Paul H. Weaver. The new journalism and the old-- thoughts after Watergate.
The "fourth estate" of the realm--that was Burke's way of summing up the role of the press in his time, and when one has discounted the medieval terminology, his phrase is no less apt today. It reminds us that the press, as the coequal of other "estates," is a political institution in its own right, intimately bound up with all the institutions of government. It affects them and is affected by them in turn, and together they determine the nature of the regime and the quality of public life. Governmental institutions have political effects through their exercise of legislative, executive, or judicial powers; the press achieves its impact through the way it influences the entry of ideas and information into the "public space" in which political life takes place. So the basic question to be asked about the press is: What is its relation to other political institutions, and how does it consequently manage the "public space"?
The aftermath of Watergate provides a suitable occasion for rethinking this question--though not because the press was in any way at fault in this episode. The Watergate scandals emerge solely from the Nixon Administration's abuse of its Presidential powers in matters ranging from campaign finance and civil liberties to national security. By covering the emerging scandals as it did, the press was acting in accord with a venerable journalistic tradition that dates back to The New York Times' exposé of the corrupt Tweed Ring in 1871.
Yet Watergate was more than a series of criminal and corrupt actions; it also has raised basic Constitutional questions concerning the interrelationship among all our political institutions, including of course the press. One of these issues was the freedom of the press. Many of the abuses symbolized by Watergate--the Plumbers, unjustified investigations and wiretaps, and so forth-- were in fact directed at the press as part of the Administration's campaign to make the news media less critical. If these efforts had been successful, they would have reduced press freedom and altered the balance between government and the press in favor of the former. For the time being at least, that danger has been averted.
So the press emerges from Watergate as free, self-confident, and enterprising as at any other time in its history. But it also emerges a bit different from what is was before. For the press today is an institution in limbo--an institution in that distinctive kind of trouble which derives from not having a settled idea of its role and purpose. It is in limbo because it now occupies an ambiguous middle ground between its longstanding tradition of "objective" journalism and a new movement for an "adversary" journalism--no longer massively committed to the one but not yet certain, let alone unanimous, about the other. To the extent that it is committed to the new movement, it is committed to a journalistic idea that is not easily compatible with American institutions in their current form, nor easily reconciled with some of its most valuable traditions. And to the extent that the press embraces this movement, its political role will remain in flux until some new practical adaptation to adversary journalism is worked out by government, public opinion, and the press itself. Watergate did not create this problem--it has been growing for a decade now--but it did intensify it. And this is the problem which confronts American journalism after Watergate.
To put the matter briefly: Traditionally, American journalism has been very close to, dependent upon, and cooperative with, official sources. This has been one of its problems, but it has also been its greatest strength and virtue. For in various ways this arrangement has maximized both the openness and flexibility of American government and the amount of information available to the citizenry. Over the past ten years, how-