How skewed is our perception of reality in North America?
Google the images for All of the President’s Men. You will not get too many images of the actual journalists who uncovered the truth about Watergate.
But there will be no end of the actors who portrayed them.
And there is something wrong with that.
Watergate was American journalism’s crowning glory, and it could have become the profession’s blessing — or it’s curse, depending on how journalists from then on interpreted that piece of their history.
It all depended if they took the first image to heart — or the second.
And they opted for the second, making it the profession’s curse.
It meant deep down, journalists wanted the movie, not the reality.
That inadvertent corrupting influence would undo every gain the profession had made until that point under the constraints it was dealing with.
I am not going to look at the profession in the 1970s through rose-colored glasses. The news structure was patriarchal. It was an All Boys’ network where women were relegated to soft news if they were lucky, and I could write volumes of the horrifying treatment minorities received in the press coverage.
But back then, two young, white male reporters did something significant: their coverage altered the outcome of the government.
They changed history directly as a result of their long-term reportage.
And then came a movie based on their book.
Had there been no movie, journalism would have gone in a vastly different direction, but the film codified the idea that journalism and celebrity were compatible concepts.
And they are not. You can be a journalist. You can be a celebrity, but you cannot be both. Once you are a celebrity, you are no longer a journalist, and should a celebrity want to be a journalist, they have to give up the celebrity.
The reason is simple: it is a question of focus. When you are a celebrity, your focus is on image and perception. When you are a journalist, your focus is on truth and reality.
In celebrity, you are projecting an image. You are not your persona. People fantasize about you, and it is all about keeping fans happy.
Journalism doesn’t care about popularity. It is facts.
Bylines were not created to reward journalists, for instance, they were made for generals during the American Civil War to keep a track of which reporter wrote what information.
Watergate was about government corruption at the highest levels; however, it was not as if governments before it weren’t corrupt, but in this case, the dirty deeds were exposed.
And then came the movie.
The movie that projected an image and perception of journalism.
Notice is was not a documentary, but a reenactment that replaced a lot the reality with somewhat different spins, that took our understanding of events in a different direction, not to mention the vehicle — the movie itself — also gave people a different perception of journalism.
The movie inspired many people to become journalists, but those people would always have a movie in the back of their minds, guiding them to the wrong places.
Had it been a documentary, a different group of people could have been inspired by it.
Ones who were moved by the essence of fact-finding, not the celebrity.
What Watergate gave to the profession with one hand, the film took away with the other.
The focus shifted, and slowly, it became acceptable to consider celebrity gossip part of the news product. It was more desirable to be a pundit than a mere reporter.
And whatever it took to get to be a celebrity: cheesy cameos in movies, television stunts, hurling insults to guests on your own show, and if all that easy stuff fails, perhaps dismantling democracy itself to one-up those Watergate boys.
It has all gone terribly wrong, and the profession drowned in its own rancid hubris.