita voice mails. And Smith and Oliver relied on a dubious source with alleged repressed memory syndrome. For these and other reasons, all these folks lost their jobs.
At the same time, their bosses may not deserve their editor's desks. All did what Bernstein's and Woodward's boss at the Post, Ben Bradlee, would never do: surrender without a fight. At the first sign of controversy, newsroom executives at the Mercury News, the Enquirer, and CNN began to cave. Their first instinct was not to defend their reporters and their reporting, but to kneel to the backlash—even backlash from parties with a direct financial or political interest in discrediting the stories. The Mercury News published a front-page semi-retraction and demoted Webb (who eventually quit to write a book, Dark Alliance). The Enquirer apologized repeatedly, pulled the story off the Web, fired Gallagher, and paid Chiquita $10 million without even going through a libel trial. CNN apologized, fully retracted its story, and fired Oliver and Smith. What if Bradlee had demurred to Nixon when Bernstein and Woodward inaccurately reported on a campaign worker's testimony to a grand jury—a relatively minor mistake amidst otherwise stellar coverage? Nixon's crimes might still have been revealed, but at what cost to journalistic initiative?
Like it or not, maybe that's the lesson reporters and editors need to learn from the recent spate of media misdeeds, as well as from the excessive—even obsessive—coverage of President Clinton's sexual missteps. The reading, viewing, and listening public wants and expects journalists to be aggressive. But the days of wriggling, chewing, and shaking stories to death may well have passed. Any hack can turn anonymous tips, government leaks, and gas-station rumors into compelling stories. But if Americans want to hold politicians to higher ethical standards, maybe they should do likewise with journalists. And just as Americans seem to care more about elected officials' positions on the issues than their sexual positions, they no longer want kick-ass journalism at any cost. Maybe journalists will have to get back to reporting on elections, city council hearings, school board meetings, and the other basics that matter most in a democracy. Even if that means letting a juicy story slip through their teeth once in a while.
Ruckus, a progressive political newsletter distributed monthly by University of Washington students, has been named the country's second-best college publication by the Cambridge, Massachusettsbased Center for Campus Organizing. (See "Raising a 'Ruckus,'" SW 5/28.)... Renowned media critic Norman Solomon has a new gig—with the Institute for Public Accuracy, a research group that monitors and responds to the media output of major think tanks. Check out IPA's Web site at www.accuracy.org.... RJR Nabisco, maker of obscure products such as Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers, plans to boost its advertising budget by 30 percent while laying off 3,100 of its 52,400 workers.... Americans must be ready to scrap welfare as they've known it. In a recent poll conducted by the US Postal Service, the Great Society was rejected as a theme for a new stamp.