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Where Have You Gone, Woodward and Bernstein?

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As journalism slowly dies in this country, the major news media organizations are gaining customers. These two trends are not unrelated.

Television and digital news audiences for many media outlets have been steadily growing since the election of Donald Trump. He is their golden goose.

According to the News Media Alliance, “Newspaper websites in the United States have seen an increase in paid subscribers (in 2017) — The New York Times has grown to more than 2 million paid digital-only customers, while the Wall Street Journal passed the 1 million mark.”

On the television side of the news business, as just two examples, MSNBC is attracting its largest audiences ever and CNN posted record profits in 2017.

Say what you want about President Trump, he is good for the news business.

Unfortunately, the news media’s coverage of Donald Trump has too often been riddled with errors and falsehoods.

Trump-Russia collusion stories have too often violated basic journalistic standards. In a Dec. 7, 2017 article in The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald listed the major reporting errors made in last year on the Trump-Russia story.

Reporting errors happen. But why do these reporting errors occur?

Perhaps a journey back to 1972 will remind us of what constitutes good investigative journalism.

It is June 18, 1972 a Washington Post headline reads: Five Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here (Original Story Here):

By Alfred E. Lewis

June 18, 1972

(Washington) — Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here...

…They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.

This is just crime-blotter reporting.

Enter Bob Woodward (who did the legwork on Lewis’ story) and Carl Bernstein—two young, ambitious Washington Post reporters who are given a story assignment that will change the course of history.

Their Aug. 1, 1972 Post story, three months before the general election, gives a glimpse into the future scope of their investigation. The headline reads: Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds (Original Story Here).

By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Aug. 1, 1972

 (Washington) — A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June l7.

The Watergate story is three months old when a Sept. 29, 1972 Woodward and Bernstein story carries the headline: Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund (Original Story Here):

By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Sept. 29, 1972

 (Washington) — John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.

Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work reaches its apex on Oct. 10, 1972. Citing conclusions from the FBI and Department of Justice investigations, the Post headline reads: FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats (Original Story Here):

By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Oct. 10, 1972

(Washington) — FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

On Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency, more than two years after the Post’s initial break-in story.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is how high-quality investigative journalism is conducted.

Unfortunately, we must return to present day journalism. The times have changed and journalists have been forced to change with it. The Post in 1972 wasn’t competing with 24/7 cable news networks. And is it fair to compare the journalism on today’s CNN with the Post or any other national-audience newspaper? They have different audiences and business requirements.

Nonetheless, we should all expect more from today’s journalists than what we getting in the coverage of the Trump-Russia connection. The use of anonymous sources is just one mechanism today’s journalists use to generate more stories faster.

However, anonymous sources are hurting today’s journalism. As “fake news” has set up a permanent encampment on the internet, news consumers need to remember the journalistic standards established by Woodward and Bernstein in 1972.

Kent R. Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with more than 30 years of experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. A full version of this article can be found at here.

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