Investigating technology

All the President’s Men dramatizes the holy grail of investigative reporting: Watergate. The ultimate display of the power and the responsibility of the watchdog reporter. The poster child for the importance of curiosity.

Woodward and Bernstein are our typical journalism archetypes: the steadfast, old-school newsboy-turned-reporter who’s been on the job since he was 16, and the newer upstart who’s shaking things up and bumbling his way into results. When they start nosing around the Watergate burglary, their sources start clamming up. They know something is fishy, but they don’t know what. They know they’ve hit on something big, but where do they go next?

It was my second time seeing the film in less than a year, and what struck me most upon this viewing was the overwhelming differences between then and now. It was 1972, and the newsroom was an inherently different place. Sure, the reporters were still frantically trying to make deadline, the editors were pushing for seemingly impossible information, the news was still getting out. But there were no cell phones, no internet, no covert texts from Deep Throat. They took handwritten notes on legal pads, napkins, matchbooks, whatever was handy. It wasn’t like they were typing full speed on their Macbook. It seems like they were feeling around in the dark even more than they would be today, placing flags on balconies and getting secret messages delivered with their daily mail. Woodward ends up hunting down a source in a Minnesota phone book. But today we would just type his name into a search bar.

How would Watergate have been different if the stories were going up on the web, Google-able by any conspiracy theorist or crackpot commenter? Would other reporters have picked up on the story too? If, instead of showing up at the library and demanding to see every request for every book within the last year, what if they could have been looking it up online? Would they have taken the time to flip through every slip of paper carefully? Would Bernstein have taken the time to fly all the way to Florida to get ahold of a check if he had had a computer and the internet?

I was struck by how often doing their jobs entailed calling on people in the middle of the night, speaking through barely cracked doors, forcing their way into people’s homes just to get one question in. Again, being a good journalist seems to involve your story and your life becoming inexplicably intertwined. But again, I wondered how it would play out today. Would some of the sources too afraid to be seen speaking with reporters have sung a different tune through email?

Certainly, it would have been a different movie if Watergate took place 40 or 50 years later than it did. Would it be better? Would it have meant as much? I don’t know. The editor of the magazine I intern at keeps posing me and my fellow college-student-interns a challenge at our weekly pitch meetings: find a story without the internet. Find a story without reading about it anywhere else. And it’s hard, and I don’t often succeed. Part of me wonders whether the internet is ruining our ability to really get out there and report. If we’ve become so dependent on it, can we ever re-create what Woodward and Bernstein did?

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All the President’s Men dramatizes the holy grail of investigative reporting: Watergate. The ultimate display of the power and the responsibility of the watchdog reporter. The poster child for the importance of curiosity.

Woodward and Bernstein are our typical journalism archetypes: the steadfast, old-school newsboy-turned-reporter who’s been on the job since he was 16, and the newer upstart who’s shaking things up and bumbling his way into results. When they start nosing around the Watergate burglary, their sources start clamming up. They know something is fishy, but they don’t know what. They know they’ve hit on something big, but where do they go next?

It was my second time seeing the film in less than a year, and what struck me most upon this viewing was the overwhelming differences between then and now. It was 1972, and the newsroom was an inherently different place. Sure, the reporters were still frantically trying to make deadline, the editors were pushing for seemingly impossible information, the news was still getting out. But there were no cell phones, no internet, no covert texts from Deep Throat. They took handwritten notes on legal pads, napkins, matchbooks, whatever was handy. It wasn’t like they were typing full speed on their Macbook. It seems like they were feeling around in the dark even more than they would be today, placing flags on balconies and getting secret messages delivered with their daily mail. Woodward ends up hunting down a source in a Minnesota phone book. But today we would just type his name into a search bar.

How would Watergate have been different if the stories were going up on the web, Google-able by any conspiracy theorist or crackpot commenter? Would other reporters have picked up on the story too? If, instead of showing up at the library and demanding to see every request for every book within the last year, what if they could have been looking it up online? Would they have taken the time to flip through every slip of paper carefully? Would Bernstein have taken the time to fly all the way to Florida to get ahold of a check if he had had a computer and the internet?

I was struck by how often doing their jobs entailed calling on people in the middle of the night, speaking through barely cracked doors, forcing their way into people’s homes just to get one question in. Again, being a good journalist seems to involve your story and your life becoming inexplicably intertwined. But again, I wondered how it would play out today. Would some of the sources too afraid to be seen speaking with reporters sung a different tune through email?

Certainly, it would have been a different movie if Watergate took place 40 or 50 years later than it did. Would it be better? Would it have meant as much? I don’t know. The editor of the magazine I intern at keeps posing me and my fellow college-student-interns a challenge at our weekly pitch meetings: find a story without the internet. Find a story without reading about it anywhere else. And it’s hard, and I don’t often succeed. Part of me wonders whether the internet is ruining our ability to really get out there and report. If we’ve become so dependent on it, can we ever re-create what Woodward and Bernstein did?

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