Forty years ago this week—June 17, 1972—five burglars with links to the Committee to Re-elect the President were caught inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate office complex. The bungled “second-rate burglary” changed the course of history and brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
The Watergate scandal also altered the course of my career—a boost that took me from local obscurity to near national obscurity. As result of benevolent coincidence and serendipitous circumstance, I managed to surf the Watergate tsunami and even stayed aboard during its ebbing tide. In a span of three decades, I collected multiples of major national journalism awards—anyone of which would validate the careers of most television reporters.
Sadly, journalism as a whole has not fared nearly as well as I did during the intervening 40 years. From a lofty position of prestige in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the news media’s reputation for giving context to truth-telling has plunged into a state of distrust. And by and large, truth is the only purpose of a free press.
Instead of digging, contemporary journalism plays a game of “gotcha” that interprets “mis-speak” as investigative reporting. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, a former reporter, bemoaned the lack of context earlier this week.
In less gentle terms, Carney was saying a moron should be able to understand the context of the President’s statement that the economy’s private sector was “doing fine.” It was okay in comparison to the public sector.
As a matter of balance, I also need to note that Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been victimized by ”gotcha” journalism, the most notable being his portrayal of corporations as people. It’s a bad description in today’s environment, but still accurate in context. Just ask the U.S. Supreme Court.
In fairness to present day reporters, I will concede that most are just lazy rather than morons—a concession I make despite the great imitations done by personalities populating Fox “News.”
Anyway, before continuing to whine about everybody else, I should provide bona fides and brag about my own professional exploits, which actually is the main purpose of this blog as well as a cheap way of hawking my memoir—Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger.
Back in June 1972, I was laboring in anonymity in its truest sense as a fledgling investigative reporter at a radio station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—far from the hue and cry of the unfolding Watergate political scandal in Washington D.C. And, yes, there were radio investigative reporters in that era. Sober fifteen months, I was trying to redeem myself at WJBO, the station that fired me following a three day drunken bender that ended in February 1971 with me sitting forlornly on a New Orleans curbside holding onto a an empty wine bottle.
Afer nine months in exile trying to salvage my career at another smaller station, WJBO rehired me based on the rumor that as a result corking the bottle, I was conquering the habit of delivering newscasts in unknown tongues. Having been stripped of the dual jobs as News Director and talk show host, I tried to be useful by doing more than simply reading blood and guts reports, stories gathered from newswires and attending press conferences.
So it was that I evolved into an investigative reporter, even though I could barely define investigative reporting at the time. My big breakthrough occured on June 21, 1972. Four days after the Watergate burglary, I aired an exposé of a bribery scheme that sent a public official and three bankers to jail, won the accolades of prosecutors and earned me the Radio Television News Directors International Award for Investigative Reporting. It was the first of more than two dozen journalism prizes that would eventually decorate the walls of my offices over the next three decades.
More importantly, the bank bribery radio award became a springboard to a television career that landed me at local TV stations in Miami and Boston before returning to Baton Rouge in 1982 for seven glorious muckraking years. I was so successful in digging dirt in my Baton Rouge reprise that CNN recruited me as Senior Investigative Correspondent in a fifty-member Special Assignment Unit—a job that lasted ten years.
During my career, I was a front row witness to the rise and demise of investigative reporting. Television has lost credibility because of its descent into formalaic superficiality and “viewer friendly stories”—otherwise known as dumbing-down journalism. Newspapers and magazines are just as bad, if not worse. In fact, journalism is all about profits nowadays.
Look at what is happening in New Orleans, a major metropolitan city where the Newhouse family’s privately held Advance Publications chain has announced plans to cut the newsroom staff by half and publish the four-time Pulitzer Prize winning Times-Picayune only three days a week, placing its focus on an online news service.
Other newspapers in the Newhouse conglomerate are also ending daily publication and dumping. Indeed, contemporary journalism is a victim of giant corporations that have consolidated the media—daily newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines and other print publications. Granted, corporations are people as Mitt Romney proclaimed. But they are people who don’t give a shit about lesser souls when it comes to the bottom line. Nor do they care about journalistic responsibility and/or investigative reporting in serving communities and TV audiences.
In Boston, I was Director of Investigative Reporting for WCVB, a locally owned station described by the New York Times as the “best television station in the country.” However, the station’s commitment to public service diminished consiberably when the greedy Boston-based ownership cashed in a modest investment by selling WCVB for the highest price ever paid for a television station at the time. My investigative reporting unit bit the dust as part of a pre-sale cutback to make the station more attractive to buyers.
When Time Warner Corporation took control of CNN, the network began its downhill slide—mainly because of the implementation of programming that sucks. The slide accelerated when Fox “News” and MSNBC joined the 24-hour news fray in the mid-nineties.
Journalism’s heyday is long past. My belief and the optimism of others that Watergate was the dawning of a never-ending era of safeguarding society from corrupt politicians, sticky-fingered public officials and corporate monopolies was an illusion. Or more accurately, an hallucination.
Instead of complaining, I might as well look at the bright side. Barring a miracle drug that stops the aging process, I won’t be around forty years from now to continue my bitching.
But thanks to Watergate, I had my fun.
My memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger: A Saga of Exposing TV Preachers, Corrupt Politicians, Right-Wing Lunatics…and Me is available at amazon.com, soft-cover or Kindle and at independent bookstores like the Cottonwood in Baton Rouge. It offers $19.99 worth of laughs and much more. The book is an account of my illustrious (I choose the adjectives) investigative reporting career.