The other downside of Watergate

Poynter.org has an interesting take from Netscape founder Marc Andreessen about one less mentioned downside of Watergate.

Andreessen Tweeted his opinion, which is why it reads as it does:

Something I believe that nobody I know believes: Woodward & Bernstein Watergate coverage precipitated 40yr collapse of trust in print news.

That long slow slide of trust can be seen, among other places, in Gallup polls over the years: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx#4 

After Nixon resigned 40 years ago this weekend, Washington Post Watergate coverage became exemplar for entire next generation reporters.

Political press became obsessed with unearthing scandal, which metastasized throughout print journalism. Gunning for Pulitzer bait.

Particularly when applied indiscriminately across news landscape, and particularly when extrinsic press motivations are so clear.

Irony is we now know Woodward&Bernstein less reported Watergate than had story fed to them by Mark Felt, partisan in internal FBI battle.

I think the 40 year echo effects of Watergate have more to do with the existential crisis of newspapers than anyone would ever admit.

As news consumers, endless barrage of scandal, tragedy, and conflict has real psychological effects. Makes world seem worse than it is.

Of course, the media has basically always made the “world seem worse than it is,” except during wars, when the media has made, for instance, American military efforts from World War II to Vietnam seem better than they actually were, because of military censorship.

The contrary views in the comments are as much name-calling as counteranalysis (with capitalization errors to boot):

  • there is good reason why none of mr. andreessen’s friends believe as he does. and that is because his conclusion about woodward/bernstein is narrowly simplistic at beast. yes, starting in at least the 1960s, the media became more aggressive, as far as we remember. a lot of bad news was reported: jfk’s assassination and troubling questions about whether the official version was totally true; govt lies about Vietnam; the chaos of the civil rights era and the startling revelation that the united states fell far short of the pronouncements of the declaration of independence; various assassinations etc. all the while the media was becoming more ubiquitous in our lives, evolving into multiple institutions that report every event — from the momentous to the trivial — more thoroughly and more quickly, until now when the reporting of everything seems to be an unending, instantaneous avalanche of information, much of it bad. no longer is there any breathing room between the reporting of cataclysmic events. of course, it is disheartening to be reminded repeatedly of the dark side of human nature.
  • A tangential point at best. It wasn’t Watergate coverage perse — after all, Woodward and Bernstein were right about Nixon and his gang — but the ensuing scandal-driven coverage of many topics. Andreessen recognizes that, yet he still somehow lays it all at Watergate’s feet. … I would place the slide in trust further back, to the mid-1960s, when Marshall McLuhen advised us to scrutinize how coverage was done, not just at the object of the coverage. I would also add “The View from Sunset Boulevard” by Ben Stein in 1979 and the “Media Elites” study from 1980. Those publications focused and crystalized public distrust of mainstream media.

Marshall McLuhan? How many Americans today even know who he was?

Andreessen’s point that the media engages more in scandalmongering than actual reporting has validity, however. Good journalism doesn’t take place when reporters are chasing awards instead of, you know, doing their jobs. For that matter, good journalism doesn’t take place when reporters are chasing the next, bigger-market, job instead of doing the job they’re supposed to be doing where they are.

Of course, Andreessen ignores the REAL reason Watergate happened. (Click here and be prepared to suspend your disbelief if you dare.)

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