Getting the Story
Journalism’s finest hours and worst debacles both stem, I would submit, from the same source—reporters’ deep-seated drive to get the story. Good journalists are fascinated with the world and with people; they are powerfully motivated to discover interesting facts and to effectively communicate them to others.
Examples of “finest and worst” abound; here are two: First, I religiously show my students the film version of All the President’s Men because, despite any number of ethical lapses, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s dogged pursuit of the Watergate story, and of its eventual tentacles deep in a crooked Nixon administration, still represents news reporters at their best, engaged in the profession’s highest calling.
Compare this, though, with CBS News’s shameful coverage of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service—the so-called memogate fiasco.1 Badly sourced and shoddily researched, the story likely hastened anchorman Dan Rather’s retirement from CBS News.2 Maybe worse, the validity of the story, never seriously challenged, was lost in the noise over the purportedly forged memo.
In both examples, the drive to get the story had widespread ramifications. In the Watergate reporting, their near-obsessive resolve, combined with an insistence—by reporters and editors alike—not just to get the story, but to get it right, helped bring about the end of a corrupt presidency, changed the face of U.S. politics, and, for a short time at least, placed journalism among the more highly respected professions. In the “memogate” story, an insistence upon being first, even at the expense of due diligence, helped galvanize and inspire