Deep Throat to Turd Blossom

When ethics and profit clash in today's corporate newsrooms, guess which side wins?

If anything mitigates the severity of Pearlstine's blunder, it's the fact that he's not the first corporate news director to have crumbled in the face of financial pressure (such as the costs of Cooper's legal defense and the threats by Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who also broached the possibility of fines and other charges against Time and its executives). The problem goes beyond Pearlstine. It's the inevitable result of the increasing corporate influence on news departments, of diminished news-gathering resources, and of an institutional tendency to place financial concerns ahead of journalistic responsibilities. Investigative journalism requires risk taking and a big commitment, which are antithetical to the financial needs of corporate news divisions. That profit impulse plays a big role in the timidity of the Washington press corps. Fears of alienating readers and viewers, or of the cost of a well-orchestrated right-wing smear campaign—which looms as a threat whenever the news on Bush becomes too negative—are huge reasons why the press hasn't been aggressive enough in its coverage of the Bush administration.

Woodward was able to keep his confidential source a secret because he had the cooperation and support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham. Pearlstine's actions suggest those days are on the wane.

The only solace—the only hope for investigative journalism, really—is to be found in people like Woodward, who prove that you don't have to be a flawless journalist to get the job done. You just need integrity. Even during his Watergate heyday, most of Woodward's D.C. colleagues distrusted the work that he and Bernstein did, and he had to drag the rest of them along with his reporting. It's a testament to the fragility of American journalism that important stories often owe their exposure to the work of a few dedicated practitioners, and a healthy dose of dumb luck. It makes you wonder how much is not being reported, but it's also comforting to know that at any moment, someone could come along, follow the money through the rot, and expose the roots of the Turd Blossoms. All it would require are a set of balls, cavernous pockets, a Deep Throat or two who escaped Bush's first-term ideological agency purges, and the willingness of news managers to stand behind the aggressive impulses of their investigative reporting staffs.

Oh, and a recognition that corporate ownership is destroying American journalism. Of course, there's no money in that.


John Giuffo is a former fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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