Focus on press in 'Watergate II' search

Somewhere in the US government, many non-Washingtonians seem to suspect, lurks another conspiracy of Watergate proportions, if only the media were able to ferret it out.

Somewhere in the US government, many non-Washingtonians seem to suspect, lurks another conspiracy of Watergate proportions, if only the media were able to ferret it out.

Such seemed to be the theme of a lot of audience questions at the Society of Professional Journalists' (SPJ) recent annual conference, held in Washington on October 4-7.

Indeed, White House correspondents speaking on a panel addressing the question of whether the White House press corps does in fact consist of "lap dogs," as some critics allege, all admitted that they could do a better job. Hey - so could everyone in life, whatever they do.

But has another Watergate scandal slipped through the cracks? Perhaps not surprisingly, speakers at the SPJ conference, including a panel featuring the iconic former Washington Post team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their former editor Ben Bradlee, didn't seem to think so (at least not one that reporters have failed to find for lack of looking).

In a discussion moderated by CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, the team that had inspired a generation of young reporters generally agreed that the media has been quite aggressive in its coverage of the White House, despite the perception that it somehow failed to adequately inform the public about the state of weapons development in Iraq.

"In this presidency, I think the Washington press corps has a great record of telling us what's going on," Bernstein told a packed audience, "and [the White House] has done every damn thing to keep us from knowing."

Daniel Schorr, the chief Watergate correspondent for CBS whose investigation by the FBI became one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon, also noted that Watergate permanently altered the way the media and the general public viewed the US government - no longer willingly taking what officials said at face value.

"Watergate told us there could be a conspiracy in the government," Schorr said. "Ever since, journalists know not to assume that whatever a president tells you is... necessarily true."

But in the last question from the audience during the panel discussion by the White House correspondents, a reporter from a Midwest publication asserted that many people in America believe the press corps is doing a terrible job investigating the goings-on of the White House. She wasn't sure exactly what the reporters needed to do more of, apart from "more digging."

Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's senior White House correspondent, noted that there were plenty of articles in the lead up to the Iraq war that raised doubts about the administration's case for attack and occupation. However, he conceded that, of course, no great discoveries about the goings-on at the White House will be made simply by asking incisive questions of the President or his staff.

Rather, he added, the best reporting on the White House occurs through collective reporting in which the rhetoric on, say, healthcare, is compared with how healthcare policy works in action around the country.

"Where we can do a better job is not just reporting on the White House, but on how it affects other parts of the country," for example by teaming up with specialist reporters, Wolffe said.

"We need to assess the validity of answers. It's a challenge for us as newsrooms."

But the challenge for the profession in general is one of perception: building media credibility so that the public "will have more confidence in the news media," as the SPJ states in its newly released 2007 strategic plan.

If a new Watergate hasn't been uncovered lately, the suspicious public believes, then it may be the fault of the media for not finding it, rather than it not being there at all. But compare Woodward and Bernstein's work 35 years ago to the news today, and their fears are easy to understand.

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