I CAN STILL SEE THEIR CINEMATIC SHADOWS AS THEY huddled in an underground garage. After several tense moments, Deep Throat leaned forward, and whispered to Bob Woodward: "Follow the money.
It was good advice. Woodward and his Washington Post partner, Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued a political trail littered with dirty money, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Then Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portrayed them in a movie called "All the President's Men"
Those golden days of 1970s' Watergate exposes made heroes of reporters. The public could count on them to catch the bad guys, embarrass them in print and on the air--even get them indicted.
Journalism schools filled up with idealistic young men and women hoping to become famous and perhaps bring down a president, or two. Didn't Woodward and Bernstein--or Woodstein as they were famously known--practically force President Nixon to resign?
But the 1970s also created a cult of personality for journalists. They began to believe they were more important than the people they were writing or reporting about. Their opinions, especially their political opinions, infiltrated their stories.
As the country cabled up, journalists became the kings and queens of talk shows. Print journalists whose work had been confined to their papers found themselves pursued by television and radio producers.
The names of journalists trickled onto the lists of contributors to political campaigns. Journalists were putting their money where their mouths were. They didn't see any conflict. They said they were using their own money, that their political giving was a private matter. Since their news affiliations were printed next to their names, they claimed they were being transparent.
It is a weak argument, but does the public care? Surveys show most people believe journalists are closet Democrats with the same ethics as car salesmen. They would be shocked to learn the vast majority of working journalists wouldn't give an old-fashioned plug nickel to a politician.
Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, believes the only way for a journalist to be transparent is to keep his political checkbook to himself. "It is simply not appropriate for any journalist to make a campaign contribution," he said.
Until recently, the ethics debate on journalism contributions was confined to the media sections of newspapers, academic conferences, journalism reviews, and public access programs. Hardly the go-to channels of the mainstream.
But that was before Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough's campaign contributions became an MSNBC-TV political reality show. Olbermann, the manic host of "Countdown," the cable network's left-leaning prime-time political program, was suspended "indefinitely" after POLITICO.com reported that he gave $2,400 to each of three Democratic Party candidates after they appeared on his program. MSNBC said Olbermann's checkbook contributions violated the network's ethics code, which forbade campaign contributions without specific permission from news executives.
Olbermann's suspension lasted a total of two days. That's because approximately 300,000 Olbermanniacs signed a petition demanding that MSNBC let him put on his makeup and go back on the air. Which should tell journalists what the public thinks of their ethics code. …